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Saildrones set sail on Lake Superior to assist USGS with fishery population study

Jenn Virskus

Right now, there are two large, unmanned boats sailing around the western shores of Lake Superior.

Called saildrones after the company that makes them, the boats are one long single hull with a single hard sail jutting up from its center.

They’re powered by the wind and the sun.

What makes it most useful to researchers on the great lakes is how silent it is compared to the 107-foot manned research vessels they use right now.

The USGS Research Vessel Kiyi used on Lake Superior.
The USGS Research Vessel Kiyi used on Lake Superior.

The USGS and other partners study the great lakes fisheries using echo sounders technology to determine the abundance of fish.

But it’s unclear how accurate that count is says Dr. Peter Esselman, the USGS science lead for latest research project.

“Those vessels produce noise that can scare fish away from the very same waters were trying to count them. We also deploy those echo sounders about 12-15 feet below the water surface which means we can’t count the fish above that water depth,” said Esselman as he explained some of the known biases of their current study method.

The saildrones will sail in same general area as the standard research vessels using the same echo sounder technology.

There’s also an underwater drone supplied by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute that has echo sounders pointed up and down.

The sets of data will then be compared to what the research vessel collects.

“When we put all the data together we should be able to both understand how accurate are numbers are but more to the point to actually correct our numbers and back cast our historic data and do a better job moving forward so we can do the best job supporting decisions are managed,” said Esselman.

It’s important to get the fishery data as accurate as possible.

The Great Lakes fishery is a $7 billion dollar a year industry that provides tens of thousands of jobs.

The data the USGS collects is provided to a council of State, Canadian, and Tribal representatives determine quotas and bag limits each season.

“A lot of people do depend on the fishery either for their livelihood or for recreation and enjoyment. The fishery is also part larger ecosystem. Having healthy fisheries and a robust ecosystem leads to numerous benefits that are hard to put a value on,” said Essleman.

The saildrones will be deployed for 25 days.

The drone technology will be deployed on Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Ontario next summer.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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