Automated instrumentation allows COMPASS science to continue

Back to work on the COMPASS project for the RV Corystes as it leaves Belfast Harbour

The impact of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic has been felt by the COMPASS project, which saw tagging, routine environmental sampling and work on research vessels reduced or stopped.

The project has, however, shown much resilience during this challenging period by spending more time on data analysis and reporting, and also on planning and preparing for post COVID-19 operational activity.

Thankfully, automated instruments that were already in place at sea and in the rivers continued to collect data, including the acoustic receivers to collect data on whale and dolphin activity, and estuarine and coastal receivers collecting data on salmon and trout movements. 

COMPASS researcher Alejandro from Marine Science Scotland models the latest PPE

As operations re-started in a restricted mode in July, the researchers at SAMS, AFBI and MSS have been endeavouring to recover instruments which may present some interesting questions. How long did the instruments continue to operate for during lockdown? Has there been a reduction in ocean noise due to reduced traffic?

Over the next few months the oceanographic moorings will be serviced and replaced, the acoustic instruments will be located and collected by AFBI and MSS using their research vessels, and the estuarine and coastal receivers will be collected by AFBI and IFI who have also resumed the tagging of fish. 

One the main outputs of COMPASS is to develop telemetered data systems so that data is sent automatically to researchers from the existing network of buoys. Despite the challenges of lockdown, an opportunity was created to test these systems and plan for its completion, with assistance by the Data Management teams at partner institutes.

Now that we are out of stricter conditions of lockdown this network is being finalised and this is assisted by research vessels from the Scottish (SAMS/MSS), Northern Irish (AFBI) and Irish (MI) partners, who have been returning to the buoys to ensure data is collected, equipment is set-up and maintenance is undertaken.

Revealing the sounds of lockdown seas

In July, COMPASS staff returned from the first research outing on the RV Corystes since lockdown, which included the collection of acoustic recording devices. These COMPASS and MarPAMM devices (sound recorders) were deployed off western Scotland and Northern Ireland throughout the late winter and spring of 2020 with many of them operating throughout the lockdown period.  The moorings aren’t normally left at sea for this length of time but due to COVID-19 restrictions field and vessel work was halted and only in the last couple of weeks has resumed with safe working measures in place.

Barnacle covered acoustic recorder recovered by COMPASS staff after lockdown

One of the unintended consequences of the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic is that there is likely to have been a reduction in human activities at sea. This could include passenger transportation (e.g. ferries), recreational boating, and even business traffic such as commercial fishing and transport of freight.

Underwater noise can have a negative impact on cetacean species as they rely on sound for so many important functions such as communication, foraging and navigation. In the coming months it will be interesting to see if we can see (hear) any changes in cetacean vocalisations in the COMPASS array.

Researchers in Canada have been carrying out real time observations of the impact of COVID-19 on underwater noise (Thomson & Barclay, 2020). They have observed a significant decrease in low frequency sounds (associated with shipping) during the lockdown period. There are now international efforts to coordinate this work on ambient noise monitoring and we are hopeful that COMPASS can contribute to this effort.

One of the benefits of multi-year studies, such as those undertaken by the COMPASS project, is that a baseline can be established, against which potential effects of changes in human activities, as well as animal occurrence, can be identified. COMPASS has been collecting data since 2017, so it is possible that any reduction in shipping activity in 2020 will be evident, in relation to previous years.

This serendipitous experiment is something that the COMPASS project partners, in collaboration with MarPAMM colleagues, will be investigating further in the coming months, as sound recorders are recovered and data become available.

COMPASS data managers haven’t let COVID-19 stand in the way of progress!

The Data Management team has been busy this year with a cavalcade of activities. First up, back in February 2020, the data management lead, Marine Institute facilitated a workshop, hosted by the British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC) at their headquarters at the University of Liverpool’s campus.

MPA projects data management team workshop pictured before Lockdown came into force

The workshop covered a broad range of talks on the challenges and opportunities of data management afforded by the COMPASS project. The workshop discussed issues facing data management today and was well attended by colleagues from both sister INTERREG projects (MarPAMM & SeaMonitor) as well as representatives from BODC, NOC (National Oceanographic Centre), and MEDIN (Marine Environmental Data & Information Network).

