Commercial fishers help detect marine temperature changes

The smart ocean sensor which attaches to commercial fishing gear.

Despite being in the tail end of winter, marine heatwaves are still ongoing in many New Zealand coastal areas, and the Moana Project sensor programme is helping decipher their impact.

That is according to the lead of the sensor programme, Dr Julie Jakoboski from MetService.

The Bay of Plenty has already recorded the most extended marine heatwave seen in New Zealand waters, a heatwave that has now been ongoing for nine months. The duration of marine heatwaves in New Zealand is shown on a new Moana Project web page ( In addition, Fiordland saw the most impactful marine heatwave on record in 2022, with temperatures reaching almost 5 degrees above normal.

To gain more information, Julie and her team, together with John Radford and technology partner ZebraTech, have been working with commercial fishers in New Zealand to collate New Zealand’s most extensive ocean temperature data. This is made possible by New Zealand fishers deploying the Moana Project temperature sensor, designed by Zebra-Tech here in New Zealand, on commercial fishing gear.

“We have over 250 sensors attached to commercial fishing gear, from inshore cray potters to Southern Ocean fishing vessels, sending back ocean temperature and depth data,” explains Julie. “These sensors collected an astounding 4.3 million observations last year, 700,000 alone in the month of June. Altogether, the sensors have been collecting underwater data for a combined time of over 12 years. In 2020 New Zealand had almost no real-time observations of coastal ocean temperatures, and now we have millions – thanks to the fishing industry.”

The ocean temperature data collected ​are emailed back to the individual vessels that collect them, and will be incorporated into MetService ocean forecasts, improving accuracy.

“From the more accurate ocean models we get better forecasts, including for marine heatwaves, and this is vital information,” says Julie. “Fishers get their ​own data back, so they know exactly what the temperature was where they fished. This, along with the improved forecast and warning of marine heatwaves, is the first step in helping fishing and aquaculture industries better prepare for changes in ocean temperatures.”

Dr Robert Smith from the University of Otago, a Moana Project marine heatwave researcher adds, “When Fiordland experienced waters almost 5 degrees warmer than average in March, widespread bleaching of native sea sponges occurred. By examining the Moana sensor measurements from the area, we could determine the depth the warmer waters extended to, and could detect the movement of the marine heatwave along the west coast off the South Island into Fiordland over several weeks. The sensor data helps us better understand the factors that generate marine heatwaves, and is supporting the development of tools to forecast future extreme temperature events”.

The Bay of Plenty’s current marine heatwave has lasted for more than 9 months, and is showing no signs of abating. Red/orange shading indicates marine heatwave conditions.

Looking to the future, Moana Project research shows that average sea temperatures could increase by 1.4 degrees by 2060. This has wide implications for marine life, including fisheries and aquaculture. By mid-century New Zealand may be facing 260 days of marine heatwaves per year.

“We can’t measure everything, everywhere, all the time – that is why we need accurate models, coupled with real-time data to forecast both short and long-term temperatures. Through working with commercial fishers, the Moana Project is unlocking the seas around NZ, providing vital data and information for all industries that use our oceans,” adds Julie. 

The Moana Project ( is a Ministry Business Innovation and Employment funded five-year research project that comes to an end September 2023. The project still has some sensors left to distribute to active commercial fishers, who are invited to contact Julie on [email protected] or call the Moana Project on 021 298 0898.

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