Staci DeSchryver: Things We Deliberately Throw Overboard Part Deux: The Ocean Noise Sensor July 20, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – Aug 2

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  Northwest Hawaiian Island Chain, Just past Mokumanamana (Necker Island)

Date:  July 20, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Science and Technology Log:

As promised in Blog Post #3, I mentioned that “Thing number four we deliberately throw overboard” would have a dedicated blog post because it was so involved.  Well, grab some popcorn, because the time has arrived!

Thing number 4 we deliberately throw over the side of a ship does not get thrown overboard very often, but when it does, it causes much hubbub and hullaballoo on the ship.  I had the unique opportunity to witness one of only ten ocean noise sensors that are deployed in US waters come aboard the ship and get redeployed.  These sensors are found all over US waters – from Alaska to the Atlantic.  One is located in the Catalina Marine Sanctuary, and still others are hanging out in the Gulf of Mexico, and we are going to be sailing right past one!  To see more about the Ocean Noise Sensors, visit the HICEAS website “other projects” tab, or just click here.  To see where the Ocean Noise Recorders are, click here.

The Ocean Noise Sensor system is a group of 10 microphones placed in the “SOFAR” channel all over US waters.  Once deployed, they collect data for two years in order to track the level of ocean noise over time.  It’s no secret that our oceans are getting louder.  Shipping routes, oil and gas exploration, and even natural sources of noise like earthquakes all contribute to the underwater noise that our cetacean friends must chatter through.  Imagine sitting at far ends of the table at a dinner party with a friend you have not caught up with in a while.  While other guests chat away, you and the friend must raise your voices slightly to remain in contact.  As the night progresses on, plates start clanging, glasses are clinking, servers are asking questions, and music is playing in the background.  The frustration of trying to communicate over the din is tolerable, but not insurmountable.  Now imagine the host turning on the Super Bowl at full volume for entertainment.  Now the noise in the room is incorrigible, and you and your friend have lost all hope of even hearing a simple greeting, let alone have a conversation.  In fact, you can hardly get anyone’s attention to get them to pass you the potatoes.  This is similar to the noise levels in our world’s ocean.  As time goes on, more noise is being added to the system.  This could potentially interfere with multiple species and their communications abilities.  Calling out to find a mate, forage for food, or simply find a group to associate with must now be done in the equivalent din of a ticker-tape parade, complete with bands, floats, and fire engines blaring their horns.  This is what the Ocean Noise Sensor is hoping to get a handle on.   By placing sensors in the ocean to passively collect ambient noise, we can answer two important questions:  How have the noise levels changed over time?  To what extent are these changes in noise levels impacting marine life?   

Many smaller isolated studies have been done on ocean noise levels in the past, but a few years ago, scientists from Cornell partnered with NOAA and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) and the Pacific Marine Environmental Lab to streamline this study in order to get a unified, global data source of ocean noise levels.  The Pacific Marine Environmental Lab built a unified sound recording system for all groups involved in the study, and undertook the deployments of the hydrophones.  They also took on the task of processing the data once it is recovered.  The HICEAS team is in a timely and geographical position to assist in recovery of the data box and redeploying the hydrophone.   This was how we spent the day.

The recovery and re-deployment of the buoy started just before dawn, and ended just before dinner.

 Our standard effort of marine mammal observation was put on hold so that we could recover and re-deploy the hydrophone.  It was an exciting day for a few reasons – one, it was definitely a novel way to spend the day.  There was much to do on the part of the crew, and much to watch on the part of those who didn’t have the know-how to assist.  (This was the category I fell in to.)

