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Submitted by jenna.swartz on Wed, 03/23/2022 - 11:09
Audio file
Podcast Series

Dive In with NOAA Fisheries

NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.

Podcast Transcript
00:00:01:08 (John Sheehan)
Alaska’s seas are home to a vast diversity of marine life. And its fisheries are among the world’s most sustainable, best managed, and most productive. After all, sixty percent of U.S. seafood comes from Alaska. And that’s thanks largely to Walleye pollock, the largest U.S. fishery and second biggest in the world. I’m John Sheehan and this is Dive In with NOAA Fisheries, a podcast about the hard work and sound science that goes into managing and protecting U.S. fisheries. With this episode we’re continuing our kickoff series on surveys (or data collection) by looking at the Alaska region, an area that is in a word…humongous.

00:00:41:08 (guest voice clips, Dr. Robert Foy)
It is quite large. We are responsible for an area of about 1.5 million square nautical miles. That region consists of five different large marine ecosystems; meaning that we need to focus differently in each of those areas.

00:00:58:08 (John Sheehan)
That’s Doctor Robert Foy, the Director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and someone I was excited to talk to because I knew almost nothing about the Alaska region. And I certainly didn’t know and what we’ll hear about later is that even small ships there and ocean conditions or fish stocks can have big impacts. Whether on global seafood prices or on tribal communities that depend on those resources for subsistence. And that is what makes the science center surveys vital. Doctor Foy welcome. Thanks so much for being here. Can you give us a sense of the breadth and variety of your research, of your surveys?

00:01:35:01 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Thanks John. Yeah so, surveys are the tool that we use in order to collect information to meet our mission. We conduct what we call ecosystem based fisheries management. We are collecting information about the whole water column. We collect data from satellites to better understand what’s going on with the physical environment. We collect data from buoys and autonomous vehicles. And in some cases, those are for the oceanography and the physical environment. Now we’re starting to collect biological information on those autonomous vehicles and buoys as well. We’re collecting information about the plankton, about the carbon in the system. In addition, in order to collect information from larger animals; fish, marine mammals now we’re looking at surveys that are on research vessels for instance. We have small research vessels working in the near short environment on the order of a skiff.

And we have large research vessels on the order of hundreds of feet. We also use aerial surveys. We use drones. So, you can see we use a number of different techniques in order to capture the information that we need to and survey and monitor these resources.

00:02:49:04 (John Sheehan)
And what types of information are we talking about. You just sited a whole array of measurement techniques. So, what are you gathering?

00:02:58:03 (Doctor Robert Foy)
It’s an excellent question. And it depends on the specific survey. We collect information on the ecosystem. That could be temperature. That could be how much plant material or plankton material is in the water that’s then going to feed the food that feed the commercial fisheries and feed the marine mammals that are important to us. So, those are our ecosystem surveys. We’re trying to track the spatial variability. So, that’s tracking the changes in different areas of the region. We’re also trying to track the temporal variabilities; so, the changes with time, with season or from year to year and how the whole ecosystem works. The second type of data that we’re collecting more related directly to our management mission is how many animals are our there? How many fish are our there?

So, we’re going into regions and we’re conducting surveys for the mid water using acoustics for instance. That allows us to average the amount of sound coming back, basically a fancy fish finder. And it lets us predict how many fish are in the water column. We put nets on the bottom of the water. We put nets in the middle part of the water. We put nets on the surface of the water. All with the goal of counting what’s there and then expanding that up to predict how much is in the entire region. Now on the other side for marine mammals in some cases we’re actually counting individual animals. So, from aerial surveys where we use pictures. Or sometimes it’s just someone looking out the window and counting…to other technologies such as video where we’re able to actually count the number of animals either on the water or on land and then use that information to come up with how many animals are there.

00:04:53:05 (John Sheehan)
And so, once you have all these measurements what are those surveys informed beyond just how many fish are in the water?

00:05:02:00 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Great question. And it’s not as simple as just how many are there. The end game is to support local economies. It’s the support the national economy for the United States. It’s to provide climate services for communities and the public. So, these data that we’re collecting are going to help us from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center provide the science that’s needed to make decisions. So, for instance, with commercial fisheries; these abundance data and information about how the ecosystem is changing are used by managers. For instance, they’re used by the Alaska regional office, they’re used by the North Pacific Management Council in order to assess what we think is there now and then predict what we can take out sustainably. The challenge is we’re doing that all with the backdrop of climate change. So, that’s a constantly changing target.

00:06:05:04 (John Sheehan)
And can you paint a broad picture of how climate change has been affecting the region. It’s really been one of the hardest hit in the world.

