Understanding rockfish: Kwiaht issues tech challenge to local high schools

Lopez-based conservation laboratory Kwiáht has issued a challenge to high school teachers and their classes throughout San Juan County to devise “reliable, economical” electronic devices to study and monitor the islands’ declining rockfish populations.

“Rockfish were an important food resource for islanders for thousands of years,” Kwiáht director Russel Barsh said in a press release about challenge grant, “but nearly all rockfish species have been fished out or threatened with extinction in the last 50 years.”

Unlike salmon and forage fish, Barsh explains that rockfish are difficult and expensive to study because they are scattered and spend their adult lives in very deep water. Relatively little is known about their ecology or behavior because a few hours of underwater video observation can cost thousands of dollars.

The solution, Barsh suggests, will be compact electronic packages that rest on the sea floor “like the NASA Mars lander” or are attached to individual living fish. Kwiáht’s biologists and volunteer computer and electronics engineers will be available to discuss rockfish ecology, “burning questions,” data needs, and technical specifications with students from September through January 31, 2013, at which time designs for proposed sensors and data loggers must be submitted for review.

Up to five winning designs will be awarded $600 each for purchase of materials for constructing, deploying and testing the devices in Wasp Passage. Additional funds will be available for boat support, SCUBA, and science advisers to install working devices by June, 2013.

According to Kwiaht, data-gathering using this sensor array will be entrusted to the county’s high schools, forming a new countywide “community science” program for youth, called Deep Reef Marine Health Observatories.

Kwiáht welcomes collaborators, young and old, to design and build additional rockfish monitoring capacity, working with island students.

“Like the international space station,” Barsh said, “Deep Reef can be a platform for anyone interested in rockfish and the islands’ rocky reef fish communities.”

The rockfish conservation technology challenge was made possible by a generous grant from the Charlotte Martin Foundation, and a donation by OWin Rhodes of Orcas Island.

For information about participating in Deep Reef and the rockfish conservation tech challenge, write to

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