Anna Levy: Fish Rules, July 17, 2017


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Anna Levy

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

July 10-20, 2017

Mission: Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 17, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Warm weather and blue skies are making it easy to spend a lot of time out on deck, looking for wildlife! In addition to the lazy seagulls who keep hitching a ride on the ship’s trawling gear, we continue to spot dolphins, flying fish, and even a shark feeding frenzy!

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Lazy sea gulls hitch a ride on our trawling gear

Latitude: 28 24.13 N
Longitude: 83 57.32 W
Air temp: 27.7 C
Water temp: 31.3 C
Wind direction: light and variable
Wind speed: light and variable
Wave height: 0.3 meter
Sky: 50% cloud cover, no rain

 

Science and Technology Log

The organisms in each catch provide a snap shot of the marine life in one location in one moment in time. It’s interesting to see what we catch, but there are not many scientific conclusions that we can draw based on what we see in just 10 days. However, this survey has been completed twice per year (once in the summer and once in the fall) for over 35 years. It is looking at trends, or changes and patterns over time, that allows scientists to draw conclusions about the health and ecology of the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the major practical applications of this research is to prevent overfishing, the removal of too many individuals from a population causing that population to become unstable. Continued overfishing can lead to the extinction of a species because it leaves too few mature individuals to reproduce and replace those that are removed.

Cod Graph

Graph Created by Boston Globe

One famous example of overfishing and its consequences occurred in the late 1980’s off the Atlantic coast of Canada. Cod was a major food source and commercial industry in the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrodor. However, unregulated overfishing depleted the cod population and, between 1988 and 1992 the cod population crashed, losing more than 99% of its biomass – they were essentially gone. This destroyed the industry, putting over 40,000 people out of work. In 1992, the government finally imposed a complete ban on cod fishing in hopes that the cod population could still recover. The fishing ban is still in place today, though just last year, Canadian scientists released a report stating that there are some signs of hope!

When NOAA scientists notice overfishing occurring in US waters, they can recommend that protective regulations, or rules, are put in place to limit or even stop fishing in an area until the species has had a chance to recover.

Here are a few examples of the types of regulations that have been created in the Gulf of Mexico in response to the data from the Groundfish Survey.

Texas Shrimping Closure

To prevent overfishing of shrimp in the western Gulf of Mexico, NOAA and the Texas Department of Wildlife collaborated to implement an annual closure of state and federal waters off the coast of Texas to shrimping. This is called the “Texas Closure.”

The Texas closure runs each year from about May 15 to July 15, though the exact dates vary depending on the health of the shrimp population that year. This break allows the shrimp time to mature to an age at which they can reproduce, and to migrate out to deeper waters, which is where females spawn. It also allows the shrimp to grow to a size that is more commercially valuable.

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A shrimp we caught off the coast of Florida.

We saw quite a few shrimp in our recent catches. Because this species is being more intensively monitored, we collected more detailed data about the individuals we caught, including the length, mass, and sex of a sample of least 200 individual shrimp (instead of a the smaller sample size of 20 that we used for most other species.)

In addition to sending out an annual notice to fisherman of the dates of the Texas Closure, NOAA also makes all of the shrimp survey data available. This can help fishermen to target the best fishing locations and work efficiently. For example, this is a plot showing the amount of brown shrimp found at various locations, created using this year’s survey data.

Shrimp Map

Plot Created By NOAA

Red Snapper Regulation

Another species that is currently under regulation is the red snapper, which has been a popular seafood in the US since the 1840s. As fishing technology improved and recreational fishing expanded in the 1950’s, the number of red snapper captured each year increased dramatically. The shrimp industry was also expanding rapidly at this time, and juvenile red snapper were often accidentally caught and killed in shrimp trawls. As a result of these three pressures, the red snapper population began to decline dramatically.

Red Snapper SP

Graph created by NOAA

By 1990, the spawning potential, or the number of eggs produced by the population each year, was only 2% of what it would have been naturally, without any fishing. This was far below the target spawning potential level of 26% that is necessary to sustain the species.

 

Several types of regulations were implemented to protect the snapper. These included:

  • Limiting the number of commercial and recreational fishing licenses issued each year
  • Restricting the size and number of fish that a fisherman could collect on a fishing trip
  • Reducing the amount of time each year that fishermen could fish for red snapper
  • Regulating the type of fishing gear that could be used
  • Requiring commercial shrimp fishermen to install devices on their trawls to reduce the by-catch of juvenile red snapper
  • Requiring fishermen to avoid areas where red snapper spawn

Survey results in the last 5 years show that these regulations are working and that the red snapper population is growing. This is good news. However, the red snapper is not out of the woods yet. It is important to understand that, as a species with a long life span (they can live over 50 years!), it will take time for the population to regain

Red Snapper Productivity

Graphic created by NOAA

its normal age structure. Currently, the majority of red snapper found in the Gulf are less than 10 years old. These fish are still juveniles capable of producing only a fraction of the offspring a fully mature individual would produce. It is important to continue to closely monitor and regulate the fishing of snapper until both the number and age of individuals has been restored to a sustainable level.

We were fortunate to catch members of three different species of red snapper during my leg of the survey. I did notice that most of them were relatively small – less than 10 inches – which is consistent with the concern that the population is still disproportionately young.

