Callie Harris: Lots to See While at Sea, August 20, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Callie Harris

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 13-26, 2019

Mission: Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Date: 8/20/19

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 58° 27.67 N
Longitude: 152 ° 53.00 W
Wind Speed: 5.96 knots
Wind Direction: 152°
Air Temperature: 12.4°C
Sea Temperature: 15°C
Barometric Pressure: 1008 mbar

Science and Technology Log

I feel the need to start off by stating that the shark did in fact swim away. During our mid-afternoon trawl haul back, Chief Boatswain Ryan Harris called over the radio that we had caught a shark in the trawl net. We quickly put on our boots, hard hats, and life preservers and headed to the back deck. Unfortunately, a 3.2m female Pacific Sleeper Shark had gotten caught in our trawl as bycatch. Thanks to the quick response of our NOAA deck crew, we were able to release the shark back into the water alive.

Unlike most sharks, the Pacific Sleeper Shark is predominantly a scavenger and rarely hunts. They are slow swimmers, but move through the water quite gracefully without much effort of body movement. This lack of movement allows them to catch prey easy since they don’t make much noise/ vibrations in the water. They feed by cutting and suction. The sleeper shark’s large mouth allows it to suck its prey in. Its spear-like teeth help cut prey down into smaller pieces. It then swallows its prey by rolling its head. For more info about this cool shark, visit: .

Bycatch is defined as the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught (e.g. hooked, entangled or trapped) during commercial fishing for a different species. Bycatch is both an issue ecologically and economically. Bycatch can slow the rebuilding of overfished stocks. Organisms that are discarded sometimes die and cannot reproduce. These mortalities put protected species such as whales and sea turtles even further at risk. Bycatch can change the availability of prey and cause cascading effects at all trophic levels. Bycatch can also occur when fishing gear has been lost, discarded, or is otherwise no longer being used to harvest fish (aka marine debris).

Releasing shark from net
Releasing the shark from our trawl net.

NOAA Fisheries works hand in hand with fishing industries to better understand fishing gear, and to develop, test, and implement alternative fishing gear. For example, NOAA Fisheries and their partners developed turtle excluder devices to reduce sea turtle mortality in the southeastern shrimp trawl fishery. NOAA Fisheries funds the Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program that supports the development of technological solutions and changes in fishing practices designed to minimize bycatch. Laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act also uphold the reduction of current and future bycatch of species.

Personal Log

It’s hard to believe that today is already day eight at sea. To be honest, I don’t even notice that I am on a ship anymore. We have been very lucky weather wise and the seas are still very calm. I have been spending more time on the bridge assisting with the ‘marine mammal watch’. As I said in blog two, we must keep an eye out for any marine mammals in the area before conducting any water surveys. The bridge is amazing because not only do you get the best view, but you also get to observe how the ship operates in terms of headings, maneuverability, and navigation.

Shelikof Strait
Shelikof Strait

The Shelikof Strait is breathtaking. Chief Electronics Technician Rodney Terry pointed out the white ‘cloud’ above one of the snow-capped mountains was actually an active volcano with a smoke plume rising above it. It was incredible to be able to look out and see a glacier and an active volcano in the same panorama.

Map of Kodiak Island
Map of Kodiak Island and Shelikof Strait. Credit: Kodiak archipelago images.

During one of my marine mammal watches on the bridge, I noticed an oddly flat area of land in the middle of the mountain range that ran along the shoreline. NOAA Corps Officer LT Carl Noblitt explained to me this was actually where a glacier had once weathered down part of the mountain range over time. The glacier has since melted so now all that remains today is its glacial trough.

glacial trough
The remains of a glacial trough.

Animals Seen Today

Besides our unexpected visitor today in the trawl, I was thrilled to hear Chief Boatswain Ryan Harris call out from the scientific deck for Orcas on the horizon. Orcas (aka Killer Whales) have always been a dream of mine to see in the wild. They were pretty far away from the boat, but I was able to see the trademark black dorsal fin rising and sinking at the surface for a few minutes. Hoping to get a photo of one of these pods before our expedition ends.

orca dorsal
Orca dorsal fin. Photo Credit:

Another fun organism I got to see in person today was a Lanternfish that was caught in one of our deeper bongo net surveys. Lanternfish are a deep-water fish that gets its name from its ability to produce light. The light is given off by tiny organs known as photophores. A chemical reaction inside the photophore gives off light in a chemical process known as bioluminescence.

Note the photophores (silver dots).
lanternfish v pencil
This laternfish is full grown. Adults measure 5cm to 15cm in length typically.

Emily Sprowls: Shark Bait, March 28, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Emily Sprowls

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

March 20 – April 3, 2017


Mission: Experimental Longline Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: March 28, 2017


Weather Data from the Bridge

Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus)

13:00 hours

29°09.3’ N 88°35.2’W

Visibility 10 nm, Scattered clouds

Wind 8 kts 170°E

Sea wave height <1 ft.

Seawater temp 22.9°C


Science and Technology Log

In addition to experimenting by sampling deeper, we are varying the fishing gear and using different kinds of bait. We have switched to hooks on a steel leader so that even a strong, big shark cannot bite through the line. We are rotating through squid and mackerel as bait in order to see which species are more attracted to different bait. In addition to many species of sharks, we have also caught and measured eels, large fish and rays.

Nick hooks
Nick prepares hooks for longline gangions.

One of the scientists on board specializes in fishing gear, and helps keep maintain all our gear after it gets twisted by eels or looped up on itself. He also works on turtle exclusion devices for trawling gear.


Personal Log

Last night the line pulled in a huge tangle of “ghost gear.” This was fishing line and hooks that had been lost and sunk. It would have been much easier to just cut the line and let the mess sink back to where it came from, but everybody worked together to haul it out so it won’t sit at the bottom tangling up other animals.

Ghost gear
Lost or “ghost” gear that tangled in our lines.

This is just one example of the dedication the scientists and crew have to ocean stewardship. I have been so impressed by the care and speed with which everybody handles the sharks in order to get them back in the water safely.


Kids’ Questions

  • Is there any bycatch of dolphins?

Deep seastar
A few seastars come up with uneaten bait as bycatch.

Today we saw dolphins for the first time! They were only a few of them pretty far from the boat, so they did not affect our sampling. Had they decided to come play by riding in our wake, we would have postponed our sampling to avoid any interactions between the dolphins and the gear. One of the reasons that we only deploy the fishing gear for one hour is in case an air-breathing turtle or mammal gets tangled (they can hold their breath for over an hour). However, since dolphins hunt live fish, they don’t try to eat the dead bait we are using.

  • Can sharks use echolocation? How do they find their food?

Sharks do not use echolocation like marine mammals, but they do have an “extra” sense to help them find their food. They can detect electrical current using special sense organs called ampullae of Lorenzini.

  • What are the chances of getting hurt? Why don’t they bite?

While there is a chance of the sharks accidentally biting us as we handle them, we are very careful to hold them on the backs of their heads and not to put our fingers near their mouths! “Shark burn” is a more likely injury, which occurs when a shark wiggles and their rough skin scrapes the person handling them. Sharks do not have scales, but are covered in tiny, abrasive denticles that feel like sandpaper.




