NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard Oscar Dyson
June 8-28, 2017
Mission: MACE Pollock Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: June 25, 2017
Weather from the Bridge
Latitude: 55 15.7 N
Longitude: 159 05.0 W
Visibility: 10 Nautical Miles
Wind Direction: 180
Wind Speed: 17 Knots
Sea Wave Height: 2 feet
Sea Water Temperature: 9.9°C
Air Temperature: 9.2°C
Science and Technology Log
We have been in the Shumigan Islands, which are a group of 20 islands in the Aleutians East Borough south of the mainland. It has been beautiful. In between doing DropCams ( I even got to take over the controls once!) and fishing, we have been able to enjoy a few moments outside taking in some of the amazing views. And then, it’s back to fishing!
The Fish Lab team (Ethan, Abigail, Katy or Meredith, and I) are becoming very efficient in our roles in the lab. I am getting much quicker at identifying the sex of fish and measuring their lengths. It is really nice to have an efficient routine dialed in.
I had mentioned before that I wanted to go into detail about how the actual “fishing” works. First, and foremost, I am impressed with the amount of teamwork that is required to do this. There are about 12 people needed at various positions to make a fishing operation happen. There are people in the Acoustics Lab, the Bridge, on the deck, and of course, in the Fish lab itself. I am reminded again about how important clear and concise communication is. Everyone talks to each other with radios and ensures that all steps of the process has been heard.
Making the Decision to Fish
The scientists spend a lot of time in the Acoustics lab (or The Cave). This is where they receive the feedback from the echo sounders in the water. The monitors show images of backscatter that give the scientists a “picture” of what is going on in the water. When they see something that they would like to fish, they call up to the Bridge and let them know that, “We’re going fishing!”.
Deploying the Net
There are many steps involved in getting the net into the water. A survey technician will operate the winch. There are usually two deck hands to ensure that everything is deployed properly. They always make sure that the pocket net, which catches smaller marine life, is secure and closed. The CamTrawl, FS70 (or “turtle”), SBE39, and ITI must also be attached to the net. The CamTrawl takes pictures of everything coming into the net and the “turtle” takes a sound picture of the area in and around the net opening.
Once the science team decides that they have what they would like in the net, they announce that its time to, “Haul back!” in the radio. At this point, the winch operators and Deck hands start bringing in the net. The contents of the pocket net are given to the scientists for identification. The scientific equipment are also removed and downloaded. The fish that are in the net are brought over to a bin next to the Fish lab with a crane. The nets are then carefully maneuvered back onto the net reel.
Once Abigail, Ethan, and I see that they are “hauling back”, we start getting ready for the Fish Lab. We get dressed, put on music, and get out the necessary equipment. The Fish lab is definitely wet, so we want to make sure that we have proper coverage! If there is some extra time, we will see how long we can hold a plank for. We are up to 2 minutes!
Fish on the Table
Once the fish are placed in the bin by the crane outside of the Fish lab, we can control how fast it is brought onto the belt by the door. First, we separate anything that is not pollock from the catch. We identify and record this data. Then, we weigh the pollock. We separate the males and females. The males go into the “bloke” bin and the females go into “sheilas” bin. From there, each fish is measured. The goal is to get a total of about 250 fish lengths. Sometimes, there are more females than males, and sometimes there are more males than females. The length of each fish is recorded with an Ichthystick. This is a fish length board designed to electronically measure and record the length of each fish. The Ichthystick was designed by the personnel at NOAA. After the lengths are taken, we take anywhere from 15-50 pairs of otoliths from the pollock. The otoliths are preserved and used to determine the age of the fish. Finally, when all the fish have been lengthed and otoliths taken, we clean up. This does take some time, as no one wants a lingering fish smell around. There are numerous sprayers around that are used to clean every nook and cranny of the lab. Then, we clean ourselves up and wait for the next haul!
Though we have been working 12 hours shifts, we do still manage to enjoy some of the spectacular views. I am amazed over and over again at how stunning and diverse the landscape is here. Sometimes the hills are covered in lush green, and sometimes there are snow covered mountains. When we can find a moment, we will just stand out on deck and take it all in. It truly is breathtaking.
Interview with Abigail McCarthy
What role do you play on this survey?
I’m the “fish lab lead” scientist, which means that I manage all the wet data collection. I make sure all the fish we catch in our different types of nets are sampled the right way, that we’re processing our catch and recording samples properly and that everyone in the fish lab is having fun! I also do a lot of support work for the chief scientist in the acoustic lab, judging our acoustic data from the fancy scientific fish-finders, analyzing those data and making sure they link up right with all the information from the wet lab. I make sure we’re putting the right scientific equipment on the net every time we fish, do the camera drops, make maps with the information we’re collecting and write code for our analysis and data collection software too.
