Bill Henske, Tag, You’re It! June 16, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Bill Henske
Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
June 14 – 29, 2015

Mission: Acoustic Monitoring
Geographical Area: Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas

Date: Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: East winds near 15 knots, Seas 3 to 5 feet (2-3 inside reef), Scattered showers and isolated thunderstorms

Science and Technology Log

Acoustic Tracking Project
The Nancy Foster is a NOAA research vessel that frequently collaborates with multiple parties – universities, state agencies, and federal managers. By working together and pooling resources, a ship like the Nancy Foster, can synergize the work of a number of connected scientists. On the current cruise we have several scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), National Center for Coastal Ocean Sciences (NCCOS), and the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO). Their fascinating and important work will help us better understand the way marine populations work.

You may have heard the saying there’s more than one fish in the sea. While certainly this is true, the aphorism does little to describe the condition of the sea. The assumption might be that because there are a large number of fish, the sea is a healthy one. But are the individual types of fish occurring in significant populations? Are the populations equally distributed or are they more likely in certain parts of the ocean? How do they change over time?

Receiver Stands and surgical apparatus awaiting deployment(Photo by Kelsey Jeffers, NOAA)
Receiver Stands and surgical apparatus awaiting deployment (Photo by Kelsey Jeffers, NOAA)

There are many things we don’t yet know about the territory, movement, and reproduction of even our most important fish. With the acoustic tracking project, we hope to find out how species of fish use the diverse habitats in the Florida Keys.

It would be hard to follow a black grouper around 24/7. The logistics would be very difficult to work out, to say the least. Rather than following one fish, the acoustic tracking project tags fishes in the study area with what is called an acoustic tag.

Acoustic tag which will be activated and implanted in study subject.
Acoustic tag which will be activated and implanted in study subject.

Once fish are captured, they receive a small “surgery” during which one of the tags is implanted. This, in and of itself, does nothing. The tags can be customized for the characteristics of different species or needs of the study. For a habitat study, the tag might ping several times a minute while a longer project looking at movement between areas might be set to ping once every few minutes. The longer frequency extends the life of the tag.

If a tag pings in the ocean, does it make a sound? The second part to the acoustic tracking is setting up and maintaining the listening probes called VR2s. Throughout the Keys and the Dry Tortugas, VR2 probes quietly wait for these pings and nonchalantly record the fish’s visit for later analysis. Think about the smartphone app Foursquare (is that a thing anymore?). Each time a fish swims near a VR2 its presence and visit duration is recorded and time stamped.

Every 6 months to a year, the VR2 recorders have to be collected and analyzed. Each VR2 is a record of every tagged fish that came within a certain distance of the probe over the period of time it was collecting data. This is where our mission comes in. On our cruise, we are servicing a number of these probes; picking up the old ones, replacing batteries, downloading data sets, and placing new or rejuvenated VR2s.

The VR2 receiver gather data from tagged individuals within the study area.  The VR2 records the identification number, time, and date of each visit by a tagged specimen.
The VR2 receiver gather data from tagged individuals within the study area. The VR2 records the identification number, time, and date of each visit by a tagged specimen.

Dive teams go out from the Nancy Foster, using only the GPS coordinates, to recover the sensors from the unmarked expanses of ocean. This process can be tricky due to variables such as currents, weather, and the inevitable equipment glitches. A clouded over satellite, a misread latitude, or a tipped over stand make this otherwise fun diving job challenging at times.

On day 2 of our cruise we serviced several of these probes. We took a small dive boat out to sets of coordinates where a VR2 had been placed on previous missions. From there our dive teams went down with the new VR2s and came back with the old. Once the used probes are brought to the lab, the data is moved to a computer for analysis. From here we can map the fishes’ activities by tying the location of the VR2s to a geocoded map created by the bathymetric maps generated by the hydrography crew (I’ll write about that later). One additional point of interest is that the unique tag ID that each fish gets is searchable by other marine researchers in similar projects around the world. We can identify fish tagged from other projects that happen to travel, migrate or wander this way and our fish from the Keys can be located by others.

Member of the dive team servicing a VR2 receiver stand (Photo by Kelsey Jeffers, NOAA)
Member of the dive team servicing a VR2 receiver stand (Photo by Kelsey Jeffers, NOAA)

Today we also set out traps in promising

Member of the dive team checking trap and selecting fish for acoustic tagging and release. (Photo by Kelsey Jeffers, NOAA)
Member of the dive team checking trap and selecting fish for acoustic tagging and release. (Photo by Kelsey Jeffers, NOAA)

locations. These are specially designed devices that have been approved by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary specifically for this research project. Commercial or recreational trapping of fish has been banned for over 20 years. Remember the tagged fish? With these traps we hope to catch some grouper and snapper, key fish species in the Keys ecosystem. Once caught in these baited traps the fish may receive a transmitter to begin their role in the study. While it is easier for humans to do surgery on the surface, it is easier for the fish if it is done in the water. Amazingly, most of the implantations are done at the trap site, sometimes up to 100 feet deep!

Personal Log

These is the emergency gear affectionately referred to as a Gumby Suit.
This is the emergency gear affectionately referred to as a Gumby Suit.

