NOAA Fisheries is a leader in the use of advanced technologies. Our scientists use a variety of technologies to study the marine environment and the species that call it home.
How Does NOAA Fisheries Use Technology?
Some ocean creatures are a challenge to study because they live in places that are difficult to get to or because they have complex life cycles. And to study unique creatures, sometimes scientists need to use unique tools. Our scientists use a range of advanced technologies for their research as they work to gather and analyze data and better understand the science behind healthy ecosystems and marine life.
It’s important to remember that all photos and technologies used to track and research marine animals are conducted under permits granted by NOAA Fisheries, and should not be attempted by the public.
Some of these technologies include:
Drones, both aerial and sail.
Remote underwater vehicles and automated underwater vehicles.
Drones (Aerial and Sail)
NOAA Fisheries uses a number of technologies to observe ocean habitats and organisms from afar. The term "remote sensing" refers to the science of deriving information about the Earth's land and oceans from images acquired at a distance, like satellite imaging and aerial photography. Researchers use remotely sensed data captured by drones to investigate essential habitat and to determine the distribution and abundance of species in habitats that are difficult to access using traditional survey methods.
For example, scientists from NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center use special unmanned aerial vehicles (the size of a hubcap) to take pictures of leopard seals in Antarctica. The drone has six helicopter rotors, allowing it to take off vertically and hover motionlessly, and a high-resolution digital camera. From these photos, scientists can measure the length and width of individual animals and then generate estimates of their weight. By monitoring weight gain among the seals, scientists hope to better understand the energetics of the species and how they structure their ecological community through predation. Working with the animals remotely, under NOAA Fisheries permits, is better and safer for both the seals and the scientists. Unmanned aerial vehicles can also be a safer way to gather data from remote islands where surveys from manned flights are ineffective and dangerous due to low cloud cover. The technology makes it possible to observe whales without disturbing them.
Scientists from NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center are using saildrones to study fish like Alaskan pollock and protected species including whales and seals. A saildrone is an unoccupied autonomous sailing craft that houses a suite of sensors and instruments for collecting data from the environment. Saildrones can be used to study physical parameters (e.g., ocean temperature and salinity), record the abundance of fish in a given area, listen and detect the presence of whales, and track seal locations and foraging patterns. Saildrone technology opens up a whole new world of monitoring, recording, and collecting research information. The data gathered may be used to make management decisions about valuable commercial fisheries and conservation efforts for protected species.
Watch our video to learn more about saildrones:
Satellite Tags (Tagging and Tracking)
Tiny microprocessors and sophisticated remote sensing systems now make it possible for scientists to explore the lives of marine animals and the open ocean from the perspective of individuals equipped with "smart tags." Tags provide researchers with information about migratory routes; diving, resting and swimming patterns; and internal physiological processes such as digestion.
These “smart tags” are especially useful in tracking:
Highly migratory species like sharks, tuna, and albacore.
Sea lions and seals.
Whales, like California gray whales and Southern Resident killer whales.
For example, at our Northwest Fisheries Science Center, scientists use the Argos system to tag Southern Resident killer whales and figure out where they go when they leave Puget Sound. The scientists and their collaborators use satellite tags on orcas to gather location data that can reveal details about the winter migration of this endangered species and the extent of their coastal range.
The Argos system functions differently than the global positioning system (GPS) most people are familiar with. The transmitter on the whale emits a signal when the whale is at the surface and during the specific hours of the day when the transmitter is programmed to be on. The signal is received by System Argos receivers on NOAA's polar orbiting weather satellites. After a series of signals pass back and forth, algorithms are applied to the signal data to estimate the transmitter’s location. Signal contact for tagged killer whales typically lasts about a month, but can last more than 3 months.
Several kinds of underwater vehicles are used to study life in the ocean, including autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), manned submersibles, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). ROVs are tethered to a surface vessel, whereas AUVs operate independently. AUVs receive commands from an operator-controlled computer as to where, when, and what they sample. They also carry equipment for sampling and surveying, such as cameras, sonar, and depth sensors.
At NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the AUV team collaborates with scientists from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Sanctuaries, other federal agencies, and academia to better understand the location, distribution, status, and health of deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems. Popoki, a SeaBED AUV used during these expeditions, can dive to 2,000 meters and work underwater for up to 6 hours while sending information back to scientists onboard their research vessel.
Popoki was designed to remain stable in the ocean's pitch and roll. Three carbon fiber propellers, originally designed for use in model airplanes, provide the thrust needed to propel Popoki down to the sea floor. The thousands of pictures Popoki takes can be blended into larger “photomosaics” to provide a more complete picture of the ocean floor.
At NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the passive acoustics group works together with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to use their Slocum gliders to monitor the whereabouts of North Atlantic right whales and other baleen whales in near real time. In addition, they use Slocum gliders equipped with both passive acoustic recorders and telemetry receivers to map the temporal and spatial extent of spawning fish, such as Atlantic Cod.
Sound is the primary way many marine animals communicate and sense information. For NOAA Fisheries, acoustic sensing is a great way to detect and characterize physical and biological features of ocean areas. Using acoustics gives us enhanced and unique scientific data on:
Living marine resources.
The make-up of marine ecosystems.
The effects of human-caused sound (e.g., boats and sonar) on protected species and their ecosystems
Our science centers use sound in different ways to gather information on fish populations for fisheries management, and to detect marine mammals like turtles and whales during surveys. For example, at our Northwest Fisheries Science Center, echosounders are attached to the bottom of Pacific hake trawl ships to estimate the current and future abundance of hake. The assessments provide advice to fishery managers on future harvests. Scientists on the Center’s Fisheries Engineering and Acoustics Technologies Team also recently collaborated with a robotics group to use an echosounder combined with a solar-powered Wave Glider to survey fish populations.
NOAA Fisheries operates a wide assortment of hydrographic survey, oceanographic research, and fisheries survey vessels. These vessels are operated by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. The ships are run by a combination of NOAA commissioned officers and wage marine civilians. The ship's officers and crew provide mission support and assistance to scientists from various NOAA laboratories as well as the academic community.
NOAA Fisheries research vessels:
Bell M. Shimada—a state-of-the-art fisheries survey vessel that studies a wide range of marine life, seabirds, and ocean conditions along the U.S. West Coast. The ship’s design allows for quieter operation and movement of the vessel through the water, giving allowing scientists to study fish and marine mammals without disturbing them.
Fairweather—a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to support safe navigation and commerce. Fairweather’s officers, technicians, and scientists collect data used by NOAA cartographers to create and update the nation’s nautical charts with ever-increasing precision.
Ferdinand R. Hassler—one of the newest ships in NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels that map the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. NOAA's Coast Survey uses data collected by the ship to create and update the nation’s nautical charts
Gordon Gunter—a multipurpose oceanographic research vessel that monitors the health and abundance of fisheries resources and marine mammals. The ship operates mainly in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, and Caribbean Sea.
Henry B. Bigelow—a state-of-the-art fisheries survey vessel that studies a wide range of marine life and ocean conditions along the U.S. East Coast. The ship's primary mission is to study and monitor fish stocks. The ship also conducts habitat assessments and surveys marine mammal and seabird populations.
Hi`ialakai—a multipurpose oceanographic research vessel whose main missions include coral reef ecosystem mapping, coral reef health and fish stock studies, and maritime heritage surveys.
Nancy Foster—one of the most operationally diverse platforms in the NOAA fleet--supports fish habitat and population studies, seafloor mapping surveys, physical and chemical oceanography studies, and maritime heritage surveys.
Okeanos Explorer—known as "America's ship for ocean exploration." Dedicated to exploration and discovery, Okeanos Explorer maps the seafloor, explores shipwrecks, and characterizes largely unknown areas of the ocean.
Oregon II—conducts a variety of fisheries, plankton, and marine mammal surveys in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, and Caribbean Sea.
Oscar Dyson—the first in a class of ultra-quiet fisheries survey vessels built to collect data on fish populations, conduct marine mammal and seabird surveys, and study marine ecosystems. The ship operates primarily in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
Oscar Elton Sette—a multipurpose oceanographic research vessel that conducts fisheries assessments, physical and chemical oceanography research, and marine mammal and marine debris surveys. The ship operates throughout the central and western Pacific Ocean.
Pisces—the third in a class of state-of-the-art, acoustically quiet fisheries survey vessels built for a wide range of living marine resource surveys and ecosystem research projects. The ship focuses primarily on U.S. waters from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and South Atlantic to North Carolina.
Rainier—a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean.
Reuben Lasker—the fifth in a series of Oscar Dyson-class fisheries survey vessels and one of the most technologically advanced fisheries vessels in the world. The ship’s primary objective is to support fish, marine mammal, seabird, and turtle surveys off the U.S. West Coast and in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.
Ronald H. Brown—a global-class oceanographic and atmospheric research platform, and the largest vessel in the NOAA fleet. With its highly advanced instruments, the ship travels worldwide supporting scientific studies to increase our understanding of climate and the ocean.
- Thomas Jefferson—a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean.