What inspired you to pursue this as a career?
I sort of slid into this sideways. I majored in biology in college and wanted to be a doctor, then I got interested in plant biology midway through my undergraduate degree. After I graduated from college I did a couple of internship/ technician jobs at research stations where I studied rare plants, bird/ plant interactions, and a few other things. I branched out and worked on a couple of bird projects (Hawaii for rare forest birds and avian malaria, and Puerto Rico for parrots and hawks), and then I got a job working on coastal plant ecology at the Bodega Marine Lab. All my friends there were doing marine science and they were having so much fun and doing such cool projects, and I got even more curious about marine science. Then I saw an opening for a sea turtle job in Costa Rica. I speak Spanish well, and I had field experience, so I got hired there and worked on sea turtle nesting for almost a year, followed up by another sea turtle job with the Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean. All that nesting beach work made me wonder what was happening with turtles when they weren’t on the nesting beach, where did they go and what did they do in the open ocean?? So I applied to grad schools to study that question, and one of the best sea turtle biologists in the world is at Oregon State, where I went for my masters’ degree. If you find a cool project and a graduate professor who is good at getting funding, you can get paid to go to graduate school for marine biology. In grad school I spent a lot of time at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, OR, where I helped teach fisheries biology classes as part of my grad work. That got me interested in fish, fisheries data, and the way that science is used to inform the decisions that are made about commercial fisheries catch. So I applied to jobs at NOAA fisheries and got this one!
How long have you been working in this field?
I’ve been working at NOAA for 10 years, started grad school in 2003.
Are fisheries something that more people need to know about? Why?
Yes! Fish are the last truly wild source of food in the world. People can hunt to feed their families, but fisheries are the last place that huge quantities of protein come from a wild source without being farmed. If we don’t pay close attention to how many fish we catch, we run the risk of really screwing that up.
Do you think what do you is important?
I do. I think it’s important because we need to know not just what’s going on with fisheries, but also we have to do our best to understand the ocean and how the ocean is changing as there are more and more people on our planet. The ocean covers over 70% of the surface of the earth, at it’s deepest it’s more than 36,000 feet deep (you’d have to run 6.8 miles straight down from the surface at the deepest place in the ocean before you’d hit the bottom). There are whole ecosystems that we barely understand because it’s a lot harder to study things when you can’t see them or measure them directly. Think about how easy it is to look at other people,pets, trees, or buildings. It’s not hard to tell how many people there are in the classroom with you or how big the school is, but imagine trying to do that 1500 feet below the surface of the ocean! We get to figure out ways to study fish and fisheries without being able to walk right up to a fish and measure it’s length or ask it how old it is, and we use that information to understand how the fish populations change, which adds to the information we know about the ocean as a whole.
How much of the year do you spend at sea?
Between two and three months, depends on the year. Usually one or two cruises in the winter time and one or two in the summer, each about 3 weeks long.
What interests you most about the data collected on this survey?
I like to think about how it fits into the big picture; both how it compares to all the data we’ve collected in this area in the past, and how it compares to what the commercial fishermen see here. I like to make maps of the data we collect too. I think it’s a great way to visualize information. I’m also really interested in the data we’re collecting with our drop cameras- fish pictures are always cool.
What is the most challenging part of your job? The most rewarding?
There are a lot of rewarding parts of my job! One of the most rewarding is probably presenting the results of a completed survey- one where I sailed on the research cruise, was the lead analyst, and wrote the report (with lots of help from my colleagues, of course)- to the Plan Team. The Plan Team are the people who make the decisions about how many fish the commercial fishermen are allowed to catch each year, and I always enjoy telling them about our work, because we do excellent science and I’m proud of it.
Fisheries science, especially in Alaska, tends to be pretty male dominated. While I work with lots of remarkable people of both sexes with whom I enjoy spending time and from whom I have learned a lot, I wish I had more female colleagues. I also sometimes wish there were more women in leadership roles here.
What words of advice to you have for my students if they want to pursue a career in biology or the sciences?
Don’t let anyone tell you “No”. Take the math classes, take the biology and chemistry and physics when they’re offered, and if you don’t understand something, ask for help from anyone you can find. If you’re having trouble with math problems, find a teacher or a tutor to help you see it clearly. We always need more scientists- especially girls!