NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
September 23 – October 4, 2013
Mission: Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: North Atlantic
Date: September 24, 2013
Science and Technology Log
Today is my first full 12 hour shift day. I’m on the night crew working midnight to noon. Since we left port yesterday I’ve been trying to adjust my internal clock for pulling daily “all night”ers. On Monday, after we left port, safety briefs for all hands occurred once we made it out to sea and I got to complete my initiation into the Teacher at Sea alumni program – the donning of the Gumby suit as I call it. It is actually a bright red wet suit that covers your entire body and makes you look like a TV Claymation figure from the old TV show. In actuality it is designed to help you survive if you need to abandon ship. Pictures are of course taken to preserve this rite of passage.
The Henry B. Bigelow is a specially-built NOAA vessel designed to conduct fisheries research at sea. Its purpose is to collect data that will help scientists assess the health of the Northern Coastal Atlantic Ocean and the fish populations that inhabit it. The work is invaluable to the commercial fishing industry.
Yesterday, I learned how we will go about collecting fisheries data. Our Chief Scientist, Dr. Peter Chase, has selected locations for sampling the local fish population and the ship officers have developed a sailing plan that will enable the ship to visit all those locations, weather permitting, during the course of the voyage. To me its sounds like a well-‐planned game of connecting the dots. At each target location, a trawling net will be deployed and dragged near the bottom of the sea for a 20 minute period at a speed of 3 knots. Hence the reason this voyage is identified as a bottom trawl survey mission. To drag the bottom without damaging the nets is not easy and there are five spare nets on board in case something goes wrong. To minimize the chance of damaging the net during a tow, the survey technicians use the wide beam sonar equipment to survey the bottom prior to deployment. Their goal is to identify a smooth path for the net to follow. The fish collected in the net are sorted and studied, based on selected criteria, once on board. A specially designed transport system moves the fish from the net to the sorting and data collection stations inside the wet lab. I’m very excited to see how it actually works during my upcoming shift.
Work is already underway when our night crew checks in. The ship runs 24/7 and the nets have been down and trawling since 7pm. Fish sorting and data collection are already underway. I don my foul weather gear which looks like a set of waders used for British fly fishing. There is also a top jacket but the weather is pleasant tonight and the layer is not needed. I just need to sport some gloves and get to work. I’m involved with processing two trawls of fish right away. I’m assigned to work with an experienced member of the science team, Jakub. We will be collecting information on the species of fish caught on each trawl. Jakub carries out the role as cutter, collecting the physical information or fish parts needed by the scientists. My role is recorder and I enter data about the particular fish being evaluated as well package up and store the parts of the fish being retained for future study.
Data collection on each fish harvest is a very detailed. Fish are sorted by species as they come down the moving sorting line where they arrive after coming up the conveyer belt system from the “dump” tank, so named because that is where the full nets deposit their bounty. Everybody on the line sorts fish. Big fish get pulled off first by the experienced scientists at the start of belt and then volunteers such as I pull off the smaller fish. Each fish is placed into a bucket by type of fish. There are three types of buckets and each bucket has a bar code tag. The big laundry looking baskets hold the big fish, five gallon paint buckets hold the smaller fish, and one gallon buckets (placed above the sorting line) hold the unexpected or small species. On each run there is generally one fish that is not sorted and goes all the way to the end untouched and unceremoniously ends up in the catch-‐all container at the end of the line. The watch leader weighs the buckets and then links the bar code on the bucket to the type of fish in it. From there the buckets are ready for data collection.
After sorting the fish, individual data collection begins “by the bucket” where simultaneously at three different stations the sizing, weighing, and computer requested activities occur. By random sample certain work is performed on that fish. It gets weighed and usually opened up to retrieve something from inside the fish. Today, I’ve observed several types of data collection. Frequently requested are removal of the otolith, two small bones in the head that are used to help determine the age of the fish. For bigger fish with vertebra, such as the goose fish, there are periodic requests to remove a part of the backbone and ship it off for testing. Determining sex is recorded for many computer tagged fish and several are checked stomach contents.
Of the tools used to record data from the fish, the magic magnetized measuring system is the neatest. It’s rapid fire data collecting at its finest. The fish goes flat on the measuring board; head at the zero point, and then a quick touch with a magnetized block at the end of the fish records the length and weight. Sadly, it marks the end of tall tales about the big one that got away and keeps getting bigger as the story is retold. The length of the specimen is accurately recorded for posterity in an instant.
Flying into Providence over the end of Long Island and the New England coast line is breath taking. A jagged, sandy coast line dotted with summer homes just beyond the sand dunes. To line up for final approach we fly right over Newport where the Henry B. Bigelow is berthed at the Navy base there. However, I am not able to spot the NOAA fisheries vessel that will be my home for the next two weeks from the air.
I arrive a day prior to sailing so I have half a day to see the sites of Newport, Rhode Island and I know exactly where I’m headed – the Tennis Hall of Fame. My father was a first class tennis player who invested many hours attempting to teach his son the game. Despite the passion in our home for the great sport we never made it to the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. Today I fulfilled that bucket list goal. I still remember being court side as a young boy at The Philadelphia Indoor Championship watching the likes of Charlie Pasarell, Arthur Ashe, and Pancho Gonzales playing on the canvas tennis court that was stretched out over the basketball arena. Also in the museum, to my surprise, was a picture of the grass court lawn of the Germantown Cricket Club from its days as a USTA championship venue. I grew up playing on those grass tennis courts as my father belonged to that club. After seeing that picture, I left the museum knowing my father got as much out of the visit as I did.