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AFSC Historical Corner:  Tools, Gear, and Equipment

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Canning & Curing
Diving Programs
Tools & Equipment
fisheries scientist with gas chromatograph
Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) scientist with a gas chromatograph.  FWS photo. Alan Levitt, creator.

NOTE:  This page is under development,
            pending additional content.


Event items:

  • Blish distance finder, 1894

    "This simple and admirable little instrument was devised by John B. Blish, lieutenant, United States Navy. It has been used to advantage on board this vessel [the Albatross] for about two years, and we have found it particularly valuable at night and in stormy weather. With the course and distance and two bearings of a point of land, without computation or reference to books or charts, the instrument will give the distance of the point at the time of the first and second bearings, the distance to be run from the second bearing to bring it abeam; also the distance at which it will be passed if the course is maintained. Repeated observations will show whether the vessel is actually making her course."

    From:  Tanner, Z. L. 1896. Report Upon the Operations of the United States Fish Commission Steamer Albatross for the Year Ending June 30, 1894, p. 240-241 + illustration plate. In U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Report of the Commissioner for the Year Ending June 30, 1894, Part XX. Wash. G.P.O. 718 p.  (.pdf, 125 KB).

  • High-speed plankton sampler, late 1940s

    High-speed towable plankton sampling gear was developed by A. C. Hardy and first used during the mid-1920s. Unfortunately, the Hardy Plankton Recorder could only sample at a single depth and the organisms that were crushed in the device were unidentifiable. An experimental model designed by Elbert Ahlstrom and O. R. Smith is similar to Hardy's collector. The cylindrical net can be attached to the towing cable at various points to provide plankton sampling at different depths.

    From:  Ahlstrom, E. H., J. D. Isaacs, J. R. Thrailkill, and L. W. Kidd. 1958. High-Speed Plankton Sampler, p. 187-214. In Fishery Bulletin of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Vol. 58. G.P.O. Wash. 525 p. (.pdf, 1.81 MB)

  • Projection device used to determine age from fish scales, 1950s

    Satisfactory results have been made using a microprojector (originally developed in 1938-39) to study the ages of the California sardine or pilchard from markings on their scales. The improved scale reader was built by aquatic biologist, Kenneth H. Mosher, and consists of a microscope, 90° prism silvered on one face with a glass mirror, projection screen and light source.

    From:  Mosher, K. H. 1952. Description of a Projection Device for Use in Age Determination From Fish Scales (bulletin 54), p. 405-407. In Fishery Bulletin of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Vol. 51. G.P.O. Wash. 488 p.  (.pdf, 339 KB).

  • The sonic tag and electronic fish counter, mid-1950s

    "Another valuable development at the Montlake Laboratory was the sonic tag – a small capsule with a battery-operated, sound-emitting device which is attached to a fish for continuous tracking in a stream or in the ocean. Also significant was the development of the electronic fish counter which was found to be quite accurate in counting the numbers of salmon ascending the fishways at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle."

    From:  Atkinson, C. E. 1988. The Montlake Laboratory of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and its Biological Research, 1931-81. In R. R. Mitsuoka, R. E. Pearson, L. J. Rutledge, and S. Waterman (editors), Fifty Years of Cooperation and Commitment: 1931-81, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, p. 19-46. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/NWC-34. (.pdf, 2.77 MB).

  • Oceanographic buoys

    Equipment for oceanography...A new transponding, free-floating oceanographic buoy was successful in first tests. Later several buoys were released 300 miles off the Washington Coast and recovered as they approached the Coast. These buoys responded to radio signals from the Bureau research vessel George B. Kelez and provided radio-fixed locations for establishing drift direction and speed. The buoys are being equipped with pressure sensors and quartz thermometers to sample pressure and temperature to a depth of 984 feet.

    From:  Report of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries for the Calendar Year 1964. Principal Accomplishments, p.17.

  • Bycatch reduction devices

    Shrimp trawling has been identified as the largest source of human-caused sea turtle mortality in the United States, as turtles become trapped in shrimp nets and can not escape. To combat incidental death of protected turtles, in the early 1980s, NOAA scientists designed and developed Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). These devices allow sea turtles to be safely released without any loss of shrimp harvest. The successful development, introduction, and enforced effective use of TEDs by NOAA has reduced incidental death of sea turtles by shrimp trawling by 97 percent while allowing the shrimp fishery to continue unfettered.

