Denise Harrington: Tenacity – May 7, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Denise Harrington
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces (In Port)
May 04, 2016 – May 17, 2016

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey

Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tenacity helps NOAA manage our seafood supply.

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Tenacity, otherwise known as perseverance or stamina, is a required skill at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces, we are all anxious to head out to collect data about the type and abundance of reef fish along the continental shelf and shelf edge of the Gulf of Mexico.  However, things don’t always go as planned. Much like the animals we study, scientists must rapidly adapt to their changing circumstances. Instead of waiting for a problem to be solved, fisheries biologists of all ages and experience work in the lab, using the newest, most sophisticated technology in the world to meet our demand for seafood.

As I ate dinner tonight in the mess (the area where the crew eats), I stared at the Pisces’ motto on the tablecloth, “patience and tenacity.”

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The Pisces is a “quiet” ship; it uses generators to supply power to an electric motor that turns the ship’s propeller. The ship’s motor (or a mysteriously related part) is not working properly, and without a motor, we will not sail. This change of plans provides other opportunities for me, and you, to learn about many fascinating projects developing in the lab. Sound science begins right here at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center Laboratory in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

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Kevin Rademacher, a fishery biologist in the Reef Fish Unit, meets me at the lab where he works when he isn’t at sea. As he introduces me to other biologists working in the protected species, plankton, and long line units, I begin to appreciate the great biodiversity of species in the Gulf of Mexico. I get a glimpse of the methods biologists use to conduct research in the field, and in the lab.

While it looks like a regular old office building on the outside, the center of the building is filled with labs where fish are taken to be discovered.  Mark Grace, a fisheries biologist in the lab, made one such discovery of a rare species of pocket shark on a survey in the gulf. The only other specimen of a pocket shark was found coast of Peru in 1979. Mark’s discovery raises more questions in my mind than answers.

When I met Mark, he explained that capability of technology to gather data has outpaced our ability to process it. “Twenty years ago, we used a pencil and a clipboard. Think about the 1980s when they started computerizing data points compared to the present time… maybe in the future when scientists look back on the use of computers in science, it will be considered to be as important as Galileo looking at the stars” he said. It’s important because as Mark also explains,  “This correspondence is a good example.  We can send text, website links, images, etc…and now its a matter of digital records that will carry in to the future.”

How do fishery biologists find fish?

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Charlie McVea, a retired NOAA marine biologist, and his trusty assistant Scout, pictured above, learned they may need more sophisticated equipment to locate fish.

Earth has one big connected ocean that covers the many features beneath it. Looking below the surface to the ocean floor, we find a fascinating combination of continental shelves, canyons, reefs, and even tiny bumps that make unique homes for all of the living creatures that live there.  Brandi Noble, one of 30-40 fishery biologists in the lab, uses very complicated sonar (sound) equipment to find “fish hot spots,” the kinds of places fish like to go for food, shelter and safety from predators. Fisheries sonar sends pulses of sound, or pings, into the water.  Fishery biologists are looking for a varied echo sound that indicates they’ve found rocky bottoms, ledges, and reefs that snapper and grouper inhabit.

The sonar can also survey fish in a non-invasive way. Most fish have a swim bladder, or a gas filled chamber, which reflects sonar’s sound waves.  A bigger fish will create a returning echo of greater strength. This way, fisheries biologists can identify and count fish without hurting them.

sonar fish

The circular image shows a three-dimensional map NOAA scientists created from the sonar data they collected about the seafloor and a school of fish.

Ship Pisces uses a scientific methods to survey, determining relative abundance and types of fish in each area. They establish blocks of habitat along the continental shelf to survey and then randomly sample sites that they will survey with video cameras, CTD (measures temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen in the water), and fishing. Back in the lab, they spend hours, weeks, and years, analyzing the data they collect at sea. During the 2012 SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey, the most common reef fish caught were 179 red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), 22 vermillion snapper (Rhomboplites aurorubens), and 10 red porgy (Pagrus pagrus).  Comparing the 2012 data with survey results from 2016 and other years will help policy makers develop fishing regulations to protect the stock of these and other tasty fish.

How do fishery biologists manage all the information they collect during a survey?

Scientists migrate between offices and labs, supporting each other as they identify fish and marine mammals from previous research expeditions.

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Kevin Rademacher, at work in the lab.

