La Jolla's new Southwest Fisheries labs improve technology

steve sessions with one of the underwater vehicles used in his studies. Ashley Mackin
steve sessions with one of the underwater vehicles used in his studies. Ashley Mackin

By Ashley Mackin

When the new Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) Laboratory opens this summer, the NOAA research facility will be capable of much more than it’s former self. The new space implements energy- saving technologies, has a 500,000-gallon research tank to better test its research vehicles, and improvements to the necropsy station, genetics labs, and the seawater aquaria for the study of marine life.

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Steve Sessions with one of the underwater vehicles used in his studies. Ashley Mackin

Eco factors

The new facility has green roofs that use photovoltaic power to provide solar energy to produce seven percent of the energy required for the entire building. The terraces are 30-percent covered in local plants to help collect and redistribute rainwater. The terrace bases lead to vegetated basins that collect excess water and slowly release into the city’s storm water system.

On each of the floors that contain offices, there are high ceilings to allow hot air to rise and keep the offices cool, low energy ceiling fans, occupancy sensors for lights, and glass windows on both sides for natural light and fresh air.

“Everywhere you look, there are energy-saving features,” said ecologist and science liaison Sarah Mesnick.

The Development Tank

Not only new to the facility, but also new to the world, is the 500,000-gallon, three-story tank used to test new equipment in any water standards.

“If you’re designing something that takes months to create, you’d have to test it in the environment in which it would be used,” Mesnick said. Thanks to this tank, scientists in San Diego can develop and test vehicles for use in places like Antarctica or the tropics. The tank water can have its temperature and salinity changed to reflect water conditions anywhere on the planet.

“Also, the tank is seismically and acoustically isolated from the rest of the building,” Mesnick said. When vehicles are being tested, researchers can add fish to the tank to verify that the results from the underwater vehicles are accurate. These research vessels provide fish population numbers that contribute to sustainable fishing practices.

“If we like to eat fish, you want to be able to harvest fish at a rate that doesn’t harm the population. The whole concept of sustainable fisheries is we need to know how many fish are out there, where they are and how they are responding to natural changes in the environment,” she said. “Sometimes conditions are good and there are more fish naturally, sometimes the water is warmer or colder and the fish respond to that, and we’d want to adjust our human harvest or anything humans do to not disrupt natural systems.”

Steve Sessions, a scientist at SWFSC who works with underwater vehicles, said researchers check and cross check their data to ensure it is correct. He said they use sound- and sonar-based underwater tests, take photos, and draw nets with cameras on them. The net trawls count how many fish are in an area, and the cameras record how many get out, so scientists can be completely certain of their numbers.

Mesnick said as a result of their work, the fishing industry knows which areas and species need protecting, and which ones are recovering.

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