Cathrine Prenot: Lights in the Ocean. Thursday, July 21, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Cathrine Prenot
Aboard Bell M. Shimada
July 17-July 30, 2016

Mission: 2016 California Current Ecosystem: Investigations of hake survey methods, life history, and associated ecosystem

Geographical area of cruise: Pacific Coast from Newport, OR to Seattle, WA

Date: Thursday, July 21, 2016

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat: 46º18.8 N
Lon: 124º25.6 W
Speed: 10.4 knots
Wind speed: 12.35 degree/knots
Barometer: 1018.59 mBars
Air Temp: 16.3 degrees Celsius


Science and Technology Log

The ship’s engineering staff are really friendly, and they were happy to oblige my questions and take me on a tour of the Engine Rooms. I got to go into the ‘belly of the beast’ on the Oscar Dyson, but on the tour of the Shimada, Sean Baptista, 1st assistant engineer, hooked us up with headsets with radios and microphones. It is super loud below decks, but the microphones made it so that we could ask questions and not just mime out what we were curious about.

I think the job of the engineers is pretty interesting for three main reasons.

On the way to see the bow thruster below decks
On the way to see the bow thruster below decks

One, they get to be all over the ship and see the real behind-the-scenes working of a huge vessel at sea. We went down ladders and hatches, through remotely operated sealed doors, and wound our way through engines and water purifiers and even water treatment (poo) devices. Engineers understand the ship from the bottom up.

One of four Caterpillar diesel engines powering the ship
One of four Caterpillar diesel engines powering the ship

Second, I am sure that when it is your Job it doesn’t seem that glamorous, but an engineer’s work keeps the ship moving. Scientists collect data, the Deck crew fish, the NOAA Corps officers drive the ship, but the engineers make sure we have water to drink, that our ‘business’ is treated and sanitary, that we have power to plug in our computers (the lab I am writing in right now has 6 monitors displaying weather from the bridge, charts, ship trackers, and science data) and science equipment.

I did not touch any buttons. Promise.
I did not touch any buttons. Promise.

Finally, if something breaks on the ship, engineers fix it. Right there, with whatever they have on hand. Before we were able to take the tour, 1st Assistant Engineer Baptista gave us a stern warning to not touch anything—buttons, levers, pipes—anything. There is a kind of resourcefulness to be an engineer on a ship—you have to be able to make do with what you have when you are in the middle of the ocean.

The engineers all came to this position from different pathways—from having a welding background, to being in the navy or army, attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, or even having an art degree.  The biggest challenge is being away from your family for long periods of time, but I can attest that they are a pretty tight group onboard.


In terms of the science that I’ve been learning, I’ve had some time to do some research of some of the bycatch organisms from our Hake trawls. “Bycatch” are nontargeted species that are caught in the net.  Our bycatch has been very small—we are mostly getting just hake, but I’ve seen about 30-40 these cute little fish with blue glowing dots all over their sides. Call me crazy, but anything that comes out of the ocean with what look like glowing sparkling sapphires is worthy of a cartoon.

So… …What is small, glows, and comprises about 65% of all deep-sea biomass? Click on the cartoon to read Adventures in a Blue World 3.

Adventures in a Blue World, CNP. Lights in the Ocean
Adventures in a Blue World, CNP. Lights in the Ocean


Personal Log

The weather is absolutely beautiful and the seas are calm. We are cruising along at between 10-12 knots along set transects looking for hake, but we haven’t seen—I should say “heard” them in large enough groups or the right age class to sample.  So, in the meanwhile, I’ve taken a tour of the inner workings of the ship from the engineers, made an appointment with the Chief Steward to come in and cook with him for a day, spent some time on the bridge checking out charts and the important and exciting looking equipment, played a few very poor rounds of cornhole, and have been cartooning and reading.

I was out on the back deck having a coffee and an ice cream (I lead a decadent and wild life as a Teacher at Sea) and I noticed that the shoreline looked very familiar. Sure enough—it was Cannon Beach, OR, with Haystack Rock (you’ll remember it from the movie The Goonies)! Some of my family lived there for years; it was fun to see it from ten miles off shore.

Chart showing our current geographic area. Center of coast is Cannon Bean, Oregon.
Chart showing our current geographic area. Center of coast is Cannon Beach, Oregon.

View of Tillamook Head and Cannon Beach. It looked closer in person.
View of Tillamook Head and Cannon Beach. It looked closer in person.


Did You Know?

One of the scientists I have been working with knows a lot about fish. He knows every organism that comes off the nets in a trawl down to their Genus species. No wonder he knows all the fish—all of the reference books that I have been using in the wet lab were written by him. Head smack.

Dan Kamikawa, our fish whisperer
One of the books written by Dan Kamikawa, our fish whisperer



My sister (thank you!) does my multi media research for me from shore, as I am not allowed to pig out on bandwidth and watch lots of videos about bioluminescence in the ocean.  This video is pretty wonderful.  Check it out.

If you want to geek out more about Lanternfish, read this from a great site called the Tree of Life web project.

Interested in becoming a Wage Mariner in many different fields–including engineering?  Click here.

Donna Knutson: Dredging, June 16, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea Donna Knutson
Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 8 – June 24, 2016


2016 Mission: Atlantic Scallop/Benthic Habitat Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Northeastern U.S. Atlantic Coast
Date: June 16, 2016




Mission and Geographical Area: 

The University of Delaware’s ship, R/V Sharp, is on a NOAA mission to assess the abundance and age distribution of the Atlantic Sea Scallop along the Eastern U.S. coast from Mid Atlantic Bight to Georges Bank.  NOAA does this survey in accordance with Magnuson Stevens Act requirements.

Me hat

Science and Technology:

Latitude:  40 32.475 N

Longitude:  67 59.499 W

Clouds: overcast

Visibility: 5-6 nautical miles

Wind: 7.4 knots

Wave Height: 1-4 ft.

Water Temperature:  53 F

Air Temperature:  63 F

Sea Level Pressure:  29.9 in of Hg

Water Depth: 103 m


Science Blog:

Paired with the HabCam, dredging adds more data points to the scallop survey and also to habitat mapping.   Various locations are dredged based on a stratified random sampling design.  This method uses the topography of the ocean bottom as a platform and then overlays a grid system on top. The dredged areas, which are selected randomly by a computer program, allow for a good distribution of samples from the area based on topography and depth.

Vic and Tasha sewing up the net on the dredge.
Vic and Tasha sewing up the net on the dredge.

A typical dredge that used for the survey is similar to those used by commercial fisherman, but it is smaller with a width of 8 ft. and weight of 2000 lbs.  It is towed behind a ship with a 9/16 cable attached to a standard winch.  Dredges are made from a heavy metal such as steel and is covered in a chain mesh that is open in the front and closed on the other three sides making a chain linked net made of circular rings.

A fisherman’s dredge has rings large enough for smaller animals to fall through and become released to the bottom once again.  The dredge in a survey has a mesh lining to trap more creatures in order to do a full survey of the animals occupying a specific habitat.

There are three categories of catch received in a dredge: substrate, animals and shell.  A qualitative assessment on percent abundance of each is done for every dredge.  Not all animals are measured, but all are noted in the database.

Dredge being dumped on sorting table.
Dredge being dumped on sorting table.

A length measurement is taken for every scallop, goosefish (also called monkfish), cod, haddock, as well as many types of flounder and skate. A combined mass is taken for each species in that dredged sample.  Some animals are not measured for length, like the wave whelk (a snail), Jonah crab, and fish such as pipefish, ocean pout, red hake, sand lance; for these and several other types of fish, just a count and weight of each species is recorded.

