Janelle Harrier-Wilson: Sunsets, Stars, and Analyzing Sea Life, September 29, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janelle Harrier-Wilson
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
September 23 – October 3 

Mission: Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey Leg II
Geographical area of cruise: Atlantic Ocean from the Mid-Atlantic Coast to S New England
Date: September 29, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat: 39° 34.6′ N  Lon: 072° 14.9′ W
Present Weather: cloudy
Visibility:  7-9 nm
Wind:  140 at  17 knts
Sea Level Pressure:  1010.9 mb
Sea Wave Height:  3-4 ft
Temperature Sea Water:  22.6 C
Temperature Air:  20.8 C

Science and Technology Log

Processing fish as the cutter
Processing fish as the cutter

We are continuing to trawl different areas of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Southern New England area. I have graduated from recorder to cutter. This means that when we process the fish and other sea life that we catch, I get to cut fish open to examine them. I am working with Christine Kircun, and we trade off now almost every other tow taking turns to be the cutter and recorder. Christine has been an awesome teacher helping me learn how to properly cut into the fish, identify the sex and maturity of the fish, examine the contents of the fish’s stomach, and find the otoliths. Otoliths are small hard parts of a fish’s inner ear. They are found in cavities near the fish’s brain. The otoliths are collected and sent back to the lab to be analyzed. As the fish grows, the otolith gets different colored (clearer and white) growth rings  on it similar to a tree. Counting these can tell the age of the fish. Some fish have otoliths that are really easy to find and remove. Other types of fish are more difficult to find and remove, like windowpane flounder. For more information about how otoliths are used for age and growth, click here.

In my last post, I mentioned that there are left and right-eyed flounder. Summer flounder are left eyed, and winter flounder are right eyed. In a catch the other day, we had winter flounder. As we were working up the winter flounder, we discovered a left-eyed winter flounder! That was pretty cool to see since this is a more rare occurrence.

Winter flounder - a rare left-eyed winter flounder
Winter flounder – a rare left-eyed winter flounder
Winter flounder - a right eyed flounder
Winter flounder – a right eyed flounder

Before I left for my cruise, I received a CD with information on it including how to identify many of the common fish we catch at sea. I looked through that presentation several times, and I thought I was ready to identify the fish. However, I didn’t get really good at identifying fish until I saw them in person. For instance, there are several kinds of hake. So far, we have caught spotted hake, red hake, silver hake, and offshore hake. Each one looks slightly different, although the offshore and silver hake are the most similar. Red hake have a slight reddish appearance to their scales, and spotted hake have spots down their side. Now that I have seen each one in person, it is much easier to identify the different types of fish. Fish that seemed really similar in the presentation take on new meaning to you when you are holding them in your hand. It’s reminded me once again that when we are learning new things, the most important thing to do is dig in and try things out. You will learn so much more by doing things like experiments in chemistry and building things in engineering than you would by just reading about it or looking at pictures. I have also learned about the anatomy of fish by watching Christine first do the processing and now doing it myself. It’s really cool to see the insides of the fish and the different stages of growth and development. It’s also really cool to push the contents of the fish’s stomach out onto the board to examine what they have eaten!

I thought you might like to see a short video of the process of sorting the fish off the conveyor belt. You can see the fish coming up the conveyor belt from the checker and pouring onto the conveyor belt in the wet lab for sorting.

Careers at Sea

I have learned something really interesting about working at sea. The scientists onboard this cruise do not spend their entire time out at sea. In fact, most of the scientists go out once or twice in the spring and once or twice in the fall. Just like we are doing an autumn bottom trawl survey, there is also a spring bottom trawl survey. During the rest of the time, they work at the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Lab in Woods Hole, MA. It seems like a really cool balance between doing science in the lab with a pretty normal daily routine most of the year but then having the chance to go out to sea a couple of times a year in order to do field work and be part of an adventure. I did not know that opportunities like this existed. If you love to do science but don’t want to spend all of your time in the lab, a career like this might be really interesting to you. Most of the scientists have degrees in marine science/biology, biology, or other related fields.

Personal Log

After just a few short days, I have settled in to my routine here on the Henry Bigelow. It’s an exciting life because you never know what’s going to come up on the next trawl or what other cool things you will see out at sea. Sometimes, we have been really close to the shore, and you can see the lights of the cities off in the distance. Now, we are offshore, but even out here you aren’t alone. There are ships passing by most of the time, and at night you can see the lights from the other ships off in the distance.

One of my favorite things to do is to head up to the flying bridge to watch the sunset. The past few nights have had beautiful sun sets, and we have had time to enjoy them in between sorting and working up the fish. The flying bridge is the highest part of the ship. It’s above the main bridge where the ship is controlled from. When it’s clear, you can see for miles in every direction. There is also a picnic bench up there, so it’s a great place to sit and read a book while waiting for the next trawl to come in.

