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Submitted by jenna.swartz on Thu, 05/05/2022 - 10:56
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
00:00:01:00 (John Sheehan)
There’s a strong case that the birthplace of U.S. oceanography is Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a little coastal village in Cape Cod at the point closest to Martha’s Vineyard. The nation’s first federal conservation agency was founded there in 1871. That agency would ultimately become NOAA Fisheries, the body tasked with regulating and protecting our marine resources. This is Dive In With NOAA Fisheries. I’m John Sheehan. And we’re continuing our series on surveys and data collection with a look at the northeast region and the historic origins of Woods Hole, which today is an epicenter of oceanography and home to several institutions, including the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

00:00:43:05 (Dr. Jon Hare)
We’re a collection of five facilities in five different states. Our jurisdiction is North Carolina to Maine from the top of watersheds out to the open ocean.

00:00:54:09 (John Sheehan)
I spoke with the center’s director, Dr. Jon Hare about the center’s mission, history, and the challenges it’s facing today. Doctor John Hare, thanks so much for joining us.

00:01:04:08 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Thank you, John, for having me. I’m looking forward to talking with you.

00:01:07:07 (John Sheehan)
John, can we talk a little bit about the history of Woods Hole and of the science center, in particular? What were its beginnings?

00:01:14:04 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yeah so, the, the location in Woods Hole is the birthplace of NOAA Fisheries. A gentleman named Spencer Baird was starting to do marine research related to fisheries in the 1870’s, chose Woods Hole as the place that he wanted to base his operations out. His approach was actually very interesting. He understood that to understand fisheries, you have to understand the ecosystem within which fisheries are occurring. And for him, that ecosystem included the physics, the biology, and the people. And so, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center has a strong tradition of an ecosystem approach. You know, we need to understand the whole ecosystem to do our job with relation to fisheries and protecting marine mammals and endangered species.

00:02:00:05 (John Sheehan)
Yeah. Reading about Spencer Baird, it was pretty interesting because he was the first commissioner of what would become NOAA Fisheries. And it seems like in his first report, he’s sort of set the playbook for what became, like, modern, modern management.

00:02:15:03 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yeah. You’re exactly right. He had pretty much the whole playbook. The tools that he had at the time are a little bit different. You know, a small lab in a used shed that the, you know, light house authority had, no computers. But he had the ideas. Conceptually, he knew what the approach, the problem was. And we are, largely, following that conceptual approach today.

00:02:37:01 (John Sheehan)
Can you give me, kind of, an overview of the, of the breadth and variety of the surveys that, that you conduct out in the Northeast Fisheries Science Center?

00:02:45:09 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yeah, happy to. The mission is quite broad. It’s fisheries, protected species, habitats. And so, we have a spring and fall bottom trawl survey that works from North Carolina through up in the Canadian waters. We have a sea scallop survey which works the Delaware Bay up onto George’s Bank. And we have an Atlantic clam and ocean Quahog dredge survey. So, it uses commercial gear, which is a clam dredge. We have a northern shrimp survey, which works in the Gulf of Maine. We have a couple long line surveys. So, a long line survey is long line with hooks at sort of regular intervals. We have a Gulf of Maine cooperative bottom long line survey that’s done from fishing vessels. And then we have a shark long line survey that works from the southeast U.S. and northeast U.S. to understand how shark population abundance trends are changing.

We have a whole suite of marine mammal surveys. So, we have the North Atlantic Right Whale aerial survey. So, you know, flying a plane, looking for whales and then talking pictures of them. We have shipboard surveys for marine mammals. We also have, sort of, smaller boat surveys which are collecting samples from marine mammals and sea turtles or deploying tags. We have seal abundance surveys. Most of those seal surveys are done when the seals are hauled up on beaches and either resting or pupping. And then we have a broad ecosystem survey which measures water temperature, and salinity, and dissolved oxygen, and the small animals that are in the ocean that form the basis of the food web: the phytoplankton, the zooplankton. And then we also have the marine mammal observers and seabird observers on there to make the connection to those higher trophic levels, as we call them.

So, the, you know, the breadth of survey activities is just, it’s amazing. And it’s a great place to work, to be able to work on all these different animals and different aspects of marine ecosystems.

00:04:54:04 (John Sheehan)
So, as we’ve been talking about the history of Woods Hole and, and the center, you’ve got studies going back basically to the late 1800’s. How has the science and survey collection evolved since, since those days to, to modern days?

