May 3, 2017

A glimpse into the future of marine research

During Spring 2017, MBARI, NOAA, and an alphabet soup of academic, industry, and governmental partners are conducting an innovative, month-long experiment in Monterey Bay that could provide a glimpse into the future of marine science and resource management.

ODSS AUV screenshot

This image of Monterey Bay shows the positions of the autonomous vehicles (AUVs and Gliders) in the 2017 CANON experiment. This image is from MBARI’s Oceanographic Decision Support System (ODSS), which allows researchers on shore to follow the experiment in real time. Image: 2017 MBARI

MBARI researchers have been studying Monterey Bay for 30 years using customized, cutting-edge technology and equipment. Since 2010, through a series of experiments known as the CANON (Controlled, Agile, and Novel Observing Network) Initiative, the institute’s scientists and engineers have created a complex, multi-platform, autonomous ocean observing system. This system is intended to provide accurate, timely data that researchers can use to observe and predict oceanographic conditions in the bay. In previous years, this large-scale experiment has detected, tracked, and measured massive harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Monterey Bay. HABs are plankton blooms dominated by algae that produce toxins harmful to seabirds and marine mammals, and potentially to humans as well.

New partnerships and technologies add an exciting new dimension to the 2017 CANON experiment. This year, one of MBARI’s long-range autonomous underwater vehicles (LRAUVs) is equipped with a third-generation Environmental Sample Processor, known as the 3G ESP, which was  developed at MBARI. The 3G ESP collects “environmental  DNA” (eDNA)–DNA originating  from  the sloughed  off  skin,  mucus,  and  excrement of a wide variety of marine animals—then analyzes the genetic material it has collected, and transmits the data back to shore.

Environmental DNA  has  great  potential  to help scientists assess  the  distribution  and  relative  abundance  of  animals, from anchovies to blue whales. If proven reliable, this new method for surveying animal populations would revolutionize and streamline basic research, resource management, and  conservation  practices  by  remotely  collecting  water  samples  and  subjecting  them  to  universal  DNA  analysis. Francisco Chavez, lead researcher on the CANON experiment, was recently awarded a grant to test the usefulness of eDNA as part of the Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON).

In dynamic coastal ocean environments such as Monterey Bay, aggregations of small animals such as tiny, shrimp-like copepods that provide food for fish and other marine animals are often found along “fronts” where cold, nutrient-rich waters welled up from the deep meet with warmer waters, creating hot spots of biological activity. Understanding the dynamics of these hot spots is important. Prey patchiness is a key characteristic of oceanic ecosystems, and high concentrations of prey are key for increased predator survival. Current surveying methods, such as shipboard sampling along grids or transects, cannot account for observed abundances of living marine resources in many coastal regions. Accurate, real-time data on key prey species like anchovies, sardines, and krill will vastly improve fisheries managers’ ability to predict commercial fish populations and maintain sustainable fishery quotas.

The Spring 2017 CANON experiment aims to fill in some of the gaps in scientists’ data on these prey animals. The experiment started two weeks ago with researchers analyzing satellite data to locate potential fronts and “hot spots” in Monterey Bay.  Next, a suite of autonomous gliders was deployed to make fine-scale measurements of the ocean conditions in the area and track the front.

Six AUVs

MBARI’s fleet of six long-range AUVs just prior to being launched into Monterey Bay as part of the 2017 CANON experiment

A fleet of five long-range AUVs was deployed to follow the gliders. The LRAUVs are deployed with target-detection technology. They will swim along a front, providing information about the location of the front and surrounding conditions to the scientists in near real time. After the robots have pinpointed prime sampling locations, researchers aboard MBARI’s research vessel Western Flyer and the NOAA ship Reuben Lasker will conduct more comprehensive sampling surveys to corroborate the data acquired by the robots.

The Reuben Lasker is in Monterey Bay conducting NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s annual rockfish survey. This survey presents an exciting opportunity to use MBARI’s 3G-ESP autonomous vehicle, Aku, to study eDNA. As the team aboard the Reuben Lasker conducts a series of midwater trawls, the R/V Western Flyer and Aku will follow behind, collecting water samples from the same depths as the trawl. Aku, will collect water samples, filter the biological material from the water and preserve the samples until the AUV is recovered. Researchers aboard the Flyer will analyze their samples in the lab for comparison with Aku‘s data and the physical specimens collected by the Reuben Lasker.

Oceanographers typically sample the ocean at predetermined locations during periodic experiments or cruises. However, due to the dynamic nature of the coast—with currents, eddies, and upwelling events—fixed sampling regimens can miss short-lived, yet dramatic, biological events. Gaining a more detailed understanding of how organisms respond to fluctuating environmental conditions is essential for projecting the longer term consequences of ocean change for marine systems and people on both regional and global scales.

The CANON experiments provide a glimpse into the future, in which an autonomous coastal observation system could direct robots to sample intelligently in and around fronts and other oceanographic features, and provide accurate, real-time data and models to researchers and resource managers. In addition, new genomic techniques such as eDNA may provide information about marine organisms that will complement and enhance the data collected by expensive ship surveys.

—Article by Dana Lacono

Research Partners

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For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact:
Kim Fulton-Bennett, MBARI: 831-775-1835,