Sue Zupko: 13 Who Ya Gonna Call? Mud Busters!

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Sue Zupko
NOAA Ship: Pisces
Mission: Extreme Corals 2011; Study deep water coral and its habitat off the east coast of FL
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States from off Mayport, FL to Biscayne Bay, FL
Date: June 9, 2011
Time: 1900

Weather Data from the Bridge
Position: 25.4°N  79.5°W
Present weather: overcast
Visibility: 10 n.m.
Wind Direction: 075°true
Wind Speed:  20 kts
Surface Wave Height:  4 ft
Swell Wave Direction: 100° true
Swell Wave Height:  4 ft
Surface Water Temperature:28.5 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1011.8 mb
Water Depth:  308 m
Salinity: 36.5 PSU
Wet/Dry Bulb: 28°/24.8°

This blog runs in chronological order.  If you haven’t been following, scroll down to “1 Introduction to my Voyage on the Pisces” and work your way back.

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James and Jeff wait for the winch to lift the pyramind-shaped grey grab
Waiting to lift the grab

When I started my journey as a Teacher at Sea, I wondered what scientific research the ship I would be placed on would be doing.  Would it be marine mammals in Alaska or Hawaii, hydrography (bottom mapping), a fishery study, buoy placement, or something I’d never heard of.  When I was told I was placed on the Pisces and we’d be using an ROV (remotely operated vehicle), I only knew we’d be using the vehicle to go to the bottom and look at corals since it is too deep to scuba dive.  I had no real concept of what else would be going on.  I did know my students liked the idea of the ROV since I am the Robotics Club advisor at Weatherly Heights Elementary.

Pyramid shaped grey grabber hanging over the ocean
Benthic Van Veer Grab

We have three missions on the Pisces.  One is to look at the bottom through the eyes of the camera lens to see what is actually happening with the coral and its habitat.  Another purpose was to update existing maps.  The third mission was the most difficult for me to get a grasp of just because it sounds so strange.  Benthic grabbing.  Benthos means bottom in Greek.  Like the soil on land, sediment lying on the bottom of the sea is full of creatures and information needed to fully understand the health of the corals and their habitat.  You don’t see the most of the animals living in soil usually either.  In soil on land and in the sea sediment, the animals living inside are called infauna, and provide food and nutrients to the epifauna (those living above the surface).  What effect has man had on this foundation of the coral reef?  What diversity of life is there and how plentiful are they?  What size are the lithogenic (of rock origin) particles?  It all means something and needs to be studied.

Sand on bottom of ocean
Sandy bottom for grab

According to Dr. Jeff Hyland, NOAA NCCOS (National Centers for Coastal Ocean Sciences), “People may wonder why scientists want to study the seemingly ‘barren’ sand (or muddy sand) layer that covers vast stretches of the ocean floor.  One good reason is because this important habitat is not barren at all!  The unconsolidated (loose) bottom that occupies the majority of the sea floor can be teaming with life.  The types of animals found can include polycheate worms, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish.  Some are large enough to see with the naked eye, but many are so small that you would need to use a microscope to see them. “

Three men in safety gear standing behind the pyramid shaped grey grab
James, Steve, and Jeff harvest their grab

The crew of scientists using the Van Veen grab equipment include: Dr. Jeff Hyland, James Daugomah, and Steve Roth (Grab Guys) of NOAA’s NCCOS Laboratory in Charleston, SC.  Ocean floor mapping is done prior to an ROV dive to help pinpoint the choicest spots for investigation.  After the ROV records the video from its dive, the “Grab Guys” go to work.  The science team confers and selects the best spots for study.  The beginning spot is relayed to the bridge, which then “makes it so” by taking the ship to those coordinates.

So, now what?  Every group on deck must wear hard hats and PFDs (life jackets—Personal Floatation Devices) since the winch will be used and they will be working near the side rail of the ship.   The fishermen (deck hands), scientists (both observers and the Grab Guys), and anyone who happens to be nearby must wear this equipment.  Safety first.

The fishermen and Grab Guys prepare for the sampling by dragging the 300 pound Van Veen grab close to the side.  It sits on a specially constructed table made of 2×4 wood and is painted grey.

Sink with water and plug plus two buckets on the left
Benthic cleaning equipment

Nearby, Steve sets up a smaller table with a sink in it, plus several buckets, a large spoon, and two rectangular plastic tubs nearby.  I really wondered what that was all about.

