Denise Harrington: Let Kids Be Kids, October 18, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Denise Harrington

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

September 16-30, 2016

Mission: Longline Survey

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Location: 45 27’19″ N  123o 50’33″ W, Tillamook, Oregon

Weather: Rainy, windy, cloudy, and cold (nothing like the Gulf of Mexico).

Meet a Scientist: Dr. William “Trey” Driggers

Trey Drigger’s passion for aquatic predators was born in a lake at his grandparents’ house in Florida, while his dad, a jet pilot, was off fighting in the war in Vietnam.  When his dad left, Trey’s mom loaded the two boys and two dogs into the car and headed north to her parents’ lakefront home in Florida.  Soon thereafter, one of the dogs, used to swimming in safer waters, got eaten by an alligator that lived in the lake.  Trey feared the gators but also must have been fascinated by the life and death struggle between two animals.

With thoughts of fighter pilots and alligators, Trey was one of those students teachers might find challenging. He had trouble focusing on the mundane.  But through books, he could get a little bit of the thrill he sought.


He knew he was destined to do something cool, just like his dad. Yet by the end of college Trey was still unsure of what he wanted to become.  One day, he was in the library when the spine of a book caught his eye: Sharks Attack.  After reading this book his childhood fascination with aquatic predators was reinvigorated. During a trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Trey purchased a book entitled “Sharks in Question.” The last chapter was about how to become a shark specialist.  What, he thought, I can make a living studying sharks?!


Trey quickly finished up his history degree and began two years of science classes he had missed.  In Marine Science 101, the professor said “If you are here for sharks, whales, or dolphins, you can leave right now.”  Trey took the warning as a challenge, and began his now spectacular career with sharks.


Trey and Chief Boatswain Tim Martin measure a sandbar (Carcharhinus plumbeus) shark while fisheries biologist, Paul Felts, records data.  Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

His attraction to the mysteries of the deep and the written word has resulted in many discoveries, including a critical role in the discovery of a new species, the Carolina hammerhead (Sphryna gilberti). Recently, Trey’s research has focused on, among other things, examining the movement patterns of sharks. However, understanding the movement patterns of sharks is tricky.  Many have large ranges and occupy numerous habitats under the surface of the ocean that covers over 70% of our planet.  Most sharks can’t be kept in captivity.  For all these reasons and more, sharks are mysterious and fascinating creatures.

So which sharks are currently catching Trey’s attention? One of his many interests is a group of bonnethead  (Sphyrna tiburo) sharks that have been recaptured over multiple summers in specific estuaries in South Carolina.

Like other hammerhead sharks, the bonnethead shark has a cephalofoil.  Why do hammerheads look like that?


The photo of this bonnethead shark was taken in 2010 by a fellow TAS, Bruce Taterka, also aboard the Oregon II.

Theories abound about the funny looking hammerheads, whose heads look more like wings than hammers.  As Trey says, many people have speculated “the hammerhead has a cephalofoil because ….” giving a single reason.  Some say the cephalofoil acts as a dive plane, pulling the shark up or down as it swims, others say the distance between the nostrils allows it to smell better, honing in on prey, some say it is to compensate for their blind spot, and still others hypothesize that the shark uses its head to pin down prey.


Many people have asked this question, but very few get to work like Trey does, collecting data, making observations, and analyzing the data. He says the best part of his job is “when I figure something out that no one else knows.” One day, looking at data a friend collected in Bull’s Bay estuary, near Charleston, South Carolina, he noticed a pattern of the same sharks getting recaptured there year after year.  A small group of different aged, different size friends going to enjoy their summer together to Bull’s Bay while another group always going to the North Edisto estuary every year?  Why?

Trey hypothesizes that in the summer, blue crab abound in that spot, and are thick with eggs. The bonnetheads have the shortest gestation period of all sharks, four months, and need a lot of nutrients.  Their heads, shaped just right for holding down a blue crab, and their convergence at Bull’s Bay on the fertile female crabs, may just be the elements necessary to get a shark pup from embryo to viability.  Pretty cool!


Here, a juvenile bonnethead shark is being measured.  Photo: NOAA Fisheries

With all this evidence supporting a hypotheses that the bonnethead shark cephalofoil is used for holding down prey, one might predict that Trey’s next publication on the topic will make that conclusion.

