Elizabeth Nyman: Tropical Storm Andrea Edition, June 6, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elizabeth Nyman
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 28 – June 7, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 6, 2013

Weather Data:
Wind Speed: 19.97 knots
Surface Water Temperature: 27.78 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: 28.40 degrees Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1010.40 mb

Science and Technology Log

The Pisces is on its way to port, having had to suspend operations in wake of the bad weather that has since become Tropical Storm Andrea. We were supposed to go into Mayport Naval Base, right outside of Jacksonville, FL, but due to the storm we have been redirected to Port Canaveral.

Ocean

It’s been pretty rough out there! (Picture courtesy Ariane Frappier)

Despite all of this, we made the best of a bad situation. Even though we couldn’t do fishing or camera drops yesterday, we did still manage to get some data. We spent as much time as we could mapping the seafloor before we had to dodge the storm, and we took the time in the morning to do an XBT, an Expendable Bathythermograph.

You can use an XBT to get a temperature and depth reading for the water without having to actually stop the ship. A tube with a probe on it is attached to a launcher and is fired into the water. The probe has copper wire attached to it to send the data back to the ship.

So…you drop the probe, you get the readings, and at least you get some data even if you can’t stop the ship to send more delicate equipment down.

XBT

Launching probe…

Other than that, the past couple of days have been all about cleanup and dodging the storm. To a certain extent that makes the scientific posts a little quieter than usual, but it’s been a very interesting experience watching everyone work together to make sure that the scientists could get as much work done as possible without endangering the ship or its crew.

We didn’t get to do everything that we wanted to do on this leg of the trip, unfortunately. But we still got a lot accomplished, and I feel like it was just as interesting to see how everyone was able to react to the weather and still get their job done.

Personal Log

Whew! I didn’t imagine when I got on the Pisces in Tampa that I’d spend the last bit of the trip dodging the first named Tropical Storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. But I definitely have a greater appreciation that, with science as in all things, sometimes life does not go quite to plan.

If all goes to schedule, I will be leaving the Pisces tonight, for our detour into Port Canaveral. We had to stop working a day early, and we’ll end up arriving a day early and into a different port. My last day has mostly been spent trying to rearrange for my travel home from a new city and with assisting the science crew in cleaning up the lab spaces.

All data collection requires a certain amount of flexibility. I knew that already – social science data is notoriously difficult to collect – but the problems that I face in my work are quite different from these. When international relations scholars have trouble with data, it’s usually because of things like difficulties in getting governments and/or people to tell the truth, etc. But sometimes, as now, it’s because conditions make it unsafe to collect the data. We can’t send people into shooting wars to count casualties, and we can’t send scientists into a hurricane to count fish.

Science is a method, not a subject, and the scientific method is one wherein we all simply do our best with what we have. Science has been so profoundly influential because of the simple power of this process, testing over and over what we think to be true, so that we can learn if we are wrong. It’s true if you study fish, if you study policy, or if you study anything in between.

There are many things we’ve discovered about our oceans, and the fish and other creatures that inhabit them. But there are still many more things to learn. I’m glad that we have scientists like the ones I met on the Pisces out looking for our fish, and glad that NOAA, in conjunction with states and other government agencies like the Coast Guard, are looking out for our oceans.

My thanks go out to the entire crew of the Pisces, and the great people at the Teacher at Sea program, for letting me be a part of the process.

Did You Know?

NOAA is predicting a highly active hurricane season for the Atlantic this year. Stay safe!

Elizabeth Nyman: The NOAA Corps, June 4, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elizabeth Nyman
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 28 – June 7, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 4, 2013

Weather Data:
Wind Speed: 18.11 knots
Surface Water Temperature: 27.51 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: 18.2 degrees Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1013.1 mb

Science and Technology Log

The weather has been rather difficult here over the past day or so. Yesterday, the winds were so bad that we had to cancel fishing from our bandit reels. We had winds up to 23 knots, or about 26 miles per hour! So far today’s weather seems to be much the same, so no fishing today either.

Gray day

It’s been a very wet and gray couple of days at sea.

