Janelle Harrier-Wilson: Toro’s Tour and the Process of Fishing, October 2, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janelle Harrier-Wilson
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
September 23 – October 3 

Mission: Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey Leg II
Geographical area of cruise: Atlantic Ocean from the Mid-Atlantic Coast to S New England
Date: October 2, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat: 41° 16.5′ N  Lon: 071° 06.3′ W
Present Weather: Cloudy
Visibility: 6-8 nm
Wind:  020 at 28 knts
Sea Level Pressure: 1017.4 mb
Sea Wave Height:  2-3 ft
Temperature Sea Water: 18.4  C
Temperature Air:  14 C

Science and Technology Log

The Henry Bigelow before we left port last week.

The Henry Bigelow before we left port last week.

Have you been wondering how we fish? I know I have shared a lot about sorting the catch, measuring the length and weight of the fish, and taking other data from the fish, but I haven’t shared a lot of details about how we fish. It’s a pretty cool process that involves a lot of science and engineering to get to a place where we have fish coming down the belt in order for us to sort. Let’s take a look at what happens.

  1. Before the season begins, points are randomly predetermined where we will fish. Each of these points is called a station. The captain and the chief scientist work together to plan out which stations will be visited on each leg of the trip and in what order. We are currently on Leg II of the Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey. There are usually four legs each year.
  2. Once we arrive on station, the ship’s officer scouts for the best place to release the nets. The nets need a relatively flat bottom of the ocean floor with no obstacles like rocks that the net could get caught up on. How does the scouting take place? The ship is equipped with both single beam and mutli-beam sonar. The multi-beam sonar is used to create a three-dimensional map of the ocean floor. This map is used to find the best place for us to trawl.
  3. Next, we take data about that particular spot of the ocean. We either send down the CTD, which measures conductivity, temperature, and density of the water, or we do a bongo. The bongo is a set of nets that streams off the ship to collect plankton from the area of the ocean on station. The survey techs are in charge of conducting these tests and collecting the data from them. Before the cruise began, the stations that would have CTDs or bongos were predetermined.
  4. Once the CTD or bongo test has been conducted, we are ready to set out the nets. The nets are set out by the deck crew and involve a complex series of machinery and computers. Our chief scientist, Jakub Kircun shares this about the system and sensors: “Autotrawl System and Scanmar Sensors: Autotrawl is specifically designed to keep the tensions between port and starboard towing wires equal, therefore keeping the net from fishing crooked. Autotrawl will also be able to assist with hangs as it will automatically release wire during a tension spike. The (Scanmar) sensors on the net are used to check the geometry of the net, however that data is not directly tied with Autotrawl. Instead we monitor the sensors to check on a variety of net mensuration parameters, such as wing-spread, door-spread, headrope-height, headrope-depth, bottom-contact, and water-speed-through-trawl. All those parameters are analyzed by a computer program after each tow called TOGA (Tow Operation Gear Acquisition). If all the parameters are within the per-determined tolerances the tow is considered a representative tow. However if the values are outside of these tolerances then the tow would fail the validation and would need to be retowed.”
  5. Once the net is in the water, we  begin streaming. While we are streaming, we are moving slowly in the water, dragging the net behind us. We stream for 20 minutes. We can check the progress of the trawl by watching the sensor readouts. There are sensors in the net that send back live data to the ship.
  6. After we have streamed for 20 minutes, we then haul back the nets. This is the reverse process of when we set the nets out. The net slowly comes back in and begins to be wrapped up and stored. The deck crew puts ropes around the part of the net where the fish are and attaches the net to a crane. The crane moves the net over to the checker.
  7. Once the net is over the checker, the net is opened and the fish are dropped into the checker.
  8. From that point, the watch chief looks through the checker and decides what we will run. This means we don’t collect these things off the conveyor belt instead letting them collect at the end. This is done for the things we caught in large quantities.
  9. From that point, the fish from the checker are loaded onto the conveyor belt and up into the wet lab for us to sort through and process. While we are sorting and processing the fish, the ship is on its way to the next station. The distance between stations varies. We’ve had some that were just over a mile away and others that have been 20 or more miles away. Yesterday, we had a long steam (travel) between stations because the next station was 52 miles away. It took us several hours to steam to that station.