Genetic researchers at NOAA Fisheries preserve small tissue and blood samples from free-ranging marine turtles, marine mammals, and fishes to identify different species. They also use molecular methods to study the hormones that indicate reproductive status, and stable isotopes to determine the geographic origins of animals.
For example, NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla has one of the largest marine mammal and marine turtle sample collections in the world. This research sample collection has more than 140,000 tissue samples and 60,000 DNA samples, spanning more than 100 years. Two state-of-the-art genetics facilities operate at the Center’s La Jolla and Santa Cruz laboratories. The collection supports state-of-the-art studies in marine mammal and turtle genomics, population structure, taxonomy, and much more.
Fourier Transform-Near Infrared Spectroscopy
Our scientists study fish age distribution, growth rate, and lifespan to sustainably manage U.S. fisheries. Age data are critical for understanding population dynamics of commercially fished species and providing management advice. Assessing populations is complex and requires a lot of age data.
To determine the age and growth rate of fish species, scientists examine fish otoliths, or ear stones. These are sensory structures in a fish’s head and used for hearing and balance. As fish grow, they accumulate layers of calcium carbonate. Each ring represents roughly one year of growth (similar to tree rings). Scientists take a cross-section of the otolith and estimate the age of each fish by counting annual growth rings under a microscope. Using this conventional method, handling time per otolith is around 3–5 minutes for walleye pollock, plus additional time for quality control readings. Handling time varies per species.
In 2018, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center adapted a machine-based technology called Fourier Transform-Near Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-NIRS). FT-NIRS is utilized by agricultural, pharmaceutical, chemical, and other industries due to its rapid and non-destructive testing capabilities. FT-NIRS technology may allow us to conduct otolith research with much greater efficiency. The Alaska Fisheries Science Center is now spear-heading a strategic initiative to adopt the technology agency-wide. With FT-NIRS technology, light from a special near-infrared source is focused on the otolith, which absorbs some light at characteristic wavelengths or frequencies. The amount of light that is absorbed is measured and recorded by an instrument called a spectrometer. The whole process takes 30–50 seconds per otolith—more than 10 times faster than traditional methods.
Rather than counting each ring visually, FT-NIRS measures the chemical components of an otolith. As otolith rings accrete over time, they develop a protein matrix within. The otoliths of a 1-year-old pollock will therefore have less protein than those of a 10-year-old. If we can accurately measure the difference in proteins between age groups using FT-NIRS, we will have an efficient method to age large numbers of fish. We are still working on understanding the exact molecular constituents in otoliths that give the relationship between spectral data measured by FT-NIRS and fish age.
Efficiency is likely to vary by species, but for Alaskan pollock, preliminary estimates indicate the new method can improve efficiency by 600 percent to 800 percent. More than 40,000 age requests come in each year to NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center Age and Growth Program alone. This new technology could lead to big reductions in time, effort, and money spent on age and growth research.
Other Interesting Technologies
Our Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, contains 38 research laboratories, including an experimental aquarium, specimen archives, electronic workshops, and a unique facility for testing new sampling technologies. Some of the state-of-the-art technologies include:
Ocean Technology Development Test Tank. A 2-million-liter tank controlled for both temperature and salinity that allows tank conditions to range from tropical to polar temperatures and from fresh to saltwater. Scientists can test their equipment under the broad range of conditions they might find in the field. The tank also has life support systems for a variety of marine animals; having live organisms in the tank allows scientists to calibrate their instruments for use in the field.
Marine Mammal and Turtle Molecular Research Sample Collection. A walk-in freezer for the genetics tissue archive, one of the largest marine mammal and marine turtle sample collections in the world. The collection has become the National Repository for marine turtle samples, as well as a highly trusted repository for marine mammal samples donated by national and international institutions. The samples are available to Center scientists and outside researchers alike.
In Hawaii, our Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center is a 35-acre parcel on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. It houses exhibits, a dive center, laboratories, necropsy rooms, and technologies such as:
Seawater facility. This 87,000-gallon facility contains 11 separate water treatment systems, and operators can isolate various tanks for research or animal husbandry purposes..
Marine animal facility. The remaining outdoor tanks consists of two 24-foot-diameter tanks, a 20-foot-diameter tank with an underwater viewport, and two 8-foot-diameter tanks set up with independent life support systems that can hold sea turtles, monk seals, and other marine life.
At our Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, the Environmental Sample Processor is an advanced biological sensing system that conducts automated collection and analysis of water samples as they occur in the field. This processor uses DNA technology to identify small organisms in plankton. It can remotely detect harmful algae and bacterial pathogens and send the results to shore in near-real time, thus providing early warning of developing harmful algal blooms or "red tides" before they contaminate shellfish.