OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Crabbers collaborate with OSU researchers to monitor ocean temperature, hypoxia

06/10/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In a unique, symbiotic relationship, Oregon crabbers are working with Oregon State University researchers funded by Oregon Sea Grant to use their crab pots as underwater monitoring stations where data collectors attached to the pots gather vital oceanographic information.

This information might help crabbers more effectively locate their catch while helping scientists provide answers to challenging research questions, such as why and when hypoxia zones form in coastal waters.

Historically, some fishers say they have been wary of researchers for fear that the data gathered would be used to close fisheries or restrict catches and seasons. Likewise, some scientists have been skeptical of the quality of data collected using research technologies in the hands of fishers.

But this project, and other shared research efforts at OSU, demonstrates that fisher-researcher collaboration can work very well, collecting robust data, reducing research costs and helping better understand Oregon’s most valuable fishery: Dungeness crab.

“It’s taken some time to develop trust on both sides, but we’ve figured out that engaging the fishermen actually improves the data,” said Michael Harte, a professor in the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Marine Resource Management Program. “This is fantastic for us. It would cost many thousands of dollars to deploy a single scientific buoy, but by working with the crab fishermen, we can deploy fixed buoys for about $100 each (the cost of the device).”

Because crab pots are positioned using GPS and distributed throughout much of Oregon’s coastal ocean, data can be gathered from a much broader geographical range than using high tech ocean observing methods, such as buoys, towed platforms, or autonomous underwater gliders, which are expensive to purchase and operate.

The temperature data collectors attached to the crab pots are each about the size of a quarter and record temperature data every 10 minutes during the nine-month crabbing season. The information is then scanned and uploaded to computers for analysis and evaluation by project participants.

The OSU researchers, led by oceanographer Kipp Shearman, are working with 10 Oregon crabbers, attaching sensors to about 60 crab pots deployed between Port Orford in the south to Astoria in the north. Most commercial crabbers use between 300 and 800 pots, so the OSU scientists are able to select the locations where they want their sensors deployed.

“One real benefit is that by using the crab pots, we’re increasing both the temporal and spatial resolution of the data,” said Jeremy Childress, an OSU graduate student in Marine Resource Management who is working with Shearman and Harte. “We’re also utilizing the local knowledge of fishers to help direct our research, which is very helpful.”

Al Pazar, a crab fisherman who lives in Florence and fishes out of Newport, said helping OSU researchers collect data is his way of giving back to an industry that’s provided him with a solid livelihood for many years.

“Fishing’s been very good to me, and I’m happy to give something back,” Pazar said. “I love working with OSU, and Sea Grant in particular has helped establish a good connection between Oregon’s fishing industry and academia. The data gathering we do might help answer some important questions. It’s a no-brainer to utilize the local volunteers from the fishing fleets and their gear.”

Childress said that bringing people together who’ve traditionally not worked together is “the really the exciting part.” He credits former OSU graduate student Susan Holmes, who expanded statewide the project started by Shearman off Newport with seed funding from Oregon Sea Grant.

Because of the success of the temperature sensors, Childress and Shearman have developed a larger device that can record both temperature and dissolved oxygen levels in the water near the crab pots. This information could help scientists better understand and predict hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the water that causes massive die-offs of organisms, including crab, in areas sometimes called “dead zones.”

Although off-the-shelf oxygen sensors are available, Childress is able to build a custom made sensor for about one-third the cost of the others.

“No oxygen means dead crabs or no crab, so the crab fishermen are happy to work with us,” Harte said. “They and their crab pots are going to be out there anyway, and we don’t need huge research grants to tap into this ready-made ocean observing system.”

Harte said he and his colleagues are fortunate to have had Oregon Sea Grant funding the project for two years.

“Sea Grant has been visionary enough to realize this is a great way to engage fishermen in science,” Harte said. “So we’re learning that scientists and fishermen, working together, can collect valid scientific data in a robust way using a relatively inexpensive system that improves our understanding of the ocean. Everybody wins.”