Unsupported Browser Detected

Internet Explorer lacks support for the features of this website. For the best experience, please use a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Edge.

NOAA Fisheries Announces Changes in its Alaska Survey Portfolio

June 07, 2024

This is part of a larger effort by NOAA Fisheries to modernize its survey enterprise, which will lead to greater efficiency, flexibility, and cost effectiveness.

Water with mountains in the background

NOAA Fisheries is engaged in a multi-year effort to strategically respond to climate-driven changes in the environment, maintain operating efficiencies and modernization efforts, and mitigate shifting survey needs. We continue to balance national priorities against a challenging economic environment where the rising cost of mission execution demands strategic pivots within survey activities to ensure critical data collection needs can be met. 

This year, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center will redesign and reprioritize effort in several of its surveys, while advancing the use of modern methods and technologies to more efficiently collect data and accomplish its research mission to support sustainable fisheries management. It will also suspend one survey resulting from shortfalls in cost-recovery related to losses in the economic value of the catch.

“Alaska marine ecosystems are changing and our science has to change with them,” said Robert Foy, Alaska Fisheries Science Center Director. 

Over the past several years, Alaska scientists have observed extreme marine heatwaves and high variability in marine environmental conditions. This has altered fish distributions and caused structural changes in Alaska marine ecosystems.

Alaska Fisheries Science Center staff have been engaged in strategic planning over the past several months to:

  • Restructure internal operations
  • Prioritize survey efforts
  • Identify more efficient ways to collect data to support resource management decisions

These efforts are guided by the need to continue to meet thresholds of data collection and provision of scientific information. 

To maintain their scientific integrity, we are re-evaluating all aspects of our research surveys including the overall design, spatial coverage, timing, and gear. We want to streamline our survey operations and identify new ways to collect critical information on fish and shellfish species.

To strengthen our ability to maintain continuity of survey operations, we reorganized our Groundfish Assessment Program into three operational survey teams. These teams better align with the three primary Large Marine Ecosystems where they primarily conduct survey operations. This realignment provides obvious points of contact to stakeholders for all bottom trawl survey regions. It also creates an operational structure that increases cross-training across teams to better address staffing needs.

New, Comprehensive Survey for the Bering Sea

The Alaska Fisheries Science Center is designing a new standardized annual bottom trawl survey for the Bering Sea over the next few years. This will replace:

  • Eastern Bering Sea shelf survey (conducted annually since 1982)
  • Portions of the eastern Bering Sea slope survey (conducted biennially 2000 to 2016)
  • Northern Bering Sea bottom trawl survey (conducted in 2010 and roughly annually since 2017)

“We will be using a stratified-random sampling design rather than a systematic grid with fixed stations,” said Lyle Britt, Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering Division Director for the Center. “The advantage of the new approach is that we can be more nimble in our survey implementation. We will be able to respond more quickly to changes in the marine environment without jeopardizing data quality.”

Specifically, there would be one comprehensive survey area that would be sampled annually. It will incorporate:

  • Eastern Bering Sea shelf
  • Northern Bering Sea
  • Upper portion (shallower than 400 meters) of the eastern Bering Sea Slope. 

Resource managers and constituents will benefit from more extensive species-level data. The survey will better capture the current spatial distribution of many key stocks of fish and shellfish.

Scientists are also taking the opportunity to replace survey gear constructed from outdated source materials with more efficient and environmentally friendly materials. As a result, they will be able to lower costs, acquire needed materials more quickly, and incorporate modern advancements in design and materials.

“We have been conducting some Alaska surveys in the same areas, using the same survey equipment, for decades. As a result, we have been able to reliably track changes in species abundance for key commercial fish and shellfish species because we had comparative data collected over the years. However, with warmer ocean temperatures, species may not be found in the same areas or gather to spawn at the same time that they did historically,” said Britt. 

Surveys need to be redesigned to capture changes, but the process can’t happen overnight. We need to take steps to ensure we maintain data integrity and comparability.  

