Advanced technology science mission to study Lake Superior fish launches in Ashland

Research vessel Kiyi and saildrone

August 9, 2022

Blue skies and a stiff breeze marked the launch ceremony for an advanced technology mission designed to improve the accuracy of fish population measurement in the Apostle Islands and beyond. That breeze will be important, as the wind is what will power two uncrewed sailboat-like drones as they sail predetermined patterns across Lake Superior with solar-powered hydroacoustic equipment and nearly two dozen other scientific instruments onboard.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) and and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission invited dignitaries and journalists to the launch event on the dock next to the research vessel Kiyi in Ashland on August 9th. The Bright orange saildrones as well as a long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (LRUAV) were on display for the event.

Launch event video courtesy USGS, edited by Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The USGS says the project goal is to better understand changes happening to various fish populations in Lake Superior, including the prey fish that sustain the Lake Trout population. The information collected in Lake Superior and other Great Lakes will be used by managers to sustain and support the $7 billion a year Great Lakes fishery.

Dr. Pete Ssselman –
Photo by Andrea Miehls, USGS

Dr. Pete Esselman, Advanced Technologies Lead for the USGS Great Lakes Science Center, told the crowd, “We’re very proud of the data we collect because they provide some of the longer time series of any fisheries datasets in the world… certainly on any Great Lakes of the world.

And we’re very gratified that our partners use our data very directly to support very consequential decisions about managing the fisheries resources and sustaining a robust fishing economy.”

The Great Lakes are home to 139 native fish species. Lake whitefish, walleye, yellow perch, and ciscoes are the foundation of the commercial fishery while salmon, walleye, trout, and muskellunge and many other species are part of the world-class recreational fishery. 

Culpins, gizzard shad, several species of shiners, and ciscoes sustain top predators including lake trout, walleye, large and smallmouth bass, and brook trout. Commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries support more than 75,000 jobs.

Esselman said current environmental challenges “demand that we measure the resources with greater accuracy and precision, that we expand our footprint so that we have greater spatial coverage as well as temporal coverage and resolution, and that we sample at times of the year that using conventional technologies are simply impossible.”

Two remotely-helmed Saildrone Explorers developed by Saildrone, Inc., and two long-range autonomous underwater vehicles (LRAUVs) developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute of California are part of the research, along with vessels from a number of partner agencies. They’ll use sonar technology to measure the biomass of various fish populations, and how the noise generated by boats doing the measuring may influence the results. The saildrones operate with almost no noise and will collect data around the clock. The underwater vehicles will take measurements at 60 meters as well as near the surface, where traditional surface-based vessels can’t easily detect those fish.

107-foot Research Vessel Kiyi and 23-foot Saildrone Explorer for size comparison – Photo by Andrea Miehls, USGS

As part of the research one underwater vehicle will measure DNA fragments left behind by fish populations in Lake Michigan, while an annual survey using traditional echosounders and mid-water trawl nets is being done.  The goal of that research is to measure whether this “environmental DNA” is a valid proxy for net samples.

Six different research vessels operated by the USGS, the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Grand Portage and Red Cliff Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the Province of Ontario will be used along with four autonomous vehicles during the month-long fisheries science mission.

“Saildrone uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) have already sailed 800,000 nautical miles and spent 18,000 days at sea—and counting—collecting data to serve a wide range of research objectives, from seafloor mapping and maritime security to climate science and sustainable fisheries management,” said Saildrone, Inc.’s director of ocean data programs, Matt Womble.

Saildrones hit the water in Ashland – click to view slideshow – photos courtesy Saildrone, Inc.

This is the second year of a multi-year mission across the Great Lakes. The US Coast Guard asks boaters to stay at least 500 yards (about 1/3 of a mile) away from the saildrones to avoid collisions and to protect the integrity of the data. This advanced science mission is scheduled to conclude in Ashland in September.

To see a map where the work is planned and to learn more about how the saildrones work, see our previous coverage.

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Jon Okerstrom

Jon Okerstrom is a Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore board member and digital and social media volunteer with a background in digital and television journalism, photography and graphic design.

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