We keep putting the camera array in the water, even though we can’t fish. But with the winds, waves, and current as strong as they are, the team has to be much more careful about getting the camera in the water and getting it back out again. The cameras are very expensive, so they have to take care that nothing happens to them. It’s been taking a couple of tries to get the boat lined up enough to get the camera array out of the water. Thus, the whole process takes much longer in the rougher weather.

deploying camera array

This is me helping to deploy the camera array in better weather.

Since the science has been a little slower than usual, I figured that I would use today’s post to talk a little bit more about the crew in command of the Pisces, and how the ship gets to these sometimes remote places to conduct our scientific research.

bridge window

The view from the bridge. Forecast: rain.

The ship’s officers come from the NOAA Corps. NOAA has its own commissioned officers, 321 in total, spread across 19 ships and 12 airplanes. I’d never known that NOAA had its own officers, so I’ve been fascinated to learn how the process works. In some ways, it’s similar to any other uniformed branch of service, with basic eligibility requirements – US citizenship, pass a medical exam, etc. There are also some that are a little more specialized to NOAA, though. For example, you need a bachelor’s degree, with at least 42 credit hours in “science, math, or engineering course work pertaining to NOAA’s missions.”

Applications are competitive, with those for the next cycle being accepted until August of this year. You have to be able to get and maintain a Secret level clearance to be a NOAA Officer, so they’re selective for a reason.

The officers have to be aware and involved with the scientific work on board. They’re responsible for putting the ship into position for the operations to occur. The scientific team selects sites for survey out here in the Gulf, but it’s the ship’s officers that put us in position to drop the camera and/or go fishing, when the weather allows. They also have to be aware of what’s going on with the science team, to make sure that our fishing lines don’t catch on the bottom of the boat, or that the cameras aren’t damaged when the deck crew raises and lowers the array.

The science only happens when everyone works together.

Personal Log

Life on a boat is different. There’s the obvious, with it taking a while to learn to walk again or with seasickness, if you’re so inclined. (I’ve been spared that misfortune so far, even with the bad weather!)

One thing unique to boats is the amount of different doors.

Doors?

There are a series of watertight doors, designed to protect the rest of the ship if a portion floods. These doors would hopefully contain any problems that occurred and keep the ship afloat. All of the doors that open to the outside are watertight.

watertight door

These doors can be very loud when you open them, so you have to be careful. The ship has crew working 24 hours a day, which means there’s always someone sleeping.

In addition to the watertight doors, some of the interior doors act as fire boundaries. They’re very, very heavy – I can turn the handle and lean into them and they don’t move. It’s heavy for a reason, though. We have A60 doors on the Pisces, which have been designed to withstand an open flame for up to an hour.

Not all interior doors are fire boundaries though, just as not all doors were meant to be watertight. For example, in the hallway that leads to my bunk, the stairwell to my deck has a fireproof door but my room itself only has a “normal” door. The other end of the hallway opens up to the outside, so it has a watertight door.

I’m definitely getting a workout every time I go in and out of a room!

Did You Know?

The United Nations has a specialized agency devoted to maintaining safety in maritime shipping called the International Maritime Organization, or IMO. The IMO regulates everything from pollution from ships to the design of the ships themselves.

Elizabeth Nyman: The Science Continues, May 31, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elizabeth Nyman
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 28 – June 7, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: May 31, 2013

Weather Data:
Surface Water Temperature: 24.55 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: 25 degrees Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1016.3 mb

Science and Technology Log

Work continues here on NOAA Ship Pisces. By the end of today, we’ll have sent the camera array down to 35 spots and caught at least 45 fish with the bandit reels. I’ve personally gotten to see some of the camera footage, as well as help the scientific crew with their analysis of the fish we caught.

Fish

Here’s a screen capture of some video taken yesterday from the Florida Middle Ground. The big fish on the left is a red grouper, the fellow poking his head up with the crazy eye is a spotted moray eel, and the yellow fish not far above him are reef butterfly fish. Note that “crazy eye” is not a scientific term. (Picture courtesy of NOAA.)

