Erica Marlaine: Diving Down the pH Scale, July 13, 2019


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Erica Marlaine

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

June 22 – July 15, 2019


Mission: Pollock Acoustic-Trawl Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 13, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Latitude: 57º 09.61 N
Longitude: 152º 20.99W
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Wind Direction: 210 º
Air Temperature:  12º Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1013 mb
Depth of water column 84 m
Surface Sea Temperature: 12º Celsius


Science and Technology Log

Are you wondering what it’s really like to live and work full-time on a NOAA research vessel? I asked Andrea Stoneman, the Senior Survey Technician on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.

Andrea Stoneman
Senior Survey Technician Andrea Stoneman

Like everyone onboard the Oscar Dyson, Andrea is always working hard, but always has a smile on her face. Originally from Duluth, Minnesota, she has been employed by NOAA as a “wage mariner” for a year. A wage mariner means she is an at-sea civilian employee of NOAA. She began college at the University of Minnesota as a business major, but an internship as a freshwater mussel researcher changed her life and made her realize her true love: BIOLOGY! She earned a degree in Environmental Science, and then attended graduate school at Delaware State University, where NOAA funded her research on ocean acidification and its impact on fish.

Are you wondering what ocean acidification means?  

The amount of carbon in the ocean is rising due to an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. Carbon dioxide acidifies the water, reducing its pH level.  The letters pH stands for the ‘potential of Hydrogen.’ The pH scale was invented in 1909 by a biochemist names S.P. Sorenson. The scale uses numbers from 1 to 14, with 1 being the most acidic, 14 being the least acidic (or more alkaline) and 7 as the middle (neutral) point.

For the past 300 million years, the average pH of the ocean was approximately 8.2. It is now closer to 8.1, a drop of 0.1 pH units.  Remember, the numbers go “in reverse” so a drop in pH means it is MORE acidic.  You may be thinking, but it’s only a drop of 0.1. That doesn’t sound like a lot. However, a drop of 0.1 represents a 25-percent increase in acidity.  That’s because the pH scale is a logarithmic scale, not a linear scale.  To understand a linear scale, think of a ruler. The difference between inches on a ruler stays constant. A 5-inch fish is one inch bigger than a 4-inch fish, and 2 inches bigger than a 3-inch fish. In contrast, the pH scale is a logarithmic scale in which two adjacent values increase or decrease by a factor of 10.  Therefore, a pH of 3 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 4, and 100 times more acidic than a pH of 5.

Studies indicate that many marine species may experience adverse effects on their health, growth, reproduction, and life span due to ocean acidification. That means fish could develop diseases, have fewer babies, or die younger.

You and I need calcium to build strong bones. We get calcium through milk, cheese, green leafy vegetables, and many other sources. Marine species also need calcium carbonate to build their bones or shells. Ocean acidification causes carbonate ions to be less abundant in the ocean, which makes it harder for marine species to build strong bones and shells. This is especially bad for oysters, clams, sea urchins, corals, and mussels, the very species that made Andrea fall in love with science!

After graduate school, Andrea worked as a fisheries observer on commercial fishing vessels. (I met quite a few people on-board the ship who are or were observers.) To a non-fisheries person, an “observer” SOUNDS like someone who stands around watching others, but it is actually very hard work! Observers document compliance (making sure that things are being done the correct way). They take samples of the catch and collect data regarding the size of the catch and the species caught.  The data goes into the same service model that NOAA data does, which is vital for ensuring sustainable fishing for the future. 

Through her work as an observer in Alaska, Andrea met people at NOAA, took a tour of a NOAA ship, and decided to apply for a job with NOAA.  (Hmmm… When I interviewed Ensign Andonian for an earlier blog, she also mentioned visiting a NOAA ship as the thing that made her decide to choose a career with NOAA. That gives you an idea of just how amazing NOAA ships are!)

So what does a Senior Survey Technician do?

She runs and maintains all of the scientific sensors on the ship (including the meteorological and oceanographic sensors). She also runs the CTD, a device which measures the conductivity, temperature, depth, salinity, and other oceanographic parameters of the water. 

CTD
The CTD device

In addition, she is involved in setting and retrieving the fishing nets and is an expert at processing the catch in the fish lab. Andrea ensures that the data collected onboard is sound and accurate, and “packages” the data so that it is presentable and accessible to NOAA thus becoming accessible to the public whom NOAA serves.

Asked if she recommends a NOAA life, Andrea says it’s great for college graduates who have an interest in science and a love of the ocean. Some perks (especially for new college graduates) include living rent-free onboard, having delicious meals cooked for you three times a day, and getting to see the world while being involved in interesting, and sometimes ground-breaking, scientific research. An added perk is that working for the federal government can “erase” some of your student loans!

Andrea enjoys being the Senior Survey Technician onboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson, and has fallen in love with Alaska, which she now considers her home.