As with the shrimp, we collected more detailed information about these individuals. We also removed the stomachs of a sample of snappers. As I discussed in my last blog (“What Tummies Tell Us”), scientists back on land will examine the contents of their stomachs as part of a diet study to better understand what snapper are eating. Because the invasive lionfish has a competitive relationship with red snapper, meaning that it eats many of the same foods that red snapper eat, fisheries biologists are concerned that red snapper may be forced to settle for alternative and/or reduced food sources and that this could also slow their recovery.

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A typical red snapper from our catch. Note that each mark on the ruler is one centimeter.

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Red snapper from one catch.

 

Hypoxia Watch

CTD

Getting ready to deploy the CTD sensors.

In addition to collecting data about the fish and other organisms we find, remember that we also use a group of instruments called a CTD to collect information about the quality of the water at each survey station. (For more about CTDs, please see my previous blog “First Day of Fishing.”)

One of the measurements the CTD takes is the amount of oxygen that is dissolved in the water. This is important because, just like you and me, fish need to take in oxygen to survive. (The difference is that you and I use our lungs to remove oxygen from the air, whereas fish use gills to remove oxygen from the water!) When dissolved oxygen concentrations in the water drop below 2 mg/L, a condition called hypoxia, most marine organisms cannot survive.

When waters become hypoxic, organisms that are able to migrate (like some fishes) will leave the area. Organisms that cannot migrate (like corals or crabs) will die from lack of oxygen. This creates large areas of ocean, called dead zones, that are devoid of typical marine life. Often anaerobic microorganisms, some of which are toxic to humans, will then grow out of control in these areas. Not only is this stressful for the marine populations, it hampers regular fishing activities, and can even pose a threat to human health.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to the largest hypoxic zone in US waters. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers and animal waste from farming activities throughoAnnual Hypoxic Zone Graphut the Midwest United States all collect in the Mississippi River, which drains into the Gulf. Though nitrogen is a nutrient that organisms need in order to grow and be healthy, excess nitrogen causes an imbalance in the normal nitrogen cycle, and stimulates high levels of algae plant growth called an algal bloom. Once the algae use up the excess nitrogen, they begin to die. This causes the population of decomposers like fungi and bacteria to spike. Like most animals, these decomposers consume oxygen. Because there are more decomposers than usual, they begin to use up oxygen faster than it can be replenished.

This hypoxic zone is largest in the summer, when farming activities are at their peak. In the winter, there is less farming, and therefore less nitrogen. As the hypoxic water continues to mix with normal ocean water, the levels of oxygen begin to return to normal. (When there are tropical storms or hurricanes in the Gulf, this mixing effect is more significant, helping to reduce the impact of the hypoxia. This is often the primary cause of low-hypoxia years like 2000.) Unfortunately, the average size of the annual dead zone remains at nearly 15,000 square kilometers, three times the goal of 5,000 square kilometers.

The data collected from this year’s Groundfish Survey was used to create this map of hypoxic areas. How might this map be different if tropical storm Cindy had not occurred this summer?

This Years Hypoxic Zone

A plot of dissolved oxygen levels created from this year’s survey data.

The data we collect on the Groundfish survey is combined with data gathered during other NOAA missions and by other organizations, like NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and USGS (the United States Geologic Survey). By collaborating and sharing data, scientists are able to develop a more complete and detailed understanding of hypoxia levels.

In response to the levels of hypoxia seen in the data, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required Midwestern states to develop and implement plans that will allow them to make greater progress in reducing the nutrient pollution that flows into the Mississippi. Specifically, the EPA wants states to do things like:

  • Identify areas of land that have the largest impact on pollution in the Mississippi
  • Set caps on how much nitrogen and other nutrients can be used in these areas
  • Develop new agricultural practices and technologies that will reduce the amount of these pollutants that are used or that will flow into the water
  • Ensure that the permitting process that states use to grant permission to use potential pollutants is effective at limiting pollutants to reasonable levels
  • Develop a plan for monitoring how much nutrient pollution is being released into waters

These EPA regulations were only recently implemented, so it is still unclear what, if any, impact they will have on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf. It will be interesting to keep an eye on the data from the Groundfish survey in coming years to help answer that question!

In the mean time, though, things still seem to be moving in the wrong direction. In fact, NOAA just announced that this summer’s dead zone is the largest ever recorded.

summer-dead-zone.adapt.885.1

Photo credit: Goddard SVS, NASA

Personal Log

Getting a PhD in your chosen field of science is an awesome accomplishment and is necessary if your goal is to design and carry out your own research projects. However, I’ve noticed that the PhD is often presented to students as the only path into a career in science. I think this is unfortunate, since this often discourages students who know they do not want to pursue a graduate degree from entering the field.

I’ve noticed that most of the scientists I’ve met while on board the Oregon II and in the NOAA lab at Pascagoula do not hold PhDs, but are still deeply involved in field work, lab work, and data analysis every day.

I asked Andre DeBose, a senior NOAA fishery biologist and the Field Party Chief for this mission, if he feels a PhD is necessary for those interested in fishery biology. Andre agreed that a graduate degree is not necessary, but he cautioned that it is a very competitive field and that education is one way to set yourself apart – “if you have the opportunity to get an advanced degree, take the opportunity.”

However, he continued, “the MOST important thing you can do is take the opportunity to do internships, volunteering, and fellowships. Those open a lot of doors for you in the world of biology.” Andre himself holds a bachelors degree in biology, but it was his years of experience working in aquaculture and as a contractor with NOAA that were most helpful in paving the way to the permanent position he holds today. “When I graduated from college, I took a low-paying job in aquaculture, just to start learning everything I could about fish. When contract [or short-term] positions became available at the NOAA lab, I applied and tried to make myself as useful as possible. It took time and I had to be really persistent – I would literally call the lab all the time and asked if they had anything they needed help with – but when a full time position finally became available, everyone knew who I was and knew that I had the right skills for the job.”