At dawn, an underwater acoustic command was sent to the depths to release a buoy held underwater attached to the hydrophone.  While the hydrophone is only 1000m below the surface seated nice and squarely in the SOFAR channel, the entire system is anchored to the ocean floor at a depth of 4000m.  Once the buoy was released, crew members stationed themselves around the ship on the Big Eyes and with binoculars to watch for the buoy to surface.  It took approximately 45 minutes before the buoy was spotted just off our port side.  The sighting award goes to CDR Stephanie Koes, our fearless CO.  A crewmember pointed out the advancement in our technologies in the following way:  “We can use GPS to find a buried hydrophone in the middle of the ocean…and then send a signal…down 4000m…to a buoy anchored to the ocean floor…cut the buoy loose remotely, and then actually have the buoy come up to the surface near enough to the ship where we can find it.”  Pretty impressive if you think about it.

The buoy was tied to the line that is attached to the hydrophone, so once the buoy surfaced, “all” we had to do was send a fast rescue boat out to retrieve it, bring the buoy and line back to the ship, bring the crew safely back aboard the ship, hook the line up through a pulley overhead and back to a deck wench, pull the line through, take off the hydrophone, pull the rest of the line up, unspool the line on the wench to re-set the line, re-spool the winch, and then reverse the whole process.

Watching the crew work on this process was impressive at least, and a fully orchestrated symphony at best.  There were many tyings of knots and transfers of lines, and all crew members worked like the well-seasoned deck crew that they are.  Chief Bos’n Chris Kaanaana is no stranger to hauling in and maintaining buoys, so his deck crew were well prepared to take on this monumental task.

Much of the day went exactly according to plan.  The buoy was safely retrieved, the hydrophone brought on board, the lines pulled in, re-spooled, and all sent back out again.  But I am here to tell you that 4000m of line to haul in and pay back out takes. A Long. Time.  We worked through a rainstorm spooling the line off the winch to reset it, through the glare of the tropical sun and the gentle and steadfast breeze of the trade winds.  By dinner time, all was back in place, the buoy safely submerged deep in the ocean waters, waiting to be released again in another two years to repeat the process all over again.  With any luck, the noise levels in the ocean will have improved.  Many commercial vessels have committed to adopting “quiet ship” technology to assist in the reduction of noise levels.  If this continues to improve, our cetacean friends just might be able to hear one another again at dinner.

 

Personal Log

So, I guess it’s pretty fair to say that once you’re a teacher, you’re always a teacher.  I could not fully escape my August to May duties onboard, despite my best efforts.  This week, I found myself on the bridge, doing a science experiment with the Wardroom (These are what all of the officers onboard as a group are called).   How is this even happening, you ask?  (Trust me, I asked myself the same thing when I was in the middle of it, running around to different “lab groups” just like in class.)  Our CO, CDR Koes, is committed to ensuring that her crew is always learning on the ship.

 If her staff do not know the answer to a question, she will guide them through the process of seeking out the correct answer so that all  officers learn as much as they can when it comes to being underway –  steering the ship, preparing for emergencies, and working with engineers, scientists, and crew.  For example, I found out that while I was off “small-boating” near Pilot Whales, the Wardroom was busy working on maneuvering the ship in practice of man overboard scenarios.  She is committed to ensuring that all of her staff knows all parts of this moving city, or at a minimum know how to find the answers to any questions they may have.  It’s become clear just how much the crew and the entire ship have a deep respect and admiration for CDR Koes.  I knew she was going to be great when we were at training and word got out that she would be the CO of this Leg on Sette and everyone had a range of positive emotions from elated to relieved to ecstatic.

As part of this training, she gives regular “quizzes” to her staff each day – many of them in good fun with questions for scientists, crew, engineers, and I.  Some questions are nautical “things” that the Wardroom should know or are nice to know (for example, knowing the locations of Material Safety Data Sheets or calculating dew point temperatures), some questions are about the scientific work done onboard, while others are questions about personal lives of onboard members.

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The Chief Medical Officer, “Doc” gives a lesson on water quality testing.

 It has been a lot of fun watching the Wardroom and Crew seek out others and ask them where they live while showing them their “whale dance” to encourage sightings.  It has exponentially increased the interactions between everyone onboard in a positive and productive way.

