NOAA tests camera systems to monitor fish catch

Software applications help automate the process of identifying fish species

By Steve Ignell

For The Cordova Times

When we think of technological innovators, most picture daring entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who make clever devices for their investors. However, in the Bering Sea and other waters off the coast of Alaska, NOAA Fisheries scientists are testing innovative technologies, tools and methods to keep U.S. fisheries strong and profitable.

Together with the fishing industry, we have made real progress advancing the use of camera systems to monitor fish catch and identify the best ways to safely release unwanted species. These systems help us count fish both in the net and when it is hauled onto the deck of a fishing vessel. Our scientists have designed software applications to automate the process of identifying fish species and measure fish length. Until recently, obtaining this critical information for fisheries stock assessments was only possible with the help of a human observer.

We’re also expanding the use of seafloor-moored sonar devices to collect information in important spawning areas for walleye pollock and other commercially important fish species. We leave these hardy devices submerged for long periods of time to autonomously record the passage of fish above them. With them, we can better time future vessel surveys to capture peak spawning to further improve our stock size estimates.

This year, we also tested the use of low-power fisheries acoustic equipment (echo sounders) onboard two solar- and wind-powered, unmanned sailing vessels, called Saildrones. The Saildrones spent the summer surveying the Bering Sea. The technology is helping us better understand the relationship between depleted fur seal populations and their commercially important prey species, pollock. We are gaining new insights that will help us refine our survey methods to further improve the quality of the data we are collecting in cost efficient ways.

Our laboratory studies and ecosystem models are paving the way towards ecosystem-based fishery management. Chemical analyses of fish tissues are telling us more about how fast fish grow, their health, their place in the marine food chain, and even if their diets are healthy. Genetic studies are providing new insights into where fish taken as bycatch in commercial fisheries come from and their habitat use to aid in resource management decisions. By looking at Pacific cod consumption rates of octopus, which are significant, scientists were able to better estimate mortality and minimum biomass of octopus in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands management area. As a result, fishery managers are able to set higher bycatch limits in the cod pot fishery while reducing chances of a fishery closure.

NOAA Fisheries’ science provides a foundation for sustainable resources, profitable fisheries, ample jobs, and a stable food supply for Alaska communities and the Nation.


Steve Ignell is the deputy director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Auke Bay Laboratories