Now, Andre tries to help others navigate the tricky career path into marine biology. In addition to his responsibilities as a biologist, he is also the Outreach and Education Coordinator for the NOAA lab, which allows him to mentors all of interns (and Teachers at Sea like me!) and to talk with students at schools in the community.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in marine biology, it’s never to early to start looking for some of those volunteer opportunities! There are lots of scientists out there like Andre who are excited to share their knowledge and experience.

IMG_0092

The Day-Shift Science Team as we head back in to port.  From left to right:  TAS Anna Levy, NOAA Summer Intern Jessica Pantone, NOAA Biologist & Field Party Chief Andre DeBose, NOAA Fellow Dedi Vernetti Duarte, NOAA Volunteer Elijah Ramsey.

Did You Know?

In the Gulf of Mexico, each state has the authority to regulate the waters that are within about 9 miles of the coast. (This includes making rules about fishing.) Beyond that, the federal government, with the help of federal agencies like NOAA, make the rules!

 

Questions to Consider:

Research:  This article discussed the political side of the Snapper situation. Research other news articles about this issue to ensure that you have a balanced perspective.

Reflect: To what extent do you believe this issue should be governed by science? To what extent do you believe this issue should be governed by politics?

Take action: Propose some specific ways that fisherman, scientists, and policy-makers could work together to address issues like the overfishing of red snapper fairly and effectively.

Review: Examine the graph showing the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf each summer. There are unusually small zones in 1988 and 2000. How do you explain this?

Research: Two other reoccurring hypoxic zones in the US are found in Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. What is the cause of each of these zones?

 

 

 

 

Melissa Barker: Reflections from Land, July 20, 2017

 

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Melissa Barker

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 22 – July 6, 2017

 

Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 20, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge: I am now back in Longmont, Colorado

Latitude: 40 08.07 N

Longitude: 105 08.56 W

Air temp: 31.1 C

 

Science and Technology Log

One of the major questions I had before my Teacher at Sea voyage was how the level of oxygen in the water will affect the species we collect. Typically, in the summer, a dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico spreading out from the mouth of the Mississippi river. You can see an image of the dead zone from 2011 below.

Hypoxia2011

Bottom Dissolved Oxygen Contours, Gulf of Mexico, 2011

Phytoplankton, or microscopic marine algae, are the base of the marine food web. There are two main classes, diatoms and dinoflagellates, which are both photosynthetic and typically live towards the top of the water column. We did not sample plankton on our leg of the cruise, but if you want to learn more you can check out this site: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/phyto.html. In the summer, phytoplankton and algae can build up due to excess nutrients in the water that are running off from urban areas, agriculture and industry. Much of our sampling was near the mouth of the Mississippi River, which is a significant source of excess nutrients. The extra nitrogen and phosphorus in the runoff cause the excess growth of photosynthetic organisms which leads to a buildup of zooplankton (heterotrophic plankton). Once the phytoplankton and zooplankton die and sink to the bottom they are decomposed by oxygen consuming bacteria which deplete the oxygen in the water column. According to NOAA, hypoxia in aquatic systems refers to an area where the dissolved oxygen concentration is below 2 mg/L. At this point, most organisms become physiologically stressed and cannot survive.

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How The Dead Zone Forms: Infographic by Dan Swenson, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune

Tropical Storm Cindy, which kicked up just as I was arriving in Galveston, brought significant freshwater into the gulf and mixed that water around so we did not see as many low oxygen readings as expected. While I was talking with Andre about hypoxia when we were on the ship, he used the analogy of stirring a bowl of soup. There is a cool layer on top, but as you stir the top layer and mix it with the lower layers, the whole bowl cools. Similarly, the oxygen rich freshwater from the storm is mixed around with the existing water, reducing the areas of low oxygen. You can see in the map below that we had fewer hypoxic areas than in 2011.

2017-hypoxia-contours

Bottom Dissolved Oxygen Contours, Gulf of Mexico, 2017

We used the CTD to obtain oxygen readings in the water column at each station. In the visuals below you can see a CTD indicating high oxygen levels and a CTD indicating lower, hypoxic, oxygen levels. The low oxygen CTD was from leg one of the survey. It corresponds with the red area in the hypoxia map above.

Non Hypoxic station copy

CTD for a non-hypoxic station

Hypoxic Station copy

CTD of a hypoxic station

 Personal Log and Reflections

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Final sunset over the Gulf of Mexico

When I arrived back on land I still felt the rocking of the Oregon II. It took two to three days before I felt stable again. As friends and family ask about my experience, I find it hard to put into words. I am so grateful to the NOAA Teacher at Sea program for giving me this incredible experience and especially thankful to Science Field Party Chief Andre Debose and my day shift science team members, Tyler, David and Sarah, for teaching me so much, being patient and making my experience one that I will never forget.

The ocean is so vast and we have explored so little of it, but now, I have a strong understanding of how a large scale marine survey is conducted. Being an active participant in fisheries research was definitely out of my comfort zone. The experience helped stretch me and my learning and has giving me great insight to bring back to share with my students and school community. The map below shows our journey over the two weeks I was on the ship traveling along the Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida coasts.

