By Doreen Leggett
Years ago, fisheries scientist George Maynard was working with a fisherman so interested in the ocean’s temperature – and how it would affect his catch – that he created a unique method to figure it out.
“He had been using an infrared heat gun from Harbor Freight Tools to take the temperature of fish as they came up in his nets,” Maynard remembered.
Maynard, who was working at Fishermen’s Alliance at the time, said he unsuccessfully applied for a few small grants to put a temperature probe on the fisherman’s gillnet gear.
Then someone put him in touch with Jim Manning, at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, who ran what’s called the eMOLT program — Environmental Monitors on Lobster Traps and Large Trawlers. They met at the fisherman’s boat and installed a real-time temperature monitoring system.
Manning recently retired and now Maynard has taken over the program, which Manning started in the late 1990s.
“He would mail temperature loggers to lobstermen and they would mail them back with the latitude, longitude and depth,” said Maynard. “This was a passion project for him.”
Manning said the genesis of the idea was that curiosity is universal for those who work on the water. He was spending weeks on research vessels as a young scientist on the midnight shift, and could see lights of many fishing boats on Georges Bank:
“I wondered what they were doing/thinking and I’m sure they wondered what we were doing/thinking. Eventually, I started going to the docks and chatting with the captains and crew and I realized they were very interested in the wild oceanography they had been observing week after week for many years. I started handing them little probes to tie-wrap to their traps and student-built drifters to toss over the side.”
The program has grown considerably, although many of the computers are still built by Maynard and others in house. It’s also getting more recognition and support. The Fishermen’s Alliance was one of two winners of the “BlueTech and Innovation Grant program,” a program managed by the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, launched with support from the Commonwealth’s Seaport Economic Council.
The Fishermen’s Alliance received approximately $185,000 to help outfit 12 Massachusetts-based commercial fishing vessels with up to 24 smart water temperature sensors to be deployed on nets and traps, plus 16 dissolved oxygen sensors to be deployed on traps. Much of the hardware for this project was developed and built by Lowell Instruments, based in Falmouth, MA.
“Supporting innovative projects in these sustainable industries will help drive increased economic growth in our coastal communities,” said Governor Charlie Baker when the grant was announced. “Our support for these grantees will allow them to scale their projects and have a greater impact on the fishermen and farmers they support.”
“The eMOLT project collects important bottom temperature data that isn’t collected with traditional buoys and satellite data. This is important for oceanographers who study ocean temperatures and for fishermen who use the temperature readings to make decisions about where and when to set their gear. This data will be even more critical in the years to come as we try to adapt to warming waters and a changing ecosystem,” said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Maynard said there are 35 boats in “traditional” eMOLT and 65 boats in “realtime” eMOLT. Fishermen in the traditional program get information at the end of the year that details temperatures from spots they fished. Those in the newer program see it right away, every time they haul their gear.
“The program has over two decades of data in some sites,” Maynard said.
Knowing what temperatures certain species prefer, captains can fish smarter.
“The fishermen get to see the data from their sets in the wheelhouse on the screen,” Maynard said. “In addition to real time data you also get historical information.”
Tony Day, a lobsterman out of Barnstable, recently had four of the devices installed. Some of the information collected in Cape Cod Bay is used by Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and others to keep track of “the Blob,” a low-oxygen area that has appeared in successive years. The data are viewable by anyone with an internet connection here: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/tracking-dissolved-oxygen-with-the-cape-cod-bay-study-fleet-and-dmf
“It’s a good resource, especially in the bay. It’s a no-brainer,” Day said. “They can really pinpoint where there are issues.”
He is looking forward to using the information to help improve the way he does business.
“When my gear is out of the water, I will pore through all of the data. It will be a benefit for sure,” he said.
Those who fish for haddock with hook and line in the winter know that once the temperature goes above 43 degrees their season is over; dogfish show up and take all the hooks. And in recent years local waters are reaching 43 degrees much earlier.
Data from eMOLT, and other measures, is verifying warming temperatures on the ocean floor.
Maynard said the program can log 75 to 100 readings per week, depending on what boats are fishing. Offshore lobster boats are taking readings about once a week; hydraulic clammers will drop gear multiples times a day.
“We run the gamut of fisheries,” Maynard said.
The data also is used by weather forecasters.
“They can tweak their models and make them better using real data from the field,” Maynard said.
Maynard tries to spend a day or two at the dock each week to fix problems and meet with fishermen; he primarily hops from port to port on the Cape, New Bedford, and Point Judith, Rhode Island. Maynard will be organizing the data and making it more user friendly.
“Traditional oceanography conducted on big research vessels a few times per year has provided valuable shelf-wide surveys in a consistent format for several decades,” Manning said. “Fisher-collected data can now supplement these surveys. We can detect things that no other platforms can possibly manage without significant cost.”