Saildrones set out to monitor fish stock along West Coast

The project will gather data on fish populations managed jointly between Canada and the U.S. to see if the robot vessels, or Saildrones, can measure underwater conditions more efficiently than their large research ships.

Autonomous sailing vessels to make 100-day journey from B.C. to California

Two autonomous Saildrones launched from Neah Bay, Wash., on Tuesday to make a 100-day journey monitoring fish stocks along the West Coast. (John Gussman)

Two little orange robot ships sailed out on the tide from Neah Bay, Wash., on Tuesday on a mission to monitor fish stocks along the West Coast.

The project will gather data on fish populations managed jointly between Canada and the U.S. to see if the robot vessels, called Saildrones, can potentially replace larger, manned research ships.

"This is the quintessential figuring out how many fish there are in the sea, so we can set fishing levels that are sustainable in the long term," said Michael Millstein, public affairs for the U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The "autonomous sailing vessels" built by Saildrone, an Alameda, Calif., company, will journey from the northern end of Vancouver Island all the way south to California, Millstein told Gregor  Craigie, host of CBC's On The Island.

For 100 days, the wind- and solar-powered crafts will monitor conditions like air and water temperature, salinity, and carbon dioxide concentration and beam data back to researchers.

"They can stay out on their own for up to a year… They're constantly sending information ... the scientists can look at to see if they need to adjust anything," Millstein said.

On this mission, they'll collect data on the abundance of pacific hake, a species whose harvesting quota is managed jointly by the U.S. and Canada with a set percentage going to fishermen on both sides of the border.

"All that data will be integrated into trying to better understand what affects the distribution of the fish," said Stephane Gauthier, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Information collected over the summer will be used to create a clearer picture of the coastal ecosystem. Gauthier predicts the data will influence fishing guidelines and limits for the commercial fishing industry in the future.

The Saildrones, which measure about seven metres long, allow researchers to explore areas that are hard to access or are difficult to monitor for long periods of time, according to Gauthier.

"We can send multiple ones at a time and they can survey large areas over long periods of time, which is not always possible from our research vessel — we can't be everywhere all the time," he said.

"We see this as a unique opportunity to fill in some of the spatial and temporal gaps that we have in our survey."

The ships are being sent around the globe to monitor weather systems and environmental health of ecosystems in remote parts of the ocean, like the Arctic and the tropical Pacific.

"We're hoping that this is a stepping stone to go in the direction in the future where maybe we can have more of these in the water and get a better, more complete, picture of fish stock distribution, and better understand how they interact with the environment."

To hear the full interview with Michael Millstein, listen to media below:

The project will gather data on fish populations managed jointly between Canada and the US to see if the robot vessels, or Saildrones, can measure underwater conditions more efficiently than their large research ships. 7:36

With files from On The Island

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