Sorting the dredged material.
Sorting the dredged material.

Other animals may be present, but not

counted or measured and therefore are called bycatch.  Sand dollars make up the majority of bycatch. Sponges, the polychaete Aphrodite, hermit crabs, shrimp and various shells are also sorted through but not counted or measured.

Ocean pout
Ocean pout

All of the dredge material that is captured is returned to the ocean upon the required sorting, counting and measuring.  Unfortunately, most of the fish and invertebrates do not survive the ordeal.  That is why it is important to have a good sampling method and procedure to get the best results from the fewest dredge stations needed.

Goosefish, often called Monkfish, eat anything.
Goosefish, often called Monkfish, eat anything.

The dredge is placed on the bottom for only fifteen minutes.  There are sensors on the frame of the dredge so computers can monitor when the collection was started and when to stop.  Sensors also make certain each dredge is positioned correctly in the water to get the best representation of animals in that small sample area.

Entering the name of the animals to be measured.
Entering the name of the animals to be measured.

Even with sensors and scientists monitoring computers and taking animal measurements, the dredging can only give a 30-40% efficiency rating of the actual animals present. Dredging with the aid of the HabCam and partnerships with many scientific organizations, along with data from commercial fisherman and observer data, create a picture of abundance and distribution which can be mapped.

Adductor muscle the "meat" of the scallop. This on is unhealthy.
Adductor muscle the “meat” of the scallop. This one is unhealthy.

In the scallop survey the emphasis is on where are the most scallops present and this aids fisherman in selecting the best places to fish.  The survey also suggests where areas should be closed to fishing for a period, allowing scallops to grow and mature before harvesting.

This management practice of opening closed areas on a rotational basis has been accepted as beneficial for science, management, and fishermen. This method of balancing conservation and fishing protects habitats while still supplying the world with a food supply that is highly valued.

Personal Blog:

Being part of a dredging team is exciting.  It is a high energy time from the moment the contents are dropped on the sorting platform to the end when everything is rinsed off to get ready for the next drop.

Katryn "Kat" Delgado
Kateryn “Kat” Delgado

I wanted to take pictures of everything, but with gloves on it was hard to participate and help out or just be the bystander/photographer. Kateryn Delgado from Queens NY, a volunteer/student/scientist/yoga instructor/photographer, was very helpful.  She was involved in other surveys and often took pictures for me.

I did find it sad that the animals we sorting were not going to live long once returned to sea, but that is a part of the dredging that is inevitable.  Raw data needs to be collected.  After measuring, a percentage of the scallops were dissected to get their sex, abductor muscle (meat), and stomach.  Shell size was compared to the meat and gonad mass and is also used to age the scallop.  The stomach was removed to test for microplastics.  Dr. Gallager and his research team are studying microplastics in the ocean.   Scallops filter relatively large particles for a filter feeder, and therefore are a good species to monitor the abundance of plastics at the bottom of the ocean.DSCN7891 (2)sunset

The weather has been nice, not very warm, but the waves are low.  Just the way I like them.  We are making our way back to Woods Hole to refuel and get groceries.  I didn’t realize we would split up the leg into two parts.  We should be in around 10:00 a.m.  I’m going to go for a long walk since there is not a lot of opportunity for exercise on the ship.  Hope it’s sunny!


Chris Sanborn: 2 Days Shark Tagging, July 15, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christopher Sanborn
Aboard SRV C.E Stillwell
July 13 – 17, 2015

Mission: Cooperative Atlantic States Shark Pupping and Nursery (COASTSPAN) survey
Geographical area of cruise: Delaware Bay
Date: July 15, 2015


Day 1 weather was mostly overcast 5-10 mph wind with 2-3 ft seas though the swells were larger according to the other individuals on the boat.

Day 2 was forecasted for chance of storms with 10-15 mph winds with 2-3 ft seas..

Science and Technology log

We just finished day two of our shark tagging survey in the Delaware Bay aboard the C.E. Stillwell, a 21 ft. Boston Whaler center console.  The boat seems extremely small at times with 4 people and lots of gear on board.  The crew that I am aboard ship with are Nathan Keith, Natural Resource Management Specialist, Ben Church, Boat Captain for this shark survey, and Matt Pezzullo,Chief Scientist for this shark survey.  Our boat is docked at the University of Delaware Marine Operations pier located in Lewes, DE.  Day 1 of our tagging was mostly spent on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay.  We left port at 6:00 a.m. and steamed roughly 14 miles across the bay to make our first set. The seas were fairly rough which made for a bumpy ride.

Center Console C.E Stillwell. Photo courtesy of Nathan Keith
Center Console C.E Stillwell. Photo courtesy of Nathan Keith

Sets are either made with 25 large circle hooks or 50 small circle hooks on a gangion extending from the mainline which is weighted to the bottom.  The mainline is 1000 ft long, plus buoy line which extends from beyond the last hook up to the marker buoy on either end of the line. Our first day on the water we did 4 large sets and 3 small sets.  A large set is 25 large hooks that soak for 2 hours while a small set is 50 smaller hooks that soak for 30 min. We arrived back at port at 7:00 p.m. Day 2 we did 3 large sets and 4 small sets leaving port at 6:00 a.m and arriving back in port at about 5:30 p.m.  All hooks are baited with mackerel as seen on the large hooks in the following video.

Nathan Keith baiting smaller hooks.
Nathan Keith baiting smaller hooks.

The long line is retrieved by hand,  Sharks 130 cm and below are brought on board the boat for biological workup which includes fork length, pelvic and dorsal girth, sex, weight (if conditions allow) and then tagged.

Ben and I working up a shark on board the boat. Photo courtesy of Nathan Keith.
Ben and I working up a shark on board the boat. Photo courtesy of Nathan Keith.

Ben Church holding a Sandbar Shark that had been bit by a Sand Tiger Shark while on the line, while I read the weight. Photo courtesy of Nathan Keith.
Ben Church holding a shark while I read the weight. Photo courtesy of Nathan Keith.

Sharks greater than 130 cm get the full biological workup except weights.  These sharks are tail roped and cleated to the side of the vessel.

Me Dart Tagging a Sand Tiger Shark while Matt Pezzullo looks on. Photo courtesy of Nathan Keith.
Me Dart Tagging a Sand Tiger Shark while Matt Pezzullo looks on. Photo courtesy of Nathan Keith.

All sharks under 100 cm receive a roto tag in the dorsal fin while sharks over 100 cm receive the dart tag seen in the picture.

 Day 1 Sharks:

    58 Total Sharks tagged

        45 Sandbar Sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus)

        11 Sand Tiger Sharks (Carcharias taurus)

        1 Blacktip Shark  (Carcharhinus limbatus)

        1 Atlantic Sharpnose  (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae)

Day 2 Sharks:

    44 Total Sharks tagged

        43 Sandbar Sharks  (Carcharhinus plumbeus)

        1 Sand Tiger Shark (Carcharias taurus)

We also had some bycatch with a number of rays.  The largest ray was 176 cm across which had an enormous amount of power.  All rays are measured across the disk width and sexed.  We caught Bullnose (Myliobatis freminvillii) , Bluntnose (Dasyatis say), Southern Sting Ray (Dasyatis americana), and Spiny Butterfly (Gymnura altavela).  We also caught on line a Clearnose Skate (Raja eglanteria) and a Weakfish (Cynoscion regalis).


