Geographic Area of Cruise: Bering Sea and Bristol Bay, Alaska
Date: July 14, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge Latitude: 58° 36.7 N Longitude: 162° 02.5 W Wind: 9 knots SE Barometer: 1005.0 mb Visibility: 10 nautical miles Temperature: 61° F or 15.5° C Weather: Overcast with fog, no precipitation
Science and Technology Log
In the last post I talked about hydrographic surveying, the software used and the multibeam echosounder on the survey boats (called launches). The software is setup in the cabin by the hydrographer in charge. It takes a good five minutes to get an accurate read from the GPS (global positioning system) receiver. Then it takes time for the IMU (inertial measurement unit) to respond and start to read the boat’s heave, pitch, roll, yaw, and heading values.
Often, the launch drives in a circle eight in order for the positioning receivers to be “seen” by the satellites, as a stationary object is more difficult to detect than one that is moving. Setting up the day’s project using the multibeam echosounder software also takes some time but all the steps need to be done properly and to the correct specifications prior to starting the sounder. If not, the locational data will be wildly off and the depths inaccurate.
Another task that must be done from the launch before starting to transect is to test the salinity and water temperature using a CTD probe, which is called a cast. I mentioned this in a previous post. CTD stands for conductivity, temperature and depth. In the general area where the launch will survey, the CTD drops slowly to the bottom of the seafloor, collecting data that will be fed into the hydrographic program. Salinity and temperature at different depths will slightly change the rate at which sound travels in water. Again, the CTD process makes the location and depths as accurate as possible and must be done.
Usually, the chief hydrographer sets the defined area to be transected for the day and this is usually a polygon. The launch will sweep with the multibeam echosounder the outside lines and then scan at parallel set distances between the lines, either in a roughly north-south direction or a roughly east-west direction. For this particular hydrographic project, coverage of survey lines can be spaced at about 400 meters apart or greater apart depending on the depth. Recall that the nautical chart of Bristol Bay from the last post showed soundings dotting the area. Nautical charts don’t show contour lines, so solid bathymetric coverage is not always needed on these projects.
Once the technology setup is complete in the cabin, the hydrographer shares the map window with the coxswain (the person in charge of steering or navigating the boat). The hydrographer sets the points and the lines so that the coxswain knows where to direct the launch. And by direct, I mean the coxswain uses compass direction and boat speed to get from place to place for the survey. And the hydrographer in charge turns the echosounder on and off when the launch is in position or out of position.
Because the transects run parallel to each other and are equally spaced apart, the hydrographers call this technique “mowing the lawn,” (see video below) for they are essentially mowing the surface of the ocean while the multibeam echosounder is collecting soundings of the surface of the seafloor.
A day out on a launch will go from about 8:30am to about 4:30pm but sometimes an hour or so later. If the Alaskan weather is cooperating, the hydrographers want to do as much as they can while out on the launch. Once surveying is complete for the day, the hydrographer in charge has to close up and save the project. Then data get transferred to the larger workstations and shared drive on the Fairweather.
I’ve taken loads of photos and video while at sea. I have tried to post just those pictures that help explain what I’ve been trying to say in the text. I haven’t posted any video on here as the internet on the ship is very weak. These next photos are a tour of different parts of the NOAA Ship Fairweather.
The above slide show gives an idea of what the bridge is like. The ship is steered from the bridge. All the navigational instruments and weather devices, among other tools, are found on the bridge.
Did You Know?
Inertial Measurement Units (IMU) technology that is so important for accurate hydrographic survey mapping was developed by the U.S. military. IMUs were used in the development of guided missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (and now drones), battlefield reconnaissance, and target practice.
Quote of the Day
“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” – Grace Hopper
Mission: Leg III of SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 14, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge: Latitude: 29.19° N Longitude: 83.45° W Wave Height: 1-2 feet Wind Speed: 10 knots Wind Direction: 180 Visibility: 10 nm Air Temperature: 30.5°C Barometric Pressure: 1019 mb Sky: Few clouds
NOAA Ship Oregon II includes many departments and sections of the ship. As part of the TAS program (Teacher at Sea), I spend most of my time assisting the research team in the wet lab, which occurs in 12-hour shifts. The wet lab is where each catch is brought after it is hauled aboard. The process involves bringing what we find in the trawling net on deck so that we can weigh, sort, count, and measure a subsample of what is found. Fortunately, we do not have to weigh and determine the sex of everything that comes aboard in the net; otherwise, it would take hours when the catch is large. By taking a subsample, fishery biologists can split the catch into percentages depending on the weight of the entire catch and sample size. This subsample’s diversity can then be used as a basis for the entire catch. This conserves our efforts and while still providing an accurate representation of what was caught.