00:06:15:04 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Climate change is something we’ve all been experiencing since the late 1800’s because of warming, because of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There’s been a constant progression of impact of climate change on our ecosystem. What has happened more recently is we’ve had more and more extreme events as a result of that climate change. So, not only do we have a very slow process on the order of decades and centuries where we’re seeing increased warming, we’re seeing decreased ice in the northern latitudes, we’re seeing increased carbon dioxide in the water. We call ocean acidification. Those things are all happening gradually. But, at the same time as they interact with the natural variability in the environment, we see extreme events. For instance, heat waves.

We’ve seen more heat waves in the last decade than we’ve seen in the last ten decades. And they seem to be occurring on a more regular basis. And the impacts of those extreme events are very difficult to predict, and it means we need to collect more information to better understand what those extreme events could mean for our overall sustainability of these ecosystems.

00:07:39:02 (John Sheehan)
And what are you seeing so far? What are the species that are getting affected the most?

00:07:46:03 (Doctor Robert Foy)
So, in the north Pacific we had a real wakeup call with heat waves in 2014-15 and a large heat wave in 2019 in particular. And what these events did was change the thermal structure of the water column in the whole north Pacific. Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and north. And that heat stayed in the water for a number of years. Even past what we called the heat wave that heat stayed in the water. So, with increased heat now animals that are ectotherms; meaning they’re the same temperature as their environment are warmer. They require more energy. So, the system is changing. More energy is needed. More prey might not be available. So, we saw shifts and, in some cases, collapses in the trophic structure, in the structure of how the ecosystem works.

The first example we had was with cod in the Gulf of Alaska. The cod stock had a dramatic decline right after the heat wave. We were able to pinpoint the source of that decline back to the availability of prey and then the loss of cod for the commercial fishery. More recently we saw extreme shifts in migration. We saw cod and pollock stocks migrate over a thousand kilometers within twelve to twenty four months of the heat wave. That wasn’t necessarily due to prey availability. That was due to the physical environment.

00:09:21:09 (John Sheehan)
Just a heads up. We’re going to learn more about what makes the north Bering Sea so unique and important a little later in the episode. Stick around.

00:09:29:08 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Let me give you the final example. And that is in what we saw this past year. As a result of changes in the ecosystem largely stemming from the 2019 event, we saw precipitous declines in our crab stocks. A very large decline in our snow crab stock between 2019-20 and 21. We’ve also seen some declines in other stocks such as Bristol Bay red King Crab which also closed this year as a result of low abundance and biomass. Again, associated with the changes that we see in the environment which is all driven by this overarching climate shift.

00:10:08:05 (John Sheehan)
Yeah, I saw a news story from October of 2021 in Seattle where crab prices hit an unprecedented high and every was freaking out.

00:10:18:03 (Media reporter)
If you’re craving Alaskan King Crab, brace yourself. Prices are at an all time high. Boy, I’ll say.

00:10:25:03 (John Sheehan)
They’ve never seen crab prices so high. And you were quoted and said basically yeah, it’s climate change. And you said we’re experiencing extreme events that we can’t predict so it’s affecting the entire marine ecosystem. Which is sort of a plain answer but it’s also humungous and terrifying.

00:10:44:03 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Yeah absolutely. It is scary. And it may be a little counter intuitive to think that changes or decreases that we see in the abundance of our stocks lead to negative or positive depending on how you look at it changes in the economics of these fisheries. So, for instance, the high prices for crab may mean that distributors and fisheries are able to recoup some of the losses because of the decrease. But what it means is that a large majority of the public can’t afford the resource. So, it’s a constant balance of producing seafood, providing protein to the masses, to the world in a way that is sustainable and affordable but at the same time making sure that people can make a living. We depend on the small communities. We depend on the production and the canneries for instance; the communities that support those canneries. And we rely on those larger industries to provide all of that.

So, it’s a complex system where when you see a change it has downstream effects on businesses, individual livelihoods, all the way to prices at the Seattle fish market.

00:11:58:06 (John Sheehan)
And as you alluded to there’s this tension between you have these changes that have very big economic impacts on the fishing industry. But then they have very big consequential and dire effects on the local communities that rely on subsistence fishing.

00:12:15:08 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Absolutely. So, that’s another challenge that we face is that the stakeholder for us ranges everywhere from a billion dollar industry all the way down to a single family on the Yukon trying to feed their family. And what that means is that we have to be incredibly diligent about collecting data on surveys, monitoring the ecosystem in a way that informs us to how to sustainably manage the large fisheries. And what it means to local communities.

00:12:49:07 (John Sheehan)
I know. During the pandemic it was especially hard to work with some of those coastal communities. You just couldn’t take the risk of going into them and potentially exposing them to COVID. How else the pandemic throw your operations for a loop?