Summer GroundfishLEG2 Oregon II ALL

The blue line maps our route on the Oregon II

My experience on Oregon II has also re-engaged me with the ocean. As a child, I spent time each summer on an island off the coast of Maine and even got to go fishing with my Dad and his lobsterman buddies. But for the last 20 years or so, my exposure to the ocean has been limited to just a few visits. My curiosity for the marine world has been reignited; I look forward to bringing more fisheries science and insight into my classroom.

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Brown shrimp (Penaeus aztecus) on the left Pink shrimp (Penaeus duorarum) on the right

I mentioned in a previous blog that our shrimp data was sent daily to SEAMAP and made available to fisheries managers and shrimpers to allow them to make the best decisions about when to re-open the shrimp season. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD), the commercial shrimp season for both the state and federal waters re-opened just after sunset on July 15, 2017. TPWD said, “The opening date is based on an evaluation of the biological, social and economic impact to maximize the benefits to the industry and the public.” It is satisfying to know that I was part of the “biological evaluation” to which they refer.

 

Finally, I took some video while out at sea and now with more bandwidth and time, I’ve been able to process some of that video to shed additional light on how fisheries research is conducted. I’ve added two videos. The first one shows the process of conducting a bottom trawl and the second one show the fish sorting and measuring process. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did You Know?

You can use the following sites to help you make smart sustainable seafood choices:

FishWatch (http://www.fishwatch.gov)

Monterey Bay Aquarium (http://www.seafoodwatch.org). There is also a free app you can put on your phone so you can do a quick look up when you are at a restaurant, the grocery or a fish market.

 

The largest Gulf of Mexico dead zone recorded was in 2002, encompassing 8,497 square miles. The smallest recorded dead zone measured 15 square miles in 1988. The average size of the dead zone from 2010-2015 was about 5,500 square miles, nearly three times the 1,900 square mile goal set by the Hypoxia Task Force in 2001 and reaffirmed in 2008.

(source: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov)

 

Dawson Sixth Grade Queries

Thank you to the Dawson sixth graders (now seventh graders!) for your great questions. I look forward to speaking with you all when school starts in a few weeks.

What is at the bottom of the low oxygen part of the ocean? (Allison)

There is a lot of accumulated dead organic matter that is decomposed by oxygen consuming bacteria.

What do you find in the dead zone? Do less animals live there? (Leeham, Mae, Shane, Alfie, Bennett)

Typically, trawls are smaller and the diversity of organisms decreases in the low oxygen areas. Often you will find resilient organisms like croaker. There is a lot of research looking at which organisms can live in dead zones and how these organisms compensate for the low levels of oxygen.

Is there any way to fix the dead zone? What can we do about the dead zone? (Isaac, Owen, Ava)

It is estimated that seventy percent of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus that runs off into the Gulf of Mexico comes from industrial agriculture. Reducing the amount of fertilizer used to grow our food would help decrease the extent of the dead zone area. Perhaps one of you will come up with a way to feed our communities in a more sustainable way or a technology that can remove these excess nutrients before the water reaches the Gulf.

Thanks for reading my blog!

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Safety first on the Oregon II.

 

Crystal Davis, Day Three at Sea, June 25, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Crystal Davis

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 23 – July 7, 2014

Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey

Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Wednesday June 25, 2014

Weather: Overcast and Cloudy

Waves:1.5 meters

Science and Technology Log:

Getting ready to lower the CTD

Getting ready to lower the CTD

CTD with Niskin Bottles and instument panels

CTD with Niskin Bottles and instrument panels

The Oregon II carries an instrument called a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) that is lowered into the ocean by a crane. On the bottom of the CTD are sensors that detect and relay information back to a computer onboard the Oregon II. On top of the sensors are Niskin (gray) bottles that are manually opened before the CTD is lowered into the water, and are tripped by the Watchleader (closing and trapping water inside) when it reaches the desired depth. Data from the CTD is sent to the ship where it is recorded and stored. After the CTD is back on board, the water from the Niskin bottles is used to check the amount of dissolved oxygen. This data is then combined with numerous stations/stops and used to create a real time map of the dissolved oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Real Time Dissolved Oxygen Map from the Oregon II

Real Time Dissolved Oxygen Map from the Oregon II

One of the missions of the SEAMAP cruise is to measure the amount of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the Gulf of Mexico. Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen that is present in the water and is available for marine life. When the dissolved oxygen content drops below 2mg/L, the water is considered to be hypoxic and the area may be called a dead zone. Basically, what this means is that marine life cannot survive because they do not have enough oxygen.

If you can imagine living at the top of Mt. Everest without an oxygen tank, that is what living in hypoxia would be like to a fish.  While the majority of organisms cannot survive in a dead zone, those organisms that do survive have been found to have permanent changes in their reproductive systems, such as smaller ovaries and fewer eggs in female fish. Dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico are due to runoff from Nitrates and Phosphates that come from fertilizers, detergents and human/animal waste. Because of hypoxia, phosphate detergents have been banned in the Great Lakes and you may even notice that some of your household detergents say “phosphate free”.

Personal Log:

Overall I’m pretty exhausted both mentally and physically. While I have taught my Environmental Students about some of the things I am doing, it’s my first time putting these into practice myself. Although I am grateful for the experience, it is a bit much to take it all in and I feel slightly overwhelmed. Luckily, I will have the chance to perform these tasks over and over before the Oregon II returns to shore. And more importantly, I am working with an amazing team of scientists who are happy to answer all of my questions and walk me through procedures multiple times.

I’m slowly adjusting to being in a different time zone, but am definitely feeling the time change. I am on the night shift which means I start work at midnight and finish at noon. This is unusual for me since I like to be in bed by ten every night. On the bright side, my night shift means I get to beat the heat during the middle of the day when the temperatures are in the eighties.