The winch hook is attached to the Van Veer grab and everyone stands ready.  When the bridge radios to the fishermen that the ship is over the drop site, they spring into action.  The winch operator waits for the signal from the lead fisherman that all is ready and is told by hand signals to raise it up.  As the winch lifts up the grab, those working the equipment help steady it over the deck and release it when it’s over the side.  The grab is lowered to the bottom as the winch operator monitors the amount of cable deployed.  The idea is that when the grab hits the bottom the release bar will pop and close the “grab jaws”.  If the grab isn’t going fast enough or lands on an angle it won’t close.  Plus, it might not go deep enough into the sediment to get a good sample.

Men standing in protective gear looking upward at the winch pulley
Watching the pulley for movement

It takes longer than you would think for that grab to hit bottom.  Remember, patience is a virtue.  The equipment drops 80 meters per minute.  Yesterday we were dropping to 320 meters.  All eyes are targeted on the winch’s pulley.  When the grab hits the bottom, it causes the pulley on the winch cable to swing, meaning that the grab has made contact.  Everyone crosses their fingers that the grab not only closed, but also got a large enough sample for an accurate test.  The winch driver begins to retrieve the gear.  It’s just like doing a science fair project.  You must repeat your experiment and have the right amount of sample so your repeated experiments  are as similar as possible when you repeat your procedure.  They must make three grabs which bring up the correct amount of sediment.  Often trial and error comes into play.  The current not only made things difficult for the ROV operations, it made the grab go down at an angle so it wouldn’t close (grab or fire) a few times.  They had to keep dropping until it worked correctly.  At one point the bottom was 370 meters and we had let out 425 meters of cable.  That meant that the wind and the current were really strong and pulling the grab out at an angle.

Pulley wheel hanging from an orange support
The winch pulley moved
Sieve bucket being swirled around in sink
Cleaning the mud off

Once the grab gets a sample, they scoop out sediment with a spoon and put it in a blue bin.  This is carried over to a sieve bucket and is half submerged and swished around in the sink to get the mud off.  This is repeated until all the sediment particles are clean.

Jeff in white helmet and orange PFD write information on a clipboard
Jeff records important information

The samples are scooped out of the sieve bucket and placed in containers which will be processed back at the laboratory.  In general, they are looking for sediment size (grain size), infauna (living organisms from the sediment), and chemicals from man.  The containers have been labeled with what tests need to be run.  Jeff is recording the numbers on the containers and whether that sediment should be tested for metals, toxicology, total carbon, organics, and sediment size.

Steve in PFD holding container with sediment and pink color
Steve holding organics sample

A special insert is placed in the grab to measure an exact amount of sediment to determine the amount of  the infauna.  This sample is cleaned and put in a large container with formalin mixed with rose bengal.  The rose bengal had been premixed by Dr. Hyland the first day so that when added to the sediment it will turn the living organisms a pink color, making them easier to find.

After the sediment samples are put in the smaller bottles, the top is screwed on, sealed with electrical tape to make sure it doesn’t open, and stored in the refrigerator or freezer. All these benthic samples will be sent to Barry Vittor, a company specializing in sediment analysis.

I have a new appreciation for the sediment in the ocean.  I’ve learned that sediment on the north side of a coral mound in the Gulf Stream usually has less nutrients since the current flows from south to north.  The coral and other plankton-consuming animals eat a lot of the food flowing in the current over the mound so the water on the north side contains less food and can support less infauna.  I hope my students enjoy learning about the benthos as much as I have.  Perhaps with the data we collected, scientists will be able to help determine what we need to do to preserve the corals of the reefs.

John Schneider, July 27-29, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
John Schneider
Onboard NOAA Ship Fairweather 
July 7 – August 8, 2009 

Mission: FISHPAC
Geographical Area: Bering Sea
Date: July 27-29, 2009

In transit to Bristol Bay, AK

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Weather System: highly variable in the Bering Sea
Barometer: falling on the second day
Wind: Ranging from light and variable to 35 kts
Low Temperature: 7.0º C
Sea State: initially <1-2 feet up to 8 feet on the evening of the 29th

The sheet above shows legs 5-10 of FISHPAC in the Bering Sea, AK
The sheet above shows legs 5-10 of FISHPAC in the Bering Sea, AK


