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New fishery targets scientific data

New England fishermen accustomed to hauling in cod and flounder may soon find themselves with a new, valuable -- if nonedible -- catch: scientific data.

Both fishermen and researchers rely on oceanographic and meteorological reporting to perform their jobs, and both agree that the Northeast waters suffer from a dearth of data needed for such forecasting. So, in a project funded by the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, several fishermen are now having their boats outfitted with instruments to gather information and transmit it back to shore in real time.

The project, called FleetLink, is a collaborative effort involving researchers from MIT Sea Grant, New Hampshire Sea Grant, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Clearwater Instrumentation, Inc. of Watertown, MA.

"There is a need for much better information on weather, sea state, oceanographic conditions, commercial harvest data and fishing conditions in the coastal waters of the United States," said Ann Bucklin, director of New Hampshire Sea Grant and the principal investigator for the project.

Fishermen, resource managers and regulators, and the oceanographic research community all rely on such information, which is currently collected during oceanographic research efforts, National Marine Fisheries Service assessment surveys, operational Navy activities and National Weather Service coverage. However, these kinds of activities cannot provide synoptic coverage of large regions and rarely use near-real-time telemetry, Ms. Bucklin said.

Conversely, the widespread tem-poral/spatial distribution of commercial fishing vessels makes them ideal platforms from which to gather basic information for coastal monitoring, modeling and prediction. And compared with other coastal ocean observing systems, fishing vessels have the advantage of mobility, flexibility and concentration in regions of highest human usage, where weather data are most needed, she noted.

Until now, with limited cooperation between the fishing community, government agencies and the ocean research community, fishing vessels have been little used in gathering data. This project aims to change that, said Cliff Goudey, director of MIT Sea Grant's Center for Fisheries Engineering Research, which has led the hardware integration and software development for the project.

"It's really a win-win situation," Mr. Goudey said. "The National Weather Service and other forecasters need better data, and fishermen need better weather forecasting." The challenge, he said, was figuring out how to turn fishing boats into reliable scientific reporting platforms.

A key component was designing a system that would operate independently of fishermen, allowing them to concentrate on their fishing. "You're not going to turn a fishing boat into a fully functional weather station, but there are things that can be measured with sensors. By putting a suite of highly accurate sensors on a boat and transmitting that information back to shore, they can be working as fully functional observatories without the fishermen even having to get involved," Mr. Goudey said.

These meteorological sensors are of the same type that would be found on a weather buoy. They measure sea-surface temperature, wind direction and speed, temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.

One unique sensor is attached to fishing gear and moves up and down with the nets, recording temperature vs. depth, much like the sensors that a research vessel would use when trying to get deep water temperatures. When the gear and sensor return to the surface, the data are immediately transferred by a radio link to the onboard FleetLink hardware for processing and transmittal to shore.

Though the system is still under development, the researchers have outfitted three vessels so far, including Craig Pendelton's boat, the Susan and Caitlin out of Portland, ME. While at sea, the vessel continuously collects meteorological data, which is relayed hourly via satellite to Comsat, a global satellite communication system. Comsat, in turn, sends the information via e-mail to Bob Groman, an information systems specialist at the US GLOBEC [Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics] Georges Bank Program at WHOI. Mr. Groman can then send weather information to the National Weather Service.

FleetLink also allows captains to record their catch data by species and pounds. For now, this data is turned into a Hail Report that Mr. Groman forwards to the Portland Fish Exchange, where Mr. Pendleton's dragger normally sells his fish. "Such detailed Hail Reports really help the exchange and the boat owner get top dollar for their fish," Mr. Goudey said. "Ultimately, all of us involved in the project hope that the real-time catch data available through FleetLink will also allow better, more responsive fisheries management."

Also included in the project is the F/V Glenna and Jacob of Fairhaven, MA. Owner Bob Kohl trawls for groundfish and broadens FleetLink's coverage along with Cameron McClellan's F/V Adventurer, operated out of Portland.

For the fishermen, who are keen on getting better forecasting, the opportunity to outfit their boats with better instrumentation and communication tools also positions them to get involved with further fisheries research. The project has also demonstrated other ways that improved communication can help fishermen. For instance, with FleetLink, in addition to a fisherman being able to report catches to shore, a vessel's broker can keep the boat up to date on fish price fluctuations. In this way, a boat can avoid targeting a species for which the demand has suddenly dropped.

Both Mr. Goudey and Ms. Bucklin are optimistic that FleetLink will result in a better, largely automatic and near-real-time method of reporting offshore weather, climate, ocean and fisheries data for use by many communities. In doing so, it should also bring together oceanographers, private entrepreneurs, fishermen and federal agency representatives in a new spirit of cooperation.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 14, 2001.

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