00:05:09:00 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yeah. I mean, certainly, you know, in 1880’s, 1870’s, you know, it’s a sailboat. So, pulling a dredge or a trawl off a sailboat is quite a different approach to pulling a dredge or a trawl off of a, you know, a diesel powered research vessel. So, the, you know, the vessels themselves have changed dramatically. In some cases, you know, we’re still using gear which has been traditionally used to collect fish. We use trawls or a clam dredge or a scallop dredge. But we’ve also really been working to develop our sampling technologies. In the scallop survey, we use what’s called a hab-cam, which is in essence it’s a video camera that we tow above the bottom, about five meters above the bottom. And we can count the number of scallops in the frames to get an estimate of how many scallops are on the bottom.

Another area is acoustics. And the Northeast Fisheries Science Center has a very strong passive acoustics program. So, passive acoustics: you put out an acoustic receiver and it just records. It just listens. But whales make a distinctive call, and dolphins make distinctive calls, and spawning cod make distinctive calls. So, you can pull up your acoustic receiver and listen to it and tell which whales were there, when, which dolphins were there, when, which cod were spawning where then. And the passive acoustics have also, all of these technologies are starting to use the, the internet and satellite communications. So, some of the passive acoustics, you know, connect a satellite link to the lab. So, we can get near real-time identifications of North Atlantic Right Whales. So, just the technology is just, you know, rapidly expanding and opening a lot of, of new ways to sample and survey the animals that we’re responsible for.

00:07:09:05 (John Sheehan)
And do you have a scientist expert who’s there with headphones, listening, saying Oh, that’s a Right Whale. Or is it, like, a computer algorithm that’s like, Right Whale.

00:07:19:02 (Dr. Jon Hare)
It’s both. So, you have the computer algorithm that says, Right Whale. And then you have the expert who’s says, yup, the computer’s right. You want to, for some species, you want to double check. So, we are trying to train the computers to do almost as well as the humans as part of the work that we’re doing. Another area where we’re sort of working to train computers to do what humans used to do is in the Right Whale identification. So, I take a picture of a Right Whale and, you know, scientists can sit down and compare the patterns on his head to a catalog and say, No, this is a, this is this particular Right Whale. So, one of our scientists has been working with computer programmers to train computers to identify a lot more images than a human could ever do. So, trying to take advantage of those artificial intelligence developments is another area that we are actively working in.

00:08:13:05 (John Sheehan)
Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about a challenge that’s sort of specific to the northeast, at least right now. And that’s offshore wind energy. On one hand these windfarms sound great. They’re a source of renewable energy and a way to fight climate change. But they also create challenges for your work and for marine habitats in general.

00:08:36:05 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yes, it does. You know, the administration’s priority is to develop offshore wind while protecting biodiversity and promoting ocean co-use. And in that goal, you see the challenges because we want to develop the offshore energy as a renewable energy as a way to sort of address the climate change issue. We want to do so in such a way where we are still protecting the environment and allowing others to use the ocean. And so, NOAA Fisheries, you know, piece of or involvement in offshore wind really comes through the protecting the marine environment and ensuring that other users can still use the ocean. So, it’s a, it’s a standard what we call a wicked problem. There’s a number of different perspectives, interests, a number of stakes. And it's trying to work to provide science to help those stakeholders and partners see a path forward together.

So, we’ve been working very actively in that area in the northeast for the past several years. And we’re leading the country because offshore wind is out front here in the northeast, but also being planned for the Gulf of Mexico and west coast.

00:09:50:03 (John Sheehan)
And it’s something that not only affects the species that you are tasked with protecting. It also impacts the way that you do your science, and the way that you collect measurements, and the way you conduct surveys.

00:10:05:08 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Exactly, that’s, you know, it’s—initially when were approaching the offshore wind problem, we didn’t see the impact on our science. We saw the impacts on the resources that we provide science for. But you know working with the New England Council, the New England Fisheries Management Council in particular, and the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, you know, became clear to us that were going to be impacts to our science as well. And we’re currently working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to resolve some of those scientific impacts. The turbines are going to exclude some of our survey operations. They will also potentially affect our survey designs. And then of course, when you put a turbine in the water, you’re creating habitat. So, you’re altering the habitat that is there.