00:13:08:01 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Yeah, thanks for that question, John. Covid 19 was extremely challenging. Continues to be extremely challenging. But especially at the beginning when we knew we had a mission to accomplish. We know that we need to collect data every single year in order to successfully manage these fisheries. And in 2020 in order the maintain the safety of our staff, in order to maintain the safety of the communities we did our best to collect data, but we had to stand down from a number of our surveys throughout the Alaska region. The result of that was more uncertainty in the management process. So, we did everything we could to mitigate that. We worked with partners in the state of Alaska. We worked with partners in the industry. We even went as far as putting un-crewed drones on the ocean. We sent them from California to Alaska to collect what data we could.

Now was all of that perfect? No. But what it did was allow us to get through that year. It allowed us to get to a point in the pandemic where we could put controls in place again to keep our staff safe, to keep the community safe. And now we’re back up near a hundred percent in terms of our survey data footprint in Alaska, data collection in 2021. And our expectations for 2022 to cover our most important core regions, our highest priority surveys and again, do it in a safe manner.

00:14:43:08 (John Sheehan)
Can you talk a little bit about the difference between the data you collect from a drone versus having someone on the bow of a ship?

00:14:53:07 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Yes. It’s quite interesting to see how the pandemic has helped promote our need to innovate. We’ve always looked for different ways to collect information. But what the pandemic did was highlight the need to be able to be flexible and nimble in providing some of those innovative solutions. So, with the drones that we put out in 2020 those were able to go, and they had the fancy fish finders on board that I mentioned where they were able to provide us that return signal from what’s in the mid water part of the ocean and gives us estimates of pollock in particular. Pollocks largest fishery in the country. We have a real need to understand the variability from year to year because even slight changes are a large change in terms of what we remove from the ocean and what the markets have available to them.

So, we sent these drones knowing that we would only have those data. What we wouldn’t have are the data from the nets. We wouldn’t know exactly what size they were. We wouldn’t know exactly how many were there based on that size distribution. And the only reason we were really successful in addition to the incredible, talented innovative analysts that we have at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center is because we were focused on that single species. Most of the time these technologies will help us, but they are unlikely to completely supplant the need to be out there on a vessel to collect biological data, put our hands on fish, see the marine mammals, and survey these resources.

00:16:39:04 (John Sheehan)
That said, do you anticipate using now that you’ve learned and had this learning experience of having to go through innovation and you know employing un-crewed vessels and I assume aerial drones? Are you going to keep using them?

00:16:55:04 (Doctor Robert Foy)
We do. We do intend to keep using them and build out that technology. In fact, we’re funding a number of research and development projects this year in order to continue that effort. What the last couple of years taught us is that it’s possible. There was still uncertainty, but it let us know that we can employ these types of tools. What it will allow us to do is expand our footprint. So, we’re working with drones on the surface of the water. We’re working with our academic colleagues and our state colleagues to use drones that go under the water. We’re using aerial drones to help with the marine mammal counts in the types of estimate surveys that we can do from the air. And all of that allows us to expand our footprint. So, if we have a vessel out there with people on it, with nets and we’re collecting biological data, but we can send out a fleet of drones to also provide information relative to where we are with that ship that can only make the amount of data that we have better.

00:17:59:07 (John Sheehan)
Yeah, and obviously the scope of your work is just increasing. What’s the way forward. What’s…what is your new normal?

00:18:09:07 (Doctor Robert Foy)
Well, the new normal is probably continual change. You know what we’ve realized is that we have to continue to support the surveys that we’ve conducted for decades, and we also need to be more nimble moving forward. There’s a constant discussion going on in terms of whether we keep those long term time series going and how we then pivot and move into new regions as they become available or collect data in a new way. And the truth is it’s somewhere in the middle. We need to practically consider how and which long term time series we keep. Some of them might not be relevant any longer. Because the baseline is changing. Others you want to keep collecting because it’s that changing baseline you want to be able to track. It’s clear that with these expansions with the increased complexity it’s going to be difficult to do it all. We can’t be everywhere.

So, we also have to be more nimble. We have to be able to move for instance, in the Alaska region we have to be able to move into the northern Bering Sea where we only collect the data in that region once every decade…now we need to do it every year. We have to be able to provide ranges of information to our managers, to the commercial fishing industry, help communities understand what we think is coming. And all at the same time you know work in that additional complexity where we have fisheries moving into other areas. So, now you have more complex interactions between small fisheries, large fisheries, coastal indigenous communities all overlapping in areas in ways that they never had before. So, again the way forward is dealing with these complexities by collecting, monitoring, and continuing to build out these surveys which really are at the core of our mission.

00:20:09:03 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Robert Foy, thanks so much.

00:20:11:09 (Doctor Robert Foy)
My pleasure.

00:20:14:05 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Robert Foy is the director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. I want to get back to something that Bob touched on earlier. Namely, the North Bering Sea. This is the body of water east of the Gulf of Alaska and it sits right between the U.S. and Russia just south of the Chukchi Sea.

