Elizabeth Nyman: The Science Continues, May 31, 2013


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elizabeth Nyman
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 28 – June 7, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: May 31, 2013

Weather Data:
Surface Water Temperature: 24.55 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: 25 degrees Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1016.3 mb

Science and Technology Log

Work continues here on NOAA Ship Pisces. By the end of today, we’ll have sent the camera array down to 35 spots and caught at least 45 fish with the bandit reels. I’ve personally gotten to see some of the camera footage, as well as help the scientific crew with their analysis of the fish we caught.

Fish

Here’s a screen capture of some video taken yesterday from the Florida Middle Ground. The big fish on the left is a red grouper, the fellow poking his head up with the crazy eye is a spotted moray eel, and the yellow fish not far above him are reef butterfly fish. Note that “crazy eye” is not a scientific term. (Picture courtesy of NOAA.)

This work goes on for the entirety of daylight hours, beginning with our arrival at the first location sometime between 7 to 7:45 a.m., and not ending until around 6:30 to 7 p.m. It’s a long day, with 8-10 drops of the camera array and 4 different attempts to catch fish with the bandit reels. But the Pisces doesn’t sleep just because the sun goes down. When most of the ship goes to bed, the crew continues scientific work by driving the ship around in circles. The circles are actually well-plotted lines, and the route is chosen to allow the ship’s ME70, a multi-beam sounding unit, to map the sea floor.

Map

Here’s an example of the routes we do at night. It will take all night to do one of these three blocks pictured here. (Picture courtesy of NOAA.)

Every possible moment of time is devoted to gathering as much data as possible, whether it’s fisheries data from the camera array and the bandit reels, or the mapping data that goes on at night. It’s expensive and time consuming to send a ship out here, 60-80 nautical miles off the west coast of Florida, and so everyone has to work hard while we’re out at sea. I have nothing but admiration for the entire crew of the Pisces, from the officers to the scientific crew to the deck crew, stewards, and ship’s engineers, because they all are always hard at work making NOAA’s scientific mission possible. But you might be wondering, what’s the point of all this? Why are we out here taking pictures and video of fish, and catching them to take back to the lab for testing?

This voyage is part of the SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey, which has been going on for over 20 years. The point is to gather information on the abundance of certain species of fish, which is why we need to see how many there are down there, through the cameras, and what their size, age, and fertility look like. This crew is based out of Pascagoula, MS, and that’s where the video taken of the fish is analyzed. They determine how many fish are present, and can actually measure the size of the fish by taking pictures with stereo cameras and using parallax, the difference in position from one camera to the next. They combine this data with the information that the Panama City lab generates from the ear bones and the sex organs, as well as any relevant external data from fishery observers and the like, to create a full a picture as possible about the overall health of the fish population.

Looking at numbers

Ariane Frappier, graduate student volunteer, examines NOAA reef fishery data from the Dry Tortugas for her thesis.

Cool. I like gathering data, and I definitely think that more knowledge of our fish and oceans is better than less. But we aren’t looking at fish out here just to look at fish, as awesome as that would be. This survey has a purpose. Data collected here is used by the SEDAR program, which stands for Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review. SEDAR will examine a particular species and analyze all the data collected about that species, before holding a series of workshops open to the public about that fish. At the end of the process, a series of experts will recommend how much fishing should be allowed for that population, in order to properly manage the fishery and prevent overfishing.

Personal Log

What we don’t get to record in our data, but is still pretty awesome, is the ability to view wildlife from the boat. I don’t mean the stuff we catch, though that’s pretty cool too, but the creatures that we just get to observe.

Me and Shark

Okay, some of the stuff we catch is really cool. This is me with a silky shark.

So far, I’ve seen loggerhead sea turtles, just kind of relaxing and swimming not too far from our boat. I also got to see a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins – I saw several of them, but the way they were swimming around in the waves, it’s hard to be precisely sure how many. I missed seeing at least two other dolphins – the seas have been kind of choppy, and so they disappear from view pretty quickly.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins swimming very near the Pisces.

Then, pretty much right as I was writing this up, I got to see a leatherback sea turtle who surfaced for air pretty close to our boat. I didn’t get a picture, since you pretty much have to have the camera in hand for these things, they happen so quickly.

Sea turtle

So here’s a picture from NOAA for you. The zoom on my camera’s not that good anyway. (Picture courtesy of NOAA.)

Did You Know?

The leatherback sea turtle is an Appendix I creature under CITES, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Appendix I creatures are those at risk of extinction, and international trade in these species or any part of these species is forbidden.

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