United States Geological Survey conducts fish population study in Lake Superior

The study will be conducted by two unmanned surface vehicles known as Saildrones, which operate on wind and solar energy.
Published: Aug. 9, 2022 at 8:48 PM EDT
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ASHLAND, Wisc. (WLUC) - The United States Geological Survey is conducting a new study that could provide up-to-date information on Lake Superior’s fish populations.

Tuesday, the United States Geological Survey began a fish population study in Lake Superior. The USGS launched one watercraft from California-based company Saildrone on Monday, and another on Tuesday. Matt Womble, Saildrone’s ocean data programs director, explained what its watercraft do.

“They give you information about air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, sea surface temperature, dissolved oxygen and those sorts of variables,” Womble said. “In particular with this mission that we are partnering with USGS on, we are carrying an onboard acoustic echo sounder which is more or less like a fish finder.”

USGS Research Fisheries Biologist Peter Esselman said these Saildrones, which are operated from a remote location, will collect fish population data

“We do a lakewide survey every five years and we do smaller surveys every year,” Esselman explained. “Those data are reported to the regional fisheries management decision-making body.”

This group is known as the Council of Lake Committees, a part of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. The council consists of 21 representatives from state, tribal and provincial agencies that live in Great Lakes bordering states. Esselman noted that this council uses the USGS data to make decisions on commercial fishing.

“They use our data to support decisions about quotas for commercial cisco catch,” Esselman said. “They also use our data to make decisions about managing predators like Lake Trout.”

Esselman explained that this study is part of a four-year fish population survey in every Great Lake except for Lake Ontario. The USGS is surveying the western half of Lake Superior over the next 25 days.

Esselman said most of the groups the USGS is partnering with for this study are located on the western banks of Lake Superior. He added this is the reason for surveying its western half.

“Our vessel will gather comparative data with the Saildrones as well as vessels from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Red Cliff and Grand Portage bands of Chippewa Native Americans, the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Canadian Province of Ontario,” Esselman explained. “That particular group of agencies, vessels and science interest makes this the perfect area to do this study.”

Esselman said this study will be the second time the USGS has utilized Saildrones, the first being studies in Lakes Michigan and Huron in 2021. He added that the USGS chose Saildrones for the survey because they emit very little noise. This is because Saildrones are powered by wind and solar energy.

“We were looking for a silent platform that could also collect scientific echo sounder data to use as a comparative platform to enable us to compare our data to a noise absent source of information,” Esselman explained. “With that information, we will be able to assess the accuracy of our traditional vessel-based surveys.”

Womble said that Saildrone has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on various ocean studies since at least 2013.

“We have sailed nearly one million nautical miles with our vehicles,” Womble noted. “We have had over 15,000 days under contract particularly a lot of time with the U.S. government.”

Womble said he is excited to see the results that the study yields. Especially since this is the first time a Saildrone has been in Lake Superior.

“We are excited to bring the technology that we have pioneered, tested and built from the ocean to the Great Lakes,” Womble exclaimed.

Esselman said the Saildrones will start near the Apostle Islands off the coast of Ashland, Wisc. From there, they will travel west to Duluth, Minn. and north to Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Saildrones will then come around Isle Royale National Park to the coast of Upper Michigan near Ontonagon before returning back to Ashland.

Esselman added that this trip should last 25 days.

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