Next, as we all came to terms with our new normal under Covid-19 restrictions, the team was fortunate enough to be invited to present on the cross-border cooperation in data management which is at the heart of the COMPASS project at the Euro Geoscience Union’s virtual conference held in May 2020.

Andrew Conway and Adam Leadbetter from Marine Institute gave presentations on developments in the processing of data particularly with the volumes produced in projects such as COMPASS and also on the harmonisation of data management particularly when dealing with partners from various jurisdictions.

Away from those events, the data management team has been working hard behind the scenes, processing, collating and preparing data for our new data portal on the COMPASS website – stay tuned to our social feeds in the autumn to see more…

Check out the project twitter account @Compass_MPA

SAMS hosts COMPASS annual meeting at Oban

The COMPASS 2019 Annual Seminar was held at Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban, Scotland on 26th November. 

2019 Annual Meeting of the COMPASS project at the Scottish Association of Marine Science at Oban, Scotland.

Attended by project partners, policy leads and stakeholders, the seminar provided an update on progress from the project and presented current findings relating to the salmonids and cetaceans (whales and dolphins) work and in particular, how our understanding of their migration paths is improving.

The conference detailed the network of oceanographic instruments and the new instrumentation for climate change parameters that are being deployed across the region.

Also presented was the projects developments in Data Instructure required for the ever increasing demands for information flow between the various areas of the project. How this will be managed now and its legacy for future work by connecting the data infrastructures of organisations in different jurisdictions was also discussed. 

The seminar presented the latest developments in the use of the Scottish and Irish models, and how they will be used to inform current and future management plans.

Policy leads from Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland provided their policy perspectives and requirements in one of the sessions, which provided a good basis for understanding the application of the projects science. 

The seminar findings and impacts were mentioned in the afternoon session which was chaired by Steven Hall, CEO of the Society for Underwater technology – the interactions between the COMPASS project and the other Interreg Marine projects (MarPAMM and SeaMonitor) were also discussed with the projects representatives to further the co-ordination between the projects. 

COMPASS at the World Marine Mammal Conference

The Society of Marine Mammalogy joined together with the European Cetacean Society (ECS) to co-host the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona.

Dr Ewan Edwards of Marine Science Scotland (MSS) presenting the COMPASS poster at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona

The meeting in December brought together top leaders in the field from every continent, including three scientists working on the COMPASS project: Ewan Edwards from Marine Science Scotland (MSS), Denise Risch and Ben Wilson of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS).

Ewan presented a well-attended poster on some preliminary results of the data collection in the cetaceans work package of COMPASS, specifically to illustrate some patterns observed in the detection rates of harbour porpoises at the ten monitoring stations. This generated a great deal of discussion with visitors to the poster and forged some useful links with people working on small cetacean passive acoustic monitoring both in Europe and further afield.

Denise, Ben and Ewan dispersed to try and cover as many relevant talks as possible. With over 2,500 attendees, up to five presentation sessions (each with 18 talks), and over 800 posters on display, it was impossible to see every interesting presentation. But a useful conference app made it easy to plan your schedule, and between talks there was always a mad dash between the conference rooms.

Many presentations were of relevance to the activities of not only the COMPASS project, but also its sister-projects MarPAMM and SeaMonitor, relating to the distribution and spatial protection of small whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals.

Some major themes included the threats faced by these species from climate change and underwater noise, and then what we as researchers and advisors can do to mitigate these threats and conserve these species which generate a huge amount of public interest.

The conference attracted marine mammal scientists, managers and policy makers from more than 60 countries to engage in interdisciplinary dialogue on the world’s most pressing marine science and conservation issues as they relate to these species. A gathering of interdisciplinary experts such as this enables discussion amongst marine mammal scientists and policy makers, enhancing collaboration and training the next generation of scientists and practitioners, and is a key opportunity to develop and maintain international partnerships and collaborations.

Go north, and swim fast!

