Sue Cullumber: Plankton, Food for the Sea! June 13, 2013


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sue Cullumber
Onboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
June 5–24, 2013

Mission: Ecosystem Monitoring Survey
Date: 6/13/13
Geographical area of cruise:  The continental shelf from north of Cape Hatteras, NC, including Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, to the Nova Scotia Shelf

Weather Data from the Bridge:  Time:  8:25 am
Latitude/ Longitude:  4200.0122N, 6758.0338W
Temperature:  12.4ºC
Barometer:  1007.26mb
Speed:  9.1 knots

Science and Technology Log:

Why study plankton?  Plankton are at the bottom of the food chain. Remember they are free floating organisms that drift with the currents. That means that they provide food for many other animals and those animals are then eaten by larger animals and so on.  Therefore, plankton are important in the fact that if something happens to them, then the whole food chain is affected.

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Scientist, Chris Taylor, and Fisherman, Cliff Ferguson, bring the Bongo net back onto the ship.

So researchers are interested in learning all about the different types of plankton, their distribution and abundance in the ocean.  They want to answer questions such as: Have these factors changed over time?  Are we finding different kinds of plankton in different locations?  Has the amount of plankton changed?  How do the changes in the abundance and species of plankton affect higher trophic (feeding) levels?

Types of Plankton:

phaeocystis-phytoplankton

Phytoplankton on the surface of the water.

Phytoplankton – The plants of the sea. They carry out photosynthesis, so they are found in the water column where light is able to reach. This can vary depending on how clear the water is.  If water is very clear, they can be found at deeper levels because the light can penetrate farther.  These are the primary producers of the ocean, providing food for the first order consumers – mainly some types of zooplankton.

Amphipods, the two larger organims, and Copepods, the pink organisms– some of the many types of zooplankton we are finding.

Zooplankton – Animal-like plankton.  These vary immensely by size, type, and location. They are classified by their taxonomy, size, and how long they stay planktonic (some only are planktonic in a larval stage where others are for their entire life) .  These plankton are consumers with some eating the phytoplankton and others eating other zooplankton. These are extremely important as larger consumers eat them and then even larger organisms eat these.

fishlarvae

Fish larvae in among some copepods.

Icthyoplankton – Fish larvae or eggs. These float and drift in the water and, therefore, are considered planktonic.  Since these are only planktonic for part of their life, they are called meroplankton.  Organisms that are planktonic their entire life are called holoplankton.

Vocabulary:

Plankton – free floating organisms that drift with the current.

Trophic level – position an organism occupies in the food chain.

Taxonomy – how scientists classify organisms.

Holoplankton – organisms that are planktonic their entire lives.

Meroplankton – organisms that are planktonic for only part of their lives.

I interviewed our lead scientist onboard the Gordon Gunter who studies plankton:

chrismelrose

Lead Scientist – Chris Melrose

Name: Chris Melrose

What is your Position? Research Oceanographer

What do you do?  Principal investigator on  the Northeast Fisheries’ Ship of Opportunity project.  We collect data from merchant vessels that are crossing areas that we are interested in. I also work on the Ecosystem Monitoring Surveys where my main area of interest is primary production and phytoplankton. They are the base of the food web and tell you a lot about the functioning of a marine ecosystem.  Much of my work was in coastal regions where there were concerns about eutrophication, the enhanced primary production due to inputs of nutrients from pollution.

Why is your work so important?  We are studying the planet we all live on and we are in a period of environmental change. Long term monitoring programs, like this one, allow us to compare data from the present with the past to see how things have changed and also helps us to make predictions about what will happen in the future.

Why did you decide to become a marine scientist and work with NOAA and ocean science?  I grew up on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and always had an interest in the ocean. It was a hobby, but now it’s a career.

What do you enjoy most? I like science and being able to be out in the field – it is more of an adventure than just being in a lab.

What part of your job is most unexpected? When you are out in the ocean, there are always surprises – nature, weather or difficulties with ships, so you always have to be ready to adapt.

How long have you worked for NOAA and as a marine scientist?  From 1998 to 2004 I was with NOAA as a graduate student, from 2004 to 2010 as a contract employee and in 2011 I became a full-time employee.

What is your favorite type of plankton?  Diatoms because they have so many different shapes and geometric designs.

What is your favorite marine animal? Octopus as they are clever and it is amazing how they can change their color and shape.

If a student is interested in pursuing a career in marine science, what would you suggest to them?  Science and math are very important and you would need to attend graduate school.

What type of education do you need? At least a master’s degree to become a research scientist.

suewithbongos

Spraying down the Bongo nets – photo by Chris Melrose.

Personal Log:  

I am now getting use to my shift, noon to midnight.  At each station we put out the Bongo nets or Rosettes (more often the Bongos) and then we have to wash them down and strain out the plankton in a sieve to be saved later for the research. It gets a little harder and colder towards the end of the shift, but it has been very interesting seeing all the variety of plankton we are finding and how it changes from station to station.

stormwave2

Waves were a little higher during a very foggy day on the Gordon Gunter.

Yesterday was very foggy and a little more rocky.  It was very hard to see anything, but still beautiful to look at the ocean around us.  Today it is clearer, but still somewhat rocky.  Sightings have been few, but we were able to catch some whales in the distance by seeing them “blow” – spirt out water through their blow holes.  A Storm is on the forecast and we have had to change our route. We will not be going as far east as planned and will head north to avoid the main barrage of the storm.

The ocean is such an amazing place, with all its life and vastness. It makes you realize just how small you are and how big the world really is!

oceansunsetshipgood

Sunset off the stern of the Gordon Gunter.

zooplank

Euphausid- commonly known as krill

Did you know? Many types of whales feed exclusively on euphausid (or krill), a shrimp like zooplankton.

Question of the Day: What is your favorite type of plankton?

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