The other teaching element that CDR Koes has implemented is a daily lesson each day from Monday to Friday just after lunch.  All NOAA Officers meet on the bridge, while one officer takes the lead to teach a quick, fifteen minute lesson on any topic of their choosing.  It could be to refresh scientific knowledge, general ship operations, nautical concepts, or anything else that would be considered “good to know.”

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The Chief Engineer gives a rundown on the various ship emergency alarms.

 This sharing of knowledge builds trust among the Wardroom because it honors each officer’s strong suits and reminds us that we all have something to contribute while onboard.

I started attending these lunchtime sessions and volunteered to take on a lesson.  So, this past Tuesday, I rounded up some supplies and did what I know best – we all participated in the Cloud in a Bottle Lesson!

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Here I am learning to use a sextant for navigation.

The Wardroom had fun (I think?) making bottle clouds, talking about the three conditions for cloud formation, and refreshing their memories on adiabatic heating and cooling.  It was a little nerve wracking for me as a teacher because two of the officers are meteorologists by trade, but I think I passed the bar.  (I hope I did!)

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Teaching about adiabatic cooling with the the Cloud in a Bottle Demo with the Wardroom!

It was fun to slide back into the role of teacher, if only for a brief while, and served as a reminder that I’m on my way back to work in a few weeks!  Thanks to the Wardroom  for calling on me to dust up my teacher skills for the upcoming first weeks of school!

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ENS Holland and ENS Frederick working hard making clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Facebook Asks, DeSchryver Answers

I polled all of my Facebook friends, fishing (ha ha, see what I did there?) for questions about the ship, and here are some of the questions and my answers!

 

Q:   LC asks, “What has been your most exciting moment on the ship?”

It’s hard to pick just one, so I’ll tell you the times I was held at a little tear:  a) Any sighting of a new species is a solid winner, especially the rare ones  b) The first time I heard Sperm Whales on the acoustic detector c) The first time we took the small boat out for UAS operations….annnndddd d) The first time I was on Independent Observation and we had a sighting!

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A group of Melon-Headed Whales, or PEPs, cruise along with the ship.

Q:  JK asks, “What are your thoughts on the breakoff of Larsen C?  And have there been any effects from the Alaskan quake and tsunami?”

We’re actually pretty isolated on board!  Limited internet makes it hard to hear of all the current events.  I had only briefly heard about Larsen C, and just that it broke, not anything else.  I had no clue there was a quake and tsunami!  But!  I will tell a cool sort of related story.  On Ford Island, right where Sette is docked, the parking lot is holding three pretty banged up boats.  If you look closely, they all have Japanese markings on them.  Turns out they washed up on Oahu after the Japan Tsunami.  They tracked down the owners, and they came out to confirm those boats were theirs, but left them with NOAA as a donation.  So?  There’s tsunami debris on Oahu and I saw it.

 

Q:  NG asks, “Any aha moments when it comes to being on the ocean?  And anything to bring back to Earth Science class?”

So many aha moments, but one in particular that comes to mind is just how difficult it is to spot cetaceans and how talented the marine mammal observers are! They can quite literally spot animals from miles away!  There are a lot of measures put in place to help the marine mammal observers, but at the end of the day, there are some species that are just tougher than nails to spot, or to spot and keep an eye on since their behaviors are all so different.  And as far as anything to bring back to our class?  Tons.  I got a cool trick to make a range finder using a pencil.  I think we should use it!

 

Q:  MJB asks, “Have you had some peaceful moments to process and just take it all in?”

Yes.  At night between the sonobuoy launches, I get two miles of transit time out on the back deck to just absorb the day and be thankful for the opportunities.  The area of Hawai’i we are in right now is considered sacred ground, so it’s very powerful to just be here and be here.

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These sunsets will give Colorado sunsets a run for their money.  No green flash in Colorado = point awarded to Hawai’i.

