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The Monitoring Decade: Learning About The Future From The Past

September 17, 2021

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we are highlighting people and activities that helped build our foundations. Data collected decades ago continues to shed light on our understanding of oceanic processes and their impacts on marine fisheries.

Two men in blue hardhats deploying the Bongo Nets (large nets with metal openings).

The Marine Resources Monitoring, Assessment and Prediction Program, or more easily referred to as MARMAP, was the longest-running ecosystem monitoring program of its time.  The  “MARMAP Decade” ran from 1977 through 1988, when the program collected biological and environmental information from periodic surveys of northeastern U. S. continental shelf waters.  It was largely the brainchild of Kenneth Sherman, then a fisheries biologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. The program integrated field data on seasonal and annual variability with fine-scale process-oriented field studies and laboratory research. The data collected by this survey still informs our science and data collection processes today. 


Surveys covered continental shelf waters from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, an area encompassing 260,000 square kilometers. The 193 stations were laid out in an evenly spaced, fixed pattern within that area. They were also arranged to have 7 inshore-to-offshore transects labeled alphabetically from A to G.  Some of these transects extended out from major estuaries such as the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and the New York Bight, to just beyond the shelf break.  Researchers returned to these same stations on every cruise. They used standardized towing protocols and standardized sampling equipment gear— bongo plankton nets—to determine seasonal and interannual variability at those locations. 

Marmap station locations from the Carolina's to Maine.
Map showing the station locations and seven inshore-to-offshore transects along the coast from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Cape Sable, Nova Scotia.

The MARMAP surveys amassed an enormous amount of data due to the remarkable international collaboration between the United States and Poland, the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Canada, and Japan. These data were tabulated and analyzed by scientists at our Narragansett, Woods Hole, and Sandy Hook laboratories. A series of NOAA Technical Memoranda highlight the data captured in three MARMAP Atlases, summarizing survey operations and annual distributions of fish larvae from 1977 to 1987. Data gathered by MARMAP were also essential for the chemistry, phytoplankton, primary production, zoology sections of an extensive atlas of Georges Bank, published by The MIT Press in 1987.


When MARMAP ended in 1988, elements of its survey design were continued in the Ecosystem Monitoring Program (EcoMon) which began in 1992. In EcoMon, MARMAP’s core premise of long-term monitoring using standard towing and gear protocols continues. The shelf-wide sampling pattern has changed to a stratified random sampling design similar to that used on the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s spring and autumn bottom trawl surveys. This way, ecosystem monitoring sampling tasks can be shared between these surveys while yielding compatible data.

Another aspect of the MARMAP design lives on in the EcoMon Surveys. Of the 120 stations in the new sampling protocol, 35 are set at fixed positions of interest, like deep ocean basins in the Gulf of Maine. Other stations are located outside of major estuaries, or in the Northeast Channel off the northern edge of Georges Bank.

Plankton sampling gear still consists of paired bongo nets. However, the advent of compact sensors in salinity, temperature, and depth (CTD) units now allows for the nets to be monitored in real time as they are towed through the water with the CTD device attached—something not possible during the MARMAP era.

Center scientists used MARMAP data to develop habitat models for ichthyoplankton, juvenile, and adult life stages of cod and haddock. They also used it to study changes in habitat area and species overlap on the Northeast shelf between 1977 and 2019. These data are also being used to calibrate large scale ecosystem models such as Atlantis, and to develop long-term larval indices for Atlantic herring on the northeast U.S. continental shelf.

The routine sampling of hydrography, nutrients, phytoplankton, and zooplankton during the MARMAP decade generated one the most comprehensive regional datasets still in use today. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the MARMAP database is the window it gives us into the environmental and ecological conditions of the northeast continental shelf more than 40 years ago.

For more information contact Jerry Prezioso.