Our mission, the SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey has been broken into four parts or legs.  The goal is to survey some of the most popular commercially harvested fish in the Gulf of Mexico.  Kevin Rademacher is the Field Party Chief for Leg 1 and Leg 3 of the survey.

Last week, he showed me collections of frozen fish, beetle infested fish, and fish on video. At one point the telephone rang, it was Andrew Paul Felts, another biologist down the hall. “Is it staying in one spot?” Kevin asks. “I bet it’s Chromis. They hang over a spot all the time.”

We head a couple doors down and enter a dark room.  Behind the blue glow of the screen sits Paul, working in the dark, like the deep water inhabitants of the video he watches. Paul observes the physical characteristics of a fish: size, shape, fins, color.  He also watches its behavior. Does it swim in a school or alone?  Does it stay in one spot or move around a lot?  He looks at its habitat, such as a rocky or sandy bottom, and its range, or place on the map.

As you watch the video below, observe how each fish looks, its habitat, and its behavior.

To learn about fisheries, biologists use the same strategies students at South Prairie Elementary use.   Paul is using his “eagle eyes,” or practiced skills of observation, as he identifies and counts fish on the screen.   All the scientists read, re-read and then “read the book a third time” like a “trying lion” to make sense out of their observations.  Finally, Paul calls Kevin, the “wise owl,” to make sure he isn’t making a mistake when he identifies a questionable fish. paul screen

Using Latin terminology such as “Chromis” or “Homo” allows scientists to use the same names for organisms. This makes it easier for scientists worldwide, who speak different languages, to communicate clearly with each other as they classify the living things they study.

I appreciate how each member of the NOAA staff, on land and at sea, look at each situation as a springboard to more challenging inquiry.  They share with each other and with us what they have learned about the diversity of life in the ocean, and how humans are linked to the ocean.  With the knowledge we gain from their hard work and tenacity, we can make better choices to protect our food supply and support the diversity of life on Earth.

 

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Spined Pygmy Shark Jaw (Squaliolus laticaudus)

Personal Log

Crew members tell me that every day at sea is a Monday.  In port, they are able to spend time with family and their communities.  I have been able to learn a bit about Pascagoula, kayak with locals, and see many new birds like the least tern, swallow tailed kite, eastern bluebird and clapper rail.  Can you guess what I ate for dinner last night?P1050747

 

 

 

 

Jeff Miller: Sharks and Dead Zones, September 12, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 12, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Ship Speed:  9.2 knots
Wind Speed:  8.8 knots
Air Temp: 27,7°C
Sea Temp: 30.2°C
Seas: 1-2 meters
Sea Depth:  457 meters

GPS Coordinates
Lat:  27 47.142 N
Long:  094 04.264 W

Science and Technology Log
On September 8 – 9, we surveyed a number of stations along the Texas and Louisiana coasts that were in shallow water between 10-30 meters (approximately 30-100 feet).  Interestingly, the number of sharks we caught at each station varied dramatically.  For example, we pulled up 65 sharks at station 136 and 53 sharks at station 137, whereas we caught only 5 sharks at station 138 and 2 sharks at station 139.  What could account for this large variance in the number of sharks caught at these locations?

Weighing a bonnethead shark

Weighing a bonnethead shark caught off the coast of Texas.

One key factor that is likely influencing shark distribution is the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.  Oxygen is required by living organisms to produce the energy needed to fuel all their activities.  In water, dissolved oxygen levels above 5 mg/liter are needed for most marine organisms to thrive. Water with less than 2 mg/liter of dissolved oxygen is termed hypoxic, meaning dissolved oxygen is below levels needed by most organisms to thrive and survive.  Water with less than 0.2 mg/liter of dissolved oxygen is termed anoxic (no oxygen) and results in  “dead zones” where little, if any, marine life can survive.

As part of several missions, including the ground fish and longline shark surveys, NOAA ships sample the levels of dissolved oxygen at survey stations in coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Measurements of dissolved oxygen, salinity, and temperature are collected by a device called the CTD.   At each survey station, the CTD is deployed and it collects real-time measurements as it descends to the bottom and returns to the surface.

CTD

Standing with the CTD, which is used to measure dissolved oxygen, salinity, and temperature.

