Oregon State Working to Refine Ocean Oxygen Monitoring Sensors in Fisheries

The f/v Timmy Boy is loaded with crab pots in Newport, Ore. Photo: Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant.

Researchers at Oregon State University are collaborating with fishing industry and tribal partners on a project to refine and expand use of oxygen monitoring sensors to be deployed in fishing pots to learn more about changing ocean conditions.

The three-year, $1.2 million Ocean Technology Transition grant, announced by the university on Feb. 27, is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The dissolved oxygen sensors were initially developed by Oregon State researchers over a decade ago in response to concerns from crabbers who were pulling up pots full of dead crabs caught in hypoxic dead zones.

The sensors helped them to gather information on how hypoxia, or low oxygen, is impacting crabbing in the Pacific Northwest. These oxygen sensors have proven to be an effective tool for crabbers and fisheries managers. Versions of the sensors are now being used by the lobster industry on the East Coast.

“This project is really about scaling up this technology so that it can be implemented and adopted more widely across the region and potentially globally,” said principal investigator Jessica Garwood, an assistant professor at OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

The researchers are using their grant to refine the sensor design and expand its capabilities to provide intuitive, near real-time information to the fishing community and fisheries managers to guide decisions on where and when to place pots or pull them up.

Hypoxia is a low-oxygen condition that poses a significant threat to many marine animals, with major impacts on the ecosystem and the economy, from tourism to the seafood industry.

The Dungeness crab fishery is considered the most valuable single-species fishery in Oregon, contributing $33 million to $75 million to the economy each year, according to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.

Oregon, officials say, now has a “hypoxia season,” much like a wildfire season, taking place in late summer. When oxygen levels get too low, crabs and other marine organisms that are ‘place-bound,’ or cannot move away rapidly enough, die of oxygen starvation.

Effective Research Tool

The initial sensors proved a very effective research tool that gave crabbers information they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but the process was slower than researchers wanted it to be.

Francis Chan, a marine ecologist and director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Ecosystem and Resources Studies at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, noted that the fishing community had to wait for him to compile the data to get an overall picture of the region.

“Now we’re in a position to turn this tool into something that could be as commonplace as a fish finder,” Chan, the co-investigator on the new effort, said. “We can put it into the hands of the people out working in the ocean, while also collecting important ocean data every day.”

Wide adoption of the sensors in the industry also offers an opportunity to glean much new information, over a larger area, about changing ocean conditions. “What we really want are weekly or even daily underwater maps, where you can start to see patterns of how hypoxic areas grow and move around in the ocean,” Jack Barth, a co-investigator on the project and special advisor to OSU’s Marine and Coastal Opportunities program, said.

“From a sensor attached to a crab pot that travels through the water column and rests on the seafloor, you can gain a vast amount of information. That information is multiplied when more and more sensors are in use,” Barth explained.

Chan and Barth worked together with local fishers to launch the initial sensor project.

With funds from NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System Ocean Technology Transition program, the Oregon State team plans to work with industry, tribal and government partners to develop a low-cost sensor that collects and shares data in an automated and easy to use way, such as an app with notifications.

The collected data would also be made available to researchers through the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS), where it would augment other coastal ocean data already being collected and made available to researchers worldwide.

The team is already working with Salem, Ore.-based Sexton Co. to manufacture up to three rounds of prototypes of the sensor for testing in fisheries. The company’s CEO, Jeremy Childress, originally worked on the sensor project as an Oregon State graduate student.

An advisory group for the project includes the Quinault Indian Nation; the Quileute Tribe; the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission; the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission; and the Environmental Monitors on Lobster Traps and Large Trawlers program at the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center.   

Margaret Bauman is an Alaska journalist and photographer with an extensive background in Alaska’s industries and environmental issues related to those industries. A long-time Alaska resident, she has also covered news of national and international importance in other states on the staff of United Press International, the Associated Press, and CBS News. Margaret Bauman can be reached at margie@maritimepublishing.com