Personal Blog:

Besides the beating we take in a 21 ft. center console motoring miles between sets, back and forth, the extreme physical toll of pulling in a long line is very taxing.  Day 1 of our survey was exciting as we caught numerous large Sandbar and Sand Tiger sharks.  Although it was an adrenaline filled experience I can say I was extremely spent at the end of the day!  Day 2 we only caught a few sharks that we were unable to bring on board the boat.  The biggest problem with day 2 was the ever-changing weather.  Some of the day was even spent in the pouring rain.  Boat operator Ben Church and Chief Scientist Matt Pezzullo were constantly aware of weather conditions for safety as well as assuring that setting and hauling of gear could be set and hauled safely and in a timely manner. Sharks that are brought on board are secured just underneath the jaw as you can seen in many of the pictures. The skin of the shark is very similar to sandpaper for anyone that has felt a shark or dissected one in my class.  The skin on my hands has worn away and new skin has been exposed.

Day 3 starts early in the morning so I am headed to bed!


Trevor Hance, Gone Fishin’, June 24, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Trevor Hance
Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 12 – 24, 2015

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical area: New England/Georges Bank
Date: June 24, 2015

Gone Fishin’

Lean and mean, the Leg III Scallop Survey Class of 2015
Lean and mean, the Leg III Scallop Survey Class of 2015

Unfortunately, as is the case with life at sea, the weather can change in a heartbeat and the seas apparently had enough of the spoon feeding we were enjoying.  Our last couple of days were supposed to be spent exploring some new lobster habitat, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us and our cruise was terminated a day or two earlier than anticipated.

When the weather got harsh while heading in, I asked our Captain if he would take a picture of me in the Crow’s Nest, doing my best Lt. Dan impression.  He just smiled, shook my hand; “No” was all he said.
When the weather got harsh while heading in, I asked our Captain if he would take a picture of me in the Crow’s Nest, doing my best Lt. Dan impression.  He just smiled, shook my hand; “No” was all he said.

I’m off the vessel, but, the learning is still sinking in.  Today I’ll visit a little about the importance of annotating photos and round out the discussion with some explanation of how these scallop surveys play in commercial fisheries management, and then I’ll cut you loose for the summer.

Ropes, used on hatches, which we may or may not have battened.
Ropes, used on hatches, which we may or may not have battened.

Questioning the Data

We’ve been doing science 24/7 while at sea, and even with twelve highly accomplished people in the science party, I know we only scratched the surface and these folks have mountains of work ahead of them back at their offices in Woods Hole. I also know that much of that work will involve healthy doses of pretty complex math.  I saw an episode of NOVA recently that said something like “science is the story of everything, but the language of that story is told through mathematics.”  Let kids do science; through those experiences, they’ll learn more and ask more questions than they can answer and before they realize it, have learned a ton of math – and how to solve their own problems.

Wet-lab whiteboard humor
Wet-lab whiteboard humor

Before these scientists can really dig in on the heavy math, the data we were collecting has/had to be sorted and organized appropriately. On the dredge, we did most that in the wet-lab, where we physically counted, classified, measured and weighed the species we caught. While using HabCam, we were in the dry lab and the photos and data was collected on the PCs connected to the fiber-optics cable.

What’s up Watch Chief! That’s the wet lab, which is a trailer set up between the vestibule and dredge deck
What’s up Watch Chief! That’s the wet lab, which is a trailer set up between the vestibule and dredge deck

Dredge Data

The hands-on, real-person data collection associated with the dredge is important in fisheries science for many reasons.  For example, estimated weights of things seen in the HabCam photos can only be estimated with any degree of accuracy if they are based on actual data.  Additionally, there are some things you simply cannot determine through non-invasive means, as I experienced first hand assisting Dr. Gallager in the wet lab.  While weighing and measuring the organs of his scallop sample we saw that scallop populations in warmer water had spawned, but some of those in deeper/colder water had not yet done so.  People like Drs. Gallager and Shank can use that information and combine it with data relating to currents and historical data as they develop hypothesis of where to expect scallop populations (they call them “recruitments”) to develop in the future.

A simple graph showing fish length
A simple graph showing fish length

One of my jobs was to be in charge of a tool called “Star Oddi” which consists of a small, bullet-shaped underwater data logger that collects information such as temperature, depth, salinity and tilt of the dredge (it does get flipped over from time to time) as it is towed along the sea floor.  I would trade out the data-logger between each dredge, upload the data to a PC, and tell our watch chief if I noticed anything outside of the expected ranges.

Physically counting and measuring the weight of starfish helps establish reliable estimates of predator affect on scallop population
Physically counting and measuring the weight of starfish helps establish reliable estimates of predator effect on scallop population

HabCam Data / Annotation

Between times piloting the HabCam, we would help annotate some of the photographs, identifying substrate and species seen in the individual photos. For scallops, we used the mouse to draw a line indicating the size of each scallop.

There are four scallops in the annotated photo below.  I’ve drawn a line (in green) from the scallop’s umbo to the front of their shells, or across their width if they didn’t completely fit on the screen. The shadows could also help us identify whether they were swimming or stationary on the sea floor.  Using the HabCam’s recorded distance from the ground, the computer could then determine their respective sizes with relative certainty, which will help scientists estimate their respective weights, which all plays into determinations of how many scallops there are and whether the species, as a whole, is healthy.

Data, informing decisions
Data, informing decisions

The mosaics of HabCam photos sometimes reminded me of stars in the night time sky
The mosaics of HabCam photos sometimes reminded me of stars in the night time sky

I’ll share some more photos taken while annotating in the photblog, for now, let’s put my degrees in economics and law to use…


Many people hear the word “fishery” and think of a plants and a “nursery,” and they are similar in that they are places where something is raised for commercial purposes, but, most fishery production occurs in what would be considered publicly accessible water, like the ocean.

In our earlier discussions, you realized that with its favorable water and currents, Georges Bank is ripe territory for marine life, and historically, Georges Bank has been considered the world’s most productive fishery.  Indeed, Georges Bank has played a key role in the culture and economy of New England for more than 400 years. An April 2012 issue of Down East magazine (note to folks who don’t have a “Mainah” for a mom:  “Down East” is a slang term typically applied to the upper east coast of Maine) noted that by the time of the Mayflower voyage, the cod fishing stations at Damariscove and Monhegan islands had been operating year-round for the better part of a decade.

But just like my trip aboard the Sharp, all good things must come to an end, and over the past century, the environment has changed, human populations grew, demand increased, and technology made fishing faster, safer, bigger and more predictable.  Fortunately, they still call it fishing…

…I mean, if you caught one every time, they’d change the name to “catchin’!”
…I mean, if you caught one every time, they’d change the name to “catchin’!”

Texas Standards: A Teachable Moment

In Texas, we are tied to state standards called “Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills,” or “TEKS.”  One of our G5 TEKS states that by the end of the year, “The student is expected to predict the effects of changes in ecosystems caused by living organisms, including humans, such as the overpopulation of grazers or the building of highways.

Locally, my students are in the middle of a real world study of this TEKS, as a recently elected Austin city councilman has proposed a road through the middle of the Balcones Preserve behind our school, saying the road will provide a “fire break.”  As you might imagine, the idea has gotten the attention of some local interest groups and home owners in the neighborhood around the school.

For the lesson, my students were told that their role was simply to read the articles about the proposed road and combine it with existing knowledge gained in my classroom, follow the TEKS, and predict changes to the ecosystem if the road is ultimately built.