Data collected by the CTD is used to produce maps showing the relative levels of dissolved oxygen in coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico.    For more environmental data go to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

2015 Gulf Hypoxia Map

Map showing dissolved oxygen levels in the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Red marks anoxic/hypoxic areas with low dissolved oxygen levels.  Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

Environmental surveys demonstrate that large anoxic/hypoxic zones often exist along the Louisiana/Texas continental shelf.  Because low dissolved oxygen levels are harmful to marine organisms, the anoxic/hypoxic zones in the northern Gulf of Mexico could greatly impact commercially and ecologically important marine species.  Overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that excess organic matter, especially nitrogen, from the Mississippi River drainage basin drives the development of anoxic/hypoxic waters.  Although natural sources contribute to the runoff, inputs from agricultural runoff, the burning of fossil fuels, and waste water treatment discharges have increased inputs to many times natural levels.

Runoff in the Mississippi basin

Map showing sources of nitrogen runoff in the Mississippi River drainage basin. Source NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

Nitrogen runoff from the Mississippi River feeds large phytoplankton algae blooms at the surface.  Over time, excess algae and other organic materials sink to the bottom.  On the bottom, decomposition of this organic material by bacteria and other organisms consumes oxygen and leads to formation of anoxic/hypoxic zones.  These anoxic/hypoxic zones persist because waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico become stratified, which means the water is separated into horizontal layers with cold and/or saltier water at the bottom and warmer and/or fresher water at the surface. This layering separates bottom waters from the atmosphere and prevents re-supply of oxygen from the surface.

Since levels of dissolved oxygen can  greatly influence the distribution of marine life, we reasoned that the high variation in the number of sharks caught along the Louisiana/Texas coast could be the result of differences in dissolved oxygen.  To test this idea, we analyzed environmental data and shark numbers at survey stations along the Louisiana/Texas coast.  The graphs below show raw data collected by the CTD at stations 137 and 138.

CTD 137

Dissolved oxygen levels at station 137 (green line; raw data). At the surface: dissolved oxygen = 5.0 mg/liter. At the bottom: dissolved oxygen = 1.5 mg/liter.  Notice the stratification of the water at a depth of 7-8 meters.

 

CTD 138

Dissolved oxygen levels at station 138 (green line; raw data).  At the surface: dissolved oxygen = 5.5 mg/liter. At the bottom: dissolved oxygen = 0 mg/liter.  Notice the stratification of the water at a depth of 7-8 meters.

Putting together shark survey numbers with environmental data from the CTD we found that we caught very high numbers of sharks in hypoxic water and we caught very few sharks in anoxic water.  Similar results were observed at station 136 (hypoxic waters; 65 sharks caught) and station 139 (anoxic waters; 2 sharks caught).

Data table

Relationship between dissolved oxygen levels and numbers of sharks caught at stations 137 and 138.

What can explain this data?  One possible answer is that sharks will be found where there is food for them to eat.  Thus, many sharks may be moving in and out of hypoxic waters to catch prey that may be stressed or less active due to low oxygen levels.  In other words, sharks may be taking advantage of low oxygen conditions that make fish easier to catch.  In contrast, anoxic waters cannot support marine life so there will be very little food for sharks to eat and, therefore, few sharks will be present.  While this idea provides an explanation for our observations, more research, like the work being done aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II, is needed to understand the distribution and movement of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.

Personal Log
My time aboard the Oregon II is drawing to a close as we move into the last weekend of the cruise.  We have now turned away from the Louisiana coast into deeper waters as we travel west to Galveston, Texas.  The weather has changed as well.  It has been sunny and hot for much of our trip, but clouds, rain, and wind have moved in.  Despite this change in weather, we continue to set longlines at survey stations along our route to Galveston.  The rain makes our job more challenging but our catch has been relatively light since we moved away from the coast into deeper waters.  Hopefully our fishing luck will change as we move closer to Galveston.  I would like to wrestle a few more sharks before my time on the Oregon II comes to an end.

Jeff Miller: Wrestling Sharks for Science, September 9, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 9, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Ship Speed: 9.4 knots
Wind Speed: 6.75 knots
Air Temp: 29.4°C
Sea Temp: 30.4°C
Seas: <1 meter
Sea Depth: 13 meters

GPS Coordinates
Lat:  N 29 25.103
Long:  W 092.36.483

Science and Technology Log
The major goal of our mission is to survey shark populations in the western Gulf of Mexico and collect measurements and biological samples.  The sharks are also tagged so if they are re-caught scientists can learn about their growth and movements.

Sharks are members of the class of fishes called Chondrichthyes,which are cartilaginous fishes meaning they have an internal skeleton made of cartilage.  Within the class Chondricthyes, sharks belong to the subclass Elasmobranchii together with their closest relatives the skates and rays.  There are about 450 species of living sharks that inhabit oceans around the world.