Personal Log

Are you wondering what it’s like to live on a ship? It’s actually pretty cool. I mentioned before that we are on 12-hour watches. While we are on watch, we pack up what we will need for the day in backpacks or other bags. Why? Well, we share rooms with people on the night watch. My stateroom has four bunks. Two of us are on day watch and two of us are on night watch. While the day watch is working, the night watch is sleeping. We don’t want to disturb them so they can get good “night” of rest, so we do not go back to the state room while the night watch is off duty. When we are off duty, they do not come back to the room, either. While we are on watch, we can be really busy sorting and working up a catch. However, depending on how many times we fish during a watch, we may have some free time as well. We have some down time while we are steaming to the next station, during the CTD and bongo tests, and while we are streaming. We jump to work once we start hauling back the nets. We had one day where we were really busy because we visited seven stations during our watch. Sometimes, we have more free time between steams. During that time we can read, have a snack, work on blog posts like I am doing, or sometimes watch a movie. We also have time to eat our meals on watch.

The galley cooks up three meals a day for us. I have only made it in time for breakfast the first day before we started our 12-hour watches. We eat lunch before our watch starts and we eat dinner during our watch. The food is amazing. Dennis Carey is our head steward and chief chef, and he prepares awesome meals for us with his assistant, Luke. However, the galley is open all day, even when a meal is not being served. There are always snacks available like goldfish crackers, Chex mix, cereal, fresh fruit, and ice cream. Plus, there is bread, peanut butter, and jelly to make sandwiches. Sometimes there are pastries, cookies, or other desserts available, too. As you can see, we don’t have to worry about going hungry on the Henry Bigelow!

There is a lounge on board with six recliners and a television set. We can watch satellite TV and movies while we are here. There is also a television in the mess deck. It’s a tradition to watch The Price is Right during lunch time, for instance! We also have an exercise room that has weights, a treadmill, and a bicycle. I haven’t used the gym, but I have worked out with some of the other scientists on board. We can also do laundry, which is pretty important. We pack lightly since we don’t have a lot of room in our staterooms. As you can imagine, our clothes get a little smelly from working with fish all day, so it is nice to be able to do our laundry on board!

Careers at Sea

Ensign Estella Gomez shows volunteer Eric Smith how he plots the ship's course on the chart.

Ensign Estela Gomez shows volunteer Eric Smith how he plots the ship’s course on the chart.

Have you ever considered a career as a commissioned officer? Did you know that the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is one of the seven branches of the U.S. uniformed services? We have several officers on board including our commanding officer (the ship’s captain) and the executive officer. I had a chance to visit the bridge the other day, and Ensign Erick Estela Gomez shared what it is like to be part of NOAA’s Commissioned Officer Corps. Most of the officers have a background in science or math that aligns with NOAA’s scientific vision and purpose. To be part of the Corps, you have to have a science or math degree and apply to the program. If you are accepted, you go to training with the Coast Guard. Usually, there are 60 people as part of each training class, 40 from the Coast Guard and 20 from NOAA. The training is like boot camp and includes learning about how to be an officer as well as the science aspects of NOAA. One interesting thing Ensign Estela Gomez shared is that only about 10% of Coast Guard officers actually go out to sea. If you want to be out at sea and be a part of science, the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corp might be for you. Officers move through the ranks starting at ensign. Once an officer has passed training and certification, they can become an Officer On Deck (OOD), which means they can be on watch running the ship on their own.

Lt. Kuzirian takes the oath to accept his new rank as Lt. Commander.

Lt. Kuzirian takes the oath to accept his new rank as Lt. Commander.

As an officer on the bridge, there is a lot to do in terms of monitoring the different gauges and screens. There are radar monitors, engine and generator monitors, ship’s location, and mulitbeam sonar screens just to name a few. Also, the officer on deck has to watch the horizon for other ships and fishing gear in the water. Although there are computer systems to monitor the ship’s track and location, the ship’s location is still plotted on a paper chart. This is a backup in case of computer errors or other problems.

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to watch one of the officers, Lt. Stephen Kuzirian be promoted to Lt. Commander. This does not happen on board ship every day, so it was really cool to be a part of this ceremony. Lt. Commander Kuzirian has a background in oceanography. He currently works in Washington, D.C., but he joined us on this trip for a chance to be at sea and to assist the Henry Bigelow.

Toro’s Tour

Toro won the votes to make the trip on the Henry Bigelow. He thought you might like a tour of the some of the areas on board the ship. As he was working up the tour, the Captain was worried that Toro was a stowaway since he has not fulfilled any science duties while aboard ship!

