Terry Maxwell: An Advanced Operation, June 11, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Terry Maxwell

Aboard RV Hugh R. Sharp

June 6 – June 21, 2017

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean

Date: June 11, 2016

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 42 06.73
Longitude: 67 18.80
Wind Speed 20.9 Knots (24 miles per hour)
Air Temperature 13.3° Celsius (55.9 Fahrenheit)

Science and Technology Log

Upon my first entry into the Hugh R. Sharp, the one thing that really stuck out to me was the amount of visible technology.  In the dry lab alone, there are over 20 computer screens, close to as many hard drives, and Ethernet cords crossing and spanning the entire dry lab area.  In the laboratory van, where much of our species counting and data collection takes place there are three more touchscreen monitors, motion compensated electronic scales (a scale that measures accurately regardless of boat movement), and electronic meter sticks.  It is overwhelming at first, but as I have settled in now for four days it becomes commonplace.

before and after

What is more impressive than the amount of technology in the dry lab, is that the NOAA crew hooks up all the equipment before the mission starts.  The before picture of the room is on the right.

On the 9th we were delayed due to some rough water, and the need to fix some of our equipment.  Specifically, the ramp, which launches our underwater camera, was broken due to some strong waves.  The engineers and technicians of the boat reinforced the ramp quickly on the morning of the 9th and we were headed back out to our location in Georges Bank in short order.  The science crew I am a part of has the noon to midnight shift, so this gave me a chance to talk with one of the NOAA Fisheries experts Nancy McHugh about the technological advancements she has seen in recent years on the NOAA surveys.


Nancy McHugh sorts and identifies fish from a recent dredge station catch.

Nancy has been with NOAA for 26 years, and has been on many survey missions.  In my last blog, I gave an overview of our dredge missions, and how the data were collected during those missions.  During this blog entry I would like to tell you about the technology that makes all this data easier to collect, analyze, and organize than it once was.  This technology has made all the collection of data more accurate, reliable, and accountable.  I have seen first-hand now how serious NOAA Fisheries is about collecting data that is accurate as possible, down to the last and smallest scallop.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the NOAA Fisheries staff used waterproof paper forms and pencil to collect the information from their surveys.  Separate forms were used for each species collected.  To give you an idea of how many different species are collected during a survey, our survey has collected over 50 different species of organisms, and we still have 11 days left.  That means that during this survey would have had 50 different paper charts about the organisms collected.  Each organism collected would be hand tallied onto a chart about the specimen’s length, weight, gender, and if a stomach content examination was performed. Each species was given a code number so that code number could be entered into a database for retrieval at a later date.

old form

Old fisheries survey data form used in the late 90’s.  Much has changed since then.

Once the data for each species was recorded on its own form, the summary of the information about each species was transferred onto a main master form.  All the scallops were hand measured, and length tallies made for the scallop at each millimeter mark.  Once the dredge station survey was complete, someone would hand total all of those numbers to get a total amount.  The total data sets would be sent out to a prison in Kansas, which would be responsible for key punching (entering on a computer).  This data would take around 3 months to get back.  Once the keypunched data was sent back to NOAA Fisheries, it would then have to go through an intensive audit process before it was considered clean and ready for the stock analysts use.

Today NOAA Fisheries relies on a program called Fisheries Scientific Computer System, or FSCS for short (sounds like Fiscus).  NOAA scientists and programmers created this computer program to replace the tedious method of pencil and paper data recording.  My crewmember Nancy was one of the scientist involved in the creation of FSCS.  The FSCS program has helped to create not only a faster more efficient data collection system, but also one that is more accurate and reliable than the old paper and pencil model.  First, the FSCS system is an offshoot of the Scientific Computer System (SCS), which is able to store information about ship board sensors, ship positioning, latitude and longitude, winch data, and depth.  When we are about to start a dredge station, the NOAA scientists start “an event” in the FSCS computer program.  The program then begins to collect a snapshot of information from the SCS system while the dredge is fishing.

lab van

The laboratory van is set up with three touch screen monitors that all run the FSCS program, ichthysticks (electronic measuring sticks), motion compensated scales, and barcode readers to enter data into the FSCS program.  This was a empty room before the mission.  NOAA Fisheries workers set up this room before the start of the Scallop Survey.