Sharks, or better put their ancient relatives, have inhabited the oceans for approximately 450 million years and have evolved a number of unique characteristics that help them survive and thrive in virtually all parts of the world.  The most recognizable feature of sharks is their shape.  A shark’s body shape and fin placement allow water to flow over the shark reducing drag and making swimming easier.  In addition, the shark’s cartilaginous skeleton reduces weight while providing strength and flexibility, which also increases energy efficiency.

Blacktip shark

Measuring a blacktip shark on deck. The blacktip shark shows the typical body shape and fin placement of sharks. These physical characteristics decrease drag and help sharks move more efficiently through water.

When I held a shark for the first time, the feature I noticed most is the incredible muscle mass and strength of the shark.  The body of a typical shark is composed of over 60% muscle (the average human has about 35-40% muscle mass).  Most sharks need to keep swimming to breathe and, therefore, typically move steadily and slowly through the water.  This slow, steady movement is powered by red muscle, which makes up about 10% of a sharks muscle and requires high amounts of oxygen to produce fuel for muscle contraction.  The other 90% of a sharks muscle is called white muscle and is used for powerful bursts of speed when eluding predators (other sharks) or capturing prey.

Since sharks are so strong and potentially dangerous, one lesson that I learned quickly was how to properly handle a shark on deck.  Smaller sharks can typically be handled by one person.  To hold a small shark, you grab the shark just behind the chondrocranium (the stiff cartilage that makes up the “skull” of the shark) and above the gill slits.  This is a relatively soft area that can be squeezed firmly with your hand to hold the shark.  If the shark is a bit feisty, a second hand can be used to hold the tail.

Holding a sharpnose shark

Smaller sharks, like this sharpnose shark, can be held by firmly grabbing the shark just behind the head.

Larger and/or more aggressive sharks typically require two sets of hands to hold safely.  When two people are needed to hold a shark, it is very important that both people grab the shark at the same time.  One person holds the head while the other holds the tail.  When trying to hold a larger, more powerful shark, you do not want to grab the tail first.  Sharks are very flexible and can bend their heads back towards their tail, which can pose a safety risk for the handler.  While holding a shark sounds simple, subduing a large shark and getting it to cooperate while taking measurements takes a lot of focus, strength, and teamwork.

Holding a blacktip shark

Teamwork is required to handle larger sharks like this blacktip shark, which was caught because it preyed on a small sharpnose shark that was already on the hook.

 

Measuring a blacktip shark

Collecting measurements from a large blacktip shark.

 

Holding a blacktip shark

Holding a blacktip shark before determining its weight.

When a shark is too big to bring on deck safely, the shark is placed into a cradle and hoisted from the water so it can be measured and tagged.  We have used the cradle on a number of sharks including a 7.5 foot tiger shark and a 6 foot scalloped hammerhead shark.  When processing sharks, we try to work quickly and efficiently to measure and tag the sharks to minimize stress on the animals and time out of the water.  Once our data collection is complete, the sharks are returned to the water.

Tiger shark in the cradle

Large sharks, like this tiger shark, are hoisted up on a cradle in order to be measured and tagged.

Personal Log
We are now in full work mode on the ship.  My daily routine consists of waking up around 7:30 and grabbing breakfast.  After breakfast I like to go check in on the night team to see what they caught and determine when they will do their next haul (i.e. pull in their catch).  This usually gives me a couple hours of free time before my shift begins at noon.  I like to use my time in the morning to work on my log and go through pictures from the previous day.  I eat lunch around 11:30 so I am ready to start work at noon.  My shift, which runs from noon to midnight, typically includes surveying three or four different stations.  At each station, we set our baited hooks for one hour, haul the catch, and process the sharks and fishes.  We process the sharks immediately and then release them, whereas we keep the fish to collect biological samples (otoliths and gonads).  Once we finish processing the catch, we have free time until the ship reaches the next survey station.  The stations can be anywhere from 6 or 7 miles apart to over 40 miles apart.  Therefore, our downtime throughout the day can vary widely from 30 minutes to several hours (the ship usually travels at about 10 knots; 1 knot = 1.15 mph).  At midnight, we switch roles with the night team.  Working with fish in temperatures reaching  the low 90°s will make you dirty.  Therefore, I typically head to the shower to clean up before going to bed.  I am usually in bed by 12:30 and will be back up early in the morning to do it all over again.  It is a busy schedule, but the work is interesting, exciting, and fun.  I feel very lucky to be out here because not many people get the opportunity to wrestle sharks.  This is one experience I will always remember.

