Lenfest Ocean Program

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NASA Funds Research Begun with Lenfest Support

  • March 27, 2017

In December 2016, NASA awarded a $419,500 grant to oceanographer Matthew Oliver at the University of Delaware to create an online map to help fishermen and industry avoid harming vulnerable ocean species. The grant is based on earlier research, supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program, to help fishermen avoid impacting endangered Atlantic sturgeon. The researchers did so by combining satellite measurements of ocean conditions with underwater fish detections to understand the habitat preferences of Atlantic sturgeon, and thereby predict where they are most likely to occur in the future.

Oliver, along with postdoctoral researcher Matthew Breece, answered questions about the NASA project in a recent interview, edited here for length and clarity.

How does your mapping technology work?

Matthew Oliver: It takes satellite observations of the ocean in real time and converts them into a risk of encountering an Atlantic sturgeon. We stuck together thousands and thousands of observations of sturgeon with the satellite images, and this actually links those two data sources together. The satellites measure things like temperature and wavelengths of light that tell you how turbid or what color the water is, and the sturgeon are correlated to that.

Matthew Breece: We know this is potentially applicable to the sink gillnet fishery, which primarily catches monkfish and winter skate. We don’t have a lot of data from Delaware Bay, but it could be relevant there in the striped bass fishery, the black drum fishery, and probably some other small gillnet species like spot, menhaden, and croaker.

How do you see this actually reaching fishermen and people in other industries?

MO: This is a real-time bycatch reduction tool that can be distributed to fishermen’s cell phones. It helps them target the species that they need without getting the species they don't want. 

And it goes beyond fishing. Atlantic sturgeon also interact with shipping, dredging, and with wind power development in the Mid-Atlantic. The model that's going to come out is around fishing for sure, but it's actually going to make its way into multiple, very big dollar industries because Atlantic sturgeon use both the marine and the freshwater environment.

This can easily be applied to other species as well. Having data with space and time resolved is going to be a game changer in the conversation between stakeholders and regulators.

Why is NASA interested?

What they're looking for are ways to take NASA products and roll them out in a very applied way to an end-user group. For our grant application we had to find a partner who is going use this and then eventually take over our product long term. So we started working with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), which has an interest in reducing impacts on endangered species. And that’s great for us because we can link to the DNREC Alert system, which is a text based system that people sign up for. That way, when our models think that there's a much higher risk of Atlantic sturgeon in a particular area, it can send texts out to those fishermen that are using that space to let them know that they have a danger of encountering one.  

NASA evidently thought that we had a pretty compelling case given the development that we had done with Lenfest, and also the willingness of our partners to engage.

MB: I think the end product is going to be directly applicable to a very specific environmental concern. It's not something that's abstract: we can use it to reduce sturgeon catches and that's very tangible.

What is your next step to get the product ready?

MO: We need to adjust our computer model in the beginning of the year, then in autumn we're going to automate it, linking it to the DNREC Alert system so that it can send text alerts all on its own. 

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