Digital Fishers: Data from the Deep, Judgment from the Crowd

By June 24th, 2014 at 10:44 am | Comment

Save the sablefish (also known as black cod) and help scientists by counting the fish in video clips.

Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Sablefish on soft bottom habitat.

Sablefish on soft bottom habitat.

Scientists call it Anoplopoma fimbria, fishers might know it as the sablefish, while some chefs call it the Black Cod. Found hovering just above the muddy North Pacific seabed, you may have enjoyed one down at the Moby Dick restaurant or whatever your favorite seafood restaurant is called. The sablefish—a yummy opportunistic feeder known for its buttery taste has been harvested from US waters since the late 1800s.

In Alaska, heavy foreign fishing depleted the sablefish stocks through the seventies until the US took control of the waters in 1976 and phased out foreign fishing. After that, the fishing season began to shorten and the number of fishers actually increased. When this happens a fishery produces a lot of poor quality fish—the outcome is an unstable stock. In 1995, conservation managers implemented a program that sought to more strictly regulate the Alaska commercial fishery; it set limits for each fisher, but within a longer season. This decreased the harvest of immature fish, which meant those fish had a good chance to reproduce at least once.

Now a citizen science program called Project Digital Fishers needs your help, and it may keep the sablefish on the table at the Moby Dick. It is a project that enlists public support to run a second trial for researchers, and for computer scientists as well. For the latter, an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria has developed an algorithm that can “count” fish. He will use this campaign to ground truth his software. This video on YouTube shows this in action.

As researchers continue to monitor the resource, they hope to inform careful management of the stock. Jodie Walsh, the research coordinator for the Center for Global Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, says, “A research group at the Marine Science Institute (Institut de Ciènces del Mar) in Barcelona, Spain, investigates biological rhythms in various species around the world.  By better understanding species behavior they hope to help in marine resource management and provide advice to improve fishing practices. And Carolina Doya, a PhD student working with Dr. Jacopo Aguzzi, uses NEPTUNE Canada cameras to study biological rhythms of fish in Barkley Canyon.” Counting fish in the field of view of the camera, and using specialized statistical tools, will enable her to see if fish movements and/or behavior can be predicted in relation to known natural cycles.

When an experiment returns a broad variety of results, researchers typically have to run the numbers again, which in this instance means they have to review the film footage of a submarine transect once more, while counting the number of Black Cod seen in a specified time. The result will be punched into a formula and extrapolated out for a region or field—which produces an accurate estimate of the number of fish in a population. So now you can contribute to real science—compare apples to apples (or in this case sablefish to sablefish) by counting the sablefish exactly as the research crew is doing in their labs. This will save an enormous amount of time and money, and it will contribute to both computer and environmental research.

Screenshot of Digital Fishers page.

Screenshot of Digital Fishers page.

You have to create an account, and the controls of the digital interface take a bit of getting used to.  After a few awkward attempts, I got the hang of it, had learned to identify the species and was counting for the A team. The website says you only have to count for 15 seconds, but each video clip runs for almost a minute. After those first few attempts I settled down and actually began to anticipate seeing a sablefish—I counted as many as six in a 60 second clip, and sometimes none appeared. To beat the first level you have to complete 10 ‘annotations’ or views, but to advance to the third level you have to complete 24!

Digital Fishers is currently counting sablefish, but Walsh says, “We have also looked at crabs, Mapping Seafloor, Trawling, thornyhead rockfish and deep-sea ecosystems, or sometimes we just show some of the video that has been collected and ‘digital fishers’ annotate many other species in our general campaigns.” Digital fishers hail from Canada, US, Spain, France, Germany, South Africa, Oman, Switzerland, Colombia, Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, Italy, so anyone can compete. (The sablefish is found in UK waters as well—there it is called the blue cod, bluefish, candlefish or coal cod, and in Canada it’s known as the coalfish, beshow or skil.) The sablefish project will likely run through July.

Resources:
How to measure a count
NOAA FishWatch

Top Image: NOAA Photo Library
Bottom Image: Digital Fishers/University of Victoria


Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.