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Using bottom trawls to monitor subsurface water clarity in marine ecosystems

March 15, 2021

Biophysical processes that affect subsurface water clarity play a key role in ecosystem function. However, subsurface water clarity is poorly monitored in marine ecosystems because doing so requires in-situ sampling that is logistically difficult to conduct and sustain. Novel solutions are thus needed to improve monitoring of subsurface water clarity. To that end, we developed a sampling method and data processing algorithm that enable the use of bottom trawl fishing gear as a platform for conducting subsurface water clarity monitoring using trawl-mounted irradiance sensors without disruption to fishing operations. The algorithm applies quality control checks to irradiance measurements and calculates the downwelling diffuse attenuation coefficient, Kd, and optical depth, ζ– apparent optical properties (AOPs) that characterize the rate of decrease in downwelling irradiance and relative irradiance transmission to depth, respectively. We applied our algorithm to irradiance measurements, obtained using bottom-trawl-mounted archival tags equipped with a photodiode collected during NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center annual summer bottom trawl surveys of the eastern Bering Sea continental shelf from 2004 to 2018. We validated our AOPs by quantitatively comparing surface-weighted Kd from tags to the multi-sensor Kd(490) product from the Ocean Colour Climate Change Initiative project (OC-CCI) and qualitatively evaluating whether tag Kd was consistent with patterns of subsurface chlorophyll-a concentrations predicted by a coupled regional physical-biological model (Bering10K-BESTNPZ). We additionally examined patterns and trends in water clarity in the eastern Bering Sea. Key findings are: 1) water clarity decreased significantly from 2004 to 2018; 2) a recurrent, pycnocline-associated, maximum in Kd occurred over much of the northwestern shelf, putatively due to a subsurface chlorophyll maximum; and 3) a turbid bottom layer (nepheloid layer) was present over a large portion of the eastern Bering Sea shelf. Our study demonstrates that bottom trawls can provide a useful platform for monitoring water clarity, especially when trawling is conducted as part of a systematic stock assessment survey.