Click below to watch a 2-minute video by NOAA about ocean acidification:



Personal Log

While I cannot describe what it is like to live full-time on a NOAA ship, I can tell you what it’s like as a Teacher at Sea for 26 days. Like everyone onboard, I “work” a 12-hour shift.  The science team works shifts starting at either 4 a.m. or 4 p.m.  I was assigned the 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift. That means I wake up most days between 2:30 and 3:00 in the afternoon.  On days that I am “good” I head down to the gym. On other days, I grab a light “breakfast” before heading to the chem lab to start my shift.

Often we start our shift processing fish by 4:30. First I suit up in steel-toed boots, a waterproof jacket and overalls, and elbow-high rubber gloves. 

Erica ready for the fish lab
I am ready to work in the fish lab!

Then we process the haul, which means sorting approximately 1000 pounds of fish and jellyfish by species.

haul
An average-sized haul

We weigh them, measure them, and dissect some to collect otoliths (ear bones) or ovaries.  All of this can take 2-3 hours. Then we clean.  The fish lab gets COVERED in fish slime, scales, and jellyfish goo.

Jellyfish "goo"
Jellyfish “goo”

There are high-powered waters sprayers hanging from the ceiling, and we blast every surface in the room with saltwater for at least 10 minutes after every haul. Imagine cleaning your kitchen with a fire engine hose! It’s definitely the most fun I have ever had cleaning!  

cleaning the fish room
One of the many high power saltwater sprayers

At the end of the cruise, I will join Andrea the Survey Technician and the science team for 2-3 hours of meticulously scrubbing and spraying the fish lab so that it is clean and ready for the next group that comes aboard a few days after we leave.

Since the scientists onboard often want to do “pair trawls” (fishing in the same area using the “old” AWT net and the “newer” LFS net in order to align the catch data with the acoustics data),  I am often back in the fish lab an hour later to process another haul, and again clean the fish lab.

After that, depending upon the time, I might have a snack, or do research and write blogs, or spend time in the chem lab with my co-workers, Matthew Phillips (the Fish Lab Lead) and volunteer biologist Nathan Battey, discussing the haul or what is coming up for the rest of the shift. At about 11 p.m., the sun sets, and sometimes it is spectacular, so I try to pop out onto the deck for a quick photo. 

The sun setting near Mitrofania
The sun setting near Mitrofania

At midnight, we start getting ready to do the drop camera to determine which areas are trawlable. We usually do at least 4 camera drops, from approximately 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. This time of night often involves the science team consuming caffeine, ice cream, red vines, sour patch kids, or all of the above. At 4 a.m., the next shift starts, and my roommate, Jamie Giganti, comes into the chem lab. Jamie is a field coordinator for AIS. She works as an observer part of the time, but also provides support and training for new observers, and acts as a liaison between boat captains and observers.

Jamie Giganti
My roommate Jamie Giganti

Jamie’s arrival in the chem lab means it is my turn to go to “our” room.  Although we are roommates, we are never actually in the room at the same time. The goal is that you stay out of the room for the 12 hours your roommate is off-shift, allowing them to sleep or relax.  That means that every time I am on shift I need to make sure that I take everything I might need for the day.

The first few days onboard, I was in bed and asleep 15 minutes after my shift ended. Now that I am accustomed to the schedule, or perhaps due to the caffeine or sugar, I am often up until 5 or 5:30 a.m. That means I go to sleep just as the sun rises.

My stateroom has a bathroom and shower, a desk, a few shelves, lockers that act as a closet, and bunkbeds.  (I was so happy when Jamie asked if she could have the top bunk!)

My state room
My state room

The large window has both magnificent views of Alaska and also blackout curtains that block the sun so that people on my shift can sleep.

The shower area in the bathroom has a slightly raised border, but since the boat moves while you are showering, so does the shower curtain.

shower
Shower

Perhaps other people have figured out how to get the water to stay IN the shower.  I am still working on that. On the upside, the bathroom floor gets cleaned every day! (I am told that one trick is to use zip ties to “lengthen” the shower curtain.  (Next time?)

Processing a haul seems easy now, but it was overwhelming the first few days! As a non-scientist, I was unfamiliar with fish and jellyfish species, perplexed by the computer program used to enter data, and kept confusing which fish to measure, which fish to weigh, and which fish to measure and weigh.  I am so grateful for the patience of everyone around me!

Amazingly, I never got seasick. I wore a scopolamine patch for the first part of the trip, and then one day decided to take it off and learned that I had in fact “gotten my sea legs.” Now I barely feel the boat moving during the day and enjoy the light rocking at night.

I am writing this during my last few days onboard.  While we have occasionally been near land, during much of our time onboard, the view was the incredibly beautiful Gulf of Alaska.  Yesterday, when I saw land in the distance, I was sad to learn that it was Kodiak.  That means my time on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson is almost over. 


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