Jeff Miller: Fishing for Sharks and Fishes, September 6, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 6, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Ship Speed: 9.7 knots
Wind Speed: 5.6 knots
Air Temp: 30.9°C
Sea Temp: 31.1°C
Seas: <1 meter
Sea Depth: 52 meters

GPS Coordinates
Lat:  N 28 06.236
Long:  W 095 15.023

Science and Technology Log
Our first couple days of fishing have been a great learning experience for me despite the fact that the fish count has been relatively low (the last three sets we averaged less than 5 fish per 100 hooks).  There are a number of jobs to do at each survey station and I will rotate through each of them during my cruise. These jobs include baiting the hooks, numbering and setting the hooks on the main line, hauling in the hooks, measuring and weighing the sharks/fish, and processing the shark/fish for biological samples.

Numbering the baited hooks

Each gangion (the baited hook and its associate line) is tagged with a number before being attached to the main line.

 

Number clips

A number clip is attached to each gangion (baited hook and its associated line) to catalog each fish that is caught.

After the line is deployed for one hour, we haul in the catch.  As the gangions come in, one of us will collect empty hooks and place them back in the barrel to be ready for the next station.  Other members of the team will process the fish we catch.  The number of fish caught at each station can vary widely.  Our team (the daytime team) had two stations in a row where we caught fewer than five fish while the night team caught 57 fish at a single station.

Collecting empty hooks

Empty hooks are collected, left over bait is removed, and the gangion is placed back in the bucket to be ready for the next station.

So far we have caught a variety of fishes including golden tilefish, red snapper, sharpnose sharks, blacknose sharks, a scalloped hammerhead, black tip sharks, a spinner shark, and smooth dogfish.  The first set of hooks we deployed was at a deep water station (sea depth was approx. 300 meters or 985 feet) and we hooked 11 golden tilefish, including one that weighed 13 kg (28.6 pounds).

Golden tilefish

On our first set of hooks in deep water, we caught a number of golden tilefish including this fish that weighed nearly 30 pounds.

We collect a number of samples from fishes such as red snapper and golden tilefish.  First we collect otoliths, which are hard calcified structures of the inner ear that are located just behind the brain.  Scientists can read the rings of the otolith to determine the approximate age and growth rate of the fish.

Otolith

Otoliths can be read like tree rings to approximate the age and growth rate of bony fishes.  Photo credit: NOAA Marine Fisheries.

The answer to the poll is at the end of this post.

You can try to age fish like NOAA scientists do by using the Age Reading Demonstration created by the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center.  Click here to visit the site.

When sharks are caught, we collect information about their size, gender, and sexual maturity.  You may be wondering, “how can you determine the sex of a shark?”  It ends up that the answer is actually quite simple.  Male sharks have two claspers along the inner margin of the pelvic fins that are used to insert sperm into the cloaca of a female.  Female sharks lack claspers.

Male female shark

Male and female sharks can be distinguished by the presence of claspers on male sharks.

Personal Log
After arriving at our first survey station on Thursday afternoon (Sep. 3), everyone on the ship is in full work mode.  We work around the clock in two groups: one team, which I belong to, works from noon to midnight, and the other team works from midnight to noon.  The crew and science teams work very well together – everyone has a specific job as we set out hooks, haul the catch, and process the fishes.  It’s a well oiled machine and I am grateful to the crew and my fellow science team members for helping me learn and take an active role the process.  I am not here as a passive observer.  I am truly part of the scientific team.

I have also learned a lot about the fishes we are catching.  For example, I have learned how to handle them on deck, how to process them for samples, and how to filet them for dinner.  I never fished much my life, so pretty much everything I am doing is new to me.

I have also adjusted well to life on the ship.  Before the cruise, I was concerned that I may get seasick since I am prone to motion sickness.  However, so far I have felt great even though we have been in relatively choppy seas (averaging about 1-2 meters or 3 to 6 feet) and the ship rocks constantly.  I have been using a scopolamine patch, an anticholinergic drug that decreases nausea and dizziness, and this likely is playing a role. Whether it’s just me or the medicine, I feel good, I’m sleeping well, and I am eating well.  The cooks are great and the food has been outstanding.  All in all, I am having an amazing experience.