Once the process of pulling up the dredge, and collecting of species, and sorting of species has happened the efficiency of FSCS is revealed. There are three stations in the laboratory van; each station containing an “ichthystick,” a small motion compensated scale, a touch screen monitor, a bar code scanner, and a printer.  Each station has science crew members working in teams of two.  At station one in the laboratory van, our watch-chief begins to enter in data from the different species that are collected.  The bucket the specimen is in is scanned; this bucket’s weight has been pre-programmed into a computer.  By having the bucket weight already in the program’s database, that weight is automatically deducted on the digital scale when the specimen bucket is set on the scale.  This tare process once was done manually, by pressing the tare button on the scale.   Once the specimen buckets have been scanned and weighed, many of the specimens are measured for length.  Again, the new technological advancements help with efficiency and accuracy.  NOAA scientists have developed their own “ichthystick” which essentially is an electronic meter stick.  These “ichthysticks” are at each of the three stations in the laboratory van.

icthy board

Measurements made using the icthysticks go straight into the FSCS program. There is no hand transferring of the data. This allows for fast and efficient data collection.

Before a measurement is taken, a scientist selects a specimen from a list in FSCS of possible collected specimens and scans the barcoded bucket tag to ensure the correct species has been chosen.  For this example, if a scientist was examining sea scallops the user simply places a sea scallop on the board up against a block that is at zero mm, and then places a magnet on the other side of the specimen.  The computer will make a sound to indicate the length is acknowledged, and the data is collected in the program.  Here is the cool part: the computer program knows the general ranges of the specimen’s size.  That means if someone accidentally put the magnet down at 350 mm while measuring a sea scallop, the computer would automatically put up a warning message (visually and audibly) noting that the measurement is beyond the known range of expected sea scallop lengths.  This cuts down on accidental measuring errors.

At station 3 where scallops are shucked and examined, all of the information which I discussed in the last blog goes into the FSCS database as it is recorded.  Again, the program checks for errors.  For example, if a meat weight is entered that is too light for the size of the sea scallop being examined, the computer will alert the user that the meat weight is too small for the examined sea scallop.  Then the cutter can ensure that he removed all of the meat properly.

Once all this data is recorded, it is merged with the SCS data for a complete picture of the survey.  The merged data can then be accessed by NOAA Fisheries scientist to analyze the data and create predictive models.  Essentially the NOAA Fisheries survey crew can leave the boat with data that used to take over three months to finalize after a survey had ended.

Personal Log

I don’t want to jinx it, but I think I finally have my “sea legs.”  The waves are pretty rough today, but I’m not really fazed by the motion.  Yesterday we spent a lot of time on the computers, annotating images from the underwater camera, HabCam.  During that time working, I almost forgot I was on a boat.  Part of that is that the water was calmer yesterday.  But today we have much more chop in the water and I still feel okay.

The 9th was a hard day for me, as I missed my son Zebadiah’s birthday.  Happy Birthday Z!  It’s hard to be away from my family, but as I talk to some of the NOAA Fisheries people or the crew that runs this ship I realize how short my time is away from my family.  Some of the NOAA Fisheries crew is out 120 days at sea each year!  The ship crew will work this mission and then head to another mission right after ours is done.  There are some very hard working people that work for NOAA Fisheries, and the crews that run NOAA’s fleet of ships.

It has only been six days since I arrived at Woods Hole, but I’ve seen some amazing sites.  Even though some of the crew is out so often at sea each year, I’m realizing the amazing sunsets never get old to them.  It is an awesome site each night, as is the moon over the water at night.

sun set

Amazing sunsets every night when you are over 100 miles from the coast.  Being aboard the Hugh R Sharp has been a great experience so far.

Did You Know?

Sea Stars are one of the main predators of scallops.  It’s an interesting correlation.  When we have done dredge station surveys there is definitely an inverse relationship between the number of sea stars caught and the number of scallops caught.  Meaning the more star fish that are in a dredge tow, the less scallops and vice versa.  When using the underwater camera (HabCam) to take pictures of the ocean floor, there are sections with sea stars that litter the ocean floor.  Not surprisingly, there are very little scallops in those sections.  Sea stars have suction cup like structures on their arms, which help them latch onto a scallop.  When that happens, the sea star then slowly attempts to pry the shell open.  Some sea stars are then able to push their stomachs out of their body, and digest the externally.  Another interesting ability of the sea stars is their ability to regenerate arms if they are lost.

star eating clam

Sea stars attacking a razor clam shell.  This picture was taken by the underwater camera on board called the HabCam.

star regen

Sea star with two arms regenerating.

huge star

A gigantic sea star out of our dredge collection.  The normal size one is on the right.