Immersion Suit

Finally in my Survival Suit

 

Yesterday we had an emergency abandon ship drill where we had to don survival suits. You put them on as though you were getting into a sleeping bag. This meant a lot of rolling around on the floor for me, but I like to think I entertained the crew while I was doing it. My dad thinks I look like Sebastian from the Little Mermaid in my suit, but I’m confident that I will be a warm lobster until rescue arrives in the unlikely event I have to abandon ship.

 

 

Did You Know?

Male seahorses, not female seahorses, carry fertilized eggs and give birth to their young. They will also eat any of their offspring that don’t swim away quickly enough. It pays to be a female seahorse!

Carol Schnaiter, Our Second Day at Sea, June 8, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Carol Schnaiter

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 6 – 21, 2014

Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey Gulf of Mexico

June 8, 2014

Science and Technology Log

The Oregon II set sail on June 6th and will reach the first station sometime Monday, June 9th, in the evening.

While on the way there the scientists and crew are preparing the equipment and testing everything to make sure it is ready to use when we arrive. One item tested was the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) item. The white round frame protects the delicate, expensive piece of gear that you can see at the bottom of the frame. It allows the equipment to safely travel down without hitting the side of the ship nor the bottom of the ocean. Near the top you see the water sampling tubes.

 

Test run of equipment for titrations

Kim and Andre prepare the CTD.

These tubes are opened up and when they enter the water they are triggered to close and collect water from the depth that the science team has predetermined.

The deck crew uses a crane to help lift it over the side of the ship and then it drops down and collects water. This was a test to make sure everything was working and the CTD was dropped down and collected water in three tubes.

When it came back on deck, Kim Johnson, the Lead Scientist, took three containers of water from one tube. In the lab she used the Winkler Test, to determine the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water samples. This is called doing titrations and they will be conducted once a day or more often if something goes wrong.

Can you think of why scientists would need to test this? They are trying to determine the level of oxygen in the water to see if it is high or low. If it is low or not there at all, scientist call it a “Dead Zone” because everything needs oxygen to live.

Kim Johnson took the three samples to the lab and added chemicals to test the water. It took some time to conduct the test, but Kim explained everything to Robin Gropp (he is an intern on the ship) and to me.

The results that were done by hand were compared to the results collected by the computer and they matched! The oxygen level in the first test were good. This means the equipment will be ready to use!

Sargassum seaweed

Photo I took from the ship

In the Gulf of Mexico there is a lot of floating seaweed called Sargassum. To learn more about this, go to the attached url. In short, this seaweed is brown and floats on top of the water. It has been used as a herb in some areas. It is interesting to see the brown seaweed floating by the ship.  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sargassosea.html

Do you notice how blue the water is? What makes the water look so blue? According to the NOAA Ocean Facts:

  • “The ocean is blue because water absorbs colors in the red part of the light spectrum. Like a filter, this leaves behind colors in the blue part of the light spectrum for us to see.
  • The ocean may also take on green, red, or other hues as light bounces off of floating sediments and particles in the water.
  • Most of the ocean, however, is completely dark. Hardly any light penetrates deeper than 200 meters (656 feet), and no light penetrates deeper than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet ).”

Pretty neat to see how light and color work together!

Personal Log

The water went from murky brown when we left Mississippi due to the boat activity and the rivers that drain down into the Gulf, to this blue that is hard to describe. I am trying to absorb everything that the scientist are discussing and hoping that when we start working everything will make more sense to me! There is so much to learn!

Today we had safety drills; a fire drill (yes, we practice fire drills even on the ship, you can’t call 911 at sea after all) and abandon ship drill. During the abandon ship drill everyone had to bring long pants, long-sleeve shirt, hat, life preserver and immersion suit. Here is a picture of me in my immersion suit. This suit will float and keep me warm if we need to leave the ship.

Wearing my immersion suit!

Wearing my immersion suit! Photo taken by Kim Johnson

Today the ships’ divers went into the water to check the hulll of the ship and the water temperature was 82 degrees. It would have been refreshing to be in the water, but this is a working ship and safety comes first!

The food onboard the ship is delicious and I am sure I will need to walk many steps after this trip. The cooks offer two or three choices at every meal and the snack area is open 24 hours…not a good thing for me!

While on deck I saw my first flying fish today. I thought it was a bird flying close to the water, but it was not! Amazing how far they can fly over the water.

When I look out from the front of the ship, I see water, water, and more water. There are a few oil rigs in the distance and once in a while a ship passes by, but mostly beautiful blue water!

Last night I saw my first sea sunset and since I will be working the midnight to noon shift starting soon, it maybe the last sunset…but I will get to see some AWESOME sunrises!

2014-06-07 Sunset!

Glad I had my camera with me!

Enjoy the sunset!

Mrs. Carol Schnaiter

Sarah Boehm: The Dead Zone, July 5, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013 

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 5, 2013

Weather at 19:13
Air temperature: 26°C (79°F)
Barometer: 1017mb
Humidity: 93%
Wind direction: 135°
Wind speed: 18 knots
Water temp: 27°C
Latitude : 28° 44’ N
Longitude: 85° 32’ W

Science and Technology Log

Mr. Cummiskey, the other science teacher at CDCPS, asked if we saw an influence from farming along the Mississippi River in the Gulf ecosystem. At first it seems crazy that something happening over a thousand miles away can have an impact on an ecosystem as vast as the Gulf of Mexico, but it really is happening and part of our research is to monitor the effects. The first clue I had that something was changing was the color of the water. In the deep waters off Texas the water was a beautiful clear blue. As we got closer to the Mississippi delta the sea water turned a murky brown–a mix of mud brought down by the river and the phytoplankton that was thriving in the nutrient dense waters. Just like eating too much food is bad for people’s health, too many nutrients is actually bad for an ecosystem.

