Julianne Mueller-Northcott, May 15, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julianne Mueller-Northcott
Onboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
May 11 – 22, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Julianne Mueller-Northcott
University of Delaware R/V Hugh R. Sharp
Mission:  Sea Scallop Survey: Leg III
Port of Departure: Lewes, Delaware
Location:  Off the coast of Maryland
Date: May 15, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air temp: 16.6⁰C, clear skies, 10% cloud cover

Water conditions
SST: 13.16⁰C, Salinity: 31.7ppt

Science and Technology Log
Got sea stars?
We have pulled up some impressive loads of scallops so far on this trip!  Our largest load included 2,083 scallops (which is about 750 lbs).  When they come up in the dredge you can hear them coming.  They clatter in the net as they get hauled out and dumped out onto the deck.  But even when we are so tired of counting the scallops and lifting the heavy baskets, the scientists and crew members have said, “Just wait!  You haven’t seen anything yet!” referencing the fact that there were many more scallops to come.

But today, in a location where in years past have been home to a large numbers of scallops, we didn’t find many.  In fact at our last station, there were only five.  Instead, the net bulges with the sea star, Astropectin. “Where are all the scallops?” is a question that the scientists keep asking themselves because this data is so surprising to them.  Today we passed many fishing boats, in fact at one point there were at least five on the horizon surrounding us.  I had thought that was an important clue that meant we were bound to find lots shellfish, but that hasn’t been the case.  Because this data is surprising, it has the scientists asking another question “Is there a problem with the collection gear?”  Fortunately, there are many systems set in place to guarantee that everything is working properly.

During experiments at school, we try to make sure that students know to standardize the procedure and limit variables so that they can be sure the results they attain are based on the one variable they isolated and not due to some other environmental factor.  That principle couldn’t be more true on this scallop survey.  It is of the utmost importance that all the data that is collected, is collected the same way at each location, and as it was collected in previous years.  For this reason, all the specifications about the dredge (the size of the dredge, the size of the rings that let small organisms out, but trap the larger organisms) are kept the same throughout each leg of the survey and each year. In addition to this, they also measure the angle of the dredge with an inclinometer. This way they can make sure that the dredge is always in the same position as it moves along the seafloor.  The tow is always for the same length of time, going at the same speed, and going in a straight line.  You can see that if a tow was down for a longer amount of time that would change the amount of organisms being caught. To double check all of these procedures, we mounted a camera on to the dredge.  This camera had a timer on it as well.  It was really fun to watch the video; the dredge fell through the water column and then settled on the sea floor in a puff of mud.  The dredge sped along the substrate and we could see little sea stars falling back into the net. Watching the footage, the scientists were able to double check that the angle on the dredge and the amount of time it spent on the bottom was consistent with the measurements they were getting from the inclinometer.  Since this data is helping to manage such a valuable economic resource, the scientists need to be extremely confident in the data collection methods.  Using this data, decisions will be made about the fishing regulations in the area which ultimately impacts people’s jobs and income.

Because these scientists have carefully and deliberately eliminated so many variables they can be sure that their equipment is working properly and that they can trust their data.  But that still leaves the question, where are they scallops?  Have all of the scallop fishing boats that we can see in the distance totally wiped this area clean?  Or is it to do with the incredible numbers of sea stars that we have seen, gorging themselves on their favorite delicacy? Hopefully, this particular region is isolated and we will have been luck finding scallops tomorrow.

Jack C’s question was, “Did you catch any sharks?” And yes we have!  We have caught a bunch of a small type of shark called a chain dogfish.  They have a very cool pattern on their skin that looks like a chain link fence and they are usually around a foot or so long.  We also caught a shark that was a little bigger called a smooth dogfish.  What is great about these guys is that they are a little more resilient that some of the other fish that we catch.  They make it back to the water without a problem and we watch them swim away.

