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New Horizons in the Alaska Fisheries Data Environment

November 17, 2022

Data-linking projects spearheaded by Jordan Watson with the support of the Alaska Fisheries Information Network are paving the way for previously unimaginable advancements in fisheries science and management.

A large white ship with the NOAA insignia floats in a bay surrounded by mountains.

Understanding the amount and composition of bycatch in a given fishery is key to sustainably managing our shared ocean resources. Data gathered by fisheries observers are critical components of this data collection. But other information, including a range of environmental factors such as sea surface temperature, can also provide key insights. 

While he was a research mathematical statistician at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, Jordan Watson studied salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea groundfish trawl fisheries. He was trying to look for and understand any potential patterns in bycatch events that might add to our understanding of how to prevent them. His first thought was to compare observer data reports with sea surface temperatures to see what correlations might exist.

At first it seemed like a straightforward process to match the two. But there were 3 billion sea surface temperature data points to sift through, and it took several weeks on multiple computers to download satellite data. Watson decided there must be a better way.

He spoke with a colleague at the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Alaska Fisheries Information Network who suggested that they work together. Instead of manually updating the records, Watson could instead link the two data sources with an automated process. This brief conversation led to a collaboration allowing Watson and other scientists to spend less time acting as “data wranglers” and more time analyzing the data. This information supports science, stock assessments, and management decisions. 

Working on a New Scale

Before the collaboration, “it wouldn’t have been feasible for most people to do that sort of data operation on their own, because of time, computing capacity or programming skills,” explains Watson. “By teaming up with data scientists, data managers and programmers, we’ve been able to fill a critical gap in expertise that allows us to do things analytically that we wouldn’t have been able to do before.” 

By the conclusion of the project, the sea surface temperature data had been integrated with more than 2 million new and archived observer and fish ticket records. The temperature data, as well as additional data like depth and distance to the nearest port, was also linked to more than 200 million vessel monitoring system records. The Alaska Fisheries Information Network “did such a good job that I was basically wandering around the building talking about what great things they did,” says Watson. 

Building Upon Success

Watson’s enthusiasm soon sparked ideas for data connections among his colleagues, including Kalei Shotwell. She is a research fisheries biologist who works on gathering data for ecosystem and socioeconomic profiles that support the stock assessment process. These profiles require significant coordination among scores of researchers working on diverse science. They are part of NOAA Fisheries’ efforts on producing “next generation stock assessments.” These assessments aim to pull in a wider variety of information to produce more holistic assessments of factors impacting fisheries. 

To put the profile reports together, Shotwell would send emails to between 10 and 30 potential contributors to get the information she needed. She would then have to sort through unnecessary or duplicate information to get the key data, often under a tight deadline. In discussions with Watson, she realized that it might be possible to build on the Alaska Fisheries Information Network’s work to streamline the process. “We needed something that allowed us to communicate with a lot of people about a lot of different data from a lot of different places. We didn’t have transparency, communication, or reproducibility,” says Shotwell.

Building on the first phase of the project, the Alaska Fisheries Information Network started working with Shotwell and Watson to build a web-based data management tool. “Now we have a system where people can upload their data,” explains Shotwell. “It sends out automatic updates, so I have time to catch errors more quickly than I could before. Another nice feature is to be able to communicate with people and show them how their data is being used.”

With the more streamlined process, management discussions are now taking place with more context. They allow for better communication with stock assessment scientists, stakeholders, and the public. “The more organized and standardized the information is—starting with the data—the better we explain what is happening, and have more transparency for our stakeholders as to why decisions are made,” summarizes Shotwell. 

Looking to the Future

The Center is continuing to expand upon its work on data integration. A third project to merge data from vessel monitoring and automatic identification systems, and to further incorporate socio-economic and ecosystem data for stock assessments, is currently underway. All three phases were funded via NOAA Fisheries’ Fisheries Information System request for proposals process, which is also sponsored by the Electronic Technologies and National Catch Share programs. It provides funding for fisheries-dependent data improvement projects across the country. 

Watson’s initial project on sea surface temperatures has “been extended across the Pacific. We have an enormous data set being used by fisheries science centers in the Northwest, Pacific Islands, and Southwest and it’s really taken on a life of its own,” says Watson. It’s “grown into so much more than I could have anticipated originally.” The Center is also working with the Alaska Fisheries Information Network to replicate the sea surface temperature workflow with other environmental variables, such as chlorophyll.

Shotwell is also collaborating across regions. The ecosystem and socioeconomic profiles are “taking off in other science centers in the Northeast and Pacific Islands, so we are able to lead the charge in this process. We are able to share the approach with them so they can apply the framework to their process,” says Shotwell. “There are commonalities that we can all use in the stock assessment process.”

Overall, the projects have “facilitated and codified the relationships with our partners. The successful proposal for funding allowed us to build the bridge with this group of experts that have provided so many brilliant ideas, input, and capabilities,” says Watson. “It’s three more clubs for the game of data whack-a-mole,” he adds. “We have created a data environment that is facilitating research and management that simply wasn’t possible before.” 

Last updated by Office of Science and Technology on November 29, 2022