CTD

The CTD instrument. The bottles on the top collect water and the instruments on the bottom take measurements.

Each time we get to a sampling station we start by taking measurements of the water quality with the CTD (conductivity temperature and depth). From the bridge the officers control the ship to keep it in one place. Then the deck crew uses a winch and pulley system to move the heavy CTD equipment overboard and down into the water almost to the sea floor. All the way down and back up the machine is taking dozens of readings a second that are transmitted back to a computer in the dry lab.

The CTD records the depth, water temperature, the salinity (how salty the water is), and the dissolved oxygen. We are most concerned with the oxygen level because it greatly impacts the organisms living in the water. Fish and marine invertebrates breathe oxygen molecules that are mixed in with the water. Without enough dissolved oxygen in the water they will suffocate and die. Healthy levels in the Gulf of Mexico are 4 to 6 milligrams of O2 per liter of water.  If there is less than 2 mg/L it is considered hypoxic, meaning there is not enough oxygen. This map uses the data we have collected this cruise to show dissolved oxygen levels in the bottom waters of the Gulf. The green and yellow colors shows the healthy areas, the orange areas are hypoxic.

Click on the map for a larger version. The map is updated as new data comes in.

hypoxia map

See those orange areas in close to the coast of Louisiana? That is known as the Dead Zone. Runoff of fertilizer and other nutrient sources wash down rivers and out to sea where they contribute to algae blooms. When the algae dies it sinks and is decomposed, a process that uses up a lot of oxygen. Check out this video to learn more. All my 6th graders should notice similarities between this situation and the virtual pond we worked with this spring.

Hypoxia video

Not only do the oxygen levels change, but the composition of the fish trawls changed dramatically too.  At station #144 we had an oxygen reading of 3 mg/L and an average sized trawl (26 kg) with a variety of species. At station #146 we had an oxygen reading of 1 mg/L (which is hypoxic) but pulled up a huge net of fish that filled 18 buckets. The total weight was 340 kg, but over 300 kg was just two species – croaker and butterfish. We were surprised by this catch and so did another oxygen reading and found while our nets started in hypoxic waters, during the 30 minute trawl we moved into better water with 3 mg/L of oxygen .  At station #147 we had a very low oxygen reading of only 0.2 mg/L. Our trawl only brought up 1.7 kg, most of which were jellies and crabs with just a few little fish.  There just wasn’t enough oxygen to support more life. Why was station #146 so huge? As the low oxygen waters spread out from the Mississippi River delta, critters were fleeing the hypoxia zone and moving to better water. So along the edge of the dead zone is an area with high population density; the oxygen refugees and the fish swooping in to eat them.  However, not all creatures can move themselves out of the way. Creature like bivalves and gastropods (clams and snails) don’t have the capability to move much and so get caught in the annual hypoxic zone of the Gulf.

big catch

Bringing up the big catch at station 146

Hypoxia zones caused by nutrient runoff from fertilizer and other man-made sources do not just happen in the Gulf of Mexico. They have also been recorded in the Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound and at the mouths of rivers around the world. They can also happen in fresh water ponds and lakes.

The CTD is our main method of recording oxygen levels, but we need to make sure it is functioning properly. So each day we also take a water sample and use a titration method to find the amount of dissolved oxygen. Check out the colorful chemical reactions in this video.

Personal Log

People, like fish, need oxygen and water to survive. Out on the ship oxygen in the air is easy to come by, but fresh water is another story. We are surrounded by water of course, but cannot drink the salt water. I tracked down out Chief Engineer, Sean Pfarrer, to find out more about where all the fresh water on board comes from.

RO

The reverse osmosis machine

Down in the engine room there is a reverse osmosis machine that processes salt water and turns it into fresh water. The salt water is pumped into the machine under 950 psi of pressure. The pressurized water is forced through a selectively permeable membrane that lets water molecules through, but not the larger salt molecules. (My 6th graders should find this all sounding familiar) The super salty water left behind is pumped back out to sea, and the fresh water is used on board. Our sinks, showers and laundry all use fresh water. We go through about 1,000 gallons a day, which is close to the 1,200 gallon limit of the RO system (but only about half what 30 average Americans would use on land). To conserve fresh water the heads (toilets in sailor speak) flush with salt water.

RO element

A rod from the RO machine. Water is pumped in the tube and forced through the yellow filter.

Which brings me to one of my favorite science teacher topics – poop. Thirty people over the course of fifteen days generate a fair amount of waste. What happens to all that poop? Just emptying it into the water would be harmful to the marine environment, so we have a little waste water treatment system right on board. When you flush, it all goes down to the marine sanitation device where poop eating bacteria consume our waste.  The waste water then passes by chlorine tablets that kill any bacteria before it gets dumped into the sea. I’ll admit I’m a little fascinated by the systems and technology that keeps our floating community operating in a rather comfortable fashion.

We completed our science work this afternoon and are now heading back to port. Check out the Ship Tracker to see where we have been.

CDCPS Science Students:

How did sailors long ago during the age of exploration deal with the drinking water problem?

What do you think we could do to lessen the hypoxia problem in the Gulf?