This work goes on for the entirety of daylight hours, beginning with our arrival at the first location sometime between 7 to 7:45 a.m., and not ending until around 6:30 to 7 p.m. It’s a long day, with 8-10 drops of the camera array and 4 different attempts to catch fish with the bandit reels. But the Pisces doesn’t sleep just because the sun goes down. When most of the ship goes to bed, the crew continues scientific work by driving the ship around in circles. The circles are actually well-plotted lines, and the route is chosen to allow the ship’s ME70, a multi-beam sounding unit, to map the sea floor.

Map

Here’s an example of the routes we do at night. It will take all night to do one of these three blocks pictured here. (Picture courtesy of NOAA.)

Every possible moment of time is devoted to gathering as much data as possible, whether it’s fisheries data from the camera array and the bandit reels, or the mapping data that goes on at night. It’s expensive and time consuming to send a ship out here, 60-80 nautical miles off the west coast of Florida, and so everyone has to work hard while we’re out at sea. I have nothing but admiration for the entire crew of the Pisces, from the officers to the scientific crew to the deck crew, stewards, and ship’s engineers, because they all are always hard at work making NOAA’s scientific mission possible. But you might be wondering, what’s the point of all this? Why are we out here taking pictures and video of fish, and catching them to take back to the lab for testing?

This voyage is part of the SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey, which has been going on for over 20 years. The point is to gather information on the abundance of certain species of fish, which is why we need to see how many there are down there, through the cameras, and what their size, age, and fertility look like. This crew is based out of Pascagoula, MS, and that’s where the video taken of the fish is analyzed. They determine how many fish are present, and can actually measure the size of the fish by taking pictures with stereo cameras and using parallax, the difference in position from one camera to the next. They combine this data with the information that the Panama City lab generates from the ear bones and the sex organs, as well as any relevant external data from fishery observers and the like, to create a full a picture as possible about the overall health of the fish population.

Looking at numbers

Ariane Frappier, graduate student volunteer, examines NOAA reef fishery data from the Dry Tortugas for her thesis.

Cool. I like gathering data, and I definitely think that more knowledge of our fish and oceans is better than less. But we aren’t looking at fish out here just to look at fish, as awesome as that would be. This survey has a purpose. Data collected here is used by the SEDAR program, which stands for Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review. SEDAR will examine a particular species and analyze all the data collected about that species, before holding a series of workshops open to the public about that fish. At the end of the process, a series of experts will recommend how much fishing should be allowed for that population, in order to properly manage the fishery and prevent overfishing.

Personal Log

What we don’t get to record in our data, but is still pretty awesome, is the ability to view wildlife from the boat. I don’t mean the stuff we catch, though that’s pretty cool too, but the creatures that we just get to observe.

Me and Shark

Okay, some of the stuff we catch is really cool. This is me with a silky shark.

So far, I’ve seen loggerhead sea turtles, just kind of relaxing and swimming not too far from our boat. I also got to see a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins – I saw several of them, but the way they were swimming around in the waves, it’s hard to be precisely sure how many. I missed seeing at least two other dolphins – the seas have been kind of choppy, and so they disappear from view pretty quickly.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins swimming very near the Pisces.

Then, pretty much right as I was writing this up, I got to see a leatherback sea turtle who surfaced for air pretty close to our boat. I didn’t get a picture, since you pretty much have to have the camera in hand for these things, they happen so quickly.

Sea turtle

So here’s a picture from NOAA for you. The zoom on my camera’s not that good anyway. (Picture courtesy of NOAA.)

Did You Know?

The leatherback sea turtle is an Appendix I creature under CITES, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Appendix I creatures are those at risk of extinction, and international trade in these species or any part of these species is forbidden.

Elizabeth Nyman: First Day at Sea, May 28, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elizabeth Nyman
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 28 – June 7, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: May 28, 2013

Weather Data:
Surface Water Temperature: 23.84 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: 23.90 degrees Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1017.8 mb

Science and Technology Log

So I’ve known for about two months or so that I was going to be taking part in one leg of an ongoing reef fishery survey. I even had an idea that it involved surveying fish that lived on reefs. But after our first full day at sea, and many hours of helping take part in the scientific work, I now begin to understand how exactly one surveys reef fish.