In order to ensure that our leg of the groundfish survey covers the maximum area possible, NOAA uses a method called independent random sampling. A computer program randomly selects stations or research sites based on depth data and spatial area. By choosing random samples independently, fishery biologists can ensure that they have not inadvertently singled out or favored one area over another and that the data collected represents an accurate picture of the fish population in the Gulf. Previous legs of the groundfish survey this summer have focused on research stations along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coast. Our sampling takes place along the Florida side of the Gulf. The goal is to hit 45-50 research sites during our trip.
So far, I have learned that the eastern side of Gulf can be more challenging to survey than the west. NOAA and its SEAMAP partners have covered less area in the eastern part of the Gulf. While the eastern Gulf is not exactly uncharted waters, NOAA is still perfecting its research techniques in this part of the Gulf. As early as the 1970s, NOAA has surveyed the muddy bottom of the western Gulf off the coast of Texas. In that part of the Gulf, silt from rivers (mostly the Mississippi) makes for a more uniform surface to trawl for fish samples. East of Mobile, Alabama, tends to be rocky and sandy with outcrops of coral and sponge. The craggy surface, while ideal for a host of aquatic species, can create challenges for collecting samples. With each research station we visit on our cruise, we have to be careful not to cause too much damage to the sea floor. Therefore, we have been using a torpedo-shaped probe to scan our trawling paths before we drop the net. While this doubles the time it takes to complete each research station, it does improve our odds of collecting good samples as well as protecting our trawling net from jagged objects that might tear the net.
Did You Know?
A fishery biologist is a scientist who studies fish and their habitats. As biologists, they mostly focus on the behavior of fish in their natural surroundings. Some biologists work mostly in a lab or sorting data in a research facility like NOAA’s office in Pascagoula, but many spend quite a bit of time collecting field samples in various ecological settings. To become a fishery biologist, scientists have to study botany, zoology, fishery management, and wildlife management as a prerequisite to a career in the fish and game biology field. A bachelor’s degree may be acceptable for managerial positions, but many fishery biologists have advanced degrees such as a Master’s or Doctorate.
At the beginning of the cruise, we conducted safety drills aboard Oregon II. Safety drills include fire, man overboard, and abandon ship. Each drill requires the crew to go to various parts of the ship. For fire, the research crew (including myself) heads to the stern (or back of the ship) to wait instructions and to be out of the way of the deck crew working the fire. For man overboard, we are instructed to keep eyes on the individual in the water, yelling for help, and throw life preservers in the water to help mark the person’s location. For abandon ship, the crew meets on the fore deck with their life jackets and “gumby” survival suits (see picture). If life rafts can be deployed, we put on our life jackets and all of us file into groups. If we have to jump into the water, we are asked to put on our red survival suits, which are a cross between a wetsuit and a personal inflatable raft.
I asked Acting Commanding Officer Andrew Ostapenko (normally the Executive Officer but is the acting “captain” of our cruise) about what we would do in the event of a storm. With a length of 170 feet and a width of 34 feet, Oregon II is large enough to handle normal summer squalls and moderate weather like the ones we have sailed through the first few days our trip, but it is important to avoid tropical storms or hurricanes (like Barry, which is gathering near the coast of Louisiana), which are just too big to contend. On the ship, the officers keep a constant watch on the weather forecast with real-time data feeds from the National Weather Service (NWS).
As part of my orientation to the ship, I took a tour of the safety features of Oregon II with the officer in charge of safety for our cruise, OPS Officer LT Ryan Belcher. He showed us what would happen in case of an emergency. There are 6 life rafts on board, and each can hold 16 people. Three rafts position on each side of the ship, and they automatically float free and inflate if that side of the ship goes underwater. An orange rescue boat can be deployed if someone falls overboard, but that craft is more It is more regularly used for man overboard drills and to support periodic dives for underwater hull inspections and maintenance.
If an emergency on the ship did occur, it would be essential to send out a call for help. First, they would try the radio, but if radio communication no longer worked, we also have a satellite phone, EPIRBS (satellite beacons), and a radar reflector (that lets ships nearby know there is an emergency). On the lower tech end, old fashion emergency flares and parachute signals can be launched into the air so other ships could locate us.
