Merging Science and Technology at Sea

Science and technology come together to execute the Spring Bottom Trawl Survey onboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow.  Gone are the days of pencil, paper, and tally marks to record data collected at sea.  Various methods are employed to ensure efficient, accurate and rapid recording of not only biological data but also ship sensors, position, and performance of protocols.

Where the ship, nets, and other data devices are located and collecting information in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean both spatially and vertically in the water column are recorded (see images below).  This provides the NOAA Corps Officers, the Chief Scientist, and Watch Chiefs with data graphically displayed via many different screens.

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Pictured top left:  sonar track of the Bigelow over bottom topography; right: spatial location of the vessel and one of the stations; bottom left: vertical sensors on the trawl net, with the orange line showing the net being recovered aboard ship.  Photo credit:  NOAA Fisheries/Heidi Marotta


While working up the specimens collected in the net, technology provides the solution with barcoding.  Species are sorted into barcoded baskets, buckets and pails and recorded into the database via the FSCS2 (Fisheries Scientific Computing System 2.0) software by the Watch Chief.  Accurate weights are calculated and stored automatically.  As samples move down conveyor belts to the scientific crew for workup, they are pulled off the belt and scanned with waterproof barcode scanners.  The software then displays the species for confirmation and sampling begins.  As physical samples are prepared (freezing partial or whole specimens, or removing otoliths used for aging fish), a barcode printer at each sampling location instantaneously prints a waterproof label for the bag or envelope.  These samples are placed into a big walk-in freezer or into bins on the wall of the wet lab.

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Barcodes rule!  Top left:  The container barcode is assigned to a specific species and scanned into the FSCS2 program to open up that species sampling protocol. Top right: barcoded labels are printed for and attached to all samples that are collected at sea. Note the specific details on the label.  Bottom: Bins holding otolith samples. Other samples that may be barcoded are stomach contents, reproductive samples, and whole fish and invertebrates sent back for identification, research,  or training purposes. Each envelope has a barcode label noting the common name and the scientific name for the species, along with a lot of other information. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Heidi Marotta


Electronic, motion compensated scales weigh in containers, individual fish and electronic measuring boards record weight and lengths respectively, at the touch of a button or a touch of a magnet sending the data to the server.  These data are audited real time (using known algorithms for species length/weight calculations, for example), ensuring immediate at sea correction so that when the survey is complete the data is readily available soon after.

The wet lab where the biological data are collected is a harsh environment with flushing water constantly running, scientific crew dressed in foul weather gear and big blue rubber gloves, in addition to large amounts of wet, slimy, fish. Touch screens are the main interface to the science crew to record observed characteristics of specimens such as sex, maturity, and stomach contents.  All of the technology in this area is rugged, waterproof, reliable and interacts with the software and database to quickly and accurately save the data.

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Top : screen shot of a FSCS2 protocol screen.  Bottom Right: a fish on the measuring board, with measuring magnet visible at far right.  Bottom left:  scale screen showing specimen weight. Data from the electronic scale and the measuring board (right) are all recorded into the database. (Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Heidi Marotta


At the end of the two and a half month survey the final physical specimens are offloaded to be brought back to the NEFSC’
s Woods Hole Laboratory for land-based processing.  The database with the sensor data and biological data is exported onto a thumbdrive to be loaded onto the servers back at the lab for scientific analysis.  The barcodes allow for individual specimen identification in the database when scanned by other land-based software applications.  Where the specimen was collected, the temperature of the sea water, and all of the individual measurements are available for scientific use.

When asking the crew out of this final leg of the spring survey if they could imaging collecting data any other way than with sophisticated computer technology, they all answered with a resounding “No way!” (at least not the volume, speed, or accuracy).  Granted the majority of this crew grew up on video games, personal computers and cell phones, so they fully trust in all things computer and technology related to make life easier and information more accurate.  As a computer scientist responsible for providing these solutions, I couldn’t agree more!

Heidi Marotta
IT Specialist, NEFSC
Acting Data and Development Branch Chief
Aboard the FSV Henry B. Bigelow
Spring 2019 Bottom Trawl Survey Leg 4