    Pelagic (open ocean) longline fishing gear used to catch swordfish has also been a source of sea turtle bycatch. Experiments on the Grand Banks (2001-2003) demonstrated that feasible modifications to this gear resulted in significant reductions in the bycatch of sea turtles while maintaining the catches of swordfish. Using 18/0 circle hooks and mackerel bait, scientists observed reductions of 65 percent in leatherback turtle catches and 90 percent in loggerhead catches. The circle hooks also reduce the percentage of loggerheads swallowing the hooks (69 vs. 27), which presumably indicates a reduction in mortality. Tools developed during this experiment can be used to remove fishing hooks and line from the turtles that are captured, further reducing their mortality. This technology (circle hooks and gear removal tools) is now required in both the Atlantic and Pacific U.S. pelagic longline fleets, drastically reducing mortality of protected resources, and is being exported worldwide.

    From:  "Breakthroughs: Honorable Mentions"  ("NOAA Celebrates 200 Years of Science, Service, and Stewardship" website)

  • Passive integrated transponder tags for fisheries research

    The passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag is a small, internal tag that allows individual fish to be passively identified as they pass detection stations. Unlike other much larger electronic tags that require batteries or external tags or marks that require recapturing fish, the PIT-tag will continue to identify and provide valuable information about a tagged fish throughout its lifetime without the need to rehandle the fish.

    The PIT-tag was developed after Mr. Earl Prentice, a scientist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, took a conceptual vision of using electronic tags to identify people and translated it into a device that has revolutionized fisheries research by allowing scientists to collect data on the migratory timing, passage, behavior, and survival of many fish populations under different environmental conditions. Mr. Prentice began working on the tag in 1982, and has since guided its development and helped refine many of the applications of the technology.

    Today, PIT-tags are used in many types of fisheries research and have revolutionized certain aspects of experimental biology by providing a rapid, non-lethal means of identifying individual experimental animals. The tags have been used extensively to evaluate management actions associated with Pacific Northwest salmon, and the tags are now used with sturgeon, halibut, red drum, bass, gar, eels, crayfish, king and tanner crab, seals, sea otters, turtles, and alligators.

    From:  "Breakthroughs: Honorable Mentions"  ("NOAA Celebrates 200 Years of Science, Service, and Stewardship" website)


sablefish pot
Sablefish pot with a 600-lb catch.
NOAA photo.
  • NMFS scientists develop new fish harvesting gear, 1971

    A new innovation has been introduced into one of the oldest fisheries on the Pacific Coast through research at the National Marine Fisheries Service's Seattle Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base. Scientists at the base have developed steel wire pots for harvesting sablefish, or blackcod, as it is more commonly known in the industry.

    The fishery for this large, cod-like fish began in the 1890's off Washington and British Columbia, spreading to California, Oregon, and Alaska. This deepwater fish is traditionally taken either with otter trawls--large, bag-like nets towed along the seabed — or with set lines consisting of many baited hooks attached to a longline set on the seabed. Both have disadvantages. While the set lines must be retrieved frequently to prevent the fish from dying or from being eaten by other fish, the pots serve as cages to protect the catch from predators.

    Sablefish caught in trawls often have missing scales or punctures from spines of other fish, or part of the catch may be crushed as the net is lifted aboard the vessel. On the other hand, those taken in pots are generally of uniformly high quality. The pots have still other advantages. They can be fished on rougher or more precipitous grounds than either setlines or trawls. The size of the individual fish retained in the pot can be regulated by the size of the meshes, so that undersized fish escape to grow for future harvest. The pots are also highly selective.

    Very few species other than sablefish have been caught in pots at bottom depths of 1,200 to 2,400 feet. To insure that lost pots do not continue to trap fish, depleting the resource, panels of cotton mesh, which deteriorate with time, letting fish out, are incorporated into the walls of the pots. Scientists at the Seattle base have labeled such panels "escape hatches". The utility of both rigid cylindrical and collapsible rectangular pots is being investigated, with the collapsible retangular units having the added advantage of reducing the storage area needed for pots on the deck of the vessel.

    NMFS scientists plan to use the pots as a research tool to assess the relative abundance of sablefish on the Continental Shelf and Slope in the northeastern Pacific from California to the Arctic Ocean. This information will be used to establish the size of the sablefish resource and provide data to insure that stocks will not be overfished by an expanding domestic and foreign fishery.

    Catches of sablefish have ranged up to 1,000 pounds in a single pot lifting. In cooperation with commercial fishermen, NMFS scientists have perfected the pot fishing system to the point where several vessels have been outfitted with the new gear. When fishing pots on a longline with 6 to 12 pots per line, one commercial vessel has landed up to 30,000 pounds of dressed sablefish in a ten-day trip.