Until the new Bering Sea survey is designed, we will continue to conduct the eastern Bering Sea survey annually and the Northern Bering Sea bottom Trawl Survey in odd years. 

The northern Bering Sea survey was initially designed to be a biennial survey effort occurring in odd years. However, changing environmental conditions, a rapid northward range expansion of several key commercial fish species, and decline of Arctic stocks increased the urgency of collecting data in the region annually. In moving back to the original plan of conducting the survey biennially, we will focus on the strongest time series. When done biennially in odd years, the Center has been able to conduct the complete set of survey stations consistently. 

During the even years, we will allocate available resources to transition survey operations and test new gear and sampling methodologies. This will include side-by-side experiments with existing survey gear for calibration before fully implementing a new gear and survey design. This fieldwork is critical to maintaining the continuity of the survey time series. It will also result in a single comprehensive survey design for the Bering Sea region that can be conducted with greater efficiency, lower cost, and greater sustainability.

Alaska Longline Survey Suspended in 2024 

NOAA Fisheries is suspending the Alaska longline survey this year. This survey has been conducted since 1979. Over this time, the areas where the survey has focused have varied. Historically it has been conducted in the Gulf of Alaska every year, in the Aleutian Islands in even years and in the Bering Sea in odd years. 

Sablefish are the primary target of this survey and sold to pay for the contract vessel operations. However, in recent years, the economic value of sablefish has declined due to record high abundance in Alaskan waters. As a result, the vessel owner has had to operate at an economic loss. It is anticipated that conditions will be the same this year.

“Missing a year of survey data at this time—when the population is relatively high—represents a low risk to the population,” said Foy. “In 2023, fishermen only caught about 66 percent of the available acceptable biological catch, which further supports the argument that the risk to the population is low.”

Pending market conditions, we will actively explore options for conducting the survey in future years.

Fewer Fishing Days Allocated for Three Other Surveys in 2024 to Ensure Diversity of Research 

NOAA Fisheries plans to reduce survey effort in three surveys this year to maintain a balanced research portfolio that includes ecosystem research. This will also increase the probability that higher priority work is completed in FY25 with the least overall impact on the mission.

The Eastern Bering Sea Summer Acoustics survey will be reduced by 22 days. This will increase uncertainty in survey results used for Eastern Bering Sea walleye pollock stock assessment. It will also increase uncertainty of valuable ecosystem information including prey information for Steller sea lions in the Steller Sea Lion Conservation Area. To make up for the loss of survey days and still cover the core survey area, we will reduce the acoustic sampling resolution by 50 percent (by changing spacing from 20 nautical miles to 40 nautical miles). We will also reduce trawl sampling effort  by about 25–50 percent. 

The Eastern Bering Sea Bottom Trawl Survey will be reduced by 9 days. This will delay testing of new trawl doors, which are part of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s new survey modernization effort. Survey modernization efforts will stretch over multiple years. As a result, the annual stock assessment will see minimal impacts associated with uncertainty but will likely be within the survey variance encountered annually. 

The Aleutian Islands Bottom Trawl Survey will be reduced by 20 days. To help offset some of the data loss, the station density will shift in the randomly stratified survey to accommodate the loss of days. Travel between stations will also occur at night to make up some of the time. 

Strategic Planning to Support Adaptive Climate and Ecosystem Management 

In the short term, we have identified ways to help mitigate the impact of survey effort reduction and data loss while supporting long-term strategic plans for responding to changing ocean conditions. This includes reducing sampling effort in some surveys while working to preserve data quality and implementing some measures over several years. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council could consider adding an additional buffer for managed stocks to account for uncertainty associated with the loss of any survey data. 

In the long term, our broader survey modernization efforts—including the use of new technologies and survey methods—will lead to greater efficiency, flexibility, and cost effectiveness. This will ensure that NOAA Fisheries can continue to provide fisheries, ecosystem and climate data to support adaptive fisheries management.

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on June 12, 2024