Did You Know?

The Atlantic Torpedo is an electric ray. It is the largest growing electric ray, and can deliver a shock up to 220 volts!

Atlantic Torpedo Ray

Atlantic Torpedo Ray

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Janelle Harrier-Wilson: Sunsets, Stars, and Analyzing Sea Life, September 29, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janelle Harrier-Wilson
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
September 23 – October 3 

Mission: Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey Leg II
Geographical area of cruise: Atlantic Ocean from the Mid-Atlantic Coast to S New England
Date: September 29, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat: 39° 34.6′ N  Lon: 072° 14.9′ W
Present Weather: cloudy
Visibility:  7-9 nm
Wind:  140 at  17 knts
Sea Level Pressure:  1010.9 mb
Sea Wave Height:  3-4 ft
Temperature Sea Water:  22.6 C
Temperature Air:  20.8 C

Science and Technology Log

Processing fish as the cutter

Processing fish as the cutter

We are continuing to trawl different areas of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Southern New England area. I have graduated from recorder to cutter. This means that when we process the fish and other sea life that we catch, I get to cut fish open to examine them. I am working with Christine Kircun, and we trade off now almost every other tow taking turns to be the cutter and recorder. Christine has been an awesome teacher helping me learn how to properly cut into the fish, identify the sex and maturity of the fish, examine the contents of the fish’s stomach, and find the otoliths. Otoliths are small hard parts of a fish’s inner ear. They are found in cavities near the fish’s brain. The otoliths are collected and sent back to the lab to be analyzed. As the fish grows, the otolith gets different colored (clearer and white) growth rings  on it similar to a tree. Counting these can tell the age of the fish. Some fish have otoliths that are really easy to find and remove. Other types of fish are more difficult to find and remove, like windowpane flounder. For more information about how otoliths are used for age and growth, click here.

In my last post, I mentioned that there are left and right-eyed flounder. Summer flounder are left eyed, and winter flounder are right eyed. In a catch the other day, we had winter flounder. As we were working up the winter flounder, we discovered a left-eyed winter flounder! That was pretty cool to see since this is a more rare occurrence.

Winter flounder - a rare left-eyed winter flounder

Winter flounder – a rare left-eyed winter flounder

Winter flounder - a right eyed flounder

Winter flounder – a right eyed flounder

Before I left for my cruise, I received a CD with information on it including how to identify many of the common fish we catch at sea. I looked through that presentation several times, and I thought I was ready to identify the fish. However, I didn’t get really good at identifying fish until I saw them in person. For instance, there are several kinds of hake. So far, we have caught spotted hake, red hake, silver hake, and offshore hake. Each one looks slightly different, although the offshore and silver hake are the most similar. Red hake have a slight reddish appearance to their scales, and spotted hake have spots down their side. Now that I have seen each one in person, it is much easier to identify the different types of fish. Fish that seemed really similar in the presentation take on new meaning to you when you are holding them in your hand. It’s reminded me once again that when we are learning new things, the most important thing to do is dig in and try things out. You will learn so much more by doing things like experiments in chemistry and building things in engineering than you would by just reading about it or looking at pictures. I have also learned about the anatomy of fish by watching Christine first do the processing and now doing it myself. It’s really cool to see the insides of the fish and the different stages of growth and development. It’s also really cool to push the contents of the fish’s stomach out onto the board to examine what they have eaten!

I thought you might like to see a short video of the process of sorting the fish off the conveyor belt. You can see the fish coming up the conveyor belt from the checker and pouring onto the conveyor belt in the wet lab for sorting.

Careers at Sea

I have learned something really interesting about working at sea. The scientists onboard this cruise do not spend their entire time out at sea. In fact, most of the scientists go out once or twice in the spring and once or twice in the fall. Just like we are doing an autumn bottom trawl survey, there is also a spring bottom trawl survey. During the rest of the time, they work at the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Lab in Woods Hole, MA. It seems like a really cool balance between doing science in the lab with a pretty normal daily routine most of the year but then having the chance to go out to sea a couple of times a year in order to do field work and be part of an adventure. I did not know that opportunities like this existed. If you love to do science but don’t want to spend all of your time in the lab, a career like this might be really interesting to you. Most of the scientists have degrees in marine science/biology, biology, or other related fields.

