Shortly after dawn last Friday, the R/V Hugh R. Sharp was towing a sophisticated array of sensors and cameras along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Then suddenly, the research vessel shuddered.
Within seconds, the line went slack, and the team of scientists and volunteers realized the $450,000 camera system was lost, somewhere off the Virginia coast.
Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they believe the cable connecting to the camera system, known as HabCam, snagged on the remains of the Bow Mariner, a well-known wreck in the area.
The scientists lost contact with the HabCam as a college student was piloting it. HabCam, which is about 10 feet long and weighs 3,700 pounds, was at a depth of about 240 feet, some 90 miles southeast of Delaware Bay.
“We saw an abrupt change in depth,” said Robert Johnston, a NOAA fishery biologist who was monitoring the student when the HabCam disappeared.
They immediately pulled up on the cable attached to the HabCam, and then the entire ship shook.
“We felt an absolute impact,” Johnston said. “All the sensors and cameras went dark.”
HabCam, or habitat characterization camera system, is used in the federal government’s annual survey of sea scallop populations, and its loss potentially deals a significant blow to their efforts.
The ship has suspended the survey and returned to its port last week at the University of Delaware at Lewes. It won’t return to sea until Sunday, at the earliest.
“We’re losing time that we could be using to do the work,” said Johnston, who helps oversee the annual scallop survey.
The Sharp has only several weeks available in the spring to survey scallops, which last year had a catch valued at nearly $425 million, more than three-quarters of which went to fishermen in New Bedford.
Those representing fishermen said they’re deeply concerned about the prospects for this year’s survey.
“This will create uncertainty in the scallop assessment, meaning there’s a greater chance that we’ll catch too few scallops, which will be a short-term loss, or too many, which will be a long-term loss,” said Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney for the Fisheries Survival Fund, a trade group that represents scallopers throughout the Northeast.
Some in the fishing industry blame NOAA for allowing a college student to pilot the HabCam. They also raised questions about whether the incident occurred as a result of problems with another NOAA ship, the Henry B. Bigelow, which required unexpected maintenance this spring that delayed its survey of groundfish stocks more than ever before.
“I’m told that because of the Bigelow fiasco, [NOAA] transferred more experienced people from the scallop survey to the groundfish survey to try to make up for lost time,” said Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a Washington-based group that represents the fishing industry.
“Since the volunteer wasn’t as experienced, and since the captain was apparently driving directly into the path of a 600-foot sunken tanker, they didn’t react quickly enough,” he added.
NOAA officials denied the claim, saying the Bigelow delay did not change the crew of scientists and volunteers. The college student was under the direct supervision of scientists, who spend shifts of 12 hours a day maneuvering the HabCam as its special cameras, strobes, and other sensors build a detailed picture of the scallop beds.
“Any member of the watch could have been in the chair,” when the system was lost, said Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, which oversees the scallop survey.
Frady said there would be a thorough investigation of how the Sharp could have towed the camera system over a known wreck. The Singapore-flagged Bow Mariner was carrying 3.5 million gallons of ethanol and other fuels when it exploded and sank off the Virginia coast in 2004, killing 21 members of its crew.
“I am not sure of the timing, but we obviously want to understand what happened and reduce the risk of it happening again,” Frady said.
She said the delay in the scallop survey shouldn’t have a serious effect on the upcoming stock assessment, in which scientists will use HabCam images as well as samples dug up from the seafloor. The Sharp was slated to survey scallop beds elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic, and on Georges Bank off New England.
Frady also noted that, unlike overfished stocks such as Atlantic cod, the scallop fishery has been healthy and is expected to improve, based on previous assessments that have found large numbers of young scallops.
“Catches are expected to increase substantially,” she said.
But advocates for scallopers insist that the delayed survey will probably hurt the industry and blame NOAA for investing too much in the Sharp and the HabCam rather than allowing commercial vessels to take part in the survey.
“There was no planning or foresight of a problem like this,” Minkiewicz said. “We’ve advocated for a different approach that would have avoided this. Ultimately, you can’t lose a week without it having an impact. It just doesn’t add up.”
To avoid losing more time, NOAA rushed a special underwater rover to the Sharp, and the ship is expected to return Thursday to the area where the HabCam was lost.
They hope the rover finds the HabCam quickly and can bring it back to the surface, allowing the Sharp to resume its survey.
“Despite this setback, we expect to complete most of the planned work,” Frady said.David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.