My patrol of the bow of the boat certainly paid off today.  I saw so many dolphins!  The past couple of days I have been in awe of the handful of dolphins we have seen and by the sunfish.  But, honestly, I was a little surprised that we hadn’t seen more mammals. Well, the dolphins found us today! On and off today, dolphins would stop by the boat for a few minutes to play in the wake or up near the bow.  They would leap and splash a couple of times and then be on their way.  It was a different species than the dolphins that had visited us at night—these were grey on the top, then a tan color on the sides and white underneath. This afternoon a couple were near the back of the boat when we had a break between hauls.  Knowing that the dolphins especially like to play near the bow of the boat, I went to see if maybe some of their friends were up front.  Sure enough, surging through the water, weaving between each other were at least a dozen dolphins.  Then I happened to look up—and there coming towards the boat were even more dolphins.  They were porpoising through the water coming from ahead of the boat.  You could see them coming from at least a ½ mile away by the repetitive, white splash of the water.  It was like a dolphin convention was happening at the Sharp!  They would meet each other at the bow and enjoy being pulled along by the drag in the water created by the ship.  Probably the most amazing part was not only watching them but listening to them as well.  Because they were so close, just about 12 feet below me as I stood on the deck of the ship, I could hear their clicks and high-pitched whistles.   Watching their fun dance in the water, I noticed that many of the dolphins would swim for a few seconds together, belly to belly.  Then they would speed off and find a new dance partner; I thought it was very sweet and adorable.  It took me a minute to figure it out, but then I realized that they were doing a little more than just “dancing” together.  Oh….They were truly enjoying themselves!

Personal Log
I didn’t realize how long it had been since I had watched the sun set.  Not just the casual, driving in your car and you notice the daylight fade, but when you sit down with the intention of taking in a real sunset.  When you watch from the first signs of an orange sky until the last smidge of brilliant red slips gently down over the horizon.  I had the chance to watch one of those sunsets today, start to finish.  It reminded me of summers out at the Shoals Marine Lab when we would actually stop teaching class just to sit out on the porch and admire something that happens every day, but is nevertheless spectacular.   I am always surprised how quickly it happens.  All day long, it is impossible to notice our movement relative to the sun, but it only takes a few minutes to transition from day to night.  And the real highlight is not the exact moment that the sun disappears, but minutes after the sun has set, when the entire sky glows red. Tonight was the first moon that I have seen on the trip, and it was curved into a smile hanging in the sky.  It grinned next to a bright star (or maybe a planet?) on the pink backdrop, above the midnight water with a large tanker drifting by in the distance.

One of my favorite parts of this adventure so far is just being able to spend all day outside.  I wake up in the morning—usually around 9:00 (I haven’t slept in so late since before Madelyn was born—but it is because my night shift ends at midnight—and maybe because the gentle rocking of the ship helps me sleep so fitfully!).  I hurry to get dressed and then head right for the bow of the boat.  There I search for dolphins and sunfish for about an hour or so before it is time to get ready for work.  The past two days have been so beautiful, that I haven’t wanted to be inside the boat at all during the day—for fear that I might miss something spectacular!  Because of this, I haven’t had the chance to do as much writing as I would like.  I tried using the laptop outside—but the glare is too great. It just doesn’t work!  After a long and draining winter/spring, it feels so good to get recharged by the solar energy!

Julianne Mueller-Northcott, May 12, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julianne Mueller-Northcott
Onboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
May 11 – 22, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Julianne Mueller-Northcott
University of Delaware R/V Hugh R. Sharp
Mission:  Sea Scallop Survey: Leg III
Port of Departure: Lewes, Delaware
Location: Off the coast of Virginia
Date: May 12, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge

Air temp: 13.72⁰C, 85% humidity, overcast

Science and Technology Log
When the dredge gets pulled up the ramp of the ship, I always strain to try to see past the chain and netting to see what amazing creatures might have gotten caught in the dredge.  I can see the pale-as–a-ghost face on the underside of skates and flounders.  The sea stars fall to the table in a big mound and you can see the crabs trying to climb the net.  And of course the scallops!  They get dumped out onto the table in a wave.  The pile of creatures undulates as organisms try to right themselves and seek cover.  Each dredge so far has been different.  Some are chock full of sea stars such as Asterias forbesii and Asterias vulgaris which we have at home, but by far the most abundant sea star species is Astropectin sp.   There was one dredge that was all sand dollars and they tumbled out onto to the deck, like hundreds of poker chips, hockey pucks and small frisbees.  I noticed that all of the fish in the dredge were green and then everything else started turning green. Apparently, sand dollars turn everything green! No one was quite sure why—this will be something to investigate once I get home.