00:20:33:05 (Doctor Lyle Britt)
Historically we didn’t think the northern Bering Sea was terribly important as an area for us to survey because it was its own unique ecosystem. It was very much kind of an Arctic ecosystem.

00:20:43:08 (John Sheehan)
That’s Doctor Lyle Britt, the Director of the Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering Division at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

00:20:50:08 (Doctor Lyle Britt)
However, a lot of the changes that we’re seeing associated with ocean warming and climate change are really happening there first.

00:20:58:02 (John Sheehan)
In 2010 the Alaska Fisheries Science Center conducted the first standardized survey of the North Bering Sea. At the time, subarctic fish stocks like Walleye Pollock and Pacific Cod just weren’t there. But when scientists returned to the region in 2017….

00:21:15:03 (Doctor Lyle Britt)
Things were strikingly different. In fact, the Pacific Cod was probably the most striking. We went from very few to basically like an 1800 percent increase in the Northern Bering Sea. Roughly 50 percent of the Pacific Cod stock had moved north into the Northern Bering Sea region. About 30 percent of the Walleye Pollock stock had moved north into the Northern Bering Sea region. And conversely more Arctic fishes like Arctic Cod, Capelin, effectively dropped over 90 percent in those same regions.

00:21:48:02 (John Sheehan)
Can we talk a little bit about how sea ice and its sort of melting and forming has been so key to the ecosystem?

00:21:59:04 (Doctor Lyle Britt)
Yeah. Bering Sea sea ice, seasonal sea ice has a really dynamic and important role in how the ecosystem functions. Basically, as we go into the winter and temperatures cool ice on the surface of the water starts to form. And one of the big things that is really critical to the Bering Sea ecosystem is that as that ice is forming ice algaes will associate with the ice. Once spring would hit that ice would melt and retreat back. And with that melting all of that algae gets released into the ecosystem. This is a huge amount of energy that would then cascade down and provide resources, a lot of energy into the system. This is one of the things that makes the Bering Sea really unique because there’s also the continental slope where we get upwelling which also brings nutrient rich water from mid-depth up towards the surface which can also once the ice is gone result in plankton blooms and additional energy to the system.

So, unlike other parts of the world, essentially the Bering Sea gets to double dip on these kinds of large, productive events that can power that ecosystem. That lack of sea ice has reduced that ice algae that cascades down, reduced energy from the system. It has an impact then essentially on the, that cascading food web. The other aspect that’s really important with the sea ice is the cold pool; this really dense super cooled briny water that settles near the bottom. And for subarctic fishes, fishes that don’t tend to like to enter that water that’s very, very cold it’s effectively a barrier. So, with the recent lack of seasonal sea ice extending down to the southeastern Bering Sea that barrier no longer exists. And so now we’re seeing fish spread across the southeastern Bering Sea and showing up in the northern Bering Sea region and potentially even further north.

00:23:58:09 (John Sheehan)
Which has huge implications for a very economically important fish stock?

00:24:06:05 (Doctor Lyle Britt)
Well, yes, very much. For a host of reasons. One very simple on being say for trawl fisheries the northern Bering Sea and the north Arctic are not open to fishing. So, those portions of the stock are now effectively removed from the fishery. Not to mention the ecosystem impacts that we’re still trying to understand. A fish moving into a region that they’ve historically have not been in large numbers.

00:24:31:07 (John Sheehan)
And so, what has been the science center’s response to this?

00:24:35:05 (Doctor Lyle Britt)
I mean it’s an alarming trend. And so, we’re trying to get out in front of it as much as we can with the resources that we have available to us. When the northern Bering Sea survey was first proposed it started out as the biennial effort. We would go every other year. It’s effectively became an annual survey since. We’re also working heavily to figure out ways to increase our survey footprint on a more regular basis into the Chukchi and even the Beaufort Seas further north to understand the ecosystem effects that are happening there as well. And just really how far of a northward movement we’re experiencing with these stocks.

We’ve talked mostly about ecosystem and stock assessment surveys. Those are really powerful, seminal tools that we use to kind of understand the current status of the animals in a region. They don’t tell us necessarily why that status has changed. We really rely on what we consider to be our process surveys, or process studies to understand the critical natures of how we got to where we are now. What are the why questions? Why have pollock moved? Why are pollock spawning at a different time? A lot of that comes from our process surveys. These are really critical for our understanding of what’s actually happening in the ecosystem.

00:26:01:05 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Lyle Britt is the Director of Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering Division at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. On our next episode we’ll head south from Alaska to the West Coast and hear about the unique features and challenges of the southwest and northwest Pacific and talk about one of the longest running surveys ever and how it’s advanced our understanding of the ocean. Follow or subscribe to us wherever you find podcasts. I’m John Sheehan and this has been “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries”.

00:26:36:06 (Podcast ends)
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Dive into how NOAA Fisheries collects data in Alaska.