NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
June 9-22, 2022
Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 20, 2022
Science and Technology Log
Alright, it’s time for the good stuff, the moment you’ve been waiting for (whether you knew it or not). It’s fishing time. FPC Paul Felts monitors depth and habitat to determine suitable fishing sites. When the crew hears “I’d like to set up for bandit reels” over the radio, they come running. I mean they come out of the woodworks like the Brady Bunch on Christmas morn. Let me remind you, the days can be real slow out here. Lots of transiting and waiting. Fishing offers just enough excitement to keep us going.
Three bandit reels are deployed once or twice per day. I promptly insert myself into the fishing operation on day one. Thank you, Rafael and Junior. The reels are motorized and mounted to the side of the ship. The line starts with a weight and then ten baited hooks are clipped on. When deployed, it sinks to the bottom. We get five minutes. Five short minutes for the fish to bite. Boy does anticipation build in that five minutes. If you have a good one, you can feel it on the line. “One minute to haul back.” By this time, everyone is leaning over the side (the gunwale if you want to be fancy) staring at the water. “Reels two and three you can haul back.” “Reel one you can haul back.” We start reeling back in, from somewhere between 85-100 meters deep. Click, click, click on the reel as we impatiently wait.
We start to see a glimpse of the bait coming up around 40-60 meters and try to make out what we’ve hooked. RED SNAPPER! 11 red snapper caught between the three reels on the first fish. This is what I’m talkin’ about. I can handle two weeks of this. Everyone rotates between stations to see what we caught and we all celebrate like we just won some sort of tournament. Let’s remember folks, we are doing this for science. All fish captured on the bandit reels are identified, measured, weighed, and have the sex and maturity determined. Select species have otoliths and gonads collected for age and reproductive research. I excitedly follow the science crew into the lab to get the run down.
*Read no further if you are squeamish.*
The work up of the fish start with some measurements and weights. Of course it immediately became a competition. Game on. Now these fish aren’t your regular ol’ fish. These suckers are huge. Next we dissect the fish to extract and weigh the gonads. That’s right, I said gonads. You can learn the age and maturity of a fish by examining a sample of the gonads under a microscope. From that, you can estimate lifespan, spawning patterns, growth rate, and possibly even migration patterns. Knowing the age distribution of a fish population helps to better monitor, assess, and manage stocks for long-term benefits. Fish gonads, that’s a first for me.
Next step is the fun part, extracting the otolith. Otoliths (ear bones) are calcium carbonate structures found enclosed inside the heads of bony fish. This bone tells us how old the fish is. Otoliths are removed from the fish’s head either by entering through the top of the head or by pulling back the gills. At first, I observe. They really get in there. By the third or so time, I am ready to get my hands dirty. Remove the gills and start digging. Once you find the inner ear, you crack it open and inside is the otolith. Some species are much easier than others. It’s no walk in the park folks. One grouper took us two hours. It’s like a real life game of operation. Though intense, it’s a fun challenge.
On this leg of the survey we caught 20 red snappers, 2 silky snappers, 1 queen snapper, 2 scamp, 1 marbled grouper, 1 yellow edge grouper, and 1 red porgy. Sampling these organisms strengthens the data. Employing multiple research methods produces a comprehensive description and interpretation of the data. The workup of the fish was one of my favorite parts of this experience. Not only did I actually get to participate in the research, I learned valuable new skills, most of which I teach about, but have never had the chance to do it. This is the exact reason I applied for the Teacher at Sea Program.
Have I convinced you that science is cool yet?
Meet the Deck Crew
I’d like to give a shout out to my friends on the deck. NOAA Ship Pisces couldn’t do the research they do without the Deck Department – Chief Boatswain James, Lead Fisherman Junior, and ABs Dee and JB. The Deck keep up general maintenance of the boat and on deck, operate equipment and machinery, support scientific operations, and stand watch. These guys might be salty, but they have good spirits and make me smile. I have enjoyed every minute working with them.
Yesterday, we did another fire drill. This time, with the help of firefighter Jordan Findley. LT Duffy set me up to participate in the drill. He shows me the gear and how it works. It’s hot up in there. Two days later when the alarm sounds, I jump to attention. Not really. It took me a minute to remember I was involved. I pop up out of my usual lounging in the lab and swiftly head out to the deck. 0% do I remember where I am supposed to go. Thank god I pass JO ENS Gaughan. She points me in the right direction. By the time I make it to the locker, they’re all dressed out and on their way to “fight the fire.” They’re impressive.
Though late to the game, JB helps me get suited up and I head down to the scene. As you might expect, the “fire” is out by the time I arrive. I provided moral support. Following the drill, we (I trail behind and try not to trip) walk the hose outside to test the pressure. I get to shoot this sucker over the side. I can barely even hold the nozzle in place. LT Duffy comes in for reinforcement on the hose and I go for it. I sprinkle here, I sprinkle there, hose checks out. Good deal. This was a blast. See what I did there? Later I come to find they had stamped the hose nozzle with my name as a memento. This is such a thoughtful way to remember my time on NOAA Ship Pisces. I shall carry it with me always. Not true, this thing is heavy, but I will certainly cherish it. I have so much respect for our firefighters and first responders (on board and beyond), and even more so today.
At this point, I have been out at sea for 12 days. That’s a record for me. My previous PR is one night on a lake in Indiana. I really had no idea what to expect on this trip. I was pretty nervous I would be violently ill and concerned I may not sleep and they wouldn’t have enough coffee to sustain me. None of these were issues, actually far from it, and man am I grateful. No seasickness, I’ve slept like a baby, and there is coffee for days. They even have espresso. Winning. They’ve really spoiled me out here. We have had some really tasty meals, including the fish. No fish goes to waste! I am going to miss being out here at sea. I think I might stick around.
Did You Know?
So you now know that otoliths are basically ear bones. What is cool about them is that they grow throughout the life of a fish, leaving traces on the ear bone. Seasonal changes in growth are recorded on the bone and appear as alternating opaque and translucent rings. Under a microscope, scientists count the number of paired opaque and translucent rings, or annuli, to estimate the age of a fish. Just like trees!