Poll answer:  This fish is approximately nine years old (as determined by members of my science team aboard the Oregon II).

Jeff Miller: Cruising to the Survey Stations, September 2, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 2, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Ship Speed: 11.6 knots
Wind Speed: 7 knots
Air Temp:  24.7°C
Sea Temp:  29.6°C
Seas:  3-4 ft.
Sea Depth: 589 meters

GPS Coordinates
Lat: 28 01.364 N
Long: 091 29.104 W

Cruising Map

Map showing our current location and the site of our first survey station

Science and Technology Log
After a one day delay in port at Pascagoula, MS we are currently motoring southwest towards our first survey station in the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, TX. Our survey area will include random stations roughly between Brownsville and Galveston, TX.

Survey stations are randomly selected from a predetermined grid of sites.  Possible stations fall into three categories: (A) stations in depths 9-55 meters (5-30 fathoms), (B) stations in depths between 55-183 meters (30-100 fathoms), and (C) stations in depths between 183-366 meters (100-200 fathoms).  On the current shark longline surveys, 50% of the sites we survey will be category A sites, 40% will be category B sites, and 10% will be category C sites.  Environmental data is also collected at each station including water temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen.

Several questions you may have are why do a shark survey, how do you catch the sharks, and what do you do with the sharks once they are caught?  These are great questions and below I will describe the materials and methods we will use to catch and analyze sharks aboard the Oregon II. 

Why does NOAA perform shark surveys?
Shark surveys are done to gather information about shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico and to collect morphological measurements (length, weight) and biological samples for research.

How are shark surveys performed?
At each collection station, a one mile line of 100 hooks baited with Atlantic Mackerel is used to catch sharks. The line is first attached to a radar reflective highflyer (a type of buoy that can be detected by the ship’s radar).  A weight is then attached to the line to make it sink to the bottom.  After the weight is added, about 50 gangions with baited hooks are attached to the line.  At the half mile point of the line, another weight is attached then the second 50 hooks.  After the last hook, a third weight is added then the second highflyer.  The line is left in the water for one hour (time between last highflyer deployed and first highflyer retrieved) and then is pulled back on to the boat to assess what has been caught.  Small sharks and fishes are brought on deck while larger sharks are lifted into a cradle for processing.

Longline equipment

Sampling gear used includes two highflyers, weights, and 100 hooks

 

Longline hooks

Longline hooks used for the shark survey

 

Longline hooks

Longline hooks used in the shark survey

 

Shark cradle

Shark cradle used to collect information about large sharks

 

What data is collected from the sharks?
Researchers collect a variety of samples and information from the caught sharks.  First, the survey provides a snapshot of the different shark species and their relative abundance in the Gulf of Mexico.  Second, researchers collect data from individual sharks including length, weight and whether the shark is reproductively mature.  Some sharks are tagged to gather data about their migration patterns.  Each tag has an identification number for the shark and contact information to report information about where the same shark was re-caught.  Third, biological samples are collected from sharks for more detailed analyses.  Tissues collected include fin clips (for DNA and molecular studies), muscle tissue (for toxicology studies), blood (for hormonal studies), reproductive organs (including embryos if present), and vertebrae (for age and growth studies).

Personal Log
One of the desired traits for participants in the Teacher at Sea program is flexibility – cruising schedules and even ports can change.  I have now experienced this first-hand as we were delayed in port in Pascagoula, MS for an extra day.  Though waiting an extra day really isn’t a big deal, it is hard to wait since myself and the rest of the scientific crew are all anxious to begin the shark survey.  Since we also have two days of cruising to reach our first survey site, this means we all have to find ways to pass the time.  I have used some of my time trying to learn about the operation of the ship as well as the methods we will be using to perform the longline survey.  I also watched a couple movies with other members of the science team.  The ship has an amazing library of DVDs.

The Oregon II

Getting ready to leave Pascagoula aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II

Safety is very important aboard the Oregon II so today we performed several drills including an abandon ship drill.  This drill requires you to wear a survival suit.  Getting mine on was a tight squeeze but I got the suit on in the required time.

Safety suit

In my safety suit during an abandon ship drill

Did You Know?
The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.  Can you name the other six uniformed services?  Think about this and check the answer at the bottom of this post.

NOAA Corps Officers perform many duties that include commanding NOAA’s research and survey vessels, flying NOAA’s hurricane and environmental monitoring planes, and managing scientific and engineering work needed to make wise decisions about our natural resources and environment.