Weather at 1600 Pacific Standard Time on Thursday 11 July 2019
Happy to report we’re back to a much calmer sea state! I finally made it up to the flying bridge again since it isn’t raining or choppy anymore. It’s the first time in two days I’ve needed to wear sunglasses. The ocean looks almost level with scattered patches of wavelets which indicates about a 5 knot wind speed. It reminds me of the surface of my palms after I’ve been in the water too long – mostly smooth but with lots of tiny wrinkles. Check out this awesome weather website to look at what the wind is doing in your area!
Stretch everyday. I should stretch everyday. I do not. On the ship it’s even more of a necessity. One of the scientists calls it “Boaga” – like mixing “boat” with “yoga.” Try doing yoga on the ship and the rocking might cause you to tumble, but I enjoy a good challenge. Fitness requires strength and flexibility, so if I do some yoga and have to work harder to stay balanced since the ship is rocking, all the better.
A combination of the good food, constant access to homemade snacks, and lack of natural ways to burn calories on the ship, I need to turn to deliberate exercise. I just haven’t started that routine yet. The ship does have a nice, albeit small, gym on the same floor as my stateroom. It includes free weights, kettlebells, a treadmill, and a few other pieces of equipment. Now that our first week is coming to a close, my goal for today – and everyday forward – is to develop a routine for stretching and cardio. Sigh. Otherwise the five pounds I’ve already gained will turn into fifteen. And I have no desire to work off fifteen pounds of belly fat when I get home.
“Trawl” has its origins in Latin. The original word meant “to drag” and it still carries a similar denotation. Fishermen use trawl as a noun, verb, and adjective. On NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker we use a Nordic 264 Surface Trawl to conduct the Coastal Pelagic Species Survey each night. The trawl is spooled onto a giant iron net reel which connects to the deck with sixteen 2.5 inch bolts and is securely welded. We try to get three trawls in per night, but sometimes we don’t quite make it. Poor weather, issues with the net, or sighting a marine mammal can all put a quick end to a trawl.
Now let’s use it as a verb. The origin “to drag” deals more with how you operate the net than the construction of the net itself. To trawl for fish like we do each night means to slowly unravel 185 meters in length of heavy ropes, chains, and nylon cord mesh into the water off the stern with an average of 15,000 pounds of tension while the ship steams at a steady rate of about 3 knots. Getting the net into the water takes about 15 minutes.
Scott Jones, Chief Bosun, took me on a tour of the equipment. Two reels below deck spooled with cable the diameter of my forearm, one even larger reel on the fantail to house the net and ropes, a winch to lift the weight of the trawl as it transitions from deck to water, plus two work stations for the Chief Bosun to manually monitor and control all those moving pieces. There are three additional nets on board in case they need to replace the one we’ve been using all week, but the deck crew are pretty adept at sewing and mending the nets as needed.
As I stand on the bridge watching the net snake its way into the water behind the ship, everything pauses for a brief moment so the deck crew can use daisy knots to sew floatable devices into the kites. Later, they attach two more of these floats to the headrope (top line). The floats keep the mouth of the net open vertically. A couple minutes later they stop to attach 250lb Tom weights to the footrope (bottom line) of the trawl opening. When fully deployed, this roughly 25 meter vertical opening is as tall as an 8-story building!
It’s like watching choreography – every detail must be done at exactly the right moment, in the right order, or it won’t work. The Chief Bosun is the conductor, the deck crew the artists. Hollow metal doors filled with buoyant wood core – together weighing more than a ton on land – are the last to enter the water. Each hangs on large gallows on the starboard and port side of the ship, just off stage, until they’re cued to perform. These doors are configured with heavy boots and angled in the water to act as a spreading mechanism to keep the net from collapsing in on itself.
If unspooled properly, the net ends up looking like an enormous largemouth bass lurking just under the surface.
Commercial fishermen use all kinds of nets, long lines, and pots depending on the type of catch they’re targeting, fishing regulations, and cultural traditions. But if we use “trawl” as an adjective, it describes a specific kind of net that is usually very large and designed to catch a lot of fish all at one time. It looks like a cone with a smaller, more narrow section at the very end to collect the fish.
I imagine something like a cake decorating bag that’s being used to fill a mini eclair. Except, instead of squeezing delicious icing into the pastry, we’re funneling a bunch of fish into what fishermen call a “codend.” This codend (pronounced cod-end, like the fish) houses the prize at the end of the trawl! When they haul everything back in – taking a little longer, about 45 minutes to complete the haul back – they end up with (hopefully) a codend full of fish to study.
