Sarah Boehm: Groundfish Survey Basics, June 25, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013 

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 25, 2013

Air temperature: 29.4 C (84.9 F)
Barometer: 1015 mb
Humidity: 71%
Wind direction: 55°
Wind speed: 7 knots
Water temp: 29.6 C
Latitude: 27.99°
Longitude: 92.99°

Science and Technology Log

Greetings from the Oregon II in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. I am very impressed by all the questions my students have asked in comments on the first blog post. Now I guess I need to start answering some of them.

Oregon II
The Oregon II at the pier in Galveston. To answer Taina’s question, it is 170 feet long.


The Oregon II left the port of Galveston, Texas on Sunday afternoon. As we worked our way out to open water I enjoyed watching the pelicans, terns and frigate birds soaring and diving for fish. Occasionally a few dolphins would surface briefly, only to disappear again under the water. The shipping channels were packed with large ships, mostly oil tankers servicing the rigs that dot the Gulf of Mexico in this region. The farther we got from land, the less busy our surroundings became. With only a few boats and rigs on the horizon, the full moon rose in front of us as we cruised to the southeast.  You can follow the path the ship takes on NOAA’s Ship Tracker.

The Oregon II dwarfed by a cruise ship in the port of Galveston.
Terns visiting the ship as we leave Galveston.

We didn’t reach the first sampling site until nearly midnight. The ship functions on a 24 hour working cycle with the science crew broken into two shifts: the night shift works from midnight to noon and the day shift works from noon to midnight.   I am on the day shift, along with 2 scientists from the lab at Pascagoula, Mississippi and 2 student interns.

There are many different aspects to the fisheries research taking place on board. On my first shift yesterday I concentrated on the sorting and measuring of fish, so that is where I will start in this blog.

A net being pulled out of the water.

The net is dragged across the ocean floor behind the ship for a half hour, and then pulled up on board, bulging with fish. The net is emptied into buckets and the total catch is weighed. If it is a small catch we keep the whole thing to work up, but if the catch is large we keep some and throw the rest back in the water. The ones we will work with are emptied into the trough in the wet lab – a multicolored heap of writhing, slimy fish just waiting to be sorted. While the rolling of the ship didn’t bother my stomach, when faced with all those smelly fish I suddenly felt rather nauseous. I had a moment of doubt that I could really handle this work 12 hours a day for two weeks. But once I dipped my hands in and concentrated on sorting out the species my stomach settled.

sorting fish
Caitlin begins the sorting process.

While this seems a simple task, many species are similar in appearance. Looking carefully at shapes of jaws or the placement of spots, we sort them out with one species per container. Last night we had 40 – 60 different species in each trawl, with fish, crabs, shrimp, jellies and more. Once everything is sorted we count the number of individuals in each species and measure their total weight. All this information goes into the computer. The next step is to measure the individuals. There are two work stations for this step, each with a measuring board, a scale and a computer. We work in partners, with one person handling the fish and the other manning the computer. The measuring board is a fancy piece of technology that is attached to the computer. You line the specimen up and simply touch a magnetic stick to the board at the end of the fish. The computer then records the length in millimeters. Next you put the fish on the scale to record its weight. Like the measuring board, the scale is attached to the computer and it records in kilograms out to the thousandths place value. Then you determine if the fish is a male or female or “unknown”. We will bag, label, and freeze a few specimens if a scientist back at the lab has requested it, and then the rest of the catch is tossed back into the sea. By the time we finish all this, the ship has probably reached the next trawl site and the process begins again.

measuring shrimp
Measuring the length of a brown shrimp.

Nick asked about the largest fish we have found. Yesterday’s weight winner was this 5 kg red snapper.

red snapper
This red snapper was the largest fish of the first day.

The weirdest fish we found was a spotted batfish. It uses those odd fins to walk on the bottom of the sea. Its brown bumpy skin camouflages with the bottom. Suspended off its head is a fishing lure to attract prey.

spotted batfish
Spotted Batfish
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark

Kevin wanted to know if we would see any sharks. We have caught a few small ones, and have seen a few larger ones off the stern (back) of the boat.

Personal Log

Jaelene asked if it would be cold, and the simple answer to that is no, not on the Gulf in summer. When I stepped out of the airport in Texas I was immediately hit by the hot, humid air. We have had a mild spring in Massachusetts – which is a blessing since most schools do not have air conditioning – and so the intensity of the sun, the heat and humidity combined to make me rather uncomfortable as I explored the port city of Galveston. Now that we are out on the water a constant breeze helps make things more comfortable…as does the air conditioning in the living quarters of the ship. The wet lab is not air conditioned, so all the fish work is rather hot and sticky.