Photo from
Photo from

While for my students, their predictions relate to the “highway” aspect of the TEKS, “overgrazing by humans” and the idea of “a ship highway” in the seas offer some parallels to the fisheries we’ve been surveying on this cruise.

Back to the Bank

For nearly 350 of the 400 years commercial fishing has been happening off the coast of New England, regulations were negligible, and the area experienced heavy fishing by American fishers as well as vessels from other countries.  It wasn’t until 1976 that the federal government adopted the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which gave the United States the exclusive economic zone that includes Georges Bank and set up a system of industry regulation.

While the Act gave the U.S. government some power to regulate fishing in the area over the long term, the initial intent was aimed more at helping to protect American fishers more than the fish, and in the first 20 years of the Act, the fish continued to suffer.  In the 1990s, protection efforts picked up, and in 1996, President Bush amended the Act to better promote conservation by focusing on rebuilding overfished fisheries, protecting essential fish habitat, and reducing bycatch (which is the catching of fish you aren’t actually trying to catch.)

There are four or five main players in the equation, with each having a fair and logical argument of why their interests should receive priority:

  • Fishermen:  In one chair sit the fishermen and the people who work for them.
  • Companies: In another chair sit the non-fishing companies who meet market demand, buying, selling, processing, transporting, etc., seafood.
  • Consumers: In another chair sits the consumers who buy and eat seafood.
  • Environmental/non-profit groups: Standing on a truffula tree stump, speaking on behalf of the fish.
  • The last chair belongs to the government:  “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Whoa, what’s up with the blood pressure spike? Did I strike a chord?

I’ll let you work out in your mind whom you believe should get priority… (note: If you get it right, you might pass fifth grade and get your PhD in one fell swoop!)

Specifically, Scallop

Today, when it comes to management of the scallop fishery, NOAA Fisheries is the lead agency, while the New England Fishery Management Council assesses and makes policy recommendations for the Northeast, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council does so for the area down to the Mid-Atlantic region. These organizations have implemented several management tools intended to support conservation.  Some examples of regulatory tools they’ve used include:

  • Regulating the number of vessels allowed to fish for scallop and people aboard those vessels;
  • Regulating the length of a fishing season and limiting days vessels can remain at sea;
  • Regulating the amount of fish that can be caught as well as the amount of bycatch allowed
  • Closing areas to fishing; and,
  • Increasing the size of the rings on the dredge-net (note: recall, the dredge is like a big sieve; bigger holes allow smaller things to filter through)

Through these management efforts, scallop populations have rebounded significantly, with the permitted (dredge-net) ring-size, limitation of days at sea/total allowable catch, and “closed-area” management tools getting much of the credit. The rebound is certainly noteworthy considering that the Atlantic Sea Scallop fishery, which extends from the Mid-Atlantic area near Cape Hatteras, NC up to Georges Bank, is the largest and most valuable wild scallop fishery in the world, valued at nearly $580 million in 2011.

While much of the research and management is funded by the government, it is important to acknowledge the commercial fishery’s contribution through the Scallop Research Set-Aside Program.  Through that program, 1.25 million pounds of the allowed scallop harvest is set aside each year to fund scallop habitat research and surveys to better inform future policy/management decisions.

So, What’s Next?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

Scallop populations have responded well to these regulatory/management efforts, while other species, such as cod, continue to struggle mightily.

As the scallop population returns to (and maybe even starts to exceed) what have been called “sustainable numbers,” the “closed areas” management tool presents some unique questions, primarily relating to an idea called “carrying capacity.” Carrying capacity essentially asks “how many scallop can survive here before there are too many for the system to stay healthy?”  For the fishers, the water can seem bluer on the other side of the fence (or, um, something like that) and they want to see these areas re-opened, but variables have to be considered and data confirmed for conclusions to be both reliable and valid.  In other words, there is a risk of irreparable harm if an area is opened for fishing too soon or too late.

I mention carrying capacity because while I was aboard the Sharp, the New England Fisheries Management Council announced that it was going to recommend that one of the closed areas of Georges Bank, known as the Northern Edge, be reopened to fishing.  The newspapers I read showed that there has been a predictably mixed reaction to the announcement.  NOAA Fisheries will consider the recommendation by the New England Council and their decision on the recommendation is not expected to be final until some time in 2016.

Now, about that proposed road through our Preserve…


In the last few weeks I’ve introduced you to a few scientists and talked about my role helping to give students an avenue to explore, question and pursue learning about things that interest them in a safe, supportive environment.  I’m going to close out the Lagniappe section of my TAS blog by introducing you to “what’s next” in scallop science through a conversation with fellow day-watch science-crew member, and Cornell PhD candidate, Katie Kaplan.

That’s Katie in the hat and sunglasses, avoiding the paparazzi
That’s Katie in the hat and sunglasses, avoiding the paparazzi

Katie is a volunteer on this cruise.  She’s using HabCam data as part of the work towards her PhD and wanted to get a first hand peek at the HabCam in action (I mean, who wouldn’t want to fly over the sea floor and pick fights with crabs and lobsters!), so, she signed up.  Katie’s work fits nicely in today’s blog for several reasons, largely because her work centers on what is happening with the scallops in one of the closed areas I discussed above.

Specifically, Katie is evaluating the impacts of marine protected areas on interactions of sea scallops and other species in benthic (i.e. – “seafloor”) ecosystems.  In particular she is evaluating the relationship between an invasive tunicate species, Didemnum vexillum and scallops and the impact of the closed areas on this relationship. The invasive tunicate has spread in Georges Bank since 2002 and threatens scallop habitat since they compete for the same space (note: with tunicate species being commonly referred to by names like sea “squirts,” “pork,” and “livers,” you might get the impression their “invasion” isn’t perceived as favorable). After a few weeks in my class it should be obvious, but studying interactions among species as they relate to fishery resources is essential to ensuring fish habitat remains viable and fisheries remain productive to meet our needs as consumers.

On a more personal note, Katie grew up just outside of New York City and headed to Grinnell College in Iowa for her undergraduate studies.  After graduation, she taught English in Ecuador and while living there and on Galapagos, decided to pursue a career that combined her interests in the ocean with her wicked good biology skills (whoa, did I just use “wicked” as an adjective?  I’ve been up north too long!). I need to add that while it’s too long a story for the blog, I seem to be having a “Cornell year,” so it is entirely appropriate that I met my new friend Katie on this cruise.

Katie became inspired to study marine science while swimming with sea lions and sea turtles in Galapagos (um, who wouldn’t, Katie!?!).  While there she studied vulnerable fish habitat on the islands — including nursery areas for sharks!  She decided to devote her life to conservation and management of marine life due to concerns of human caused destruction of the environment.  She hopes “to make a positive impact by contributing to conservation based research and helping humans learn to interact with the environment in a less destructive way.”

Kudos, my friend.  I’m so happy we were on watch together, it was so nice of you to distract the paparazzi…


Nothing really to annotate in this shot, but, you can see the whole screen.
Nothing really to annotate in this shot, but, you can see the whole screen.


Waved whelk, heading to the 01.
Waved whelk, heading to the 01.

HabCam scared a flatfish.  He was slingin' gravel and puttin' a ton of dust in the air.
HabCam scared a flatfish. He was slingin’ gravel and puttin’ a ton of dust in the air.