A trawl net can either be used like we are to collect fish close to the surface or it can be weighted and dropped to the sea floor in search of groundfish. We’re searching for pelagic fishes that come up to the surface to feed at night, so it makes sense for us to trawl at the surface. Think of pelagic fish as the fishes in the water. Sounds funny to say, but these fishes don’t like to be near the seabed or too close to the land by the coast. They like to stay solidly in the water. Think of where anchovies, mackerel, tuna, and sharks like to hang out.
To catch groundfish on the other hand, we’d need to trawl the bottom of the ocean since they prefer to stay close to the ocean floor. Trawling the seabed in the Northeast Pacific Ocean would bring in flavorful rockfish and flounder, but we’re not looking for groundfish during this survey. One very lucrative and maybe less known groundfish in this area is the sablefish. In commercial fishing, they use bigger nets, and a trawl can bring in tens of thousands of pounds in just one tow. When I spoke to someone on board who used to work on a commercial trawl boat, he said catching sablefish are a pain! They live in very deep waters. Plus, the trawl must hit the seabed hard and drag along the bottom in order to catch them. This causes huge tears, many feet wide, in the mesh. He said they used to keep giant patches of mesh on the boat deck so they could patch up the holes in between trawls. When I get home, I’m definitely going to purchase sablefish and try it for dinner.
I’ve never once wondered how the fish I buy at the grocery store ends up on my plate. Now I can’t seem to stop asking the scientists and deck crew questions. There are all these regulations to follow, methods to learn based on what type of fish you’re targeting, and so much that someone would need to understand about traveling in the ocean before even attempting to fish commercially. I’ve been immersed in a world I don’t recognize, and yet the fishing industry impacts my life on a daily basis. We are so far removed from what we eat.
Like most teachers, I want my students to find a career that they love enough to practice with such diligence. I want them to find a vocation instead of just work to pay the bills. I feel very much led to making sure my students have access to as much information as possible about post-secondary career and training options. For that reason, I’m glad to have met these folks and learn from them so I can share their practice with the hundreds, possibly thousands of teenagers I’ll teach over the course of my career.
It’s easy for me to do this as a reading specialist since I can read career profiles with students, let them annotate the text, and then engage them in a discussion on a regular basis. Reading, analyzing, and discussing text are kind of my bread and butter. For other disciplines, it might take a bit of a re-work to fit this in, but certainly not impossible. A science, math, art, STEM, you-name-it teacher could post a career profile specific to their discipline to their digital classroom space each week for students to read at their leisure. Or you could bring discipline specific literacy skills into your classroom by incorporating short texts into your lessons a few times each quarter.
I’m planning now to read a career profile with my
students one time per week. I’ll keep the texts short so that reading,
annotating, and discussing the text will stay under 15 minutes. Some careers from the ship they might find
interesting are the Chief Bosun position or a NOAA
Corps Officer, but I’ll share a wide variety of career profiles from many
disciplines based on the students’ interests once I meet them this year.
Fishing nets like the ones used on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson or on commercial fishing boats can be very expensive. If one plans on doing a bottom trawl (fishing with a net that goes down to the sea floor) one wants to make sure that there are not rocks or other things that can snag or tear the net. If there are too many rocks or boulders or uneven topography, the area is considered “untrawlable”. While computer imagery can provide some guidance with regard to what lies deep beneath the surface, scientists onboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson are hoping that video images taken with an underwater camera can provide a more complete picture and be the basis for a more precise computer model of what areas are in fact untrawlable.
Why is this important? Scientists onboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson are surveying the fish that live in the middle of the water column. However, groundfish surveys account for all the fish living on the ocean floor. If the groundfish program can’t trawl in certain areas, then they don’t know what is there. For example, rockfish often live in untrawlable areas. If a groundfish survey can’t put a net in areas where rockfish live, then they won’t really “count” the correct numbers of rockfish in their survey. Data obtained using an underwater camera can help determine what species of rockfish are being underrepresented by the groundfish program.
One of the many perks of being on the 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift is that I get to watch the drop camera in action! The camera (with its attached light) is slowly lowered to the sea floor. I have seen the camera take 4 minutes to reach the bottom or as long as 8 minutes depending upon the depth of the water being surveyed. The camera is then “driven” along the bottom (or right above it) for 15 minutes via a control box on the boat (similar to a tiny joystick). I even got to “drive” it a few times!
The images are recorded and also seen in real time on a computer screen on the boat. We have seen rocks, of course, but also jellyfish, sea whips, crabs, octopi, sea stars, and a wide variety of fish. One night, there were thousands of sand dollars. It looked like we had come across a buried treasure! It is fascinating to see what is happening deep beneath the boat. It’s kind of like virtual scuba diving!