So you can imagine how exciting it is to see hundreds (in some cases maybe thousands) of your sea friends, dumped out in front of you to examine!  I think about all the hours toiling at Odiorne Point with my students searching under rocks and peeling back algae in the intertidal zone looking for a hidden gem.  Here on the sorting table at the back of the boat there are so many species, so many things waiting to be discovered.  I think about my marine biologists at home and how excited they would be to have some of these critters for our tank!  (And while the thought has crossed my mind to try to kidnap some, that might be a difficult situation to explain going through security at the airport—a cooler full of crabs, sand dollars, sea stars and scallops!) The object here is not to study all the cool creatures for hours under a microscope which is what I would love to do (there isn’t even a microscope on the ship!) but instead, to sort.  My job, with 5 other people, is put out all the scallops and fish.  Those get measured and counted and everything else goes back into the water.  It all happens very quickly.  Because the goal is to do so many dredges in a relatively short amount of time, the faster you process everything the faster we can move on to our next sampling location, which means the more data that can be collected.  Also time is money on this high tech ship we are on.  For the scientists to use the R/V Hugh R. Sharp it costs $12,000 a day.  So it is imperative to work quickly to get the job done. But I am learning some tricks so that I can spend a little more time with the creatures I really want to check out.  I usually sneak a couple of neat things to photograph off to the side and after we are finished with the work at hand take a few minutes to study them.  And the scientists have figured out that when they have an organism that we haven’t seen yet, they have to show it to me before it gets tossed back overboard!

We were just pulling up a dredge last night when Ben pointed to the starboard side of the ship.  There in the starlight were about eight dolphins riding in the wake of the boat.  They were porpoising in and out of the water.  They were gray, with speckled black dots—we don’t have a mammal field guide on board—so I am not sure which species it was.  It was the first night that we could see stars, other than the sea star variety. I thought of Kat S. who was the first person who got me excited about the prospect of seeing stars at night from the boat.  Between the starlight and the spotlights on the ship, the sea below sparkled.  Even in the dark water you could see the water shimmer and change to a light green color, letting you know where the dolphins were just before they surfaced.  I have a list of top wildlife encounters in my life (swimming with whale sharks and eagle rays, saving stranded pilot whales in the keys, viewing humpbacks breech in a storm in the Bay of Fundy, nesting sea turtles Mexico, watching baby orcas play in the San Juan Islands, etc) but even with this list, watching the dolphins at night beneath the stars was pretty magical!

Captain Bill nonchalantly mentioned that he had seen an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) yesterday morning.  “What?!” I guess I hadn’t made it clear that I wanted to witness any such animal encounters.  I had told my students that the ocean sunfish was the one species I was really looking forward to seeing on this trip.  I had seen them in various aquariums but never in the wild. The ocean sunfish has always seemed to me a freak of natural selection.  How could something so big, clumsy and awkward looking have survived evolution?  Something about the way it lazes around without a care in the world has always appealed to me.  This morning, I took my usual watch on the bow of the boat (as I do every morning before my watch begins at 12:00). There, about 50 ft from the boat, I saw two large fins, flopping this way and that without an apparent purpose.  It was Mola mola! We didn’t get very close and our boat was traveling fast but through my binos I at least got a glimpse of its round, disc body.  And a couple of hours later, I saw another—this one a little further away.  So I know there are lots out there—now the goal is to get an up-close view and hopefully a photo!

Personal Log
It is pretty awesome now that the weather is brightening and we are seeing some beautiful species!  I love being on the top decks watching the sunlight dance on the water.  I love that everywhere I look all I see is ocean.  Yesterday we saw many other ships on the water—but today it is really just us steaming along. At first it was a little hard to get used to seeing lots of dead fish in the dredge and lots of animals that don’t survive the sampling.  There is a lot more by catch than I would have expected. It is going to take a little more time for me to process my thoughts about it all, but I am starting to understand that for now this is the best way for the data to be collected.  While it might not be the best thing for individual organisms, these sampling techniques are important for protecting the fisheries and ultimately the ecosystem.