Textures of the sea
Textures of the sea

Not at all like the blue points down here on the coast that will snip at you
Not at all like the blue points down here on the coast that will pinch you in a heartbeat

I saw this hermit crab out of his shell and heard Dumbledore’s voice in my head saying “You cannot help it;” it was only weird when I looked up and realized I was not in Kings Cross Station
I saw this hermit crab out of his shell and heard Dumbledore’s voice in my head saying “You cannot help it;” it was only weird when I looked up and realized I was not in Kings Cross Station

...I was always on the lookout for the Nisshin Maru; never saw it.
…I was always on the lookout for the Nisshin Maru; never saw it.

Students, always clean up your lab!
Students, always clean up your lab!

More nature.
More nature.

Winslow Homer would be so mad if he knew he could've painted this while hanging out with Rachel Carson at Woods Hole.
Winslow Homer would be so mad if he knew he could’ve painted this while hanging out with Rachel Carson at Woods Hole (her:  “I had my first prolonged contact with the sea at Woods Hole. I never tired of watching the swirling currents pour through the hole — that wonderful place of whirlpools and eddies and swiftly racing waters.”)


So, that’s about it.  I loved my time aboard the R/V Hugh R. Sharp, have made some new friends, and will always treasure the memories made as a 2015 NOAA Teacher at Sea.  Thanks again, NOAA, what a grand adventure…

Airplane Playlist to Texas:  James Taylor (“Carolina”, “Angels of Fenway”), Robert Earl Keen, Jr. (I’m Comin’ Home); Alpha Rev (“Sing Loud”); Keane (“Somewhere Only We Know”); Avett Brothers (“Spanish Pipedream”); Jim & Jesse (“Paradise”); Amos Lee (“Windows Are Rolled Down”); Bobby Darin (“Beyond The Sea”)

Go outside and play.  Class dismissed.

Mr. Hance

Liz Harrington: The Temporary Lull in the Action, August 21, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea
Liz Harrington
 Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 10 – 25, 2013

Mission : Shark/Red Snapper Bottom Longline
Geographical area of cruise: Western Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 21, 2013

Weather: current conditions from the bridge:
Partly cloudy
Lat. 29.18 °N  Lon. 84.06 °W
Temp. 75 °F (24 ° C)
Wind speed  10-15  mph
Barometer  30.04 in ( 1017.3 mb)
Visibility  10 mi

Science and Technology Log:

It has been just over a week now since I’ve been aboard the Oregon II.  The catch has not been as abundant as it was the first couple of days of fishing, but that tells the scientist something as well. So far I’ve experienced three water hauls – not one fish on any of the 100 hooks!  Even though we are not catching many fish (for now), the fishing will continue until it is time to return to port.  Don’t get me wrong, we are still catching fish, just not as many as we had been.  Occasionally we pull up something other than fish, like eels, skates, crabs or sea stars. This is called the bycatch. In the previous blog I explained how the line was set. In this one I’ll explain about the catch.

“Fish On”. A Sandbar Shark is brought alongside the ship to be cradled.

crab as bycatch
This crab, part of the bycatch, wouldn’t let go of the bait.

preparing for haul back
Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols (right) and Fisherman Buddy Gould prepare to retrieve the high flyer.

Hauling in the line is similar to setting it out.  The fisherman handle the line and the science team process the fish. Our team includes a person manning the computer to keep track of the hook numbers and the condition of any remaining bait;  a person “racking” (carefully but quickly returning the gangions into the storage barrels); and a “data” person to write down information about each fish, and the rest of the team will be “wranglers” (those who handle the catch).  We all rotate through the jobs.  I like to be a wrangler, but the racker and computer folks get a nice view of the fish being brought on board.  Everything we catch is brought on board, weighed and measured.

tagging Tiger Shark
The Day Team tagging a Tiger Shark

Many species of sharks are tagged and a fin clip is taken to obtain its DNA.  They are given an injection of a chemical which will help to age the shark if it is caught again.  The entire process only takes a few minutes because they are trying to get the sharks back into the water as soon as possible. The scientists and crew are all very conscientious about doing what is best for the marine life.  What’s really nice is that we all take turns tagging the sharks.  It is just so exciting to be up close to them, especially the big ones. You can feel the strength and power beneath that sandy skin.

weighing a shark
Sometimes sharks are too heavy for the handheld scale, so they are hoisted up to be weighed. Notice the scientist to the right to get sense of its weight.

processing fish
Kristin and Cliff find otoliths at the end of the rainbow.

The boney fish that are caught are also weighed and measured. After the haul back (when the line is in, gangions are stored, high flyers returned and deck hosed down), they are brought to the back of the ship to have otoliths removed and tissue samples taken. The otoliths are boney structures in the fish’s inner ear which are sensitive to gravity and acceleration. As the fish grows, each year a new layer is added to the otoliths – similar to tree rings. By examining the otoliths under a microscope its age can be determined. I was taught how to remove the otoliths, so now (given enough time – I need plenty) I can help process the fish. Learn more about the procedure here.

Personal Log

I have the bottom bunk in stateroom #5

It has been easy for me to acclimate to life aboard the ship because all of the people are so friendly and interesting.  The ship is always rocking but I don’t even notice it any more. It actually lulls me to sleep at night, along with the constant sound of the engine and particularly the gurgling sound of the water moving along the hull (frame of ship). I was a little worried that I might get seasick in the beginning of the cruise, but I didn’t. The only problem I had was that reading or working on the computer made me queasy, but that only lasted for a couple of days.  Quarters are tight, but they make good use of all of the space. Most of the bedrooms (called staterooms) sleep two people. We all eat in a room called the galley. It only holds twelve people at a time, so when we are done eating we leave to make room for someone else. The food on board is delicious and abundant. The chief steward, Walter Coghlan, does a great job providing a variety of choices. There is literally something for everyone.  If we have free time, there is a lounge area with a huge selection of movies.

I like to spend my free time out on the decks, if I can find a place in the shade and the breeze. I love to look out over the water. And the sky stretches from horizon to horizon in all directions, something I don’t see in the mountains of Vermont.  The cumulus clouds develop during the day and I can usually see a thunderstorm somewhere by late afternoon. It’s a beautiful view.  Yesterday we were visited briefly by a small group of dolphins. Their acrobatics were very entertaining. They were here and then gone. That seems to be the continuing theme here; you never know what you are going to see.

Dolphin visit
A small group of dolphins swim along side the ship.

A distant passing thunderstorm.

Did you know?  The ship makes it own fresh water from the sea water.  There is a reverse osmosis desalination system located down in the engine room. The fresh water is stored in large tanks, so it is always available.

volunteers await a haul
Volunteers Micayla, Daniel, David and Cliff waiting to do some wrangling.

