Using Autonomous Vehicles for Ecosystem Assessments

Authors: Heidi Van Buskirk

Date: 5/24/19

Scientists from NOAA and the Monterey Bay Research Institute (MBARI) are teaming up on June 3-4, 2019 to conduct a complex mission which will integrate acoustic measurements and autonomous sample collection for analysis of environmental DNA (eDNA).  Through these efforts NOAA scientists hope to develop faster and cheaper ecosystem assessment methods, ensure sustainable fisheries and broaden our understanding of life in the oceans.

The joint operations will bring together two research vessels and a symphony of autonomous instruments and vehicles.  The NOAA ship Reuben Laskerwill conduct trawling and acoustic surveys as a part of the Pelagic Juvenile Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment Survey.  As adults, Rockfish settle on the sea-floor making it difficult to measure their populations using traditional trawling surveys without destroying critical habitats.  However, as juveniles they feed on zooplankton in the pelagic zone, giving scientists the opportunity to survey them in the water column. MBARI’s RV Western Flyer will collect water samples as a part of the Controlled, Agile, and Novel Observing Network (CANON) with additional support from the Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON).

The research vessels will be accompanied by two long range autonomous underwater vehicles, equipped with a 3rd Generation Environmental Sample Processor.  These “eAUVs” will collect and preserve samples for analysis of eDNA in order to describe the biodiversity of the system, including a variety of microbes, phytoplankton, and fish.  One goal of the mission is to integrate the ability for eDNA to describe biodiversity and the ability of acoustics to estimate animal biomass. To this end, a Saildrone and MBARI Waveglider carrying acoustic technology will join the eAUVs.  The information collected from NOAA and MBARIs research ships will be used to ground-truth the accuracy of the information obtained from the eAUVs.

This work is being supported by NOAA’s ‘Omics Program led by AOML’s Kelly Goodwin, who is exploring the use of eDNA analysis through autonomous vehicles as a more comprehensive way of assessing the ecosystem and fisheries status.  “We have the ability to use these advances in biological technology to get a holistic, richer picture of the status of the ecosystem and all the species that make up the food web.” Says Goodwin.  Samples of eDNA from fish and marine mammals can be obtained from sloughed skin, mucus, or excrement found in the water column.  This eDNA offers a new way of assessing marine life populations which is non-invasive to the target species and preserves the surrounding habitat because there is no need for biopsies or trawling to collect samples.

By integrating eDNA with autonomous vehicles, NOAA could increase the spatial and temporal reach of sampling compared to traditional methods.  Crewed research vessels cannot cover many areas of the ocean and costs prohibit covering the entirety of an area, and this method risks missing important changes in species distribution and abundance.  By improving autonomous sampling technologies, observing efforts can be streamlined, allowing researchers to collect and analyze data remotely, ultimately cutting down on time, effort, and cost.