Scientists Integrate Data in Three Dimensions Across Coastal Seascapes to Study Climate Effects on Young Fish

Image of the ocean floor shows a lobster escaping a towed camera sled in the South Seacape. Its burrow can be seen at left and below the animal. The camera sled helps to categorize the benthic habitat type being sampled by a two-meter (7-foot) beam trawl and corroborate the presence of animals collected, as well as missed, by the trawl.

From the surface, the two areas of ocean off the coasts of northern New Jersey and Long Island, New York, look the same. But to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists, the four-square-mile patches could not be more different as they view real-time underwater images and environmental data to try to figure out what lives there and how climate change is affecting marine life, especially very young fish.

"These areas are much more dynamic than terrestrial landscapes and not what we are used to thinking about the ocean," said John Manderson, a fishery biologist with NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) at the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sandy Hook, N.J. "People look at the ocean floor as the habitat, but don't think about the connection with the water column above it and how ocean fronts, like atmospheric weather, move through to create a constantly changing environment that affects fish and other marine life. It is a seascape, a moving 3-D environment."

Manderson and colleagues in the NEFSC's Behavioral Ecology Branch recently completed their first two-week cruise to the study area for the 2008 Ecology of Coastal Ocean Seascapes (ECOS) project. Additional two-week cruises were conducted in July and September.

The goal of ECOS is to view the two seascapes in an integrated way using real-time data, focusing on the distribution and condition of early life stages of fishes, and to develop models to aid fisheries research and management. For example, the models could ultimately be used to support fisheries managers to make informed decisions regarding the importance of habitat type for managed fish species, and to help answer questions about the effects of climate change on the success of fish stocks.

One ECOS study site is south of the Hudson-Raritan River estuary and plume, the other about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north and east off Long Island. The scientists aboard NEFSC's 50-foot research vessel Nauvoo for the first cruise were surprised by what they saw, especially the differences in bottom life in study areas just a few miles apart with similar bottom structure.

"Based on side-scan sonar data and other information, we selected two study areas that had similar sandy bottoms because we were towing a video camera close to the sea floor," Manderson said. "You would think they would look similar on video because they were not far apart, but what we found was more temperate marine life species like fluke, anchovies and sea robins off New Jersey, and scallops, squid egg mops and winter flounder more typical of New England off Long Island. The differences in the two seascapes were striking."

Technology has been a huge help to the ECOS project. The Nauvoo is equipped with side-scan sonar, fisheries hydroacoustics, a Wi-Fi link to shore that receives real-time satellite and high-frequency radar imagery of data collected by a regional ocean observing system, GPS, an underwater video camera, and environmental sensors that measure water temperature, salinity and other conditions.

Each day during the two-week cruises, the team of six scientists and ship's crew headed out from the Atlantic Highlands Marina to the study sites, approximately 5 to 10 miles offshore. Working in depths up to 60 meters (about 100 feet), they used the various real-time data they received from above and below the surface to develop a track line or sampling route of the ocean floor within their study areas. They towed a small video camera sled, stopped at stations along the track to sample from the surface to the sea floor with a CTD (conductivity, temperature, density) recorder, and collected other environmental data. A beam trawl was used to collect specimens and to ground-truth the video imagery. Tissue and diet samples were collected from the animals and brought back to the laboratory.

"Right now we are characterizing the living marine resources and their habitats. We're mainly interested in how the early life histories of fish affect the survival and productivity of the commercially and recreationally important species of our region," Manderson said. "We hope to expand the studies to examine habitat effects on growth and mortality and the reproduction of adults. We will also be developing integrated laboratory and field experiments, allowing us to model distribution of species, recruitment of year classes, and other useful information." Manderson noted the ECOS project, funded by NOAA, is a step forward in coastal fisheries research because it is looking at fish habitats holistically and dynamically in areas close to shore that have not been well studied.

"We're using a variety of real and near real-time data that integrate information and present a three-dimensional view of the environment," he said. "We're able to move with a moving ocean, sampling with advanced technology and seeing it as it happens so we can adjust our sampling strategies as necessary. It is exciting to think of the possibilities."

The ECOS team had another surprise during their first cruise, but not a scientific one. As they returned home from a day's work on June 9, they spotted what appeared to be ducks bobbing on the surface just ahead of them near the entrance to the Atlantic Highlands Marina. It wasn't ducks, but three teenagers whose small rowboat had swamped. Two were clinging to the overturned boat; the third had drifted away but was nearby.

Officer-in-Charge Amanda Goeller and Mate Peter Plantamura maneuvered the Nauvoo into position for a rescue, lowering the swim ladder so the two males on the overturned boat could swim to the vessel. Once safely on board, the crew pulled up the ladder and moved into position to recover the third person nearby, then recovered the 12-foot aluminum boat by hoisting it onto the deck with the vessel's A-frame and winches.

The three young men, apparently fishing, were unhurt and thankful for the help from the Nauvoo. Once into port, the trio left with their boat, and promised to wear life jackets next time.

Those who operate NOAA research vessels, including the Nauvoo, are commissioned officers of NOAA Corps, one of the nation's seven uniformed services.

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