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Research Surveys

Our scientists and partners collect data on the water, from aircrafts, and from shore to understand the abundance, distribution, and health of marine life and habitats. That data forms the scientific foundation for our management and conservation work.

PRIA_Hiialakai_Asuncion_James.Morioka_edit.jpg Small boat approaches NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai at Asuncion Island. Kevin O’Brien stands on the bow of small boat, “Metal Shark,” as the team gets ready to reboard by the ship after a full day of operations (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/James Morioka).

NOAA Fisheries research surveys provide data critical to the stewardship of our nation's ocean resources and their habitat. For 150 years, our scientists and partners have collected survey data to understand current and changing ocean conditions and monitor marine life. The insights we gain are the heart of our vital services to strengthen the blue economy (PDF, 18 pages), maintain productive and sustainable fisheries, conserve protected resources, and support healthy ecosystems.

Dr. Cisco Werner talks about the importance of surveys on our podcast series Dive In with NOAA Fisheries

What We Do

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Rosette sampler being recovered. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Our scientists and partners conduct surveys from shore, aboard NOAA ships and chartered fishing vessels, on planes, and using autonomous vehicles. They collect data with fishing gear, scuba equipment, satellite tags, cameras, human observers, acoustic equipment, and instruments that measure ocean conditions.

What we collect during a research survey—and how frequently—depends on what we are observing. Some surveys target specific species or stocks, while others take a broad sample of species and conditions in an area.

We conduct each survey on a consistent schedule. Some happen multiple times a year. Others are conducted up to every 3 years. For all of our surveys, scientists sample within consistent areas and use standard protocols. This allows us to follow trends throughout the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

The data we collect during a research survey can provide information on the following:

  • Species numbers and distribution
  • Reproduction and growth rates
  • Population behaviors and distributions
  • Contaminants in animal tissues
  • Environmental data like water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and chemical measurements tied to ocean acidification

Next Generation Technologies

We continuously build on the foundation of our research surveys and long-term data sets. New technologies and techniques improve the precision and accuracy of our data. They also allow us to expand our survey areas and collect data more frequently.

Our scientists calibrate the new technologies and techniques with existing data. This helps ensure the data is accurate and can be compared from year to year.

Advanced technologies in action

Critical Partnerships

Strong partnerships are essential to the success of our research surveys. Our partners include:

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2 pilots and 2 scientists in brightly colored flight suit posed in front of a small two-propeller aircraft at the airport.
NOAA pilots and the aerial survey team pose with the Twin Otter aircraft before a flight. Left to right, pilot Josh Rannenberg, seal scientists Pete Duley and Beth Josephson, and pilot Conor Maginn. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.
  • Other federal and state agencies
  • Universities
  • Fishing industry
  • Foreign governments
  • Instrument and survey platform developers

NOAA Fisheries coordinates a national cooperative research program to partner with fishing groups, universities, and other stakeholders to design and implement surveys.

Public-private partnership key to annual bottomfish survey in Hawaiʻi

Additional management and science partners

Where Data Is Used

Research surveys are one of our primary sources of data. This information is used with commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing data in a range of assessments and models:

These allow us to build a holistic picture of complex interactions between marine life, their environment, and human activities. That picture helps us make sound decisions for managing fisheries, protecting marine mammals, recovering endangered or threatened species, and conserving habitats.

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Jui-Han, NOAA Fisheries Biologist sorts scallops during 2016 scallop survey.
Biologist sorts scallops during 2016 scallop survey. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Benefits of Research Surveys

We rely on surveys to maintain the health of sustainable fisheries, protected resources, and their habitats. Robust and long-term survey data allows us to detect and forecast trends in these resources.

Healthy marine resources are critical to the U.S. economy, recreation, food security, and the socioeconomic health of coastal communities. Research surveys make these benefits possible. They support:

  • 1.7 million jobs from fishing and seafood activity in 2018
  • $108 billion added to the gross domestic product in 2018
  • Robust tourism and recreation industries
  • Sustainable management in more than 4 million square miles of federal water
  • Access to sustainable, healthy seafood

Fisheries Economics of the United States report

The economic importance of seafood

Social indicators for coastal communities

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NOAA ship approaching mountainous island.
Pollock survey in the Shumagin Islands, South of mainland Alaska. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Responding to Change

As stewards of marine life and their habitats, we have to adapt our management to changing conditions. We rely on existing and expanded survey results to do that.