Drop Camera Elementary School Math Fun
If the stereo drop camera takes 8 minutes to reach the bottom when the water is 200 meters deep, how long might it take to reach the bottom if it was:
It’s time to come clean and admit that I suffer from Pareidola. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious, or even dangerous. In fact, I think it’s a lot of fun. You see, Pareidola is a psychological phenomenon where you see patterns. Quite often, people with Pareidola will see faces in objects where there really isn’t one, like on an electrical outlet.
has reached a new level on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson as I am seeing not
just faces but ROBOTS like these:
know if you see any robots at your house, and I am on the lookout for more
Geographic Area of Cruise: Bering Sea and Bristol Bay, Alaska
Date: July 11, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge Latitude: 58° 36.7 N Longitude: 162° 02.5 W Wind: 1 knot N Barometer: 1011.0 mb Visibility: 10 nautical miles Temperature: 58° F or 14° C Weather: Partly cloudy, no precipitation
What is NOAA and the Teacher at Sea program?
You may be wondering what, exactly, am I doing going “to sea” with NOAA. First off, NOAA stands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and originates back to 1807 with Thomas Jefferson founding the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (as the Survey of the Coast) with a mission to provide nautical charts to the maritime community for safe passage into American ports. Over time, the Weather Bureau was added and then the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries was developed. In 1970, these three agencies were combined under one umbrella organization and named NOAA, an agency that supports accuracy and precision of physical and atmospheric sciences, protection of life and property, and stewardship of natural resources. NOAA is within the Department of Commerce.
NOAA’s Teacher at Sea (TAS) program has existed since 1990, sending over 800 teachers on NOAA research cruises. The TAS mission is “to give teachers a clearer insight into our ocean planet, a greater understanding of maritime work and studies, and to increase their level of environmental literacy by fostering an interdisciplinary research experience.” There is usually just one teacher sent per leg of a mission, that way the TAS gets full exposure to the research process and attention from the crew, scientists and staff on the ship. And it is true, everyone onboard has been friendly, helpful, welcoming, and willing to answer any question I might have, like, where is C deck? (That’s where my stateroom is located).
Science and Technology Log
Now that you understand NOAA’s mission, it should not surprise you that I am on a research cruise that is mapping a part of the seafloor that has not had detailed soundings. “Soundings” means the action or process of measuring the depth of the sea or other body of water. See the map below as that is where I am right now, in Bristol Bay. By the way, NOAA nautical charts are available for free at this NOAA site.
When I’ve told friends, family and students that I was chosen to be on a NOAA research vessel that was compiling a detailed map of the sea floor off of Alaska, it was met with great surprise. “The ocean floor hasn’t been mapped before? How could that be?” In fact, more than 80 percent of the ocean bottom has not been mapped using modern, highly precise technologies. But we do have a very coarse ocean floor – or bathymetric – map, created in the early 1950s by Marie Tharp using sounding data collected by the U.S. military and her collaborator Bruce Heezen. Tharp’s early map of the sea floor beautifully revealed the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and added another piece of evidence in support of the theories of continental drift plate tectonics. There’s a terrific Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode featuring Tharp.
Why we need a more detailed bathymetry map than the one created by Tharp and Heezen can be explained by the original mission of the early version of NOAA. Jefferson wanted to build a “…survey to be taken of the coasts of the United States…” in order to provide safe passage of ships to ports within the navigable waters of the U.S. As the Bristol Bay chart above shows, there are still coastal areas that have limited to no data. Without detailed charts, mariners cannot know where the shallower waters are (called shoals), or rock obstructions, shifted underwater sand bars, shipwrecks, or other hindrances that cause safety concerns to the movement of boats.
The hydrographic Survey Team on the NOAA Ship Fairweather use several 30 foot boats, called launches, with a multibeam echosounder attached to the hull (the bottom of the ship). The multibeam echosounder uses sonar and is a device useful for both shallow and deep water. In a nutshell, depth measurements are collected by calculating the time it takes for each of the sound pulses to travel from the echosounder through the sea water to the ocean floor and back again. The distance from the instrument to the seafloor is calculated by multiplying the travel time by the speed of sound through seawater, which is about 1,500 meters/second or 4,921 feet/second. Right before a hydrographic survey is started, the team collects information on the conductivity, temperature and depth of the sea water, as temperature and salinity will modify the density and change the travel time of the sonar pulses. The video below can explain the process further.