New Term

Foul Hook – when a fish is hooked in a place other than its mouth (ie -fin or body)

More examples of bycatch.

clearnose skate
Clearnose Skate

little tunny
Micayla holds a Little Tunny (yes, that’s it’s real name)

yellowedge grouper
Yellowedge Grouper ready for processing

sea star
Sea Star

Maureen Anderson: Status of Sharks, August 3, 2011 (Post #5)

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Maureen Anderson
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
(NOAA Ship Tracker)
July 25 — August 9, 2011

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Southern Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 3, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 32.50 N
Longitude: -079.22 W
Wind Speed: 17.75 kts
Surface Water Temperature: 28.60 C
Air Temperature: 29.90 C
Relative Humidity: 71%
Barometric Pressure: 1009.06 mb

Science and Technology Log
One reason the shark longline survey exists is because the populations of many types of sharks are in decline. There are several reasons for this – finning is one reason. “Finning” is the process where the shark’s fin is removed from the rest of its body. Since usually only the fin is desired, the rest of the body is discarded. Shark fins are used for things like shark fin soup – a delicacy in Asian cultures. When the fin is cut off and the rest of the body stays in the water, the shark can not swim upright and eventually dies. While some regulations have been passed to prevent this, shark finning still occurs. Sharks are also overfished for their meat. As a result many shark species have become vulnerable, threatened or endangered. Large sharks can take longer to reproduce. Therefore, they are more likely to be threatened or decline in their numbers.

endangered species chart
There are different categories of extinction risk, from "least concern" to "extinct" (photo courtesy of IUCN)

marine food chain
Sharks are at the top of the food chain. They are apex predators. (photo courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Sharks are at the top of the food chain. They keep prey populations in control, without which the marine ecosystem would be unstable.

This is why the mission of the shark longline survey is important. The identification tags and roto tags used during this survey along with the data collected will help scientists assess the abundance of species in this area. They can then provide recommendations for shark management.  On average, we are collecting data on 10 sharks per line (or 10%), although our catch rates are between 0% and around 50%.  With 50 stations in all, that would be data on approximately 500 sharks (on average).

There are more than 360 species of known sharks. Below is a list of some that we have seen and measured during our survey. The IUCN red list (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) classify these sharks with a status:

Atlantic Sharpnose Shark – Least Concern
Blacknose Shark – Near Threatened
Silky Shark – Near Threatened
Tiger Shark – Near Threatened
Lemon Shark – Near Threatened
Dusky Shark – Vulnerable
Sandbar Shark – Vulnerable
Scalloped Hammerhead – Endangered

During my shift, we sometimes catch things we do not intend to catch.  We might reel in fish or other sea creatures that get caught on the hooks. This is called “bycatch”. While everything is done to try to catch only the things we are interested in studying, bycatch occasionally happens. The fish are only on our line for 1 hour, so their survival rates are pretty good. Our bycatch data is a very important element and also contributes to management plans for a number of species like snappers and groupers.

longline gear
Our longline gear includes two high flyer buoys, and hooks that are weighted down so they reach the bottom.

Just the other day, we caught a remora (a suckerfish that attaches itself to a shark’s side). Remoras and sharks have a commensalism relationship – the remora gets leftover food bits after the shark eats, but the shark gets no benefit from the remora. We quickly took down its measurements in order to get it back into the water quickly. Other bycatch included an eel, and black sea bass.

This sharksucker is an example of bycatch.

moray eel
This moray eel accidentally found its way onto a hook.

black sea bass
Bycatch - a black sea bass.

This otolith (tiny white bone in center) helps this red snapper with its sense of balance.

We also caught a red snapper. Our chief scientist, Mark, showed me the two small, tiny ear bones called “otoliths” in the snapper’s head. These bones provide the fish with a sense of balance – kind of like the way our inner ear provides us with information on where we are in space (am I upside down, right side up, left, right?). You can tell the age of a snapper by counting the annual growth rings on the otoliths just like counting growth rings on a tree.

Personal Log

My experience aboard the Oregon II has given me a better understanding of the vulnerability of some shark species. While many of us may think that sharks can be threatening to humans, it is more accurate the other way around. Sharks are more threatened by humans than humans are threatened by sharks. This is due to our human behaviors (mentioned above).

Today I saw dolphins following our boat off the bow.  There were about 6  or 7 of them all swimming together in a synchronized pattern (popping up for air all at the same time).  It was really quite a treat to watch.

I’m also amazed by the amount of stars in the sky.  With the lights off on the bow, you can really see a lot of stars.  I was also able to see the milky way.  There have been many storms off the horizon which are really cool to watch at night.  The whole sky lights up with lightning  in the distance, so I sat and watched for a while.  With tropical storm Emily coming upon us, we may have to return to port earlier than planned, but nothing is set in stone just yet.  I hope we don’t have to end the survey early.

Species Seen :

Tiger Shark
Atlantic Sharpnose
Nurse Shark
Black Sea Bass
Snowy Grouper
Atlantic Spotted Dolphins
Loggerhead Turtle
Homo Sapiens

Kathleen Harrison: Fish Stick, Anyone? July 15, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kathleen Harrison
Aboard NOAA Ship  Oscar Dyson
July 4 — 22, 2011

Location:  Gulf of Alaska
Mission:  Walleye Pollock Survey
Date: July 15, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
True Wind Speed:  34 knots, True Wind Direction:  284.43
Sea Temperature:  10.02° C, Air Temperature:  11.34° C
Air Pressure:  1014.97 mb
Latitude:  56.12° N, Longitude:  152.51° W
Sunny, Clear, Windy, 10 foot swells
Ship speed:  10 knots, Ship heading:  60°

Science and Technology Log

The Walleye Pollock is an important economic species for the state of Alaska.  It is the fish used in fish sticks, fish patties, and other processed fish products.  Every year, 1 million tons of Pollock  are processed in Alaska, making it the largest fishery in the United States by volume.  The gear used to catch Pollock is a mid-water trawl, which does not harm the ocean floor, and hauls are mostly Pollock, so there is very little bycatch.

table full of pollock
A sample of pollock that the Oscar Dyson caught for scientific study. A "drop" in a very large "ocean" of pollock industry.

Although Pollock fishermen would like to make as much money as they can, they have to follow fishing regulations, called quotas, that are set each year by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC).  The quotas tell the fishermen how many tons of pollock they can catch and sell, as well as the fish size, location, and season.  The NOAA scientists on board NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson have an important role to play in helping the NPFMC determine what the quotas are, based on the biomass they calculate.

The quotas are set in order to prevent overfishing.  Pollock reproduce and grow quickly, which makes them a little easier to manage.  When fishing is uncontrolled, the number of fish becomes too low, and the population can’t sustain itself.  Imagine being the lone human in the United States, and you are trying to find another human, located in Europe, only you don’t know if he is there, and all you have is your voice for communication, and your feet for traveling.  This is what happens when fish numbers are very low– it is hard for them to find each other.

There are many situations where uncontrolled fishing has cost the fishermen their livelihood. For example, in the early 1900s, the Peruvian Anchovy was big business in the Southeast Pacific Ocean.  Over 100 canneries were built, and hundreds of people  were employed.

anchovy catch graph
This graph shows how the Peruvian Anchovy catch rose to record heights in 1970, then collapsed in 1972. This could have been prevented by effective fishery management.

Scientists warned the fishermen in the 1960s that if they didn’t slow down, the anchovies would soon be gone.  The industry was slow to catch on, and the anchovy industry crashed in 1972.  The canneries closed, and many people lost their jobs.  This was an important lesson to commercial fishermen everywhere.

The Walleye Pollock (Theragra chalchogramm) is a handsome fish, about 2 feet long, and greyish – brown.  Most fishermen consider him the “dog” food of fish, since he pales in comparison to the mighty (and tasty) salmon.  Nonetheless, Pollock are plentiful, easy to catch, and thousands of children the world over love their fish sticks.

Besides calculating biomass, there are 2 other studies going on with the Pollock and other fish in the catch.  Scientists back at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) in Seattle are interested in how old the fish are, and this can be determined by examining the otoliths.