There’s a couple of different things that the scientific crew is doing to observe and understand the reef fish population. First, there is an ongoing video recording process throughout the day, from just after sunrise to just before sunset. For this, the ship and scientific crew lower a large, 600 pound camera array off of the starboard side of the ship. The cameras will go and sit on the sea floor and record all the fish that pass in front of it, for a total recording time of 25 minutes. After this time has passed, plus a little extra time, the cameras are pulled back up, the recordings are downloaded, we move to a different spot and the process begins again.

Underwater Camera Array

Hauling the camera array back on deck. I said it was big, didn’t I?

The video is reviewed the next day. Since this is our first day at sea, I didn’t get much of a chance to see any reef fishery footage, though I’m told that’s on the agenda for tomorrow. What I spent most of my time doing was helping out with another part of the survey process, something called the bandit reels. They’re used for good old-fashioned hook and line fishing.

Bandit Reel

It looks like a nice day to go fishing, huh?

There are three bandit reels on the Pisces, and each one can hold 10 fishing hooks. Each reel has different sized hooks, and the hook sizes are changed every drop. The line has a weight at the bottom to bring the hooks down to the sea floor, which have been baited with mackerel bits. After five minutes, the line is reeled back in, and you have fish…or you don’t.

My first drop, which had the biggest hooks, had a whole bunch of nothing. As did everyone else’s, though, so it wasn’t a testament to my poor fishing skills.

The second drop, however, was luckier.

Eel on hook.

I caught a moray eel!

A spotted moray eel! I was excited, anyway. But morays aren’t one of the fish that we’re looking for out here, so it wasn’t a particularly useful catch.

Our third drop was the most successful. Our bandit reel hauled in seven fish, one of whom got away (the biggest one, of course, one the size of a killer whale…yeah, just kidding!). The other six were brought into the wet lab, where they joined the other fish caught on that drop and would be measured and dissected.

Fish on a measuring board.

We caught a big one!

The fish are measured three different ways. The first, by total length, examines exactly that, the total length of the fish from the nose all the way to the tip of the tail. The second measure goes from the nose to the fork in the tail, so it’s a shorter distance. The third, standard length, goes from the nose to just before the tail fin, where the fish’s vertebrae end, and is the shortest of all. They’re also weighed at this time as well.

After that, we start cutting into the fish. Two things are of interest here: the ear bone and the sex organs. The ear bones are removed from each fish, because they can be tested to determine the age of the fish. The sex organs will reveal gender, obviously, but also are examined to see how fertile each specimen is. We don’t do this kind of analysis on the ship, however. The ear bones and sex organs are sent back to the NOAA lab in Panama City, Florida, where they will conduct all those tests.

Personal Log

The best part of my first day at sea was definitely the ship safety drills.

Wait, what?

No, seriously.  The absolute highlight of this one was my chance to try on what’s known as the Gumby suit. The Gumby suit is a nickname for a immersion survival suit – if we have to abandon ship and float around in the water, the suit will protect us from the elements. Now, we’re down here in the Gulf of Mexico, so that seems a little crazy, but think about how you’d feel if you were stuck in the water for hours on end. In really cold waters, that suit may be the difference between life and death.

The drills are important, and they’re mandated for a reason. In an emergency, all of this stuff can save lives.

Why do I like the drills so much? We’re required to have safety drills by law, and so as someone who studies and teaches international law, I always enjoy taking part in these things. It’s a chance to see the stuff in action that I talk about in class. And that’s kind of what this program is all about – the chance to experience things firsthand as opposed to just having to read about them.

Gumby suit

I guess you kind of have to take my word for it, but that’s me in there.

Did You Know?

You’re supposed to be able to put on a Gumby suit in under a minute. They wouldn’t do much good if they took too long to put on.