Julianne Mueller-Northcott, May 11, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julianne Mueller-Northcott 
Onboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
May 11 – 22, 2010

University of Delaware R/V Hugh R. Sharp
Mission: Sea Scallop Survey: Leg III
Port of Departure: Lewes, Delaware
Date: May 11, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge
Overcast, rainy, in the 50s

Science and Technology Log – Data Collection/Sampling Methodology
For NOAA’s scallop survey, it is divided into three different legs or cruises, each sampling a different area along the east coast.  This cruise that I am on is the first in the series.  During this time, since we will be working around the clock, we will probably do somewhere between 150-200 dredges and the NOAA team will sample about 500 total for the season. But how do scientists determine where to dredge?  How can they be sure that the sites that are sampled will give them an accurate representation of the number of scallops on the sea floor?  To determine where to sample, scientists use the Stratified Random Sampling Design.  This is the method for determining the average number of an animal in a given area. This sampling technique is based on the fact that the scallop population density depends on the ocean depth.  Scallops like to hang out in 50-100 m of water.  Scientists break up the coastline that their studying into different “strata” or quadrants. And then instead of a totally random sample in a given area, the stratified random sampling design uses a computer to select more collection sites in the depths where you would be likely to find the most scallops, since that is what scientists are interested in.

Scallop Fisheries

The US scallop fishery is an economically important fishery, maybe second only to the lobster industry in the Atlantic. One question that one of my students asked was, “Is the scallop population growing or is it in danger?” I asked our chief scientist that question this afternoon.  His response was very promising, that the scallops are doing very well.  Part of the reason for their success is due to the regulations that are set in place, the same regulations that are based on the data collected by this trip.  One type of regulation that has been helpful is the temporary closure of certain areas.  These closures give scallops in a particular area a chance to grow.  So if during a scallop survey cruise, scientists notice a lot of young scallops in a given area, that data will get reported an maybe lead to the temporary closure, meaning that you can’t fish for scallops there for a couple of seasons.  Then after some time for the animals to grow, the area will be reopened.  By rotating these closed areas, it allows the time necessary for population growth.  Astrid B. asked the following question, “Does the dredge hurt the ocean bottom?” Our dredge is fairly small, about eight feet across.  But a commercial fishing boat has two dredges that are about 15 feet wide that go down at the same time.  And at a given time, there might be as many as 500 boats out fishing for scallops.  Before and after photographs have shown that the dredges do impact the bottom.  It works to flatten everything in its path, including living organisms.  It also affects an important habitat.  Fish species like cod like to hang out around the nooks and crannies that are created by benthic creatures, but without that important living structure, the cod population doesn’t have the habitat it prefers (which may be an explanation for why that population has been slow to recover).  While more research needs to be done to find out how long it takes for the substrate to recover and return to its pre-dredge state, dredging does have some pretty clear impacts on the sea floor habitat.

Brandon O had a fun question, “What is the funniest thing that got brought up by the dredge?” The chief scientist said that once they brought up pieces of an airplane in a dredge.  I asked if it hurt the dredge and it didn’t because the plane was made of light aluminum.  And then he said that they have also found mammoth teeth. That is very cool!  A long time ago this whole area was not covered by water, but instead it was land for wooly mammoths to walk over. I think this is especially neat after just seeing lots of skeletons of mammoths at the Natural History Museum during our trip to New York City over vacation. I can’t wait to find out what will be the most interesting thing we’ll find during this trip!

Personal Log
We just officially set out to sea! It was a long day waiting for all the preparations to be finalized and for the water to be high enough so we could leave port.  It is a chilly day, with the wind blowing on the ocean and a little drizzle coming down—but so exciting to be moving and heading out!  Lots of students had many questions for me about food, especially considering my mantra, “Fish are friends, not food.” So far so good, lots of chicken, pasta and the most unbelievable snack cabinet—featuring all sorts of goodies that we never keep at home (Oreos, cheese-its, candy bars, soda).   And then today, I saw for the first time–the ice cream freezer.  And entire freezer, dedicated to the storage of frozen treats—what a beautiful concept! As it turns out, there used to be a treadmill on the boat, but they had to move it off to make room for the ice cream.  I like where their priorities are and it is clear that I won’t be going hungry!