    From:  NOAA Week newsletter. 3 March 1971, 2(10):4.


sablefish pot
Salmon-counting device.  NOAA photo.
  • Salmon-counting sonar device developed with NMFS support, 1971

    A salmon-counting sonar device has been developed under the fisheries grant-in-aid program administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The counter was developed by the Electrodynamics Division of the Bendix Corporation under contract to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for enumerating salmon in glacially turbid Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet streams where visual counts are impossible. The device can also be used to replace weirs and counting towers where such stations are not practical or desirable.

    The counter uses an array of 30 transducers secured to a plastic frame that resembles a ladder. The frame is submerged, perpendicular to the shore, along the route of salmon migration. The transducers "illuminate" a 50-foot path with sound from the bottom upward. As fish swim through this path, sound bounces off them and triggers a counter that resembles the odometer of an automobile. Echoes returning from surface air and surface-floated debris are electrically disregarded. A 12-volt battery will power the system for about three weeks. The entire unit weighs little more than 300 pounds, and can be loaded into a small bush plane for transportation. It can be installed by two or three men in about half a day.

    Development of automatic nonvisual counting methods is an important step in the proper management of the salmon resource because many major runs are now largely unenumerated due to glacially turbid rivers, remoteness of area, and cost requirements. At present the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has nine counting units in operation; others are being operated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and the Washington State Department of Fisheries, and one has been delivered in England.

    From:  NOAA Week newsletter, 23 April 1971, 2(16):5.

  • Computer plotting of North Pacific fishing stations, 1971

    Murray Amos completed a computer program in Fortran for the IBM 1130 for plotting a Mercator projection chart with the Calcomp 563 plotter. The chart can include any latitude and longitude of the Northern Hemisphere for boundaries. Optional features include plotting of positions on the chart, track lines between plotted positions, printing beside plotted positions, construction of internal latitude and longitude lines at stipulated intervals, and a stylized outline of coastlines and islands. The latter feature is prepared separately from the plotting program and presently includes data to plot the North Pacific Ocean-Bering Sea rim from Baja California to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

    The program has been used to depict the summer cruise of the RV George B. Kelez including fishing stations and dates in the North Pacific, and to produce a series of charts showing the locations at which fur seal samples were collected off the coast of Washington on the basis of the residual food items found in their stomachs. Further uses will include plotting of oceanographic stations occupied by research vessels of all nations investigating the North Pacific during the past 10 years with overlays relating research findings to catches by foreign fishing fleets.

    From:  North Pacific Fisheries Research Center Monthly Report, Sept. 1971.

  • Electronic acoustic trawl measuring device, 1974

    Last year [1973] the Conservation Engineering Program, Marine Fish Shellfish Division, initiated the development of an electroacoustic instrumentation system which can be attached around the mouth opening of a fish trawl to measure the opening's dimensions while the trawl is actually being fished underwater. In the case of bottom trawls, which are fished on or near the seabed, the system also provides a measure of exactly how close to the seabed the trawl is being towed. These measurements of the actual underwater configuration of the trawl mouth opening are essential to (1) developing a more complete understanding of how both commercial and research vessel trawls operate and to (2) provide a foundation for improved trawl design. Also, the data obtained by the trawl measuring system are especially critical for accurate estimates of the abundance of fish stocks which are extrapolated from the catches made on trawl sampling surveys. For these surveys it is necessary to calculate the area "swept" by the mouth opening of a trawl, and it has been found that calculations made solely on the basis of theory and measurement made when the gear is not underwater are unsatisfactory. This is because the actual dimensions of the trawl underwater are a function of a variety of interacting forces whose effects cannot be accurately predicted without direct observation.

    Prior to the present project, a study was made of existing trawl mensuration systems. It became apparent that those developed to date were unsuitable for our present purposes and budget. Some systems, developed for engineering studies of trawls, were more sophisticated than required, while others were too limited in their capabilities. Subsequently, the Center contracted with the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of the University of Washington, Seattle, for the design and construction of a suitable system.

    Specifications were discussed with APL personnel and final selection tailored to availability of funds. This resulted in a number of compromises, including the elimination of measurement of some parameters. The final design included provision for measuring wing spread, headrope height from bottom, footrope height from bottom, and distance between the headrope and footrope units. Data are recorded on a cassette tape located in the headrope unit with the wing transducer information telemetered to it by wire and the footrope unit data by an acoustic link. The repetition rate for recording data is variable from about 3.3 to 26 seconds (i.e., one reading of each parameter is recorded at whatever rate is selected. Tape life at the fast 0.3 sec) rate is about 20 hours and proportionally greater at the slower rates. Battery life of both the headrope and footrope units is about 40 hours at the fast repetition rate. Depth capability is greater than 300 fathoms.

