How do you turn 250 into 31 million? Sadly we are not talking about dollars. Perhaps as good as money though is information and thanks to 250 New Zealand commercial fishing vessels, we have 31 million data points that are helping our country get a better understanding of our changing oceans.

We’re talking about the Moana Project, which you may have read about before in The Update and Seafood Magazine. Over the last four years this project – spearheaded by MetService’s oceanographic division, MetOcean Solutions – has put New Zealand at the forefront of ocean forecasting capability. 

None of this would have been possible without the small but robust sensors, developed by Nelson-based company ZebraTech, attached to the fishing gear on 250 commercial fishing vessels. These sensors accurately record position-based temperatures and depths, every time they're dropped into the water.  

And of course, it would not be possible without commercial fishers who spend half their lives on our oceans and want and need them to be healthy.  They are active champions of our oceans. 

Dr Julie Jakoboski, MetOcean Oceanographer and Lead of The Moana Project temperature sensor programme, says the commercial fishing sector has set an example for the future of ocean observing.

“It was fantastic to see the seafood sector be so willing to work together with scientists, to help us understand our oceans. This really highlights what the industry is capable of and how much they care, which I think is not always fully appreciated by people outside the sector.”

“So far, over 31 million observations have been recorded. This means Aotearoa New Zealand now has the highest coverage of coastal ocean temperature observations below the ocean’s surface of any country in the world at a fraction of the cost of traditional ocean observing programmes.”

The world-first project has since been recognised by the United Nations Decade of the Ocean and the Global Ocean Observing System, through the international Fishing Vessel Ocean Observing Network, as being a critical component of a future global ocean observing system.

Feeling proud yet? You should be. Dr Jakoboski says they’re now starting to get enough data to start looking at long-term changes, and year-to-year changes.

“To date, we’ve only been able to look at month-to-month changes, which are usually seasonal. With the three years of data we have so far we can only look at relatively short-term annual changes. Once you get around 10 years of data, it becomes even more useful for longer term trends like El Niño or La Niña which tell us a lot about changing ocean temperatures. 

“For the fishing sector alone, the benefits of being part of this network and having access to this information are significant,” says Dr Jakoboski. “The data can be used in fisheries stock modelling, bycatch mitigation, as well as help fishers meet sink rate regulations.”

Dr Jakoboski says vessels are already using it operationally.

“They can sign up to get emails containing their own temperature and depth data within three hours to better understand the area they’re fishing. And, as we continue to gather data, they’ll be able to use it to look back and say, okay, last year we had great fishing here. This year we're not. What might be going on?”

Some of the fishing vessels have even agreed to share anonymous temperature data publicly, which is a huge step and enables the project to make this data more usable. Which Dr Jakoboski is incredibly grateful for.  

“So, there's a couple of things that as scientists the data is used for. We have our marine heat wave forecast which allows you to look and see what’s happened over the last month, as well as look ahead seven days. And, we use the data to improve forecasts for ocean temperatures and currents from the surface to the sea floor, and storm surges.”

“For fishers, you might see it and say – oh, it's going to be abnormally warm temperatures here, or these currents meet here and I can see some upwelling – maybe that impacts the species we're targeting.”

Not only that, Dr Jakoboski is very excited about the fact that the data collected via the sensors is starting to be used by scientists across the globe.

“We're leading the way in this space. If more countries follow suit and work together with their fishing sectors to gather data, it will help to strengthen our work even further as we use the global ocean models to tell our New Zealand ocean model what's happening in the rest of the world."

It's pretty cool to have been given an opportunity to be part of this world first project, and work alongside these dedicated scientists. We still have a way to go to truly understand how our ocean environment is changing and what this means - not just for us, but for everyone. Until then, our industry will continue to keep a watchful eye on our waters and help where we can.