The Magnusen-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Management Act includes the broad designation of “Essential Fish Habitat” (EFH) as including myriad parameters which are to be considered for all life stages of the managed species. Included in them are bottom type, epifauna and infauna, grain size, and organic debris. Additionally, studies are to span the life cycles of those species.  There is an enormous amount of historical data relating to commercial fisheries catches, but the data have not been assembled as a whole and screened for accuracy.  Additionally, there has been virtually no search for correlations within the data. Dr. Bob McConnaughey is engaged in seeking correlations between bottom characteristics, managed species and sorting through extant records in the search for utilizing sonar data to anticipate species presence in the Bering Sea.  The phrase I’ve heard is “using bottom characteristics as proxy for prey identification.” Earlier cruise results can be viewed here.  It would take a long time to describe all that they do at the Alaska Fisheries Service Center, so what I highly recommend is that you spend a while at their site.

Science and Technology Log 

SeaBoss on deck
SeaBoss on deck

In addition to searching for correlations between trawl catch data and bottom characteristics, Dr. McConnaughey and his team are trying to determine if sound data (Multi-beam Echo Sounders and Side Scan Sonar) can be used in anticipating what species will likely be present in a given area. There are 69 managed commercial species in Alaska alone, which represent an enormous proportion of the commercial US catch, and if technology and research can be gained here, it can conceivably be applied elsewhere.  The Alaskan fisheries have also not been subjected to as much commercial fishing as, say, the coast of New England due to the remote, harsh and generally newly populated area which is Alaska. Commercial fishing here is, for the most part, less than 50 years old compared to the hundreds of years off the East Coast.

SeaBoss being deployed. It is suspended from the J-Frame and swung outboard. Tending the SeaBoss can be hazardous so crew members are tethered to the deck.
SeaBoss being deployed. It is suspended from the J-Frame and swung outboard. Tending the SeaBoss can be hazardous so crew members are tethered to the deck.

Alaska has over 45,000 miles of coastline, contains 70% of the United States continental shelf, and 28% of the Exclusive Economic Zone (a 200 mile legal designation) yet much of that area has never been properly surveyed. With the prospect of a warming climate and potential northerly relocation of commercially viable species, it is essential to document as much of this area as possible before long-term damage may be inflicted on it. In order to evaluate the EFH parameters, one of the tools the FISHPAC team uses to gather bottom samples is an apparatus called the SeaBoss (Sea Bed Observation System.)

SeaBoss on the way up--it can be seen as deep as about 5 to 10 meters
SeaBoss on the way up–it can be seen as deep as about 5 to 10 meters

SeaBoss allows the team to gather a 0.1m2 bottom sample, descending and forward looking video and still pictures taken just before it hits the bottom. SeaBoss gets deployed twice at each site.  The first sample is brought up and dumped into a sieve with a 1mm grid size.  It is then gently hosed off with seawater to clear away the inorganic materials and large particles.  The remaining biomass is put into containers with formalin solution for 2 days and then put into an alcohol solution to prevent decay.  Those samples will be quantified back in the lab in the Seattle area. With the second sample from roughly the same bottom area, samples are taken of the bottom material itself from the surface and from a couple of centimeters below the surface.  These, too, will be quantitatively evaluated back in the lab for grain sizes present and the proportions of those grain sizes in the sample. For background information on the SeaBoss, go here.

Jim Bush in the bosun’s chair.  Rick Ferguson (l) and Chief Bosun Ron Walker assisting.
Jim Bush in the bosun’s chair. Rick Ferguson (l) and Chief Bosun Ron Walker assisting.

Personal Log 

Before we left Dutch Harbor, we took on fuel (about ¼ of a load – only 22,000 gallons!) We took on ship’s stores (food.) 100+ gallons milk, 25 cases produce, a couple hundred pounds of meat (beef, chicken, pork, lamb,) scores of loaves of bread, and numerous cases of ice cream as well as other things.  It took several hours to stow it all away.  We also took on about 10 pallets of scientific gear for the FISHPAC team.  One of the more interesting scenes was watching AB Jim Bush rigging the A-Frame for deploying some of the equipment off of the fantail.

Questions for You to Investigate 

Check out the web sites I listed, there’s some really cool stuff on them.

New Terms/Phrases 

Biomass – organic matter created by living things epifauna – living animals on the surface of the bottom infauna – living animals in the bottom quantitatively – using numerical values