“People want to pick one answer,” Trey says, but “there is a lot more that we don’t know than we do.”   There is often more than one right answer, he continues, more than one solution to a problem.  Speaking about fishing regulation, conservationists and fishermen, Trey suggests that both sides need to understand that the other side has positive things to contribute.  He lives his life this way, moving fluidly among the deck crew, officers, stewards, and scientists looking for commonalities.  Together, all the members of the team play an essential role in keeping the ship and survey moving forward.


Kevin, Matt Ellis, NOAA Science Writer, Paul, and Trey were the four other members of the day shift science team.  I took my christened baiting gloves home with me as a souvenir.

Personal Log

Each member of the crew shared insights and skills that I will take back to my classroom and incorporate into my life

My work as a NOAA Teacher at Sea was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I knew very little about fish before stepping aboard the Oregon II, and from the crew have gained understanding of and appreciation for fish, other marine species, and the diversity of life on our planet.  I’ve learned that while the Gulf of Mexico is home to the world’s largest fisheries, the human impact from industries, watershed runoff, development, and other sources is unbelievable.

When the time for science arrives, or weaves its way into the other subjects as it always does, students’ eyes light up.  I know I am far from a professional scientist, but through NOAA,  I can now speak authentically and accurately about what happens in the field and why.  My students have become mini-scientists, speaking among themselves about collecting data as if it were a playground game.

As I listened to NOAA Corps Officer David Reymore share memories of a Make a Wish trip with his son to Disneyland, I learned to take each moment with a child as a gift and was also reminded of the sacrifice crew members and their families make in support of science during their weeks, months, and years at sea. Thank you, each and every NOAA crew member aboard the NOAA fleet, for your service.  With the time away from family as the only negative, I learned that the many different careers available through NOAA provide great learning opportunities, adventure, and inspiration to those who are ready for some very hard work.

What advice can you give me as a teacher, I ask Trey.  “Quote me on this,” he says with a smile, “don’t give kids so much —- homework.  Let them be kids.”


NOAA Corps Officer Brian Yannutz wears his lucky shark hat as we bring in the long line.

Laughing, shaking my head in amazement, leafing through my journals, I have enough inspiration from these two weeks to last a lifetime.  How did I get so fortunate?



Denise Harrington: What Fish Do I Eat? October 3, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Denise Harrington

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

September 16-30, 2016

Mission: Longline Survey

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Monday, October 3, 2016

I asked Kevin Rademacher, Research Fisheries Biologist at the Pascagoula, Mississippi Lab, what fish I could eat and still support sustainable fisheries.  He answered with a question, “Have you read the book Four Fish?” When I finished reading the book by Paul Greenberg, I spoke to Kevin again. “What do you think now?” He asked.

I said “There is something about wild fish that makes me want to catch and eat them, but I worry about whether we are eating wild fish out of existence.”


Yellowedge grouper (Epinephelus itajara). Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

“Have you talked with Adam?  He’s the numbers guy,” Kevin said.  It seems like the good teachers are always sending students away in search of their own answers.

Adam Pollack is a contract Fisheries Biologist with Riverside Technology, Inc., and works on the night crew.  We sometimes cross paths at midnight or noon.  Catching him wouldn’t be easy.


Here, Adam measures a shark too large to bring on deck.  Photo: NOAA Fisheries

During one of these transition times, we had a moment to talk.  I asked Adam about his earliest fish memory.  He smiled.  “At about five, I went fishing with my dad.  We had a house in the mountains surrounded by a bunch of lakes.”  Adam and his dad would sit by the lake with their lines in the water “watching the bobber disappear.”  He smiles again.  These little largemouth bass changed his life.


Adam takes a selfie with a red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus).

At first, he was set on becoming a professional bass fisherman but made a practical switch to marine biology.  He took all the science electives and the hardest math classes he could.  He went on to Southampton College on Long Island, New York, where he got lots of hands-on experiences beginning in his freshman year.  He believes a good education should include lots of opportunities, as early as possible, for interactive learning in a real world environment.