And then there’s also, you know, as the scale of wind energy continues to grow, it you know, could impact sort of our operations around the turbines. So, we this four-fold impact to our survey and our science operations, which now we are working with Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to come up with a strategy to resolve those impacts. And you mentioned that, you know, it’s new here in the U.S., and it is. But it’s a technology which has been used in Europe for the past twenty or thirty years. And that’s where sort of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, you know, historical connection to marine science comes in. We are party to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which formed in the late 1800’s, the twenty member countries around the North Atlantic. So, we’ve been working through the ICES organization to bring the experience of offshore wind energy development from Europe, and having conversations about, you know, how is that going to play out here.

So, we’re using the European experiences to inform our science, our protecting of biodiversity, and our promoting of ocean co-use. So, it’s a good learning experience for us which comes out of our history in marine science.

00:12:12:02 (John Sheehan)
That’s really interesting. Let’s talk about a couple of other of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s initiatives. Can you talk a little bit more about aquaculture?

00:12:21:06 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yeah. I mean, you know, aquaculture, it’s another way to produce seafood. You know, similar to, you know, Spencer Baird showing up in Woods Hole in 1871, the founder of the Milford Laboratory in 1931 was the first shellfish aquaculture laboratory in the country. And they developed the methods by which oysters are cultivated, you know, cultured, so that they, you could form an aquaculture industry from that. So, we have a long history in aquaculture. We are working to move into new shellfish species. So, sea scallop culture. There’s also fin fish aquaculture, which is beginning to become more important in the United States. The previous administration passed an executive order which asked NOAA to designate aquaculture opportunity areas. And we’re supporting several proposals in the northeast for aquaculture opportunity areas.

And then the other one, which is interesting to me, is seaweed aquaculture. I don’t eat much seaweed, but in many other cultures seaweed is very much part of the human diet. There’s also the possibility of using it as an animal feed. And seaweed has the possibility to capture carbon and so, in essence, you know, you start to sort of have it as a food source and as a climate change mitigation through carbon capture. So, it’s interesting to sort of interact with the Department of Energy on seaweed aquaculture. It’s interesting to interact with the Department of Energy on offshore wind. You know, you think of fisheries, and you don’t, you don’t really think about energy. But they are intimately tied because these are activities that are happening in the ocean. And then, it’s an ecosystem. We need to take an ecosystem approach.

So, all of our, you know, all of government is involved really even though you don’t think of it that way. You think of it, you know, as a NOAA issue, or and Army Corps of Engineer issue, or a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issue. But in reality, in the ecosystem, that we need to work together.

00:14:29:06 (John Sheehan)
You, you touched on the importance of education as a part of Woods Hole history. And I was wondering if you wanted to talk about one of your programs, your IN FISH Internship Program.

00:14:40:05 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yeah. So, again, NOAA Fisheries, all the way back to Spencer Baird has this understanding that education is important. Spencer Baird also understood that education is best done when you get your hands on something and sort of learn by doing. We’ve carried that forward in Woods Hole. Partnership for education program started among the six Woods Hole Science Institutions as a, as an internship program, you know, that sort of tries to draw students from places where we typically hadn’t been going to find students to sort of come in and work in marine science. And that program has been, you know, hugely successful in the Woods Hole community. So, Northeast Fisheries Science Center has taken sort of the model of how that internship program has worked. And we’ve been working with NOAA Fisheries to sort of establish what we’re calling the IN FISH Internship Program to make those types of experiences available throughout fisheries.

00:15:44:08 (John Sheehan)
Yeah. And I took a look at the recent bunch of kids who were in the program, and they come from all over the country.

00:15:50:07 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yeah. I mean, again, the you know, there’s some downsides to working remotely. But there are also some upsides. And the upsides is that, you know, location or your ability to get to a location doesn’t become a determinative factor in your ability to participate. And I hope that, you know, as we move forward, you know, coming out of the pandemic, that we try to keep these more inclusive practices as part of our tools, to just make these opportunities available to anyone from anywhere in the country.

00:16:21:02 (John Sheehan)
Yeah. And speaking of the pandemic, did the pandemic shed any light on operations, or processes that you feel like you can go without? Or conversely, did it show you what you need to sort of double down on?

00:16:40:02 (Dr. Jon Hare)
I think one thing, you know, we talked early on how the Northeast Fisheries Science Center has laboratories in five locations. Historically those locations have felt isolated in part because we did not have, you know, a lot of interactions among locations. But with the pandemic, everyone interacting virtually, you know, it doesn’t matter if I’m in Woods Hole, Massachusetts or Sandy Hook, New Jersey or Orono, Maine. My interaction is exactly the same. It’s a level playing field. And so, I think one of the lessons that we’ve really learned is that this virtual interface levels the playing field, takes sort of, location out of the equation. Hopefully, we’ll carry that going forward, because I think it really has helped us connect much more strongly as a center across five locations.

