Longline Survey goes to Plan B, then Plan CRecovering a GoPro video camera system during a previous longline survey. Image: NOAA Fisheries

Scientists will install and test a new data collection system on two Massachusetts fishing vessels for the twice-yearly Gulf of Maine Bottom Longline survey. It’s a story of perseverance and flexibility in the face of difficult challenges.

For the past six years, the 50-foot Mary Elizabeth from Scituate, Massachusetts and the 40-foot Tenacious II from  East Dennis have set out on a three-week, 45-station longline research survey. They will target areas in the Gulf of Maine where the fish like to hide and the seabed is rougher, making it hard to sample with trawl gear. Scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center are on board to work up the catch to scientific specifications.

Things have been going well. Every year, the methods and technology have improved. This year a new generation of technology was ready to go—then came COVID-19. What’s a researcher to do when field sampling grinds to a halt? Go to Plan B.

“When it was clear we’d not be able to do our usual spring survey, we looked for ways to make the best of it,” said Anna Mercer, chief of the Center’s Cooperative Research Branch.

She and her colleagues looked to a new window of opportunity – late August. What was doable? What was most valuable? Could it be done safely?

They could address an important research question: what happens around the longlines while they are soaking? How good is the gear at catching the fish around it? How different are catches with fewer hooks or shorter soak times? How much of the bait is picked off by species the survey is not targeting?

Things were looking positive at first. However, travel restrictions, supply chain back-ups, time needed for sheltering in place ahead of the trips, and variability in local COVID positivity rates defeated this plan.

“Fortunately, there is a Plan C,” Anna Mercer said.

“Wherever there are instruments collecting data, there must be software, right? Yes. And there’s a new generation of software and hardware ready to go that will further automate data collection and processing during the survey. Plan C is to get it installed and tested.”

Installation can be safely done at the quay with a small number of people and limited physical contact. On a few day trips, researchers and crew can test the new set-up on each vessel, identify and address bugs, and document new protocols.

“It’s not how any of us thought this summer would go, but I am pleased we have some time to get this next generation of technology onto the boats and ready to use,” Anna Mercer said.

“With this testing done, we will be more ready than ever when we get back to sea.”

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