NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
September 16-30, 2016
Mission: Longline Survey
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Wednesday, September 21, 2016
My first day on the longline cruise seems so long ago with three days of work under my belt. The night before my first shift, just like when school starts, I couldn’t sleep. Trying to prepare was futile. I was lost, lost in the wet lab, lost in my stateroom, lost in the mess. I needed to get some gloves on and get to work, learning the best way I know how: by doing.
At noon, I stepped out the fantail, life vest, gloves, hard hat, and sunscreen on, nervous, but ready to work. The Gulf of Mexico horizon was dotted with oil rigs, like a prairie full of farmhouses. Heat waves rose from the black deck.
Fifteen minutes before arriving at our first station, our science team, Field Party Chief Dr. Trey Driggers, Field Biologist Paul Felts, Research Biologist Kevin Rademacher, NOAA Science Writer Matt Ellis, and I began to prepare for our first station by baiting the hooks with mackerel (Scomber scombrus). I learned quickly that boots and grubby clothes are ideal for this task.
The buoy, connected to the boat by the longline, bobbed off toward the horizon.
Tim attached the first of three weights to anchor the line to the sea floor.
As the longline stretched across the sea, Kevin attached a numbered tag to the baited hook held by Paul.
Paul passed the baited, tagged hook to Tim, who attached 100 hooks, evenly spaced, to the one mile longline.
Setting the longline is rather predictable, so with Rush and Van Halen salting the air, we talked about our kids, dogs, riots in the news, and science, of course. The tags will help us track the fish we catch. After a fish is released or processed, the data is entered in the computer and shared with the scientific community. Maybe one of these tagged fish will end up in one of the many scientific papers Trey publishes on sharks each year.
The line soaked for an hour waiting for snapper, tilefish, eels, sharks, and other fish to bite. While the line soaked, Mike Conway, skilled fisherman, and I lowered the CTD, a piece of equipment that measures conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth, into the water. Once the biologists know how salty, cold, and deep the water is, they can make better predictions about the species of fish we will find.
We attached a bag holding a few Styrofoam cups to see how the weight of the water above it would affect the cup. Just imagine the adaptations creatures of the deep must have developed to respond to this pressure!
The ship circled back to hook #1 to give each hook equal time in the water. After an hour, we all walked up to the well deck, toward the bow or front of the ship. We pulled in the first highflyer and weight. We pulled in the hooks, some with bait, and some without. After 50 hooks, the middle weight came up. We still didn’t have a fish. I began to wonder if we’d catch anything at all. No data is still data, I thought. “Fish on eighty three!” I heard someone yell. I wake from my reverie, and get my gloves on.
It was a blacknose shark (Carcharhinus acronotus), “pound for pound, the meanest shark in the water,” says Trey. He would know, he’s the shark expert. It came up fighting, but was no match for Kevin who carefully managed to get length, weight, and sex data before releasing it back into sea.
With one shark to process, the three scientists were able to analyze the sexual maturity of the male blacknose together. I learned that an adult male shark’s claspers are hard and rotate 180˚, allowing them to penetrate a female shark. An immature shark’s claspers are soft and do not rotate. For each male shark, we need to collect this data about its sex stage.
Later, Paul talked about moments like these, where the field biologists work side by side with research biologists from all different units in the lab. Some research biologists, he notes, never get into the field. But Kevin, Trey, and others like them have a much more well-rounded understanding of the data collected and how it is done because of the time they spend in the field.
Fortunately, the transition from inexperienced to novice was gradual. The second line was just as easy as the first, we only brought in two fish, one shark and one red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus).
For the red snapper, we removed the otoliths, which people often call ear bones, to determine age, and gonads to determine reproductive status. I say “we” but really the scientists accomplished this difficult feat. I just learned how to process the samples they collected and record the data as they dissected the fish.
We set the longline a third time. The highflyer bobbed toward the orange sun, low on the horizon. The ship turned around, and after an hour of soaking, we went to the well deck toward the front of the ship to pull in the longline. The sky was dark, the stars spread out above us.
“One!” “Three!” “Seven!” “Nine!” The numbers of tags with fish on the line were being called out faster than we could manage. It seemed like every other hook had a shark on it. Two hours later we had collected twenty-eight Atlantic sharpnose (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae) sharks and had one snapper to process. Too busy working to take pictures, I have nothing to document my transition from inexperienced to novice except this data sheet. Guess who took all this data? Me!
NOAA Ship Oregon II is small, every bunk is filled. I share a stateroom with the second in command, Executive Officer (XO) Lecia Salerno, and am thankful she is such a flexible roommate, making a place for me where space is hard to come by.
Last night, as I lay in my bunk above XO Salerno and her office, I felt like Garth on Wayne’s World, the thought that “I’m not worthy” entering my head. All members of the crew are talented, experienced, and hard-working, from the bridge, to the galley, to the engine room, and out on the deck where we work. I’ve made a few mistakes. I took the nasty thought and threw it overboard, like the slimy king snake eels (Ophichthus rex) we pull from the deep.
In the morning I grabbed a cup of coffee, facing the risk of being the least experienced, slowest crew member to learn, with curiosity and perseverance. First day jitters gone, I’m learning by doing.