Heather Haberman: Gulf Water Health, July 12, 2011 (post #4)

  • 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:  Tuesday, July 11, 2011

Weather Data from  NOAA Ship Tracker
Air Temperature: 29.5 C   (85.1 F)
Water Temperature: 29.8 C  (85.6 F)
Relative Humidity: 76%
Wind Speed: 2.09 knots

Preface:  Scroll down the page if you would like to read my blog in chronological order.  If you have any questions leave them for me at the end of the post.

Question of the Day:  Are you seeing any oil rigs on your trip?

Answer:   There are so many oil rigs out here in the Gulf of Mexico that I can’t recall a time when I couldn’t see one.  Some are small and some are enormous.  I never realized that there were so many different engineering designs for oil rigs.  At night they are all lit up and it looks like a city in the sea out here.  All of the bright lights do pose some problems for migrating birds especially during bad weather when the are attracted to the lights.  The birds will often circle the lights to exhaustion or hit the structure so hard that it kills them.

Science and Technology Log

Topic of the Day:  How do researchers determine the health of the Gulf waters?

Science and Technology log:

You wake up in the morning and you don’t feel well.  What do you do?  Some people may stick a thermometer in their mouth to see if they have a fever.  Body temperature is a good indicator of illness or infection.  If you still don’t feel well after a few days you could visit a doctor who may check your eyes, ears, throat, blood pressure, etc.   Doctors can often figure out what’s making you sick by using certain tools and running tests.  Researchers do the same thing with the ocean.  In order to see how “healthy” the ocean is, measurements need to be taken.  Can you tell which trawl was from healthy water and which was from “sick” water?

0.5 kg (1.1 lbs) is all we got from this 30 minute trawl

Over 500 kg (1,100 lbs) of fish were collected in this 30 minute trawl.

Why aren’t we seeing a lot of marine life in certain parts of the Gulf of Mexico?  You don’t have to be a doctor to answer this question, but you do have to have some scientific tools to diagnose the problem.

On the Oregon II, a device called a CTD is used to take measurements such as conductivity (salinity), temperature, chlorophyll concentration, and dissolved oxygen (DO).  These water quality measurements let researches know what’s happening in the water just like a doctor would look at your test results to gage your health status.  Sometimes a doctor may need to do a second test just to confirm the results.  NOAA’s fisheries biologists do the same thing with their water quality assessments.  Winkler titrations and a hand-held Hack Dissolved Oxygen meter are used to confirm the dissolved oxygen readings from the CTD.  Scientists need to make sure the data they collect is accurate and the more tests they perform the better their data will be.

This large piece of equipment is a CTD sensor. The top portion of the machine contains three gray vertical cylinders which are used to collect water samples. Under the machine are sensors that test the water quality while it is submerged. Here I am washing out the sensors once it was brought back on board from a test.

When comparing data from this device to our trawl samples, it’s obvious that water with low levels of dissolved oxygen can not support much life.

Dissolved Oxygen: Marine animals need oxygen to survive just like land animals do.  The main difference is that most marine animals have gills which are able to diffuse oxygen molecules from the water directly into their blood.  Diffusion is the process of a molecule moving from an area of high concentration to low concentration.

Have you ever sprayed air freshener and noticed how the smell moves from where you sprayed it (high concentration) throughout the entire room (low concentration) until the smell is equally distributed throughout the room (equilibrium)?  That’s how diffusion works.

It’s very important to understand that the amount of dissolved oxygen MUST be higher in the water then inside of the animal’s body or diffusion of oxygen into the blood won’t take place.  This means the animals will either have to move or die.  This is what’s happening in the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

The reason levels of oxygen are so low in the Gulf of Mexico are due in part to human actions.  The overuse of fertilizers that are high in nitrates and phosphates are one of the major problems.  When it rains or floods, these extra nutrients wash off of our lawns and into storm drains which then drain into the rivers.  Most of the Mississippi watershed consists of agricultural land in the breadbasket of the Midwest where a lot of fertilization takes place during the spring and summer months. All of the nutrients from the rivers in the Mississippi watershed eventually empty out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Mississippi Watershed: The area of land that drains into the Mississippi River and out into the Gulf of Mexico.

These nutrients help the aquatic plants grow, just as they helped our lawns and crops grow.  Now you may be thinking “In the last blog you talked about how important aquatic plants are when it comes to oxygen production.”  Indeed they do make oxygen, but as all of these plants die and sink to the bottom of the sea, bacteria feed on (decompose) their remains and use up the available oxygen in the process.  More oxygen is consumed by these aerobic bacteria than was made by the plants which is why oxygen levels can get so low.

Hypoxia is the term used when dissolved oxygen is below 2 mg/l or 2 parts per million.  That means for every one million molecules, only two of them are oxygen molecules.  Most marine life try to avoid water that’s this low in oxygen because they will become stressed or die.  The hypoxic zone in the Gulf occurs in one of the most important commercial fishery zones in the United States during the spring and summer months.  Why during the spring and summer?  There are a couple of answers to this question.  One is because of the fertilizer runoff which I mentioned earlier.  The other has to do with water temperature.

As water temperature increases, it naturally looses it's ability to hold gas molecules like oxygen. Cooler water naturally holds more oxygen. Source: Koi Club of San Diego

This is a map of the data we have been collecting during the Groundfish Survey. Our data gets sent in everyday and the maps are updated weekly. Check back at http://www.ncddc.noaa.gov/hypoxia/products/ for a complete map of Bottom Dissolved Oxygen after July 17th 2011.