The software used to collect the soundings is created by the multibeam echosounder manufacturer, so the collection of millions of points on a transect is seamless. Data collection runs are taken over multiple days and several “legs” or extended periods of time when the crew are all out at the same time on the Fairweather. Following collection transects, the data are then post-processed using Caris HIPS and SIPS, which is the software that the Fairweather hydrographers use for data processing.
We’ve motored to a new location, Cape Newenham, which is the name of this mission, so we will be here for about a week. When we got underway, the ship got to really rocking and my stomach could not handle it. I had one bad night but I am now fine and ship shape!
Cape Newenham is at latitude 58°N so we are up close to the Arctic Circle (66.5°N). At this time of year, there are about 5 hours of darkness per night here in Alaska, which is really cool. Compare that what we have in New York…
Did You Know?
You probably know that Charles Darwin was the naturalist on board the HMS Beagle which set sail on December 27,1831. Over the nearly five years the Beagle was at sea, Darwin developed his ideas on natural selection and evolution of species. But what you might not know is that the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, was an officer in the Royal Navy, a meteorologist and hydrographer. In fact, the primary mission of the Beagle was to survey the coastline of South America and, in particular, the Strait of Magellan, at the southernmost tip. Better, more accurate charts were needed by the British government, to navigate the treacherous, rough waters of the channels. In addition, FitzRoy was a protégé of Francis Beaufort (who developed the Wind Force Scale which is still used to help explain wind speed) and both worked together to create the science of weather forecasting.
Quote of the Day
“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.” – Rachel Carson
Mission: Leg III of SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 11, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge: Latitude: 28.29° N Longitude: 83.18° W Wave Height: 1-2 feet Wind Speed: 11 knots Wind Direction: 190 Visibility: 10 nm Air Temperature: 29.8°C Barometric Pressure: 1013.6 mb Sky: Few clouds
As I mentioned in my introductory post, the purpose of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey is to collect data for managing commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the science involved is much more complex than counting and measuring fish varieties.
The research crew gathers data in three ways. The first way involves trawling for fish. The bulk of the work on-board focuses on trawling or dragging a 42-foot net along the bottom of the Gulf floor for 30 minutes. Then cranes haul the net and its catch, and the research team and other personnel weigh the catch. The shift team sorts the haul which involves pulling out all of the shrimp and red snapper, which are the most commercially important species, and taking random samples of the rest. Then the team counts each species in the sample and record weights and measurements in a database called FSCS (Fisheries Scientific Computer System).
SEAMAP can be used by various government, educational, and private entities. For example, in the Gulf data is used to protect the shrimp and red snapper populations. For several years, Gulf states have been closing the shrimp fishery and putting limits on the snapper catches seasonally to allow the population to reproduce and grow. The SEAMAP data helps determine the length of the season and size limits for each species.
Another method of data collection is conductivity, temperature, and depth measurements (CTD). The process involves taking readings on the surface, the bottom of Gulf floor, and at least two other points between in order to create a CTD profile of the water sampled at each trawling locations. The data becomes important in order to assess the extent of hypoxia or “dead zones” in the Gulf (see how compounded data is used to build maps of hypoxic areas of the Gulf: https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/noaa-forecasts-very-large-dead-zone-for-gulf-of-mexico). Plotting and measuring characteristics of hypoxia have become a major part of fishery research especially in the Gulf, which has the second largest area of seasonal hypoxia in the world around the Mississippi Delta area. SEAMAP data collected since the early 1980s show that the zone of hypoxia in the Gulf has been spreading, unfortunately. One recent research sample taken near Corpus Christi, TX indicated that hypoxia was occurring further south than in the past. This summer, during surveys two CTD devices are being used. The first is a large cylinder-shaped machine that travels the depth of the water for its readings. It provides a single snapshot. The second CTD is called a “Manta,” which is a multi-parameter water quality sonde (or probe). While it can be used for many kinds of water quality tests, NOAA is using it to test for hypoxia across a swath of sea while pulling the trawling net. This help determine the rate of oxygenation at a different depth in the water and across a wider field than the other CTD can provide.
Did You Know?
Algae is a major problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia is often associated with the overgrowth of certain species of algae, which can lead to oxygen depletion when they die, sink to the bottom, and decompose. Two major outbreaks of algae contamination have occurred in the past three years. From 2017-2018, red algae, which is common in the Gulf, began washing ashore in Florida. “Red Tide” is the common name for these algae blooms, which are large concentrations of aquatic microorganisms, such as protozoans and unicellular algae. The upwelling of nutrients from the sea floor, often following massive storms, provides for the algae and triggers bloom events. The wave of hurricanes (including Irma and during this period caused the bloom. The second is more recent. Currently, beaches nearest the Mississippi Delta have been closed due to an abundance of green algae. This toxic algae bloom resulted from large amounts of nutrients, pesticides, fertilizers being released into the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Louisiana because of the record-high Mississippi River levels near Lake Pontchartrain. The spillway opening is being blamed for high mortality rates of dolphins, oysters and other aquatic life, as well as the algae blooms plaguing Louisiana and Mississippi waters.