Guillermo, Michelle and Doranny all asked about my room on board. It is a rather small space I share with Junior Officer Rachel Pryor. We each have a bunk and storage space. The room also has a sink and a chair. Rachel works a 4 hour shift early each morning and another 4 hour shift in the evening. This means when I finish work she is already asleep, but will be getting up for work in just a few hours. So being quiet and considerate of the other person is important. The curtain you can pull across your bunk is helpful to keep out light and provide privacy. Our room does not have a window, so it is dark all the time. This is helpful when people need to sleep at odd hours. It is also surprisingly quiet – or maybe a better way to describe it is that the constant background noise of the engines drowns out other noises. I have been sleeping great, even with the rocking and rolling of the ship. Kiara asked about falling out of bed, and that has not happened to me yet. I suppose it could if seas got really rough. I hope not to experience that.

My stateroom. The bottom bunk is mine.

CDCPS science students – Remember you should be reading and responding to two different blog posts (two responses to the same post is not enough). Also please re-read your writing to make sure it makes sense and has correct spelling, punctuation and capitalization.

Why do you think sharks hang out around our boat?

Can you read this clock? What time is it?

ship clock
A clock on board. Can you tell the time?

33 Replies to “Sarah Boehm: Groundfish Survey Basics, June 25, 2013”

    1. The ones we catch range from 75 – 200 mm. We also catch a bunch of smaller shrimp species as well.

  1. Alex thinks the sharks are trying to go under your boat but are getting stuck by their dorsal fins. He says your batfish isn’t weird but awesome. P.S. We have reread our response for punctuation and capitalization.

    1. Hi Kelli and Alex! I agree that the batfish is so weird that it is awesome. I am also impressed you know that the fin on top is called the dorsal fins. What a smart nephew I have! The sharks can swim deep down under the boat if they want. But there was something up on the surface of the water they were interested in. I’ll post some shark photos soon.

  2. I think the sharks hang around your ship because you are catching many small fish and sharks eat small fish.I think the clock read 10:06 PM.

    1. Yes, the sharks love our small fish! You are so close on the time – it is a little after 10 PM.

    1. I was a little scared, so I poked it a few times just to make sure it really was dead before I picked it up.

    1. Yaritza, you are correct that it is PM and the minutes are right, but you are off by one hour.

    1. We keep a few for further research, but put most of them back. They don’t all survive though.

  3. The time is 10:15 and I know this because it is in milatary time.
    How did the sharks skin feel?
    Was it slimy and wet?
    Was it scaly?

    1. You are right about 10 O’clock, but check the minutes again. That big hand is pointing to the three….but it doesn’t mean 15 in this clock.
      The shark skin felt smooth when you run your hand down from head to tail. But if you run your hand up the other way it feels like sandpaper. It has tiny scales that are too small to see and is not slimy at all.

    1. Jennixa, it is true that many of the fish do not survive the process. They live on the bottom of the sea where there is a lot of water pressure. Some can’t handle the pressure difference when we bring them up to the surface. Others die because they are out of water too long. But some creatures survive, especially the crabs and snails. When we pulled up a good sized sting ray we measured it quickly,released it as soon as possible, and it swam away.

  4. The sharks might hang around your boat because you took a lot of small fishes and they might want to eat the small fishes.

    1. Exactly. Sometimes they attacked the net when we brought it up and sometimes they hung around when we tossed the fish back in the water. Check back soon for a video of the sharks on my last blog post.

    1. The ship is pretty big and stable. Something would have to go terribly wrong for it to tip over. The officers use detailed maps to navigate, avoiding rocks and reef that would damage the ship. They also watch the weather forecast to make sure we don’t get caught in a big storm.

    1. Hi Yakimie,
      The officers on the ship are the ones to plot our course and steer the ship in the correct direction. That was not one of my jobs on board, but I did spend some time up on the bridge asking lots of questions. When we were out in the open ocean there weren’t any landmarks to use to know where you are or which direction you are headed. The officers use a variety of tools and technology to figure it all out. There is a GPS (global positioning system) that tells them where we are using latitude and longitude. A compass shows which direction the ship is facing. They use paper charts (charts are maps of the ocean) and an electronic chart to figure out which way to go.

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