When the data collection is complete you will notice that the “dead zone” is larger than the state of New Jersey.  It is bigger this year than in previous years due to the flooding that’s occurred in the Great Plains and Midwest this spring and summer.

Salinity (salt level):  This measurement is extremely important to the fish that live in the ocean because each species has an optimal salinity level that it requires.  Remember osmosis?  Osmosis is how cells move water in or out depending upon their environment.  If a fish ends up in an environment that’s too saline (salty), the water will begin to leave the cells of the fish through osmosis and they could “dehydrate”.  If they are in water that’s too fresh, then their cells will start to fill with water and they could “bloat”.  All of this cellular work is done by the body in order to maintain homeostasis.  Homeostasis refers to the ability of a living thing to keep its body in balance with the ever-changing environment in which it lives.

Salinity also affects the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water.  The saltier the water, the lower the oxygen levels will be.  It also creates a problem with waters ability to “mix”.

Notice how the heavier salt water settles to the bottom of the sea. The red dots represent the amount of dissolved oxygen during a hypoxia event. Notice that due to a lack of water mixing, the concentration of oxygen is much lower in the saltier bottom layer of water.

Chlorophyll Concentrations:  As the last blog mentioned, chlorophyll is a green pigment that phytoplankton and other aquatic plants have.  By calculating the concentration of chlorophyll in an a region, researchers can determine how productive the area may be for fishing.  Remember that zooplankton eat phytoplankton and bigger fish eat zooplankton, which are then eaten by bigger fish. A good general rule of thumb is that if the water is clear and blue then there won’t be as much living in it as green cloudy (turbid) water. Areas of hypoxia can also be predicted if the levels of chlorophyll get too high.

Now that you know some of the basics about ocean health, try to do your part.

*   If you must use fertilizer, do so sparingly.

*  Purchase soaps and detergents that are labeled phosphate free.

*  Be sure to make sustainable choices when purchasing seafood (visit Seafood Watch)

Personal Log

Today I found out why fishermen do not like dolphins.  A pod of dolphins were following us on a trawl and when we brought up the catch there were holes in the net.  We had to dump the sample back into the sea and try again after the holes were patched.  We went back to do a second trawl in the same area and the dolphins did the same thing.  We decided to try to “outrun” the dolphins on our way to the next station.

The reason we can’t collect data on the trawls with net holes is because we won’t get an accurate representation of the actual number of species living in that area.  In science it’s very important to make sure we collect good data.

A pod of dolphins following our ship.

Rebecca Kimport, JULY 3, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea Rebecca Kimport
NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
June 30, 2010 – July 19, 2010

Mission: Summer Pollock survey
Geograpical Area:Bering Sea, Alaska
Date: July 3,  2010

Here fishy fishy

In a previous post, I briefly mentioned that acoustics helps Oscar Dyson scientists locate aggregations of pollock. I didn’t know much about acoustics surveying before I arrived on board but think its pretty cool.The Oscar Dyson has 5 transducers on its center board and 1 temporary transducer on the side of the center board that looks horizontally. The transducers allow us to see where the fish are. Because of where the transducers are placed, we can only see the pollock from 16m to the bottom. This means that if there are any fish between the surface and 16m they will not be detected. This is the near surface “dead zone”. At right you will see a picture of the acoustic data picked up by the transducers. Why this happens? The transducers are mounted on the bottom of the centerboard about 9 m below the water line, and near the transducer face (first 7 m), no good data are collected. Why it’s okay? Pollock tend to hang out in mid-water. Although a few baby pollock might be in the near surface “dead zone,” the majority of pollock will be in the area we are watching. There is also a bit of a “dead zone” at the other end near the ocean floor.
Acoustic Data

Acoustic Data

Why acoustics? 
Ideally, the acoustic data collection would allow us to track aggregations of pollock without actually having to fish them out of the water. All parties involved (scientists, fish, bank accounts) would benefit from this change but scientists are still in the process of perfecting this process. The Oscar Dyson is part of a fleet of five boats that was specifically designed for acoustics. Specifically, it is considered a “quiet boat” where the engine noise is decreased to prevent scaring the fish. Other acoustic projects include: Pacific hake off the coast from California to Vancouver Island (run as a joint project with Canada), herring in the northwest Atlantic, and krill in the Antarctic. Acoustics are used throughout the globe and many countries depend on acoustics for their fish surveys.

Sonar

Sonar

Looking in more than one direction
Along with the transducers, there is also a multibeam SONAR that produces the same information as the transducers but with a wider angle range. Scientists use this program to help separate species in the water column. The multibeam ME70 sends its signal out after the transducers information is sent and returned. They alternate about 1.5 seconds apart. Scientists around the world are working to improve this technology and we use information from a group at University of New Hampshire along with a program from Tasmania to analyze these data. Scientists utilize the multibeam ME 70 along with the transducers and fish trawling to ensure they are capturing an accurate picture of the mid-waters.

How the survey data we collect are used.
The data we collect on the Oscar Dyson during the summer pollock surveys are used by scientists and policy makers to determine the fishing quota (the “take”) of pollock for the next season. Quotas are important for maintaining the population of pollock (and other species) for this generation and generations to come. The data we collect on the Oscar Dyson help ensure that maximum stock can be taken without negatively impacting the Eastern Bering Sea pollock population.Thought Question: What could happen if we didn’t regulate the amount of fish that could be caught? Bonus points for anyone who can identify an area where overfishing has impacted the ecosystem.