Studying the Impact of Sound on Fish Stock Assessments

Virtually silent Saildrone Explorers are being used to determine if noise from diesel-powered research vessels scatter fish, resulting in inaccurate stock counts.

13,881 nm

Cumulative distance sailed


Number of Vehicles


Great Lakes

Access Data Set


To support sustainable fishery management in the Great Lakes, the US Geological Survey (USGS), in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), and other agencies use underwater echo sounders to conduct surveys to estimate the abundance of fishes from large research vessels. However, regional fisheries experts suspect the noise produced by those diesel-powered boats may scatter the fish, resulting in inaccurate stock counts.

In 2021, USGS initiated a multi-year study of the effects of vessel noise using Saildrone Explorer USVs equipped with fisheries echo sounders. Vehicles have been deployed in Lakes Michigan, Huron, Superior, and Ontario to gather fish distribution and density data. 

The Saildrone USVs conducted independent surveys and coordinated comparative surveys with research vessels to better understand the impact of vessel sound on fish stock assessments. They also assessed fish stock distribution during the day vs. at night, and inshore vs. offshore. USGS scientists are using the data collected to generate more accurate and precise estimates of fish stocks.


A large fisheries dataset from the 2021, 2022, and 2023 missions with Saildrone and agency vessels is currently under analysis for evidence of vessel biases.

During the 2021 mission, the saildrones collected data continuously over 3,613 nautical miles, during which they were overtaken 61 times by crewed vessels from USGS, FWS, and MDNR. The crewed vessels were also able to collect more than 40 mid-water trawl samples to enable the attribution of species to the echo sounder data. 

This is the first large-scale uncrewed survey on any of the world’s great lakes.

“The USGS strives to continuously enhance the quality of our science by integrating cutting-edge technologies into our research. The data collected during this Lake Superior mission will help Great Lakes fishery managers make the most informed decisions possible to sustain the fishery.”

Peter Esselman

USGS biologist and project lead

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