Pulling away from Pascagoula yesterday, I knew we were headed into open waters for the next day and half as we traveled east down the coast to the Tampa Bay, FL area. I stood on the fore deck and watched Oregon II cruise past the shipyard, the old naval station, the refinery, navigation buoys, barrier islands, and returning vessels. The Gulf is a busy place. While the two major oceans that flank either side of the U.S. seem so dominant, the Gulf as the ninth largest body of water in the world and has just as much importance. As a basin linked to the Atlantic Ocean, the tidal ranges in the Gulf are extremely small due to the narrow connection with the ocean. This means that outside of major weather, the Gulf is relatively calm, which is not the case with our trip.
As we cruise into open waters, along the horizon we can see drilling platforms jutting out of the Gulf like skyscrapers or resorts lining the distant shore. Oil and gas extraction are huge in this region. Steaming alongside us are oil tankers coming up from the south and cargo ships with towering containers moving back and forth between Latin America and the US Coast. What’s in the Gulf (marine wildlife and natural resources) has geographic importance, but what comes across the Gulf has strategic value too.
The further we cruised away from Mississippi, the water became choppy. The storm clouds that delayed our departure the day before were now overhead. In the distances, rain connected the sky to sea. While the storm is predicted to move northwest, the hope is that we can avoid its intensification over the Gulf Stream as we move southeasterly.
I learned that water in the Gulf this July is much warmer than normal. As a result, locally produced tropical storms have formed over the Gulf. Typically, tropical storms (the prelude to a hurricane) form over the Atlantic closer to the Equator and move North. Sometimes they can form in isolated areas like the Gulf. Near us, an isolated tropical storm (named Barry) is pushing us toward research stations closer to the coast in order to avoid more turbulent and windy working conditions. While the research we are conducting is important, safety and security aboard the ship comes first.
Weather at 1100 Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday 10 July 2019
The winds picked up. Dreary is a good way to describe the sky – an overcast layer on top with smoky-gray smudges of smaller clouds just a little lower. According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, I can describe the sea as moderately choppy with 4’ – 8’ waves, white caps scattered throughout, and some spray. But on the scale that only accounts for 17-21 knots of wind. The instruments on the ship track the wind in real time, and it’s showing anywhere from 20 – 30 knots. Today I need a couple of light layers under a warm, cozy jacket to keep me feeling comfortable. And a hat to keep my hair in place while the wind blows all around us.
I didn’t want to get my hopes up in regard to food on the ship. Between the constant rocking, less than ideal conditions for fruits and vegetables, and confined space, I didn’t have high expectations. But once I got to NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker, the regulars on the ship thankfully put my worries at ease. They told me we have one of the best chefs on the NOAA fleet of ships.
Our Chief Steward, Kathy, is in charge of the kitchen. She makes her job look effortless, though I’m sure it’s not. She puts out an eclectic menu each day that would rival any popular restaurant. Since I’m a Food Network junky, I really think she belongs on Chopped. She’d blow her competitors out of the water! She seasons everything perfectly.
She always has snacks available like fresh baked macadamia nut cookies or homemade rice crispy treats. So far she’s served Peruvian chicken, kalbi ribs, chicken pad thai, open-faced meatloaf sandwiches, West African peanut soup, and chicken marsala. Oh, and pancakes, and omelets, and cheeseburgers, and Cuban sandwiches, and black bean soup, and… the list goes on. She always offers fresh fruit or a fresh salad bar. It’s clear she’s had a lot of experience working with the constraints this unique environment must put on her. I’m lucky to be on a ship with someone who so clearly loves to cook! The foodie in me is very happy.
The acoustics lab is something to behold. If you took a classroom and cut it in half lengthwise, it would be that large. Since we’re on a ship where space is limited, I get the sense that this equipment is important. And after working a shift in the room, I know why. The data collected in this room provides the backbone for the whole survey.
NOAA scientists use sonar to identify various types of fish in the water below us – and to the sides – as we travel along. Individual echoes from discreet targets – noise, small plankton, large fishes – show up on one screen as raw data. Through post processing, the system removes most of the unwanted echoes so that all we’re left with are echoes from the fishes of interest on a separate screen.
