These sailing drones can teach us about life in the Bering Sea

Orange drones were launched in Dutch Harbor last summer to measure sea ice retreat. Now Saildrones are back in the Bering Sea with a new mission and new features.

Download Audio

Saildrones Inc. CEO Richard Jenkins turns in Unalaska. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB - Unlaska)
Saildrones Inc. CEO Richard Jenkins turns in Unalaska. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB – Unlaska)

One of them is to record North Pacific right whale calls to help track its migratory patterns. There are only 30 North Pacific right whales in U.S. waters. The other new feature will help determine how many fur seals and pollock live in parts of the Bering Sea.

The pollock fishery in the Bering Sea is the largest in the U.S.

Douglas DeMaster is a science director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Alaska Fisheries division.

“Is it going to be a winner or a loser over the next decade in terms of the effects of warming, ocean acidification and loss of sea ice?” DeMaster asked.

DeMaster said scientists are concerned about the fur seals, which feed on pollock, and the diminishing stocks of pollock.

“It’s something the fishery needs to plan for and adapt to. And the only way to do that is with good information,” DeMaster said.

In addition to testing the temperature, oxygen and salinity of the water, the Saildrone will also be using echo sounder technology. DeMaster called it “a sophisticated fish finder.”

“It’s basically a ping, a sound impulse that’s sent through the water column and it’s reflected off of fish,” he said.

NOAA has used echo sounder technology on research vessels before but never on the Saildrone. Scientists will be able to sit from the comfort of their office or even in a coffee shop, as some of the data is collected in real time. In September, they’ll pluck the Saildrones out of the water when the season changes. They run off battery and solar power. It’ll take six months to a year before scientists can draw solid conclusions from the data.

Christopher Sabine, the director of NOAA’s pacific marine environmental lab, said pollock stocks have dropped before. The temperature of the Bering Sea warmed up in the early 2000s.

“Then it got cold again and the fish stocks came back,” Sabine said. “We’re now swinging back into a warm period again and we’re looking at potentially three years for this to manifest itself in the fisheries side of things.”

Since the Saildrone were launched two weeks, some startling information has already come back. Sabine said temps in the lower Bering Sea are about five degrees warmer than normal.

Previous articleCruise ship Infinity heads for repairs after crashing into Ketchikan dock
Next articleBody of missing Army National Guard soldier found