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Revisiting the Scallop Survey

August 31, 2021

It’s been about 6 years since I’ve been out on the scallop survey in late spring-early summer.

Color image taken with the camera lens pointed at the neutral colored, sandy ocean bottom. At left, a light-colored translucent, many tentacled anemone, and at right, a long eel-like silvery fish with dark stripes running vertically down its side. A few shells and very small sea stars are also lying on the bottom.

It was fun to re-familiarize myself with the ship, the 146-foot R/V Hugh R. Sharp operated by the University of Delaware. It was also a chance to re-familiarize myself with the type of data collection that occurs for this survey.

In recent years, I have sailed on the bottom-trawl surveys  aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow. Those surveys use a trawl net for sampling animals. On the sea scallop survey, we use a dredge in some areas and use the HabCam in others. 

 On the deck of a research ship in good weather with a calm sea in the background, an L-shaped steel frame with scientific instruments inside.
HabCam in its frame on the deck of the R/V Hugh R. Sharp. The Instruments are inside a steel frame that helps protect them from potential damage. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

The HabCam, short for “habitat camera,” is a towed imaging and sensor system that takes thousands of pictures of the sea floor and collects other environmental data. When it’s in the water, it’s driven by a pilot and a co-pilot. The goal is to keep HabCam around 2.5 to 3 meters (roughly 8 to 10 feet) from the ocean bottom as the ship sails along a specific transect or designated sampling route.

Both the driver and co-pilot are constantly watching the depth, side scanner, and front scanner. They’re looking for drastic changes in depth or obstacles that need to be avoided, such as large boulders. The driver controls how close HabCam is to the bottom by using a small lever to either let out more, or less, of the armored fiber optic cable that’s attached to HabCam.  

The image is taken from above. The ocean bottom is dark and looks pebbly.  Three long slender, tube-shaped squid and their shadows on the ocean bottom can be clearly seen.
HabCam image of several squid using jet propulsion to maneuver through the water. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

I was a little nervous about this part because it had been so long since I drove this large apparatus, but I really enjoyed it! Once you know how to read the screens and get the feel for operating it, it’s actually fun. After some time, a driver can tire or their eyes may need a break. As a general rule, driving time is limited to1 to 2 consecutive hours, and people are constantly rotated while on duty. If you’re not driving or co-piloting, you may be annotating the captured pictures. This is when we review the pictures to measure scallops and note any fish and crabs, which are some of the other creatures we look for. 

HabCam is a great way to survey the bottom without disturbing the habitat and animals. Here are some of my best pictures from this leg.  

Nearly a dozen brightly illuminated computer screens at the pilot station. The screens sit on a workstation in a darkened laboratory aboard the ship.
Various screens used by the pilot and co-pilot to operate HabCam. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun
The image is taken from above. The ocean bottom is dark and sandy, and there is one panel from a wire lobster trap lying on it. To the left, there are light colored shells and near the center, the dark mass of squid eggs is jelly-like and almost looks like tentacles.
HabCam image of shells and a squid mop—a dark mass of squid eggs—attached to a broken lobster trap on the ocean bottom. Credit: NOAA Fisheries
On the deck of the research ship during the day in good weather with a breeze.  A woman holds a small light-colored plastic bucket with small fish inside. Behind her, a man stands next to large plastic totes, looking at the dredge catch spread on the deck, composed mostly of shells and shelled animals.
Scientist Jui-han Chang showing off some tiny longhorn sculpins she found in this messy catch. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

After HabCam-ing for a couple days in the lab, we did some dredging. I really enjoyed this change of pace because most of the work is on deck. The weather was overall fairly foggy by then, but during the day we did get sunshine. Some of the catches were full of mussels, empty shells, and rocks. It’s fairly easy to sort through samples from this type of bottom. You just need to take your time to not miss tiny scallops, fish, or crabs. 

On the deck of the research ship during the day in good weather. Six people in brightly colored, water repellant foulweather pants and life vests work around a dredge--a bag made of heavy chain that’s attached to a steel frame for towing. The dredge has been emptied onto a platform. One person stands atop the pile of samples with a rake, while others sort the catch into large baskets on the deck. Scientist Zach Fyke stands at far right in a dark t-shirt and heavy work gloves, giving a thumbs up.
Scientist Zachary Fyke in black shirt at far right giving a thumbs-up as the day watch sorts a large catch of mussels and shells. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun
Two side by side images. At night on the deck of the research ship. Left, a tangled mass of starfish with long slender arms. Right, a man in brightly colored, water repellant foul weather gear and heavy work gloves sorts through the sea star catch, which has been deposited on a raised platform.
At right: scientist Cameron Fairclough carefully sorts through a large catch of brittle stars during the night shift. At left: a close-up of the brittle stars. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

A couple of catches were mostly of brittle stars. Seeing this catch on deck may make you look twice. All the brittle star arms are slowly moving. It’s similar to how I imagine a pile of worms would move. These are a bit tricky to work through because all the starfish kind of stick together, but if you take your time you’ll get through it! Overall, it was a great survey, and I’m looking forward to going out again next year!

Christine Kircun
2021 Scallop Survey Leg 2
Aboard the R/V Hugh R. Sharp

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Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on September 20, 2021