Once he graduated, Adam got his dream job: working in the Gulf of Mexico during the field season and then crunching numbers the rest of the year.  He takes the data scientists collect to the SouthEast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR).  SEDAR is a cooperative process through which scientists, fishermen, and policy makers look at the life history, abundance trends, and other data to determine how many fish we can catch sustainably.

Adam, and many others, also look at how catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill affect marine species in the Gulf of Mexico.  After Hurricane Katrina, he said, shrimping efforts died down by about 40%.  The effects of the oil spill are still a little murky.  Many of the biologists on board initially predicted dire and immediate effects.  Yet unlike the spill in Alaska, the warm Gulf of Mexico water is host to bacteria, plants, and other living things that might be eating up the oil.  Many questions, such as whether these living things will mitigate the effects of a spill, are still being asked. “Deepwater Horizon is always on our minds,” Adam says.  There are also naturally occurring events like harmful algal blooms and long term issues like climate change that affect fish populations.


Oil rigs dot the horizon as Tim Martin, Chief Boatswain, gets ready to retrieve the longline. Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries



Here, Paul Felts, Fisheries Biologist, weighs a yellowedge grouper (Hyporthodus flavolimbatus). Photo Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

“Can you tell me about snapper?” I asked Adam.  Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), assessed every other year, is a hot button topic for commercial and recreational fishermen alike in the Gulf. The species was in decline. Recreational fishermen went from a 180 day season to catch fish to an 8 day season and from 10 to 2 fish a day per person.  Commercial fishermen weren’t happy either: they could only take 49% of the year’s quota for red snapper, while the recreational fishermen get to catch 51% of the quota.  Fairness is not just a second grade concern, it is a major sticking point in regulating fisheries world wide.


Snapper is as tasty as it is beautiful.  Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

Red snapper is a vulnerable species.  Snapper settle to the bottom of the water column from larvae.  They are at high risk of mortality from ages 0-5, the same time when they are close to human activity such as oil rigs, shrimping grounds and easy to access fishing areas.  Those who manage the fisheries are trying to get the snapper through that vulnerable stage.  Like money in the bank accruing interest, a 10 year old snapper can produce more eggs than a five year old.  Before we take snapper from the sea, we must make sure a healthy older population remains to reproduce.


TAS Denise Harrington holds up two red snapper. Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries.

Once an assessment is complete, scientists determine a maximum sustainable yield:  how many fish can be taken from the population and still keep enough around to make more fish for the future.  Take a look at a shark assessment and a snapper assessment. Looking at these long and complicated assessments, I am glad we have people like Adam who is willing to patiently work with the numbers.

Gathering the best data and making it available to people who collaborate to make informed decisions is an important part of Adam’s job. We all want fish and NOAA fisheries biologists are doing their best to make that happen for us, and for generations to come.

Personal Log

My time aboard the Oregon II has come to an end.  Bundled up in my winter clothes,  I look out over a rainy Oregon landscape filled with fishermen hoping to catch a fall Chinook salmon. Two places with different weather and many different fish species.  Yet many of our challenges are the same.

Back at school, students and teachers welcome me enthusiastically.  Instead of measuring desks and books as part of our Engage NY curriculum, we measured sharks and their jaws.  Many of these students have never been out of Oregon, many have not been to the beach, even though it is only 4 miles away.  With NOAA, South Prairie Elementary students were able to learn about faraway places and careers that inspire them.

Soon these seven year old children will be in charge. I am thankful to the NOAA crews and the Teacher at Sea program staff, as they’ve prepared generations of students of all ages to collaborate and creatively face the task that lies ahead.



Denise Harrington: A Shark A Day, September 29, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Denise Harrington

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

September 16-30, 2016

Mission: Longline Survey

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Thursday, September 29, 2016

Science Log

The cruise is coming to a close. Looking back at my three experiences with NOAA, hydrography (mapping the ocean), fisheries lab work, or shark and snapper surveys,  I couldn’t decide which was my favorite.  Like the facets of a diamond, each experience gave me another perspective on our one world ocean.

Just like different geographic locations and work, each shark species give me a lens through which I can appreciate the mysteries of the ocean.  Every day, I held, measured, kissed, or released a different species of shark. In the Gulf of Mexico, there are 44 shark species frequently caught.  Fortunately, I saw quite a few, and will share some, in the order in which I met them.