 

Q:  SC asks, “What souvenir are you bringing me?”

Well, we saw a glass fishing float, and we tried to catch it for you, but it got away.

Q:  LC asks, “What’s the most disgusting ocean creature?”

Boy that’s a loaded question because I guarantee if I name a creature, someone out there studies it for a living.  But! I will tell you the most delicious ocean creature.  That would be Ono.  In sashimi form.  Also, there is a bird called a Great Frigate bird – it feeds via something called Klepto-parasitism, which is exactly how it sounds.  It basically finds other birds, harasses them until they give up whatever they just caught or in some cases until it pukes, and then it steals their food.  So, yeah.  I’d say that’s pretty gross.  But everyone’s gotta eat, right?

Q:  KI asks, “Have you eaten all that ginger?”

I’m about two weeks in and I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten about a pound. I’m still working on it!

Q:  HC asks, ”Have you seen or heard any species outside of their normal ocean territory?”

Sort of.  Yesterday we saw Orca!  They are tropical Orca, so they are found in this area, but they aren’t very common.  The scientific team was thinking we’d maybe see one or two out of the entire seven legs of the trip, and we saw some yesterday!  (I can’t say how many, and you’ll find out why in an upcoming post.)  We have also seen a little bird that wasn’t really technically out of his territory, but the poor fella sure was a little far from home.

Q:  JPK asks, “What kinds of data have you accumulated to use in a cross-curricular experience for math?”

We can do abundance estimates with a reasonably simplified equation.  It’s pretty neat how we can take everything that we see from this study, and use those numbers to extrapolate how many of each species is estimated to be “out there.”

Q: AP asks, “What has surprised you about this trip?”

Many, many things, but I’ll mention a couple fun ones.  The ship has an enormous movie collection – even of movies that aren’t out on DVD yet because they get them ahead of time!  Also? The food on the ship is amazing.  We’re halfway through the trip and the lettuce is still green.  I have to find out the chef’s secret!  And the desserts are to die for.  It’s a wonder I haven’t put on twenty pounds.  The crew does a lot of little things to celebrate and keep morale up, like birthday parties, and music at dinner, and shave ice once a week.  Lots of people take turns barbecuing and cooking traditional foods and desserts special to them from home and they share with everyone.  They are always in really high spirits and don’t let morale drop to begin with, so it’s always fun.

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Celebrating Engineer Jerry’s Birthday.

Q:  TS asks, “What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done?”

I’ve done lots of exciting things, but the one thing that comes to mind is launching on the small boat to go take photos of the pilot whales.  Such a cool experience, and I hope we get good enough weather to do it again while we’re out here!  Everything about ship life is brand new to me, so I like to help out as much as I can.  Any time someone says, “Will you help with this?” I get excited, because I  know I’m about to learn something new and also lend a hand. 

 

Kimberly Scantlebury: It’s All About the Little Things, May 8, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kimberly Scantlebury

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

May 1-May 12, 2017

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: May 8, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 18:00

Latitude: 2755.757 N, Longitude: 9200.0239 W

Wind Speed: 14.21  knots, Barometric Pressure: 1015.3 hPa

Air Temperature: 24.56  C, Water Temperature: 24.4  C

Salinity: 36.37  PSU, Conditions: 50% cloud cover, light wind, seas 2-4 feet

Science and Technology Log

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The CTD

The CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) array is another important tool. It goes down at each station, which means data is captured ten-twelve times a day. It drops 50 m/min so it only takes minutes to reach the bottom where other winch/device systems can take an hour to do the same. This array scans eight times per second for the following environmental factors:

  • Depth (m)
  • Conductivity (converts to salinity in ppt)
  • Temperature (C)
  • Dissolved oxygen (mg/mL)
  • Transmissivity (%)
  • Fluorescence (mg/m^3)
  • Descent rate (m/sec)
  • Sound velocity (m/sec)
  • Density (kg/m^3)

There are two sensors for most readings and the difference between them is shown in real time and recorded. For example, the dissolved oxygen sensor is most apt to have calibration issues. If the two sensors are off each other by 0.1 mg/L then something needs to be done.

