Nichia Huxtable: These ARE the Fish You’re Looking For, May 4, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Nichia Huxtable

Aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada

April 28 – May 9, 2016

Mission: Mapping CINMS

Geographical area of cruise: Channel Islands, California

Date: May 4, 2016

Weather Data form the Bridge: 0-2ft swells, partly cloudy, slightly hazy

Science and Technology Log:

We’ve been waiting for you, rockfish. We meet again, at last. You might wonder why scientists need to know the location and population densities of rockfish in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Well, rockfish are tasty and commercially important, plus they are an important component of healthy marine ecosystems.  To estimate how many there are and where they’re at, you’ll need lots of equipment and fisheries biologist, Fabio Campanella.


Fabio Campanella and Julia Gorton getting some fresh air. Breaks are important to help them stay on target.


Monitor showing the EK60 in action. Your eyes can deceive you…watch out for the acoustic dead zone!

First, let’s start with the equipment. Shimada has an EK60, which is essentially a fish finder: the computer’s transducer sends out sonic “pings” that become a single acoustic “beam” in the water. It covers about 7° at one time, so think of it as taking a cross section of the water column. The beam bounces off any solid object in the water and returns to the transducer. The size and composition of the object it hits will affect the quality of the returning pings, which allows Fabio to discern between seafloor, small plankton, and larger fish, as well as their location in the water column. One drawback of this system is the existence of an acoustic dead zone, which is an area extending above the seafloor where fish cannot be detected (think of them as sonar blind spots).


Do. Or do not. There is no try. Fabio Campanella hard at work in Shimada‘s Acoustic Lab.


Starry rockfish (Sebastes constellatus)

It’s a trap! Nope, it’s a starry rockfish (Sebastes constellatus) found in the CINMS.

Ideally, acoustic data collection is done simultaneously with ground truthing data. Ground truthing is a way to verify what you’re seeing. If you think the EK60 is showing you a school of herring, you can run nets or trawls to verify. If it’s in an area that is untrawlable, you can use ROVs or stationary cameras to identify fish species and habitat type. Species distribution maps are also useful to have when determining possible fish species.


EK60 data shown on the bottom; ME70 data on top right; 3-D visualization of the school on the top left.

EK60 data shown on the bottom; ME70 data on top right; 3-D visualization of the school on the top left. Witness the power of this fully operational Echoview software.

If Fabio finds something especially interesting on the EK60, such as a large school of fish, he can refer to the data simultaneously collected by the ME70 multibeam sonar to get a more detailed 3-D image. Since the ME70 uses multiple beams and collects 60 degrees of data, he can use it to (usually) get a clear picture of the size and shape of the school, helping him identify fish species and density. So why does he use the EK60 first if there is so much more data provided by the multibeam? Well, the amount of data provided by the ME70 is incredibly overwhelming; it would take weeks of data analysis to cover just a tiny section of the marine sanctuary. By using the EK60 to cover large areas and the ME70 to review small areas of specific interest, he is able to create fish distribution and density maps for the largest areas possible.

After collecting data from the two sonars, it needs to be processed. The method you use to process the data depends on your goal: biomass, population densities, and fish locations are all processed differently. Since rockfish are found close to hard, rocky seafloor, data analysis becomes quite complicated, as it becomes difficult to discriminate the fish from the seafloor. Hard bottoms also introduce a lot of bias to the data; for these, and other, reasons there are very few hard bottom studies for Fabio to refer to.


Cleaned data. I’ve got a good feeling about this.

But back to the data analysis. Once data is collected, it is loaded into Echoview software. Fabio then removes the background noise coming from other equipment, averages the data to reduce variability, and manually modifies the seafloor line (rocky bottoms with lots of pinnacles give incorrect bottom data). This last step is crucial in this mission because the focus is on rockfish who live close to the bottom.




School of fish shown on the right of the screen and the frequency response shown on the left. Fish are not lost today. They are found.

The clean echogram is then filtered for frequencies falling in the suitable range for fish with swimbladders (a gas-filled organ used to control their buoyancy). Object with a flat response at all frequencies (or slightly higher at low frequencies) will most likely be fish with swimbladders, whereas a high response to high frequencies will most likely not be fish (but it could be krill, for example). Once Fabio has made the final fish-only echogram, he exports the backscatter and uses it to create biomass or density estimates. All of these steps are necessary to complete the final product: a map showing where rockfish fish are in relation to the habitat.


Krill shown on the right and frequency response shown on the left. Judge them by their size, we do.









The final product. When making accurate maps of rockfish, there is no such thing as luck.

Personal Log:

It seems I overpacked sunscreen…12 hours of my day are spent in the acoustics lab staring at monitors, with brief breaks every so often to look for whales and other wildlife. This mission is so technical. I am grateful for the hours spent asking the scientists questions and having them explain the details of their work. Lately, the big screen TV in the lab has been turned on with some great movies playing. So far we’ve watched, Zootopia, Deadpool, LoTR, and, of course, The Force Awakens. May the 4th be with you…always.

Word of the Day: Holiday.

A holiday is an area in your bathymetry map that does not include any data (think of it as “holes in your data”). It’s like you’ve painted a picture, but left a blank splotch on your canvas.


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