Covid-19 cancellation for NOAA Northeast research surveys

On the heels of delaying its Northeast fisheries observer program this summer, the National Marine Fisheries Service cancelled three planned research surveys for the remainder of 2020 on the research vessel Henry B. Bigelow as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

The cancelled surveys would help assess sea scallops, the Atlantic surf clam and ocean quahog stocks – and use advanced technology to investigate the deep ocean’s mesopelagic layer, the so-called “twilight zone” between 660 feet and 3,300 feet where the influence of sunlight drops off.

“These are difficult decisions for the agency as we strive to balance our need to maintain core mission responsibilities with the realities and impacts of the current health crisis,” officials at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center said in a statement issued July 10.

“Since March, we have been rigorously analyzing various options for conducting cruises this year and are taking a survey-by-survey, risk-based approach. After much deliberation, we determined that there was no way to move forward with these surveys while effectively minimizing risk and meeting core survey objectives.”

Plans for survey work in April, May and June were cancelled as the pandemic hit its first peak in the Northeast states. The science center had hoped to bring crew back to the research vessel in early July to begin preparing for the planned late summer and fall surveys.

The 208.6’x49.2’x19.4’ Bigelow, built by VT Halter Marine at Moss Point, Miss., and launched in 2005, can carry a crew complement of up to 39, including 19 scientists and research staff.

Amid the disruption and uncertainty in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the Bigelow’s spring bottom trawl survey and the spring ecosystems monitoring cruise were cancelled, said Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the Northeast science center. But within days, the early July goal for bringing crew back to the ship was cancelled.

Forging ahead with plans to resume placing at-sea observers on vessels in the Northeast fishing fleet starting July 1 had provoked profound dismay in the industry, soon communicated through the Mid-Atlantic and New England regional fishery management councils and Congress.

Observer coverage has been delayed again until at least July 31. In Alaska and the North Pacific, NMFS has pulled far back on observers and surveys, with no sign when normal schedules may resume.

At the Northeast science center, the plan is to reorganize survey plans for 2021.

“While the two cancelled resource surveys are important fishery-independent sources of data for sea scallop, Atlantic surf clam, and ocean quahog, we will continue these typically annual surveys next year when this national health crisis improves,” according to the statement by science center officials.

“In the meantime, we will work with the two regional fishery management councils to mitigate the impacts from the loss of survey data this year.”

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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