Utilizing Gliders and Acoustics to Identify Fish Habitat Hotspots

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Conference Proceeding

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gliders, echosounders, passive acoustic monitoring, bathymetry mapping, habitat mapping, fish stock assessment, water column acoustics

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Underwater gliders have become a critical component of coastal observing systems for measuring water column properties. They efficiently sample from the surface to the seafloor or their depth limit collecting essential density variables for weeks to months at a time, providing invaluable information to validate ocean circulation models. However, they can collect much more data, and how those data sets evolve into potential uses is not always fully appreciated. Obviously, if a truck can hold more gear without significantly hurting gas mileage, why not throw more in the back end? As such, over the past decade other sensing equipment has been incorporated into glider payloads such as fluorometers, dissolved oxygen sensors, ADCPs, nutrient sensors, and more. This has allowed expanded use of the same platform without sacrificing their primary design mission of CTD profiles. These additional sensors have enabled new research in fields such as hypoxia dead zones, red tide evolution, and water column heat content. The combination of the various sensors on the same platform will continue to enhance our understanding of the connections between processes that drive our coastal oceans. An additional research area with potential use for gliders is fisheries management. Fish stock assessment depend upon data sets from fishery dependent or independent surveys that are used to set harvest limits. In the eastern Gulf of Mexico, many economically important species are benthic and generally tied to preferred habitat types. State, federal, and academic groups are coordinating efforts to generate habitat-specific population estimates, the first step of which is creating habitat maps to guide visual or trap surveys for the fish. This is typically done by initially creating detailed bathymetric maps of regions and assessing the bottom types through video and other methods to characterize the seafloor structure, habitat and the distribution of biota. However, visually mapping the entire West Florida Shelf is not feasible. Autonomous systems like gliders should be employed as a first-level reconnaissance tool to opportunistically discover reef features or fish hotspots. For the past several years, we've attempted to assess fish populations, site fidelity, migration, and other relevant characteristics by integrating passive acoustic recorders, tag telemetry receivers, and fisheries echosounders to a glider tasked with repeated transects within a test region. Our test region has been a large, well-known artificial reef, the Gulfstream Natural Gas Pipeline, a largely linear feature between Tampa Bay and Mobile Bay. Our sampling has been seasonal and focused on the eastern portion of this feature between the 30 and 50m isobaths on the West Florida Shelf (WFS) with a total of five deployments of a single glider completed. Yet, while the linear reef is a wonderful target for the glider, gliders cannot easily traverse a straight line when coastal tidal currents are involved. So, in typical meandering fashion, the glider would spend a lot of time in the region of the pipeline, but not directly over the pipe. We accepted these data as opportunistic and another form of reconnaissance that can inform the design of follow-on surveys. During our efforts, we have used glider-collected acoustic data to identify several “hotspot” locations with high fish densities for which we do not yet have habitat maps nor measures of fish abundance. We subsequently mapped one of these regions with high resolution multibeam echosounder to create detailed bathymetric imagery of the seafloor. This has resulted in discovering previously unknown regions of habitat including seafloor ridges and demersal fish excavated zones known as “grouper holes”. This technological approach, if applied in an observing system capacity of sustained and continuous operations over a region like the West Florida Shelf, will augment existing efforts to identify and describe fish habitat and help provide data sets complimentary to fish stock assessment.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Presented at the Oceans 2018 MTS/IEEE Conference on October 22-25, 2018 in Charleston, SC