Answer: The seven uniformed services of the United States are: (1) Army, (2) Navy, (3) Air Force, (4) Marine Corps, (5) Coast Guard, (6) NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, and (7) Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Jeff Miller: Getting Ready to Sail, August 19, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
(Almost) Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 19, 2015

Personal Log

Hello from Phoenix, Arizona.  My name is Jeff Miller and I teach biology at Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) in Avondale, AZ.  EMCC is one of ten community colleges in the Maricopa Community College District, which is one of the largest college districts in the United States, serving more than 128,000 students each year.  I have been teaching at EMCC for eight years.  I currently teach two sections of a general biology course for non-majors (that is students who are majoring in subjects other than biology) and one section of a human anatomy and physiology course primarily taken by students entering healthcare-related fields.

Jeff Miller

A photo of me at Tuolomne Meadow in Yosemite National Park

EMCC is an outstanding place to teach because of all the truly wonderful students.  EMCC serves a diverse set of students from recent high school graduates to adults seeking a new career. EMCC students are also ethnically diverse. Thus, students bring a wide range of knowledge, ideas, and talents to our classrooms. Despite this diversity, one thing most students lack is real world experiences with marine organisms and environments. We are, after all, located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.  Arizona does, however, possess many unique and amazing environments and when I’m not in the classroom, hiking and exploring nature with my family is one of my favorite things to do.

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Cathedral Rock in Sedona, AZ

Great Horned Owl

A Great Horned Owl perches on a log in the desert near Tucson, AZ

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A saguaro cactus in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, AZ

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Arizona is home to the largest unbroken Ponderosa Pine forest in the world. My wife (Weiru), daughter (Julia), and dog (Maya) in the White Mountains of Arizona

I applied to the Teacher at Sea program to deepen my knowledge of marine systems as part of my sabbatical.  A sabbatical is a period of time granted to teachers to study, travel, acquire new skills, and/or fulfill a personal dream. I have always loved the ocean and even worked with sea urchin embryos in graduate school.  However, my knowledge and experience of marine organisms and ecosystems is  limited.  Therefore, participation in the Teacher at Sea program will give me the opportunity to learn how marine biologists and oceanographers collect and analyze data and how their investigations can inform us about human impacts on marine ecosystems. I plan to use the knowledge and experiences I gain to develop curriculum materials for a marine biology course at EMCC that to helps my students gain fundamental knowledge of and appreciation for our world’s oceans. I hope to foster greater curiosity and excitement about marine science and the scientists who explore our oceans and help students see why it is so important to protect and conserve the oceans resources for future generations.

To help fulfill my dream of learning more about the oceans, I have the opportunity of a lifetime – to sail on the NOAA Ship Oregon II.  I will be working with the crew and scientists aboard the Oregon II to perform part of an annual longline shark survey.  The goal of the mission is to gather data about shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast.  Some of the data collected includes length, weight, and sex of each individual, collection of tissues samples for DNA analysis, and collection of environmental data.  Please visit the main mission page or the Oregon II Facebook page for more detailed information and images, videos, and stories from recent cruises.  Also check out a recent article from the Washington Post featuring Kristin Hannan, a fisheries biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Services describing the shark research being conducted aboard the Oregon II.

Longline Shark Survey Map

Map showing the region of the Gulf of Mexico where I will participate in the longline shark survey aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II

Needless to say, I am extremely excited, though a bit nervous, about my upcoming cruise.  I have little experience sailing on the open ocean and have never been up close to a shark let alone actually handled one in person.  All that will change soon and I know that I will treasure the knowledge and experiences I gain aboard the Oregon II.  I am currently packing up my gear and preparing myself for the experience of a lifetime.

The next time you hear from me I will be in the Gulf of Mexico on my mission to learn more about sharks.

Cristina Veresan, Back in Kodiak! August 16, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Cristina Veresan
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 28 – August 16, 2015 

Mission: Walleye Pollock Acoustic-Trawl survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: Sunday, August 16, 2015

Calibration, Cleaning, and Camera Drops

Our final days aboard the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson were action-packed! Though our trawling operations were finished, the science team had plenty to do, mainly calibrating, and cleaning, and camera drops. For the echosounder calibration process, the ship was brought into the calm waters of Otter Bay near Yakutat, Alaska. The process involved lowering tungsten carbide and copper spheres into the water at prescribed depths; these standard targets have a known echo return at particular echosounder frequencies, so our scientists can make sure the echosounders are working properly. This calibration process was done at the beginning of the survey and now again at the end. It is important for scientists to calibrate their echosounder equipment as often as is practical in order to ensure the equipment is working consistently so that they have accurate data.