New evidence of migration of young salmon leaving IrelandMigration route discovered and longest tracked distances of individual salmon at sea

The route taken by young salmon (smolts) leaving the east coast of Ireland has been discovered for the first time. Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) and Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) have revealed findings that prove some young salmon leaving rivers on Ireland’s east coast start their migration to the Atlantic by travelling north to leave the Irish Sea rather than south. The The ongoing research is being carried out as just one part of the COMPASS project studying the regions oceanography, marine protected areas and species. The project is funded to the tune of €6.3m by the EU’s INTERREG VA Programme , managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.

Match-funding for the project has also been provided by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in Ireland.

The new evidence was established after researchers tagged salmon smolts with coded transmitting acoustic tags in the Castletown and Boyne rivers in County Louth during the spring of this year.  Three of these tagged salmon were picked up on listening devices in the coastal seas as they travelled northwards out of the Irish Sea towards the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the smolts was recorded in Scottish waters, some 80 kilometres north of the Inishowen Peninsula. This smolt had travelled an estimated 250 kilometres in just over a month, one of the longest distances recorded for a salmon tracked at sea en route to its feeding grounds in the North Atlantic.  Two more salmon smolts were tracked as far as receivers located off the Northern Ireland coast, further confirming the northward migration of the fish through the Irish Sea.

Until now, it was unknown if juvenile salmon leaving Ireland’s east coast rivers headed around the North or South coasts to get to their oceanic feeding grounds.  These first three tracked fish took a northward route from rivers on the east coast to exit the Irish Sea. These salmon also moved offshore quickly, behaving very differently from sea trout, which remained closer to their spawning rivers and swam closer to the coast and river mouths.

The tagging work was carried out by scientists from IFI (Dr James Barry) and AFBI (Dr Richard Kennedy) who tagged and analysed the movements of 130 salmon smolts as they left their rivers of birth in the spring of 2019. This work was supported by a local angling clubs, including The Dundalk and District Brown trout and Salmon Anglers, who helped to install fish traps which enabled the tagging and release of fish. A network of acoustic receivers were moored to the seabed along the coast from Drogheda to the north east coast by researchers from IFI and AFBI, to track the tiny acoustic transmitters in the salmon as they migrated from the rivers to the open ocean. 

This research is just one element of the COMPASS (Collaborative Oceanography and Monitoring for Protected Areas and Species) project, a transnational initiative which focuses on the coastal seas between Ireland and western Scotland.  The project aims to deliver improved cross border environmental monitoring programmes, including research to support highly mobile protected species such as marine mammals, salmon and sea trout. This particular research package is investigating the success of wild salmon and sea trout as they migrate from river to sea, and examining where they travel to and how many of them survive before returning to Ireland to reproduce.

Commenting on the findings, Dr William Roche, Senior Research Officer at IFI said: “As salmon populations are in decline across the northern hemisphere, we urgently need to establish their migration journey and identify any issues which may be negatively impacting survival along that route. This research marks an exciting milestone and it will play a critical role in supporting marine conservation efforts.

Dr Cathal Gallagher, Head of Research and Development at Inland Fisheries Ireland said: “Salmon hatch in their native river, spend their juvenile life feeding in freshwater and prepare for their long sea migration before returning as adults, usually one year later to mate in their native river.  Genetic analysis has shown this loyalty to their native river which can be traced back to the Ice Age.

The COMPASS project has for the first time identified the northward migration route of young salmon from some of Ireland’s east coast rivers, as they start their epic and dangerous journey to their feeding grounds in the North Atlantic Sea. Research results like these offer insights which will enable policy makers and managers to focus actions aimed at the protection and conservation of Ireland’s iconic salmon stocks, which have suffered considerable decline over the past decades. Inland Fisheries Ireland will continue in its research efforts, nationally and internationally, to support the conservation of our salmon stocks which are threatened by current and increasing threats posed by a changing environment.” 

Dr Robert Rosell, Principal Scientific Officer for freshwater Fish at AFBI said: These observations are an exciting first for long distance tracking of individual young salmon at sea. We are now in a position to carry out follow up studies to find out much more. These results will optimise the placement of further detection equipment and add information, for instance on survival rates, for further releases of tagged fish. Now that we know where to look, advancing technology and longer battery life tags may soon give us not just the outward journey, but also detail of the routes taken by  adult fish coming back to spawn.