National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2020

Long-term measurements of fish backscatter from Saildrone unmanned sailing vehicles and comparison with observations from a noise-reduced research vessel

De Robertis, A., N. Lawrence-Slavas, R. Jenkins, I. Wangen, C.W. Mordy, C. Meinig, M. Levine, D. Peacock, and H. Tabisola

ICES J. Mar. Sci., 76(7), 2459–2470, doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsz124, View online (2019)

Two Saildrone unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) were instrumented with echosounders and deployed in the Bering Sea to make acoustic observations of walleye pollock for 103 days. The Saildrones proved to be a suitable platform for measurement of fish backscatter: they produced high-quality measurements at wind speeds of <10 m s−1. Pollock backscatter measured from the Saildrones was compared to backscatter measured by a noise-reduced research vessel during two “follow-the-leader” comparisons. In a location where pollock were shallowly distributed (30–100 m), there was evidence of depth-dependent avoidance reactions to the ship. This behaviour was not evident in a second comparison, where the fish were primarily deeper than 90 m. Opportunistic comparisons indicate that backscatter where the ship and USVs crossed paths was similar. However, the Saildrones observed higher densities of shallow fish, which is consistent with the diving response inferred in the first follow-the-leader comparison. USVs equipped with echosounders, like all platforms, have inherent strengths (endurance) and limitations (species identification) that should be carefully considered for a given application. USVs can complement traditional ship-based surveys by increasing the spatial and temporal extent of acoustic observations, and their use is likely to become more widespread.

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