Margaret Stephens, May 18, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Margaret Stephens NOAA Ship: Pisces
Mission: Fisheries survey, bathymetric data collection for habitat mapping
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States continental shelf waters from Mayport, Florida to South of St. Lucie Inlet, Florida Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
As of 15:05 (3:00 p.m. EDT 18 May)
Wind Speed 11.17 knots
Wind Direction 68.31
Clear, Visibility 10+ miles
Surface Water Temperature 26.33 ºC
Air Temperature 22.10 ºC
Relative Humidity 65.00 %
Barometric Pressure 1011.20 mb
Water Depth 38.09 m

Science and Technology Log

NOAA Ship Pisces, Commissioned on November 6, 2009
NOAA Ship Pisces, Commissioned on November 6, 2009

The principal work of the Pisces involves fish – their habitats, distribution (where they are found) and their population dynamics (how and why their numbers change over time). Teams of scientists come aboard Pisces for a few days to two weeks at a time to study, monitor, and collect data on many marine species and conditions in the waters of the United States from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and South Atlantic as far north as North Carolina. This region is among the world’s most productive marine areas, with many important commercial and recreational fisheries. Pisces is outfitted with sophisticated equipment and instruments that allow scientists to conduct surveys of many marine species, study ocean conditions and marine habitats, and map the sea floor using bathymetric (underwater mapping) analysis. Their work provides vital information to help establish practices and policies to manage marine ecosystems protect species and habitats facing stresses from overfishing, pollution, and climate change, and maintain sustainable fishing practices. Pisces also observes and collects data on weather, sea conditions, and other environmental factors important to the fishing and other commercial interests, scientists, and coastal residents.

During this research cruise, Pisces will collect data primarily about red snapper and grouper species (known as the snapper-grouper complex) to assess their distribution and abundance, or population numbers. At present, the red snapper fishery is closed, meaning that commercial and recreational fishing of that species is prohibited, because overfishing had led to a severe decline in its population. Groupers, a group (no pun intended) of species, are popular, tasty and economically important fish caught by recreational and commercial fishing boats.

The first step in the scientific work is for the team to identify areas where those species are likely to be found, so that they can have a better chance of catching them to study further. The scientists, like good detectives, gather information from prior studies about the kinds of habitats those species prefer, and then they use advanced sonar techniques to find the most promising areas to survey. There will be more about their techniques, equipment and methodologies in the upcoming log entries.

The scientific party aboard includes eleven professionals, led by Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler, Ph.D. Nate and several of the team work out of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, headquartered in Beaufort, North Carolina. All of them look forward to spending a few or more weeks at sea each year for about a week or two at a time. The ship’s operations crew, headed by Commander Jeremy Adams, includes officers who manage the ship around the clock, ship’s engineers, deck crew and, most importantly, the stewards that keep everyone well fed all day, every day.

Personal Log

I’m so fortunate to be among a terrific group of dedicated scientists and crew as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is like the NASA of the oceans. As a federal government agency funded by public dollars, its mission is to study and provide information to the public and decision-makers about the weather, climate, and management of marine resources vital to our survival and livelihoods. NOAA’s work affects everyone, as it helps us predict weather, track major storms, and alert people to potentially dangerous conditions.

Endeavor space shuttle launch 16 May, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. STS-134 Mission. Photo source: NASA
Endeavor space shuttle launch 16 May, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. STS-134 Mission. Photo source: NASA

The Teacher at Sea program provides educators the opportunity to share science with the public. It allows me and a lucky group of counterparts to work side by side with scientists, using cutting edge equipment and methods, to learn all about a research ship’s operations, and to alert students to career opportunities in scientific and marine-related fields.

Pisces ran into mechanical problems that kept her from leaving her home port of Pascagoula, Mississippi as scheduled. The superstitious among us might think that the date, Friday the 13th of May, had something to do with the delay. Then, as luck would have it, the space shuttle Endeavor’s new launch was set for just the time Pisces would have been approaching the area around Cape Canaveral, so Pisces and all other ship and air traffic were redirected to remain outside of the shuttle’s exclusion zone.
Endeavor space shuttle launch 16 May, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. STS-134 Mission. Photo source: NASA
Pisces finally arrived at the rendezvous point, the Mayport, Florida Naval Station late on Monday, May 16. I met the scientific team in town, and after clearing Navy security, we entered the base and set sights on the great-looking ship, our floating home for the next two weeks.

The scientists and crew have been warm and welcoming as I find my way around the decks and passageways, get my sea legs, and try to learn all I can about their research. They are so genuinely interested in sharing their knowledge and experience that it is impossible not to catch their enthusiasm.

NOAA Teacher at Sea, Margaret Stephens, aboard the Pisces
NOAA Teacher at Sea, Margaret Stephens, aboard the Pisces
NOAA Ship Pisces, Commissioned on November 6, 2009
NOAA Ship Pisces, Commissioned on November 6, 2009

We’ve had our first fire drill, where the ship’s alarm sounds for a deafening ten seconds, and we all scramble (walking briskly, never running) to our muster locations to make sure everyone is present and safe. Next up: an Abandon Ship drill that involves our donning an unwieldy one-size-supposedly-fits-all survival suit in under sixty seconds. The suit is otherwise known as a “Gumby” – you can figure out why!

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