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Innovative Technologies Expand Research Capabilities in Alaska Marine Ecosystems

At NOAA Fisheries, we are working hard to better understand Alaska ocean ecosystems and to gather needed information to ensure healthy fish, crab and marine mammal populations. We do this by using varied and innovative technologies to both monitor and study the marine life and local habitat. Here's a look at some of the tools, techniques and technologies we use.

NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center is developing and deploying innovative tools to collect information essential to maintain healthy ecosystems, conserve marine mammals populations, manage sustainable fisheries, and foster climate-resilient communities.

Emerging technologies such as drones, moored sonars, specialized camera systems, and eDNA complement traditional sampling methods. They increase coverage, minimize environmental impact, speed data delivery, and improve cost-efficiency. Cutting-edge chemical analyses are revolutionizing our ability to obtain information about the age and biology of fish. Advances in artificial intelligence enable fast, accurate data processing and analysis. 

Here are some examples of the tools and technologies the Alaska Fisheries Science Center is leveraging for more effective, efficient sampling of Alaska’s vast marine environment.

Uncrewed Surface Vehicle on water
Uncrewed Surface Vehicle DriX in Puget Sound. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Uncrewed Surface Vehicles work in tandem with NOAA ships on Alaska pollock acoustic surveys to cover the same area in 40% less time than a ship working alone, while still allowing for collection of critical biological data from the ship. These versatile tools are also used to track marine mammals on extended foraging trips.

Infographic of rock, eelgrass, and sandy underwater habitats with multiple fish species and DNA strands connected by arrows - created by Rebecca White, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries
All organisms shed DNA into the environment. Environmental DNA (eDNA) can be used to determine the identities of the fish species that are present at or near the time of sample collection. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Our eDNA program is using genetic material shed by organisms into the surrounding water to characterize fish communities, assess species diversity, and identify important fish habitat.

Scientific equipment that is deployed at sea for research
3D stereo camera systems. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

3D stereo camera systems developed at AFSC provide powerful, versatile remote sampling tools for an array of research needs—from surveying untrawlable fish habitat to discovering deep-sea coral habitat on unexplored seamountsArtificial intelligence automates image processing to speed data delivery and save costs.

Top two pictures are images from scientific equipment finding a seal and the lower two pictures are images from scientific equipment finding a polar bear.
Top two slides show artificial intelligence detecting seals and the lower two slides show artificial intelligence detecting a polar bear. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

We  teamed up with Microsoft AI for Earth to develop artificial intelligence to detect seals and polar bears on sea ice in millions of color and thermal images collected during Arctic aerial surveys.

Innovative_Technology_Promises - HeroImage.jpg
Near-Infrared analysis of an otolith (ear stone) of an Alaska pollock. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

We are using  AI and near-Infrared analysis of otoliths (ear stones) to age Alaska pollock. With this new technology, scientists can determine fish ages faster — 30–50 seconds per otolith, which is more than 10 times faster than humans using microscopes.  Success with this effort could revolutionize the way fish ages are estimated throughout the world.

United states map with fish along the coasts with arrows showing the direction of the currents
Diagram showing fish species around the east coast and west coast of the United States. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

AFSC scientists also are pioneering the use of near-infrared analysis of otoliths to identify fish species and populations.

New underwater microscope camera technology greatly expands our ability to study how environmental change affects zooplankton, important food for many commercial fish. The camera collects zooplankton images while mounted on oceanographic instruments that simultaneously collect environmental data.

An innovative instrument that continuously takes images of phytoplankton at sea is transforming the way we research and monitor these tiny algae. Phytoplankton form the base of the food web for all marine animals. Some species form harmful algal blooms.

Scientific equipment swimming through the water with scientist on dock on the left.
Autonomous underwater vehicle in the water. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Autonomous underwater vehicles can  track acoustically tagged fish while simultaneously collecting data on their environment. These underwater robots can operate independently for over 12 hours.

Scientist with arms up deploying a drone.
Uncrewed Aerial System to survey marine mammals. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

We are using Uncrewed Aerial Systems or “Hexacopters” to survey marine mammals such as seals and sea lions. These instruments can photograph animals from great distances with minimal impact to the animals or environment. They can fly beneath clouds and at a lower cost than manned aerial surveys.

Scientific equipment detecting marine life at the side of a boat.
An example of machine learning in electronic monitoring. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

AFSC is modernizing fishery monitoring by developing electronic monitoring systems and using machine learning to automate processing of images collected onboard fishing vessels.

Scientists deploying scientific equipment into the ocean
Scientists deploying seafloor-mounted SONARs into ocean. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Seafloor-mounted SONARs collect continuous acoustic data on fish movements and abundance over years to help us better understand how changing environmental conditions influence fish populations.

Graph showing sounds from mammals in the ocean.
Acoustics time frequency graph. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Since 2007, we have been monitoring trends in marine mammal movement, calling behavior, and human-generated noise from year-round passive acoustic recordings by equipment moored at 23 sites.   

Model showing similarities like parental care, offspring, and maturity between different fish
Model results showing where fish species (circles, with examples shown around perimeter) within each family or class (colors, legend on right) fall among three life-history strategies (periodic, opportunistic, and equilibrium) based on their traits. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

For the first time, new state-of-the-art modelling can help scientists predict growth, survival, and reproductive strategies for all known fish in the world. This new model uses 33 traits that describe size, growth, reproduction, parental care, and lifespan to classify more than 34,000 fish species.

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on August 15, 2023

Research in Alaska