00:17:31:02 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Jon Hare, thanks so much for talking with me.

00:17:33:07 (Dr. Jon Hare)
Yeah, great talking with you too, John. And I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

00:17:40:00 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Jon Hare is the Director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Jon mentioned some of the work being done to monitor North Atlantic Right whales, an endangered species, and one that NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to trying to conserve and rebuild. They were hunted nearly to extinction in the early 19th century, and today there are fewer than 350 remaining, and not even a hundred breeding females.
North Atlantic Right whales are baleen whales, meaning they eat plankton by straining ocean water through the baleen plates in their mouths, like their relatives, the Humpback and Blue whales. They migrate over the length of the eastern United States, calving in waters off of Georgia and Florida, and foraging in New England waters and up into Canada.
I wanted to learn a little more about how these Right whales are monitored and tracked, so I reached out to Dr. Danielle Cholewiak, a leader for the large whale program and a protected species branch at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Doctor Danielle Cholewiak, welcome to Dive In With NOAA Fisheries.

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
Thanks, I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

(John Sheehan)
Can we start with passive acoustic monitoring? What is that?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
So, acoustic monitoring is using underwater recording devices to listen to sounds in the ocean. And these sounds can include vocalizations produced by different marine species, fishes, and whales, as well as monitoring ocean noise and other types of sounds.

(John Sheehan)
And you, you are a bio acoustician?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
I am. I’m a behavioral ecologist and also a bio acoustician, yeah.

(John Sheehan)
Okay. What is that?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
Somebody who studies the sort of biological and ecological context in which animals are producing sound. So, I really studied how animals are using sound and in what different context are they producing different types of noises.

(John Sheehan)
And I assume that means it’s a lot of listening and discerning the sounds of different animals.

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
That’s right, yeah. Like all cetaceans, North Atlantic Right Whales produce species specific sounds that can be used for monitoring their presence and their activity in areas where we have acoustic recorders. So, for Right Whales, the vocalization that we most commonly use is referred to as the upcall. That’s a sound that’s produced by both males and females in many different contexts. And we use the calls of many different species to monitor their presence and their activity in different areas.

(John Sheehan)
Do you have any, any recordings that you can, that you can play for us?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
We have a ton of recordings. The best place for people to listen to them is through the Northeast Fisheries Science Center website. The passive acoustic group has a link to a page called “sounds of the ocean.” And there you can listen to the North Atlantic Right Whale calls as well as calls of many other species, whales, and dolphins, and fish, and many anthropogenic sounds as well.

(John Sheehan)
Here’s one of those recordings now, of the North Atlantic Right Whale.
(whale songs)

(John Sheehan)
And doctor Cholewiak is exactly right. To hear more, check out our website: And search for sounds in the ocean. Or just look in our show notes for a link. And how is the technology evolved? Has it gotten more sophisticated?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
The acoustics technology has definitely evolved over the decades. It really started out as a tool that primarily used by the military. And many of our early acoustic descriptions of the calls of different species were collected and described by naval researchers who were listening to the ocean and they listening for submarines. These days, passive acoustic devices come in all shapes and sizes. And they’re really widely available to the scientific community. So, we have recorders that we can put down at the bottom of the ocean in shallow water, and in deep water. These recorders can archive data for months or even years. We also have recording devices that allow us to collect data in real time. We can tow recorders behind ships. Those are called hydrophone arrays. So, the technology has really grown and has become much more widely available.

(John Sheehan)
Does it sound just like an underwater murkiness? Imagining listening to underwater sounds so difficult. I mean, how can you discern different animals or fish swimming by, or swishing sounds?
(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)

Well, it really depends on the environment that we’re listening in. Some environments are definitely pretty noisy, and it can be hard to discern the different signals. Other environments are much quieter and it’s much easier to, to hear and discern the different types of signals. But I would say listening to the ocean is pretty magical. You never know what you’re going to hear. We know a lot of the calls that different species make. And so, we’re able to learn about species occurrence and behavior in some cases from the calls that we know and have previously identified and described. But every time we put a recorder in the ocean, we also hear things that we’ve never heard before. We know that for the different species we’re studying, their acoustic repertoires are much broader than what we’ve described before. So, it can be pretty exciting.
It’s really a process of discovery. I feel like we use acoustics for monitoring Right Whale populations and the populations of many other species. But it’s always a process of discovery. I’m learning new things as well.