Marine environments are incredibly complex and constantly changing. Scientists expect new and more intense environmental changes as a result of shifts in the planet’s climate systems. New and growing marine industries, such as offshore wind energy, can also impact ecosystems.

Our surveys update information on fish stock dynamics, ecosystem health, and the status of endangered species and other protected resources. Many of our surveys also collect measurements that help us study the link between climate change and ocean ecosystems. For example, ocean temperature, chemistry connected to ocean acidification, salinity, and ocean currents.

Climate vulnerability assessment

Climate science strategy regional climate action plans

Ecosystem status reports

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Diver records information on coral reefs
Diver conducts towboard surveys at Midway Atoll. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Science Center Activities

Alaska

The Alaska Fisheries Science Center conducts surveys to collect data and information needed to safeguard the valuable U.S. Arctic and sub-Arctic. These areas supply around 60 percent of the seafood harvested in the United States and support a nearly $2 billion ecotourism industry. They are also warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. This is leading to record heat waves, rapidly declining and changing sea ice, melting glaciers, and dramatic shifts in marine ecosystems.

Robust research surveys are vital to maintaining the health of Alaska’s fisheries, protected resources, and habitats in the face of change. Survey findings also support our co-management agreements with Alaska Native communities to preserve their rich cultural heritage and food security.

Fish research surveys in Alaska

Marine mammal field work in Alaska

Ecosystem surveys in Alaska

Alaska survey blogs

Northeast

Timing and consistency are especially critical to our surveys in the Northeast U.S. Shelf Regional Ecosystem, where there are large seasonal cycles in temperature. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center conducts more than 20 surveys independently and with regional partners. They monitor the health and abundance of marine life and habitats in response to a changing climate and expanding ocean uses.

Our Northeast surveys support sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries that contribute approximately $8 billion to the regional gross domestic product. The data we collect also helps coastal communities adapt to climate change and other effects of a changing ocean environment.

Northeast survey blogs

Science in the Northeast

Northwest

The Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s surveys focus on West Coast groundfish and Pacific salmon populations. We use the biological and environmental data collected to:

Surveys also help us understand and respond to the socio-economic impacts from a changing ocean in the Northwest. Marine fisheries, tourism, and related industries are critical to communities and economies in Washington and Oregon. Recreational and commercial fishing alone account for nearly 70,000 jobs and generate almost $10 billion in overall sales.

Research surveys in the Pacific Northwest

Main Deck survey blog series

The Newportal survey blog series

Pacific Islands

The Pacific Islands are surrounded by a rich diversity of marine life that is vital to the culture and economic stability of the islands and the overall health of the Pacific Ocean. The region is home to coral reefs that support 25 percent of fish in the Pacific Ocean and as many as 2 million marine species.

The Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center conducts surveys with regional partners. They assess the health of these valuable marine resources and understand how they are affected by a changing climate. The data is used to set annual catch limits for fish stocks, recover protected species, and conserve marine habitats.

Research surveys in the Pacific Islands

Pacific Islands survey blogs

Southeast

The Southeast Fisheries Science Center conducts surveys in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic. The data from these surveys is vital to the sustainability of the region’s recreational fisheries, which attract anglers across the country and support hundreds of thousands of regional jobs. Survey data is also used to manage economically and ecologically important commercial fisheries and to protect endangered species like sperm whales, Rice’s whales, and leatherback sea turtles.

Researchers in the Southeast rely on the long history of survey data to understand the impacts of a changing climate on regional environments, ecosystems, and communities.

Southeast science surveys and research

Marine mammal research surveys in the Southeast

Southwest

Southwest Fisheries Science Center surveys gather biological and environmental data in the diverse and dynamic California Current Ecosystem, which spans the entire U.S. West Coast. We use advanced sampling techniques and leverage industry partnerships to maintain long-term data sets. These data sets are critical to understanding the ecological and socio-economic impacts of a changing ocean in this area. The California Current ecosystem supports valuable fisheries, recreation, tourism, energy production, and other ocean economic activities worth more than $56 billion. In California alone, fishing and related industries account for nearly 180,000 jobs and generate more than $30 billion in overall sales.

Researchers in the Southwest also conduct surveys of Antarctic krill and the krill-centric ecosystem in the Southern Ocean. Data collected informs the U.S. delegation to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources. The Commission considers the needs of krill-dependent predators when setting harvest rules for the fishery.

Autonomous Gliders in Antarctica blog series

California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations

Fisheries survey logs

Juvenile rockfish survey

Marine mammal and turtle ship-based surveys