2 pollock otoliths
Here are 2 otoliths from a pollock. The one on the left shows the convex surface, the other shows the concave surface.

These are 2 bones in the head of a fish that help with hearing, as well as balance.  Fish otoliths are enlarged each year with a new layer of calcium carbonate and gelatinous matrix, called annuli, and counting the annuli tells the scientists the age of the fish.  Not only that, with sophisticated chemical techniques, migration pathways can be determined.  Amazing, right?  The otoliths are removed from the fish, and placed in a vial with preservative.  The scientists in Seattle eagerly await the return of the Oscar Dyson, so that they can examine the new set of otoliths.  By keeping track of the age of the fish, the scientists can see if the population has a healthy distribution of different ages, and are reproducing at a sustainable rate.

Another ongoing study concerning the Pollock, and any other species of fish that are caught during the Pollock Survey, deals with what the fish eat.

stomach being put into a bag for later study
A pollock stomach is put into a fabric bag, which will be placed in preservative. Scientists at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center will study the contents to determine what the fish had for lunch.

Stomachs are removed from a random group of fish, and placed into fabric bags with an ID tag.  These are placed into preservative, and taken to Seattle.  There, scientists will examine the stomach contents, and determine what the fish had for lunch.

Personal Log  

I learned about fishing boundaries, or territorial seas, today.  In the United States, there is a 12-mile boundary from the shore marked on nautical charts.  Inside this boundary, the state determines what the rules about fishing are.  How many of each species can be kept, what months of the year fishing can occur, and what size fish has to be thrown back.   Foreign ships are allowed innocent passage through the territorial seas, but they are not allowed to fish or look for resources.  Outside of that is the Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) which is 200 miles off shore.  The EEZ exists world-wide, with the understanding among all international ships, that permits are required for traveling or fishing through an EEZ that does not belong to the ship’s native country.

Everyone was tired at the end of the day, just walking across the deck requires a lot more energy when there are 10-foot swells.  Check out this video for the rolling and pitching of the ship today.

Heather Haberman: Groundfish Surveying, July 7, 2011 (post #2)

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Heather Haberman

Onboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
July 5 — 17, 2011 

Mission: Groundfish Survey
Geographical Location: Northern Gulf of Mexico
Date: Thursday, July 07, 2011

Weather Data from  NOAA Ship Tracker
Air Temperature:  29.2 C      (84.6 F)
Water Temperature:  29.3 C    (84.7 F)
Relative Humidity:  72%
Wind Speed:  2.64 knots

Preface:  There is a lot of science going on aboard the Oregon II, so to eliminate information overload, each blog I post will focus on one scientific aspect of our mission.  By the end of the voyage you should have a good idea of the research that goes into keeping our oceans healthy.

In case you’re new to blogging, underlined words in the text are hyperlinked to sites with more specific information.

Science and Technology Log

Topic of the day:  Groundfish Surveying

To collect samples of marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico, NOAA Ship  Oregon II is equipped with a 42-foot standard shrimp trawling net.  NOAA’s skilled fishermen deploy the net over the side of the ship at randomly selected SEAMAP (Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) stations using an outrigger.  The net is left in the water for 30 minutes as the boat travels at 2.5 to 3 knots (1 knot = 1.15 mph).

Shrimp trawl net attached to an outrigger. Notice the large wooden “doors” that help spread the net as it is lowered into the water.

Bottom trawling is a good method for collecting a random sample of the biodiversity in the sea because it is nonselective and harvests everything in its path.  This is excellent for scientific studies but poses great problems for marine ecosystems when it is used in the commercial fishing industry.

One problem associated with bottom trawling is the amount of bycatch it produces.  The term bycatch refers to the “undesirable” fish, invertebrates, crustaceans, sea turtles, sharks and marine mammals that are accidentally brought up to the surface in the process of catching commercially desirable species such as shrimp, cod, sole and flounder.  At times bycatch can make up as much as 90% of a fisherman’s harvest.  To address this problem, NOAA engineers have designed two devices which help prevent many animals from becoming bycatch.

Bycatch photo: NOAA

All sea turtles found in U.S. waters are listed under the Endangered Species Act and are under joint jurisdiction of NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  In an effort to reduce the mortality rate of sea turtles, NOAA engineers have designed  Turtle Exclusion Devices (TED).  TEDs provide these air-breathing reptiles with a barred barrier which prevents them from going deep into the fishing net and guides them out of an “escape hatch” so they won’t drown.  TEDs have also proven to be useful in keeping sharks out of  bycatch.

Loggerhead sea turtle escaping a trawling net through a TED.

Another device that was introduced to the commercial fishing industry is the Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD).  BRDs create an opening in a shrimp trawl net which allows fishes with fins, and other unintended species, to escape while the target species, such as shrimp, are directed towards the end of the capture net.

Notice the location of the TED which prevents the turtle from entering into the net and the BRD that allows swimming fish to escape. Illustration provided by the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service

This is a very small catch we harvested from 77 meters (253 feet).

Once the trawl net is brought back on board the Oregon II, its contents are emptied onto the deck of the ship.  The catch is placed into baskets and each basket gets weighed for a total weight. The catch then goes to the “wet lab” for sorting.  If the yield is too large we randomly split the harvest up into a smaller subsample.

Each species is separated, counted, and logged into the computer system using their scientific names.  Once every species is identified, we measure, weigh, and sex the animals.  All of this data goes into the computer where it gets converted into an Access database spreadsheet.

My team and I sorting the catch by species.

Amy entering the scientific name of each species into the computer.

I measure while Amy works the computer. Collecting data is a team effort!

When the Oregon II ends its surveying journey, NOAA’s IT (Information Technology) department will pull the surveying data off the ship’s computers.   The compiled data is given to one of the groundfish survey biologists so it can be checked for accuracy and consistency.  The reviewed data will then be given to NOAA statisticians who pull out the important information for SEAMAP (Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) and SEDAR (Southeast Data and Review)

SEAMAP and SEDAR councils publish the information.   State agencies then have the evidence they need to make informed decisions about policies and regulations regarding the fishing industry.  Isn’t science great!  Most people don’t realize the amount of time, labor, expertise and review that goes into the decisions that are made by regulatory agencies.

Personal Log

Day crew from left to right: Chief Scientist Andre, college intern Brondum, myself, Team Leader Biologist Brittany and Biologist Amy

During our “welcome aboard” meeting I met the science team which consists of a Chief Scientist, four NOAA Fisheries Biologists, three volunteers, one college intern, one Teacher at Sea (me) and an Ornithologist (bird scientist).

I was assigned to work the day shift which runs from noon until midnight while the night shift crew works from midnight until noon.  This ship is operational 24 hours a day in order to collect as much information about the northern Gulf fisheries as possible.  The Oregon II costs around $10,000 per day to operate (salaries, supplies, equipment, etc.) so it’s important to run an efficient operation.

I am learning a lot about the importance of random sampling and confirming results to ensure accuracy.   Amy and Brittany taught me how to use the CTD device (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth), set up plankton nets as well as how to sort, weigh, identify and sex our specimens.

The food has been great, the water is gorgeous and I love the ocean!  Stay tuned for the next blog post about some of the most important critters in the sea!  Any guesses?

Species seen (other than those collected)

Birds:  Least Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Laughing Gull, Neotropical Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Magnificent  Frigatebird

Go to for more information about the various bird species seen on this trip.

Mammals: Common bottlenose dolphin