Software programs filter the data to cut out superfluous numbers such as when the CTD is acclimating in the water for three minutes prior to diving. Another program aligns the readings when the water is working through the sensors. Since a portion of water will reach one sensor first, then another, then another, and so on, the data from each exact portion of water is aligned with each environmental factor. There are many other sophisticated software programs that clean up the data for use besides these two.

These readings are uploaded to the Navy every twelve hours, which provides almost real-time data of the Gulf. The military uses this environmental data to determine how sound will travel through sound channels by locating thermoclines as well as identifying submarines. NOAA describes a thermocline as, “the transition layer between warmer mixed water at the ocean’s surface and cooler deep water below.” Sound channels are how whales are able to communicate over long distances.

NOAA Ocean Explorer: Sound in the Sea 2001

This “channeling” of sound occurs because of the properties of sound and the temperature and pressure differences at different depths in the ocean. (NOAA)

The transmissometer measures the optical properties of the water, which allows scientists to track particulates in the water. Many of these are clay particles suspended in the water column. Atmospheric scientists are interested in particulates in the air and measure 400 m. In the water, 0.5 m is recorded since too many particulate affects visibility very quickly. This affects the cameras since light reflecting off the clay can further reduce visibility.   

Fluorescence allows scientists to measure chlorophyll A in the water. The chlorophyll molecule is what absorbs energy in photosynthetic plants, algae, and bacteria. Therefore, it is an indicator of the concentration of organisms that make up the base of food chains. In an ecosystem, it’s all about the little things! Oxygen, salinity, clay particles, photosynthetic organisms, and more (most we can not actually see), create a foundation that affects the fish we catch more than those fish affect the little things.  

The relationship between abiotic (nonliving) and biotic (living) factors is fascinating. Oxygen is a great example. When nitrates and phosphates wash down the Mississippi River from the breadbasket of America, it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. These nutrients can make algae go crazy and lead to algae blooms. The algae then use up the oxygen, creating dead zones. Fish can move higher up the water column or away from the area, but organisms fixed to the substrate (of which there are many in a reef system) can not. Over time, too many algae blooms can affect the productivity of an area.

Salt domes were created millions of years ago when an ancient sea dried up prior to reflooding into what we have today. Some salt domes melted and pressurized into super saline water, which sinks and pools. These areas create unique microclimates suitable to species like some mussels. A microclimate is a small or restricted area with a climate unique to what surrounds it.

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The ship’s sonar revealing a granite spire a camera array was deployed on.

Another great example is how geology affects biology. Some of these salt domes collapsed leaving granite spires 30-35 meters tall and 10 meters across. These solid substrates create a magical biological trickle down effect. The algae and coral attach to the hard rock, and soon bigger and bigger organisms populate this microclimate. Similar microclimates are created in the Gulf of Mexico from oil rigs and other hard surfaces humans add to the water.

Jillian’s net also takes a ride with the CTD. She is a PhD student at Texas A&M University studying the abundance and distribution of zooplankton in the northern Gulf of Mexico because it is the primary food source of some commercially important larval fish species. Her net is sized to capture the hundreds of different zooplankton species that may be populating the area. The term zooplankton comes from the Greek zoo (animal) and planktos (wanderer/drifter). Many are microscopic, but Jillian’s samples reveal some translucent critters you can see with the naked eye. Her work and the work of others like her ensures we will have a deeper understanding of the ocean.   

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Personal Log

Prior to this I had never been to the Gulf of Mexico other than on a cruise ship (not exactly the place to learn a lot of science). It has been unexpected to see differences and parallels between the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Maine, which I am more familiar. NOAA scientist, John, described the Gulf to me as, “a big bathtub.” In both, the geology of the area, which was formed millions of years ago, affects that way these ecosystems run.   