(John Sheehan)
So, you’re still hearing new things even after many, many hours of listening to underwater sounds. You’re still, like Oh, what’s that?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
We are always hearing new things. And then we embark on a process of trying to figure out what those sounds are, who’s producing them, trying to match them up to what we know about the repertoires of different species. Yes, it’s pretty amazing. There’s always something new to learn.

(John Sheehan)
And how about tagging, which has been used for a long time, but is also a method that’s really growing in sophistication?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
Yeah so, tagging generally involves the placement of some sort of data collecting or transmitting tag on the body of an animal. Tags are used to collect data from many different species from whales and dolphins, to seabirds, to turtles, to fishes. And the types of tags vary depending on the species and on the data that need to be collected. For cetaceans, one set of tags uses suction cups for attachment. And these tags are generally designed to stay on for hours, or up to a day or two. So, they’re relatively short duration tags. These tags usually archive data, and they may record underwater sounds. They may also record the movements of animals underwater, allowing us to reconstruct their swim patterns in three dimensions. There are other types of tags that use barbs to implant into the blubber of animals. And those are intended to stay on for longer periods of time and provide a different type of information. So, those tags typically have satellite transmitters on them, and they’re used for tracking movements of animals over longer spaces and times.

(John Sheehan)
So, you’ve got tags that can sort of be as simple as an identifier mark, or number, all the way through technologically advanced tags that are talking to satellites and listening to the animals.

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
That’s right. And many of these tags have really sophisticated sensors on them. So, some of the tags have pressure sensors that allow us to even reconstruct the dive depths and dive profiles of animals. Some of them have accelerometers and really allow us to reconstruct the movements of animals. They may have compasses on them so we can look at the bearing that animals are, the direction and bearing that animals are moving in. So, these tags can be quite sophisticated and really allow us to collect some really interesting and detailed information.

(John Sheehan)
It’s like, it’s like strapping a smart phone onto an animal.

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
It basically can be, yes. And even more sophisticated than that sometimes.

(John Sheehan)
Another big method for observing the Right whales has been aerial surveys, going up in a plane.

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
Yes, that’s right. Aerial surveys include teams of highly trained observers looking for Right whales and other species. When they sight Right whales, they break from their survey track and they circle over the sightings and take photographs to identify the individuals in those groups and to collect other information such as their health status, number of individuals. They’re flying anywhere from six hundred to over a thousand feet, so they’re looking at a lot of ocean, and it definitely takes well trained eyes to know what they’re looking for. We have our own dedicated aerial survey team, and within the Northeast region we also collaborate really closely with our partners at the Center for Coastal Studies and the New England Aquarium also have dedicated aerial survey teams that are out looking for Right whales.

(John Sheehan)
Are there any other methods for monitoring whales that we haven’t talked about?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
Actually, yes. There’s a lot of effort underway right now to explore how we can use satellite imagery to monitor Right Whales as well as other species. So, under the right conditions, we can detect whales in the water using very high resolution satellite images. And this technology won’t replace our traditional visual and passive acoustic surveys. But it might allow us to look for whales in areas that are otherwise really difficult to monitor. Areas where we can’t get with our boats and with our planes, or areas where we’re not able to listen. So, that is an area of really rapid development and also an area that’s pretty exciting in terms of the potential capabilities.

(John Sheehan)
And you mentioned a few times relying on partners. Do you want to talk a little more about sort of the importance of partners in a lot of these surveys and methods?

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
Sure. Well, we certainly can not monitor and protect the species on our own. I mean, I think this is true for many species. But for Right Whales in particular, it’s really going to take a village to protect the species and to help the population recover. And we really need all hands on deck. The population is in pretty dire straits. So, we rely on our partners quite a bit to help us.

(John Sheehan)
Doctor Danielle Cholewiak, thanks so much.

(Dr. Danielle Cholewiak)
I really enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

(John Sheehan)
Doctor Cholewiak is a leader for the Large Whale Program in the Protected Species Branch at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and a bio acoustician. To hear more of the recordings like the one we hear in the interview, check out the NOAA Fisheries website, In our next episode in this series on the surveys at regional science centers, we’ll head south and round out the continental U.S. in the southeast region, a place of tropical waters, tropical storms, and many, many sharks. Search for us wherever you get your podcasts. I’m John Sheehan and this has been Dive In With NOAA Fisheries.

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Dive into the science collected in the northeast region and learn about the historic origins of Woods Hole, which today is an epicenter of oceanography and home to several institutions, including the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.