    At present, readout of tapes is with a digital display device and data transcribed manually from the readout. This is a time consuming activity and ultimately the tapes will be transcribed and the data printed out by computers. A capability for adding parameters and a real time readout has been designed into the present system.

    Initial work with the system was done by the Center during late 1973 and early 1974 aboard the NOAA fishery research vessel John N. Cobb. Objectives were to evaluate the instrumentation performance and to begin measurement of various trawling systems. Minor problems in performance were noted in initial trials and were mainly associated with the abuse the gear received in handling aboard the vessel. These problems have been largely resolved.

    Experiments to date have been carried out in Puget Sound with emphasis on evaluation of trawling gear used in the Center's resource survey work. These include the 400-mesh Eastern-trawl and a 61-ft shrimp sampling trawl. In addition, some-work has been done-with a 91-ft semi-balloon shrimp trawl used in the Kodiak shrimp fishery.

    From:  Northwest Fisheries Center Monthly Report, April 1974.

  • Conceptual model of the Bering Sea ecosystem, 1974

    Dr. Michael Tillman (Food Chain Dynamics Subtask) and Hiroshi Kajimura (Pelagic Fur Seal Investigation Subtask) coordinated research plans to prevent duplication of effort in defining the structure of the food web in the eastern Bering Sea. A possible subsystem would involve the interactions between northern fur seal, walleye pollock, and several other species of fish. Current plans call for Food Chain Dynamics to define the fish component of this subsystem. Both Subtasks will identify the major species comprising their particular component and quantify predator-prey relationships, as much as possible, in terms of weight and numbers. These will be among inputs ultimately used to develop a conceptual model of the Bering Sea ecosystem.

    From:  Northwest Fisheries Center Monthly Report, Oct. 1974.


Nimbus G satellite
Nimbus G satellite.  NASA image.
  • Fishery application of satellites, 1977

    Dr. Felix Favorite was appointed the Center's representative to the NMFS Mimbus-G Satellite. Coastal Zone Color Scanner (CZCS) Committee. The satellite will be launched in 1978. One of a number of experiments will be quantitative measurements of ocean color in four spectral resolution channels over a swath width of 1500 kilometers; specific ocean areas will be viewed as often as every 3 days or less, clouds permitting. The NMFS Committee will investigate fishery applications and coordinate participation in the Nimbus-G program.

    Emphasis will be on sensor validation, but ocean color measurements will provide indicators of currents, sediment distribution, chlorophyll concentrations, and other processes related to fish distribution. Earlier NMFS satellite studies in the Gulf of Mexico have shown relations between water color and fishing success for menhaden, and there is evidence that delineation of turbid water may serve as a locator for groundfish and shrimp. The ability to examine ocean conditions with real color, along with thermal and false color imagery information currently being used will enhance our ability to analyze bioenvironmental relations.

    Added note:  The Nimbus G satellite was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 24, 1978, by a Delta 2910 launch vehicle. It was placed in a circular, near-polar orbit with an inclination of 99.3 degrees and a period of 104 minutes. Similar to the other satellites in this series, Nimbus G was butterfly-shaped.

    Spacecraft and experiment data were transmitted to Earth stations immediately, or stored in an on-board high-speed tape recorder for subsequent playback when the satellite was in view of a ground acquisition station. Nimbus G was the first satellite to provide continuous, worldwide environmental data to help scientists throughout the world determine the physical characteristics of the global atmosphere, the oceans, the dynamic atmosphere-ocean interface, and the Earth's heat balance. For the first time, the European Space Agency (ESA) received and processed direct Nimbus G data at Lannion, France.

    From:  Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center Monthly Report, Jan. 1977.

Additional reading:

  • Greenwood, M. R. 1982. Exploratory Fishing and Gear Development. In R. R. Mitsuoka, R. E. Pearson, L. J. Rutledge, and S. Waterman (editors), Fifty Years of Cooperation and Commitment: 1931-81, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, p. 107-128. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/NWC-34.  (.pdf, 2.13 MB).
  • Sundstrom, G. T. (Illustrator). 1957. Commercial Fishing Vessels and Gear. Fish and Wildlife Service Circular 48. 48 p.  (.pdf, 2.9 MB).

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