Julianne Mueller-Northcott, May 10-11, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julianne Mueller-Northcott
Onboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
May 11 – 22, 2010

University of Delaware R/V Hugh R. Sharp
Mission: Sea Scallop Survey: Leg III
Port of Departure: Lewes, Delaware
Date: May 10-11, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge
Overcast, rainy, in the 50s

Science and Technology Log
I am about to spend my first night aboard a boat! I arrived to Lewes, Delaware this afternoon and the driver took me to the University of Delaware’s Marine Program campus. From the distance I could see the top deck of the Hugh R Sharp. It was much bigger than I had expected (147 ft) and I was surprised by all of the heavy equipment using for lifting and hauling the dredges, different storage vans for extra space, freezers, and lots of computers, monitors, wires, etc. I met the chief scientist of our survey cruise, Victor Nordahl of the NOAA fisheries, who spent some time explaining to me a little about the purpose of our mission for the next two weeks.

Why scallops? This was a question that I had when I learned that I would be a part of this expedition. After some internet searching I found a tremendous amount of data on scallops and learned that many survey cruises like this one take place. I love my marine invertebrates just as much as the next person (alright, probably a whole lot more!) but it seemed like a lot of  energy invested in monitoring their population size. It turns out that it boils down to money; scallops are a $450 million annual resource! Scallops are one of the most important fisheries in the Northeast United States. It is essential that this economic resource is harvested responsibly so that their populations are sustainable. NOAA’s annual sea scallop dredge survey occur in three legs to carefully monitor the scallop populations, sampling areas as far south as Virginia and as far north as Georges Bank into Canadian waters NOAA’s responsibility is to take an accurate inventory of the scallops, their size and age. Based on their sizes and ages NOAA scientists can use computer models to make predictions for the future of the population in an area. This information can get passed on to a regional council that then makes recommendations/regulations for the scallop fishing industry. These regulations are around the minimum size of the catch, the number of boats, the number of crew members on the boat and the number of days that fishing is permitted.

Before I left school, I asked my students what questions they had about my expedition. They had tons about scallop life history, data collection methods, life aboard a ship, human impact on the ocean and about some of the other sea life we might see while at sea. I will be trying to answer many of those questions in this log. Maddie K. asked the question, “Who eats scallops aside from people?” One species that I learned today that likes to eat scallop larvae are sea stars. During some of our dredges we will also inventory sea stars and crabs so that we can also monitor the population sizes of the scallop predators. This information provides the scientists with important clues on the future of the scallop population in an area. If there are a lot of predators then there might not be a lot of scallops in the future. I am looking forward to pulling up lots of sea stars in the nets. I bet we will pick up some big ones and I wonder which species we’ll find. The chief scientist says that the stars and crabs are pretty hardy and usually survive the dredge without a problem. Liz B. asked if the animals are released after they have been inventoried and it sounds like most everything is tossed back overboard after it has been weighed and inventoried. I am very much looking forward to seeing what comes up in our first dredge!

Personal Log
One thing that has been cool is the people that I have met. It is funny since we are in Delaware I wasn’t expecting to have many connections with the people on board. But it is a small world! There is someone on board who was a judge at this year’s Ocean Bowl competition—of course I had to describe to him our team’s amazing second place finish. There is a cadet from the Coast Guard who played lacrosse against Souhegan and was friends with some former students. And then many people are from Woods Hole and Falmouth on the Cape, which is where  I always spend lots of time in the summer. We are heading out this afternoon with the tide around 5:30. I can’t wait to get out on the open ocean. Far in the distance, I can see  any boats passing by—and some are huge tankers. I look forward to going up to the bow and taking it all in. Fun adventure ahead for tonight, once we get underway we will do some practice sampling and then it is about a 4.5 hour cruise to our first station.

Atlantic Deep Sea Scallop

Phylum: Mollusca

Class: Bivalvia

Species: Placopectin magellanicus

Physical description: large (2-8”), circular. Since it is a bivalve it has two shells (or valves). When reading about scallops in the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Seashells, something interesting that I learned is that the two shells differ in color. The exterior of the right valve is usually dirty white while the left valve is reddish or pinkish. I am wondering how  they determine which is right and which is left? Inside the scallop is a large adductor muscle. This muscle allows the scallop to open and close and it is the part you eat (if you like  scallops!)

Feeding: Scallops are filter feeders who enjoy their phytoplankton.

Predator/Prey relationships: One of the coolest things about scallops is that they can swim! They force water out of their shell and move right along in the water column. The purpose of  this is to be able to scoot away from their biggest predators—sea stars!
Habitat: on sand or rubble, water 60-400’ deep

Range: Canada to North Carolina