Personal Log

After just a few short days, I have settled in to my routine here on the Henry Bigelow. It’s an exciting life because you never know what’s going to come up on the next trawl or what other cool things you will see out at sea. Sometimes, we have been really close to the shore, and you can see the lights of the cities off in the distance. Now, we are offshore, but even out here you aren’t alone. There are ships passing by most of the time, and at night you can see the lights from the other ships off in the distance.

One of my favorite things to do is to head up to the flying bridge to watch the sunset. The past few nights have had beautiful sun sets, and we have had time to enjoy them in between sorting and working up the fish. The flying bridge is the highest part of the ship. It’s above the main bridge where the ship is controlled from. When it’s clear, you can see for miles in every direction. There is also a picnic bench up there, so it’s a great place to sit and read a book while waiting for the next trawl to come in.

After my watch finishes at midnight, I also like to head up to the flying bridge. It’s one of the darker places on the ship at night. As your eyes adjust to the night, the stars begin to appear before you. Out here, the sky kisses the sea, and the stars rise out of the inky black of the ocean. I watched the constellation Orion rise up out of the Atlantic. It was inspiring. There are so many stars. It’s not like the light polluted skies of the Atlanta area. Even with the ship’s lights, you can still make out the bands of the Milky Way. I also saw two meteors streak through the sky the other night.

Did You Know?

The goosefish is an angler fish that lives on the ocean floor on the continental shelf and slope. It uses its angler to attract prey. It has a huge mouth compared to its body. It’s also called poor man’s lobster because the meaty tail of the fish resembles the taste of lobster.

Goosefish

Goosefish

Goosefish mouth

Goosefish mouth

Challenge Yourself

Think you have what it takes to figure out the age of a fish using otoliths? Try this interactive, and share how you did in the comments.

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Janelle Harrier-Wilson: Learning about Life at Sea, September 26, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janelle Harrier-Wilson
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
September 23 – October 3 

Mission: Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey Leg II
Geographical area of cruise: Atlantic Ocean from the Mid-Atlantic Coast to S New England
Date: September 26, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat: 40° 11.3’N  Lon: 073° 52.7’W
Present Weather: CLR
Visibility: 10 nm
Wind: 326 at 5 knts
Sea Level Pressure: 1020.4 mb
Sea Wave Height: 2-4 ft
Temperature Sea Water: 20.4° C
Temperature Air: 23° C

Science and Technology Log

On the ship, there are two science watches: noon to midnight (day shift) and midnight to noon (night shift). I am assigned to the day shift. We left port late Tuesday afternoon, but we made it to our first trawl site a few hours later. When the nets brought back our first haul, I had a crash course in sorting through the fish. The fish come down and conveyor belt from the back deck to the wet lab. In the wet lab, the first thing we do is sort through the fish. The more experienced scientists are at the front sorting through the larger species and sometimes the more abundant ones. The largest species of fish go in large baskets, the medium sized ones go into large buckets, and the smaller ones go into smaller buckets. Each basket or bucket only has one species in it. During our first trawl, there was a smaller amount of fish to sort through, but we had a lot more fish the second trawl. It took us longer to sort through the larger fish.

Once the fish are sorted, we go to our cutter/recorder stations. At our stations, we sort through the buckets of fish one by one. Right now, I am a recorder. This means that I record the information about each fish into the computer. It’s a really cool computer system. First, the bucket it scanned. On the computer screen, a message pops up to tell us what type of fish should be in the bucket. If that is what we have, we say “Yes” to the prompt and continue. Then, we dump the contents of the bucket into a well waiting for inspection. The cutter pulls the fish out, one by one, and begins to take measurements. The first measurement is usually length. The tool for taking the measurements is integrated into the computer system. The fish are laid out on the ruler, and a sensor is tapped at the end of the fish. This sends the fish’s measurement to the computer. The Fish Measuring Board is a magnetic system. The tool that we use to measure the fish is a magnet. The board is calibrated so that when the magnet touches a specific area of the board, it will read the appropriate length. The computer then tells us what measurement to take next. Usually it is weight. On the other side of the Fish Measuring Board is the scale for the larger fish. There is also a small scale for smaller specimens. When the weight is recorded, the computer then prompts for additional measurements which are taken from the fish. During our second trawl, we worked up a bucket of summer flounder. One of the summer flounder was huge! I had not seen a flounder that big before!