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Kayak selfie! Note the Oscar Dyson in the background. Photo by Emily Collins

To accommodate the calibration, the ship had to stay in place for about 8 hours. After our shift ended, the bridge gave Emily and I permission to take a kayak into the bay. Allen and Rob each held a line connected to an end of the kayak, and they lowered it into the water from the deck. To get in the kayak, we had to climb down a rope ladder to right over the water level, then lower ourselves down to our seats. Thankfully, Emily and I managed to do this without tipping ourselves over! She and I each had a life preserver on, and we had a radio with us to communicate with the bridge. It was so fun to go for a paddle. The Oscar Dyson faded into the distance as we made our way towards the shore. We hugged the coast of the bay, surrounded by gorgeous alpine scenery. In the shallow water, we saw large sea stars, mounds of clams, and lots of scurrying crabs. After about an hour, we made our way back to the ship, exhilarated from our kayak adventure.

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Otter Bay from our kayak

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Great view of the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson from our kayak

We also spent a day cleaning the wet lab from top to bottom, including all the baskets, walls, and counters. We had to rid all its surfaces of pesky fish scales, so we spent hours scrubbing, soaping, and spraying everything down. At that point, we also began packing much of our gear and equipment that would be offloaded in Kodiak, as this was the last leg of the summer survey. Although we were not fishing, our camera drops also continued on both shifts. In transit, we were also treated to an awesome view of Hubbard Glacier in Disenchantment Bay. Hubbard Glacier is unique in that, unlike most of the world’s glaciers, it has actually been advancing and thickening for the last 100 years. As we cruised into the bay, we all gathered on deck or on the bridge to take in the majestic tidewater glacier terminating in the sea. We also took the opportunity to get a group picture of our science team!

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Hubbard Glacier, Disenchantment Bay, Alaska

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The Science Team: (top row, from left) Nathan Lauffenburger, Emily Collins, Cristina Veresan, Darin Jones, Rick Towler (bottom row, from left) Denise McKelvey, Mackenzie Wilson Photo by Alyssa Pourmonir

A Farewell

This morning, under the supervision of superior officers, Ensign Benjamin Kaiser (remember him from the interview?) expertly brought the Oscar Dyson into port. The ship was back in her home port of Kodiak, Alaska, and the science team was ready to disembark and offload our gear. I must say it is a weird sensation to get your “land legs” back after having been at sea for three weeks. I was ready to go to nearby Harborside Coffee and Goods, get myself a good coffee and go for a long walk. I do not fly back to Hawai’i until Tuesday afternoon, so I am looking forward to exploring Kodiak a bit more with some of my shipmates in the next few days. I will also be able to attend a talk tomorrow in which chief scientist Darin Jones will present the preliminary results from this summer’s survey to a group of fisheries industry professionals and other interested parties.

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Reflection. Kodiak Harbor, Alaska

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A salmon sculpture made from marine debris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am very grateful to Commanding Officer Arthur “Jesse” Stark and all the officers and crew of the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson for a safe, productive voyage. And I would like to extend a big MAHALO to the science team from Midwater Assessment & Conservation Engineering (MACE) at Alaska Fisheries Science Center conducting the third leg of the summer Walleye Pollock Acoustic-Trawl survey! Thanks for welcoming me into your team; you all are dedicated professionals whose passion for your work is obvious. A special thanks to chief scientist Darin Jones for sharing your expertise and taking the time to edit this blog.

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One of my last sunrises at sea, observed from the bow

Sailing as Teacher at Sea was a rich, hands-on learning experience. I was impressed by the sophisticated techniques and novel technology helping scientists assess pollock populations, which will eventually inform fisheries management decisions. And working in the wet lab was a lot of fun! In addition to processing pollock, I enjoyed observing all the different creatures we caught in our trawls, from sea jellies to shrimps to all manner of fish. While I will really miss my shipmates, the fisheries work, and the gorgeous scenery (especially those epic sunrises), I am excited to go back and share all I have learned with my students and a larger community of educators.

So this is Cristina Veresan, once again a Teacher Ashore, and officially signing off…

Mahalo nui loa for following my journey. Aloha!

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Fish faces! Photo by Emily Collins