The Coastal Pelagic Species show up as a seemingly indistinguishable, colorful blob of dots on the screen, but our chief scientist Kevin Stierhoff interprets each blob with a fair amount of accuracy. He explained what looked like hocus pocus to me originally is really just simple logic. For example, pelagic species tend to stay relatively close to the surface. So if I see a blob of red and yellow that’s, let’s say, more than 100 meters below the surface, then I’m probably looking at a type of fish that prefers deeper waters near the rocky seabed. Those deeper blobs could indicate a species of Rockfish (of which there are plenty), but probably not one of the pelagic species we’re searching for.
Ever try searching for a needle in a haystack? Get frustrated and walk away? Yeah. NOAA is more strategic than that. Acoustic sampling is conducted during the day when the Coastal Pelagic Species are deeper in the water and schooled together. This makes them easier to see using the sonar equipment on board. Later we’ll return at night to noted areas of high activity to trawl for the anchovies, sardines, herring, mackerel, and squid while they’re closer to the surface feeding. Plus, they can’t see the net at night and therefore won’t be able to avoid it like they would if we attempted to trawl for fish during the day.
Acoustic sampling allows us to efficiently survey a much larger area than we could without it. Its primary purpose is to more precisely determine the biomass of the pelagic fish community over a large area. NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center started using this style of acoustic data collection to enhance its fisheries mission about 15 years ago, but this is only the second year they’ve deployed saildrones – wind and solar powered unmanned surface vehicles – to extend the survey area both in shore where it’s more shallow and far off shore where Reuben Lasker will not have time to travel during this survey. The saildrones allow scientists to capture more acoustic data from a wider survey area.
One of the coolest things about education is that we can connect students not just to their local community, but to their global community. For the last three years, the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has written a blog to help classrooms and individuals follow the adventures of their latest saildrone missions. They’re intending to write another series of blog entries to track a mission in 2019 and 2020, but you could easily use one of the previous year’s text in the classroom if you can’t wait for the new entries to be posted. Read a few of these entries with your students and use them as a springboard to teach about cutting edge technology, stewardship, environmental science, storytelling, culture, math, or navigation.
Thankfully, almost any topic can be used to build literacy skills. When texts like this inspire me to connect my students to local and global community leaders in a particular field of interest, I usually reach out to the authors directly. Some teachers will find it more challenging to make these connections to their classrooms, but it is worth the effort. If I can find an email address or contact information for the person who wrote an article I enjoy, typically they can lead me to someone who is a dynamic speaker and willing to come into my classroom. Or sometimes they will offer to come out themselves if they live nearby. Then I find companion texts to read with my students before and after the person comes in to present.
The possibilities are almost too voluminous to count. In one direction, you could bring in a local scientist or graduate student doing interesting research to speak on some topic as it relates to your classroom content. You should also consider arranging a field site visit to a unique local gem if the funding is available. Usually local field trips are much less expensive. Our local communities are filled to the brim with places that relate to our class content. It takes a little leg work to find them sometimes, but if you choose the right place you’ll see a return on your investment for the full school year.
Last year I was lucky enough to coordinate a visit to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia which is one of the leading working dog training facilities in the nation. It’s housed in a tiny little building off some obscure road in Philadelphia. I never would have found it if I weren’t out there directly searching for something like it. Most places like this can be found and initially filtered online with a little bit of strategic searching. Something as small as a one-day site visit or facility tour, if it’s the right location, can motivate students to push themselves academically a little bit further than they thought they could go on their own.
This one visit ended up being the springboard for my students to read authentic nonfiction texts (like media release forms and liability release forms), to think critically and make decisions, to write a press release, to build background knowledge, to enhance their vocabulary, and to learn the value of reading not for the sake of a grade but because interpreting the texts and being able to share information with others (like younger students they ended up mentoring or like our district’s administrative team who were interested in their project) was vital to the success of their project. Most important, it provided a means of intrinsic motivation for my students – that elusive creature that often comes so close to my grasp but then flutters away again when I use less engaging methods of classroom instruction.
If you want to go in more of a global direction, you could ask a facility farther away in another state or country if they have the capacity to involve your students in an integrated learning experience via Skype or old school pen-pal style communication throughout the year. Students can participate in or monitor on-going research around the world all while learning about unfamiliar cultures and locations. And of course, bring your own diverse experiences and travel into the classroom! Apply for the NOAA Teacher at Sea program to get out of your own comfort zone and be a positive means of bridging your classroom to the global community.