One of the things that has really impressed me so far is the integration of the science and the technology. The computer system that records measurements is integrated into the ruler and scale right at the work bench (the fish measuring board). When we take samples from the specimen, a label is printed right at the station, and the sample is placed into either an envelope, zip bag, or jar for further handling. It reminds me of how technology makes the job of science more streamlined. I can’t imagine how long it would take for the processing and sampling of the fish if we had to take all of the measurements by hand! Technology is a valuable tool for scientists at sea.

Careers at Sea

Henry Bigelow Engine Room

Henry Bigelow Engine Room

We left port on Tuesday, September 23. Before we left, I had a chance to explore the ship and ran into chief engineer Craig Moran. He sent me to the engine room for a tour, and I met John Hohmann. John is the first engineer on the Henry Bigelow. He showed me around the engine room including the generators, the water system, and the shaft to the propeller. It was pretty quiet in the engine room since we hadn’t left yet, but it is a loud, warm place when the ship is at sea.

I had a chance to chat with John about his background in engineering. He has a specialization in marine engineering. Marine engineers really need to be a jack-of-all-trades when we are out at sea. If anything is not working right on the ship, they are called out to fix it. This can include any of the machinery in the engine room, the electrical systems, the water purification system, and even fixing the cooking equipment in the galley! Life at sea can be demanding as they can be called at any time day or night to fix an integral piece of machinery. However, engineers generally work 30 days at sea and then are home for 30 days. One thing John wanted you all to know is that there will always be jobs for engineers. If you are interested in marine engineering, it can help you travel the world. John has been all over the world to many interesting countries. The other thing that I found interesting is that he says you need to be able read and follow instruction manuals in order to fix an issue. He also said an essential skill for an engineer is problem solving. Marine engineering entails a lot more than I had initially thought, and it is really cool to be able to talk to John and learn about marine engineering from him first hand.

Personal Log

I arrived to the ship Monday evening (September 22). Since the ship wasn’t scheduled to leave port until the next day, most of the team was not on board yet. I was able to find my stateroom and get settled in. Tuesday, things started to pick up on ship. There was a dive at 9:00 to check the hull of the ship, so I had a chance to watch the divers slide into the water and later climb back out. The rest of the science team arrived just in time for lunch. I then had time to explore the ship (I found the important places: the laundry room and the gym!), and get to know the science team a little bit better. The ship started undocking around 16:00 (4:00 pm), and we were on our way to sea. We went up to the flying bridge, the highest deck on the ship, as we left Rhode Island. It was beautiful up there as we passed by Newport and the surrounding areas. There is an old lighthouse that is now used for event spaces, and a house built up on a small rocky island. At 17:00, it was dinner time. We eat our meals in the mess, and the meals are prepared in the galley. I knew I needed to eat a good meal because my watch for the night officially started at 18:00 and would last until 24:00.

The sea was pretty calm yesterday, so it was a good introduction to the ways of life on a ship. So far, I have not had any trouble adjusting to life onboard ship. I was worried about sea-sickness, but I came prepared and have felt great so far. A lot of the crew have mentioned that I should be fine, and that I’ve already found my sea legs. I think perhaps I have found my sea stomach but not my sea legs! I do periodically lose my balance when walking through the corridors. Thankfully, there are handrails everywhere to catch my balance just in case. Maybe I’ll find my sea legs in a few more days, but I am pretty clumsy even on land!

Janelle Wilson wears immersion  suit for abandon ship drill.

Trying on my Immersion Suit

Safety drills are also an important part of sea life. Each person has their own immersion suit and personal flotation device (PFD). These are in case we have to abandon ship. We need to be able to put our immersion suit on in 60 seconds. The immersion suit is kind of like a wet suit, but it has lights on it and other tools. There are also lifeboats on board. There are three types of emergencies we need to be prepared for: abandon ship, man overboard, and fire/other emergency. Just like we have fire drills at school to help us know where to go in the case of a fire, these drills help us prepare for emergencies.

Did You Know?

You can tell a summer flounder from a winter flounder by the side the eyes are on the fish. You look at the fish as if it were swimming up right. Summer flounder eyes are on the left, and winter flounder eyes are on the right. Summer flounder are called left eyed, and winter flounder are called right eyed.

Challenge Yourself

What additional information can you find out about marine engineering careers at sea? What type of training do marine engineers need, and what schools offer marine engineering?

Poll