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August 14, 2018

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 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Citizen Science

Fishing Fleet Collection of Climate Data: Scientists and Fishermen Partner to Understand our Changing Ocean

Glen Gawarkiewicz
Senior Scientist, Physical Oceanography Department

The waters off of southern New England teem with marine life and have supported an active commercial fishery for centuries. But in recent years, fishermen have noticed changes, including warmer waters and sightings of different species than usual. Since fish and other marine organisms tend to be temperature-sensitive, there is an ongoing concern about the stability of traditional fisheries. Fishermen sought answers to the causes of the shifts they were observing. Scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have been measuring temperature and salinity across the continental shelf from Maine to New Jersey. Recently they discovered that large warm core rings, or eddies, occasionally spin off from the Gulf Stream and meander north and westerly across the continental shelf bringing intrusions of uncharacteristically warm water that disrupt typical temperature and salinity patterns. They wanted to dig deeper, but ship-based oceanographic sampling is expensive and fewer research expeditions are being funded by the government. So with support from some private foundations including the Vetlesen Foundation, WHOI scientist Glen Gawarkiewicz teamed up with Rhode Island’s Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation to create the Shelf Research Fleet. This group of fishing captains and crew members were trained to take measurements of water conditions while at sea. WHOI is providing the sampling equipment, which is designed to achieve a high degree of accuracy. The data is immediately available to the fishermen on an iPad and after closer analysis is posted on a publically available website. Fishermen can make direct links between water conditions and the species they are encountering, and oceanographers obtain critical data about the changing ocean environment at a fraction of the cost of normal operations. This collaboration allows scientists to benefit from decades of experience by fishermen in these historically prolific fishing grounds, while the fishermen benefit from a deeper understanding of the ecosystem upon which they rely for their livelihoods.

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