Elizabeth Nyman: Introduction, May 21, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elizabeth Nyman
Assigned to NOAA Ship Pisces
May 28 – June 7, 2013

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Florida
Date: May 21, 2013

Elizabeth Nyman

Me, with a map of Reykjavik, Iceland

Hi everyone! My name is Elizabeth Nyman, and I just finished my first year as an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. UL Lafayette is a public university with about 16,000 students, located in a region with twin claims to fame: a center for Acadiana/Cajun culture (and food!) and the heart of the Louisiana offshore oil industry. Ocean resources are very important to southwestern Louisiana, both living and mineral. My students and their families live near or in some cases on the water; their favorite places to vacation are the beaches on Florida’s panhandle.

I have been teaching undergraduates since 2007, mostly courses on international relations and comparative politics. All professors have to have their own areas of arcane specialization, and mine is international maritime law and conflict. I do research and teach about maritime piracy, island tourism and sustainable development, and international maritime treaties like the Safety of Life at Sea, written to protect future ship passengers after the sinking of the Titanic.

I tell people I have the best career in the world, and when they hear more about what I do, most people agree. I got my Ph.D. in political science from Florida State University, in Tallahassee, FL, about two hours drive from where I grew up in Jacksonville, FL. The first week of graduate school, I was supposed to find a topic for my First Year Paper, a sort of mini-thesis designed to throw us into the world of high level research. I sat through hours of my professors talking about what they did, and doodled in the margins of my notebook. One doodle said “international conflicts over oceans?” and that became the topic of my paper.

(See, I was paying attention! Honest!)

For my dissertation, I received a grant to study an international fishery dispute between the Caribbean island states of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. It wasn’t much money, but I was a grad student and thus very, very skilled at living on nothing. And I wanted to spend as much time in the Caribbean as possible. Other students were talking about their plans for dissertation research, visiting archives in major cities or traveling to presidential libraries. And strangely enough, people who had always wondered why anyone would care about international ocean politics suddenly wished they’d chosen that as a topic.

Dover Beach, Barbados

The fact that this was two blocks away from where I stayed had nothing to do with their change of opinion, I’m sure. 🙂

But make no mistake, ocean politics are serious business. I don’t need to convince my students of that – they know the economics behind offshore drilling, as well as what happens when things go wrong. They know how much the region known for its seafood depends on shrimp and other fisheries. The resources of the ocean are big business, and sustain livelihoods across the state and across America.

Thing is, fish don’t stay in one place, and today’s American fishing vessels compete with others around the world to catch fish as they dart in and out of national waters. Fish that are unfortunately running out, according to the FAO– about 30% of the world’s marine fish are being overfished, meaning that more are being caught than are being born to replace them. Another 57% are being caught at capacity, or about as many are caught as are born to replace them.

Fish, fish, everywhere...for now. (Picture courtesy of National Geographic)

Fish, fish, everywhere…for now. (Picture courtesy of National Geographic)

Now, I’m no biologist, and one of the things that has always been a mystery to me is how we know what we know about fish populations. We know that close to 90% of the world’s fish are being caught at or above capacity – but how do we know what “capacity” is? How do we know if a population is in decline?

I applied for the Teacher at Sea program because I wanted to be able to answer questions like this. My students are intelligent and curious, and I usually get asked about the science behind the policies at least once a semester. I talk to them about NOAA and the work they do, but I wanted the opportunity to experience it for myself. It’s one thing to read about research, and another thing to understand it by taking part in it. I am excited that I get the chance to have this experience, and will be able to better bridge the gap between understanding the science and understanding the policies.

I am fortunate enough to be assigned to the Pisces, a ship involved in fisheries research off the coast of my home state of Florida. The Atlantic and the Gulf are my waters, in a sense, where I have lived and worked for almost my entire life, and these are our fish. They belong to all of us, those who live on the coast and those who only come for a visit. I can’t wait to learn more about them, to finally fill in the scientific gaps in my knowledge.

Pisces, here I come!

NOAA Ship Pisces (picture courtesy of NOAA)

NOAA Ship Pisces (picture courtesy of NOAA)