Quote of the Day:
Jillian: “Joey, are we fishing at this station?”
Joey: “I dunno. I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
Jillian: “It’s 3:30 in the afternoon!”

Did You Know?

Zooplankton in the Gulf of Mexico are smaller than zooplankton in the Gulf of Maine. Larger species are found in colder water.  

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Zooplankton under microscope (NOAA)

Kimberly Scantlebury: Getting Ready to Ship Out. April 26, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kimberly Scantlebury

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

May 1-May 12, 2017

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: April 26, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

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At home in New England, where you can enjoy the mountains and the sea all in a day.

Greetings from New Hampshire! Our variable spring weather is getting me ready for the coolness at sea compared to hot Galveston, Texas, where I will ship off in a few days.

It is currently 50 F and raining with a light wind, the perfect weather to reflect on this upcoming adventure.

Science and Technology Log

I am excited to soon be a part of the 2017 SEAMAP Reef Survey. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) writes the objective of these surveys is, “ to provide an index of the relative abundances of fish species associated with topographic features (banks, ledges) located on the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico in the area from Brownsville, Texas to Dry Tortugas, Florida.” The health of the Gulf is important from an ecological and economic perspective. Good science demands good research.

We will be working 12 hour shifts aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces. I expect to work hard and learn a lot about the science using cameras, fish traps, and vertical long lines. I also look forward to learning more about life aboard a fisheries research vessel and the career opportunities available to my students as they think about their own futures.

Personal Log

I’ve been teaching science in Maine and New Hampshire for eight years and always strive to stay connected to science research. I aim to keep my students directly connected through citizen science opportunities and my own continuing professional development. Living in coastal states, it is easier to remember the ocean plays a large role in our lives. The culture of lobster, fried clams, and beach days requires a healthy ocean.

I love adventure and have always wanted to “go out to sea.” This was the perfect opportunity! I was fortunate to take a Fisheries Science & Techniques class with Dave Potter while attending Unity College and look forward to revisiting some of that work, like measuring otoliths (ear bones, used to age fish). I have also benefited from professional development with The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and other ocean science experiences. One of the best parts of science teaching is you are always learning!

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Science teachers benefit from quality professional development to stay informed in their content areas.

There was a lot of preparation involved since I am missing two weeks of school. I work at The Founders Academy, a public charter school in Manchester, New Hampshire. We serve students from 30 towns, but about a third come from Manchester. The school’s Vision is to: prepare wise, principled leaders by offering a classical education and providing a wide array of opportunities to lead:

  • Preparing students to be productive citizens.
  • Teaching students how to apply the American experience and adapt to become leaders in today’s and tomorrow’s global economy.
  • Emphasis on building ethical and responsible leaders in society.

I look forward to bringing my experiences with NOAA Teacher at Sea Program back to school! It is difficult to leave my students for two weeks, but so worth it. It is exciting to connect with middle and high school students all of the lessons we can learn from the work NOAA does. My school community has been very supportive, especially another science teacher who generously volunteered to teach my middle school classes while I am at sea.

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I am grateful for the support at home for helping me participate in the NOAA Teacher at Sea Program.

My boyfriend too is holding down the fort at home and with Stone & Fire Pizza as I go off on another adventure. Our old guinea pigs, Montana & Macaroni, prefer staying at home, but put up with us taking them on vacation to Rangeley, Maine. I am grateful for the support and understanding of everyone and for the opportunity NOAA has offered me.

Did You Know?

NOAA Corps is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.

NOAA is the scientific agency of the Department of Commerce. The agency was founded in 1970 by consolidating different organizations that existed since the 1800’s, making NOAA’s scientific legacy the oldest in the U.S. government.

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As a science teacher, it is funny that I really do have guinea pigs. Here is our rescue pig Montana, who is 7-8 years old.

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.

P1050572

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).