After my watch finishes at midnight, I also like to head up to the flying bridge. It’s one of the darker places on the ship at night. As your eyes adjust to the night, the stars begin to appear before you. Out here, the sky kisses the sea, and the stars rise out of the inky black of the ocean. I watched the constellation Orion rise up out of the Atlantic. It was inspiring. There are so many stars. It’s not like the light polluted skies of the Atlanta area. Even with the ship’s lights, you can still make out the bands of the Milky Way. I also saw two meteors streak through the sky the other night.

Did You Know?

The goosefish is an angler fish that lives on the ocean floor on the continental shelf and slope. It uses its angler to attract prey. It has a huge mouth compared to its body. It’s also called poor man’s lobster because the meaty tail of the fish resembles the taste of lobster.

Goosefish mouth
Goosefish mouth

Challenge Yourself

Think you have what it takes to figure out the age of a fish using otoliths? Try this interactive, and share how you did in the comments.


43 Replies to “Janelle Harrier-Wilson: Sunsets, Stars, and Analyzing Sea Life, September 29, 2014”

  1. That’s so cool that you guys found a left eyed Winter Flounder! Though, I’m curious on how you know it’s an actual Winter Flounder. How do you know it’s not a Summer Flounder if it’s left eyed? Thanks! I hope you are having fun!

    1. @Lauren, great question! There are other differences between winter and summer flounder other than being left or right-eyed. One of the biggest differences is the size of the mouth. Winter flounder of tiny mouths and summer flounder have larger ones. So we can still tell them apart even if their eyes are on a different side.

  2. I would much rather have the job as the cutter; it would involve more “action”, plus I have a little experience- I’ve gutted a fish before. Pretty gross, but interesting as well.
    As for estimating the age of an Otolith, I guessed the age was seven out of eight.

    1. @First Period Student, that’s cool that you’ve gutted fish before. This really isn’t too gross. It’s actually very fascinating.

  3. The sunsets are so pretty! And I bet the stars look really beautiful at night. I love looking at the stars in the morning when I am waiting for the bus at my bus stop. It is cool that you caught an octopus, and the cornet fish looks really long for a fish its size. I hope you are having fun sorting fish!. I would want to be a recorder because I am not into the whole dissecting recently dead or dying animals. Hope you are having fun!

    1. @Garrett, that’s a great question. There are so many that are very cool. And, no, I can’t bring you back a pet fish.

  4. first reply! i’m glad you have been promoted to fish cutting. don’t fall over board or you will be soaked. lol. You should bring me fish guts.

    1. @Steven, thanks! Thankfully I don’t think I need to falling overboard. I’m not sure you’d want me to bring you fish guts!

  5. Great posts Janelle, love the idea of scientists working out in the field and in the lab, saw it on Stradbroke Island with the turtles last year – lots of data analysis in between the adventures!

    1. @Neil, Thanks! It is a very cool experience to do both. Most of the data analysis for our trip will take place later.

  6. I would prefer to be the recorder because I wouldn’t want to cut the fish wrong or see what it looks like.

    1. @Nicole, well, even as a recorder you will still see what your partner is doing as the cutter. I was worried about cutting the fish wrong at first, too, but I learned quickly how to do it.

    1. @Ali, when we cut open the fish, we see the internal organs including the sex organs, the stomach, intestines, etc. We usually focus on the sex organs to determine if the fish is male or female and the stomach to see if the fish recently ate a meal, and what they ate.

  7. Never knew fish had ears called otoliths. It’s so cool how you saw two meteor streaks! I find stars fascinating and beautiful. It’s so interesting how there are so many types of fish even within the same species.

  8. None of those fish look like anything I’ve caught before. They are too slimy looking and don’t look edible.

  9. WOW!!!!11!! Sugoi Nahh. Look at all the different fishies you found, you even found a cute little goosefish. It must be nice to be able to see the nice sunset over the ocean every night. Keep on trucking Mrs.Wilson. 🙂

  10. Thanks a lot. Now, that goosefish is going to give me nightnmares! The sunsets on the ocean look very cool. BTW I am jealous that you got to see an octopus. Those things are awesome!!! : D

  11. How did you bring in science with the use of engineering during this trip? and did the innovations made a difference to how you used it?

  12. Cutter because recording would be soo boring to me. Also, if you record you cant see anything that’s inside the fish.

  13. did you enjoy being a cutter better than being a recorder? did the fish smell when you cut them open to examine them? i still love the sunset pics you posted 🙂

  14. That cornetfish looks long, and that goosefish looks scary. What was the longest fish you saw and what was the scariest fish you saw?

  15. That’s interesting. Why is it called a windowpane flounder? Is it supposed to resemble a windowpane because it looks nothing like one. Also, I think the puffed up of Northern Puffer looks cute.

  16. It seems so cool how you get to work with so many different types of fish. The cornetfish looks especially interesting because of how long and thin it is. I would prefer cutting because you get to personally dissect see everything inside the fish.

    1. @Danny I agree. The cornetfish was really cool. We actually caught a few of them during the trip. I also enjoyed cutting. You learn a lot more about fish anatomy by getting your heads inside the fish!

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