Our first night fishing, we caught many Atlantic sharpnose sharks (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae).  They are named for their long flat snout and sharp nose. It seemed whenever we caught one, a bunch more followed. They were abundant and kept us busy.


Paul Felts, Fisheries Biologist, records measurements while Kevin Rademacher, Fisheries Biologist, wrestles and measures the shark. Matt Ellis, NOAA Science Writer, took amazing pictures throughout the cruise.

Day two, we caught a deep water Cuban dogfish (Squalus cubensis).  



The Cuban dogfish’s huge iridescent eyes were entrancing.

On September 2o, we almost caught a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas).  We brought the cradle down, but the shark thrashed its way off, refusing to be studied. The bull shark, along with the tiger shark, are “one of the top three sharks implicated in unprovoked fatal attacks around the world.”

Within a couple days of catching the Cuban dogfish, we caught another shark with iridescent eyes. It turns out this similar looking shark was not a Cuban dogfish, but a rare roughskin spiny dogfish (Cirrhigaleus asper).  


Dr. Trey Driggers, Field Party Chief, and prolific shark researcher, surprised us all when he reported this was the first roughskin spiny dogfish he had ever caught!

The beautifully mottled, sleek, immature tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) caught on September 23 had remarkable skin patterns that apparently fade as the shark ages. Adult sharks can get as large as 18 feet and 2,000 pounds.  Along with the bull shark, it is one of the top three species implicated in unprovoked, fatal attacks worldwide.

September 24 we caught a fascinating scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini).  The flat extended head of this hammerhead is wavy, giving it the “scalloped” part of its name.  Its populations in the Gulf have drastically decreased since 1981, making it a species of concern.



Here, Kevin measures one of several scalloped hammerhead sharks we caught on Leg IV of the survey.

We also caught a silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis). Like other Carcharhinus sharks, the silky shark has a sharp “Carchar,” nose “hinus” (Greek derivation), but also has a silky appearance due to its closely spaced dermal denticles.


I instantly felt the silky was the most beautiful shark I’d seen. Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries


We  saw two of the three smoothhound species present in the Gulf.  On September 25, we caught a Gulf smoothhound, (Mustelus sinusmexicanus), a species named less than 20 years ago. Much is left to learn about the ecology and biology of this recently discovered shark.


Getting ready to weigh the gulf smoothhound, Kevin Rademacher, Fisheries Biologist, stops for a photo.                                                      Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

Then, I watched the night crew catch, measure and tag a dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus).


Photo: NOAA Fisheries

On September 26, we caught a sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus).  Despite its size,  the sandbar shark poses little threat to man.


The sandbar shark’s large fin to body ratio and size make them a prime target for commercial fisheries. Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

Due to over-fishing, sandbar shark populations are said to have dropped by as much as 2/3 between the 1970’s and the 1990’s. They are now making a comeback, whether it be from fishing regulations, or the decreased populations of larger sharks feeding on juvenile sandbar sharks.


This sandbar shark attacked a blacknose shark that had taken our bait. Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

We tagged many sharks during my two weeks on the Oregon II.  If you never catch one of those sharks again, the tag doesn’t mean anything.  But this week, we also caught a previously tagged sandbar shark!  Recapturing a wild marine animal is phenomenal.  You can learn about its migration patterns, statistically estimate population sizes, and learn much more. The many years of NOAA’s work with this species in particular demonstrates that thoughtful, long term management of a species works.


On September 27, we almost caught a nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum). The barbels coming from its mouth reminded me of a catfish or exotic man with a mustache.

Today, September 29, was our last day of fishing, a bittersweet day for me.  That nurse shark that got away, or more likely, another one like it, came up in our cradle.

Every day we caught sharks, including a few other species not mentioned here.  Only once our line came back without a fish.  The diverse characteristics and adaptations that allow each of these species to survive in a challenging marine environment inspire biologists as they try to categorize and understand the species they research.   While catching so many different species of sharks gives me hope, many members of the crew reminisce about times gone by when fish were more abundant than they are now.

Personal Log

I am the kind of person who always struggles to return from an adventure.  I have learned so much, I don’t want to leave.  Yet I know my class at South Prairie is waiting patiently for my return. I hope to share these many marine species  with my class so that we all may view every moment with curiosity and amazement.