I have to admit, for someone like me, it is hard to be the green horn. Most of the folks I know can piece together a picture of what working and living at sea would be like. I thought I had a pretty good mental collage going from my bits and pieces and random trivia knowledge. My maritime fantasy world was made of concepts and ideas from many experiences, books, friends and the like. Most of these are small snippets of truths that are sprinkled through all our memories. Drawers opening and closing with the rolling of the waves, portholes, the bustling mess at supper, escape hatches, smoke stacks, life rings. When I heard the “All aboard that’s coming aboard” as we prepared to leave port, the primeval neurons of my childhood sparked. I realized most of my snippets were from Popeye. Ak ak ak ak ak. Passing note, tonight’s wonderful dinner included spinach.

Did You Know?
The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is the smallest of the 7 uniformed services of the United States with just over 300 service members. It is eclipsed by the second smallest service, the United States Public Health Service, which has over 6000 officers.

The Nancy Foster has a Facebook page!  Like it and follow her amazing adventures.

Susan Kaiser: Ready, Set, SCIENCE!! July 29, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Susan Kaiser
Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 25 – August 4, 2012

Mission: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Coral Reef Condition, Assessment, Coral Reef Mapping and Fisheries Acoustics Characteristics
Geographical area of cruise: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Date: Friday, July 29, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude:  24 deg 36 min N
Longitude:  83 deg 20 min W
Wind Speed: 5.8 kts
Surface Water Temperature: 29.5 C
Air Temperature: 29.5 C
Relative Humidity: 67.0%

Science and Technology Log

Marine Scientist, Danielle Morley, ready for the signal to dive and retrieve a VR2.
Marine Scientist, Danielle Morley, ready for the signal to dive and retrieve a VR2.

Science is messy! Extracting DNA, observing animals in their native habitat or dissecting are just a few examples. On board NOAA Ship Nancy Foster it may even be stinky but only for a little while. That is because the divers are retrieving the Vemco Receivers also called VR2s for short. These devices have been sitting on the ocean floor quietly collecting data on several kinds of grouper and snapper fish. Now it is time to download the VR2s recorded information and give them new batteries before placing them at a new site. So, why are they stinky? Even though the VR2s are enclosed inside another pipe, sea organisms have begun to grow on the top of the VR2. They form a crust that is stinky but can be scraped away with a knife. Any object left in the ocean will soon be colonized by sea creatures such as oysters, algae, and sponges to name a few. These organisms will grow and completely cover the area if they are undisturbed. This crust smells like old seaweed drying on an ocean beach.

VR2 ready to download data and replace batteries.
Clean VR2 ready to download data and replace batteries.

Really, it isn’t too bad and after a while you don’t notice it so much. Besides this is the only way scientists can get the numbers out of the VR2. These numbers tell scientists which fish have been swimming by and how often. Some of the VR2s have collected over 21,000 data points but most have fewer. This information alone helps scientists understand which areas of the ocean floor each species of grouper and snapper prefer as their home or habitat. These data points can even paint a picture of how these fish use the habitat space over the period of an entire year.

Have you been wondering what the VR2s are listening for? You may be surprised to learn it is a signal called a ping from a tracking device that was surgically implanted while the fish is still underwater! The ping is unique for each individual fish. The surgeries were completed when the study began in 2008. First, the fish are caught in live traps. If the trap is in deep water (>80ft) divers descend to perform the surgery on the ocean floor. The fish’s eyes are covered and it is turned upside down. Then a small incision is made in their abdomen and the tag is inserted below the skin. Stitches that dissolve over time are used to close the incision. Once the fish has recovered a bit it is released. An external tag is also clipped into the dorsal fin so other people will know the fish is part of a scientific study. Fish caught in the upper part of the water column may be brought up to the surface slowly and kept in a holding tank while the surgery performed on the boat. Scientists have noted the fish are less stressed by being caught, handled and tagged using this method.  This is a factor for collecting enough data to gain a real understanding of these fishes behavior.

Scientists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are able to conduct this study with support from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant. They have also worked with other agencies on this research including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS)  the area where the VR2s are positioned. Since 2008 they have learned a great deal to better understand how grouper and snapper use habitat. Both fish are good for eating and are found on the menu in many restaurants around the world. They are commercially harvested and fished by recreational fishermen like you and me. Fishing is a big industry in all coastal locations and especially in Florida. In fact, commercial fishing alone accounts for  between 5-8% of total income or jobs in the local economy of the Florida Keys.  Knowledge gained from this study will help FWC and FKNMS guide decisions about fishing and recreation in the FKNMS and be aware of negative impacts to these fish populations in the future. Stinky air is small sacrifice to help preserve populations of groupers and snappers.

Jeff Renchen describes the features of the ROV.
Jeff Renchen describes the features of the ROV.
Mrs. Kaiser wearing the virtual reality glasses. Photo by Jeff Renchen
Mrs. Kaiser wearing the virtual reality glasses. Photo by Jeff Renchen

You can see that exploring marine habitats takes time, trained people and resources. Luckily a device has been developed to help scientists explore the ocean floor in an efficient and safe way. This little gem is called a Remotely Operated Vehicle or ROV. It is a cool science tool operated with a joy-stick controller.  The ROV can dive and maneuver at the same time it sends images back to the operator who is using a computer or wearing virtual reality glasses. Yes, I said virtual reality glasses! The operator can see what the ROV can “see” in the depths of the ocean. I had the opportunity see the ROV in the lab and then ride with the ROV team as they tested the equipment and built their skills manipulating this tool in dive situations. The beauty of the ROV is that it can dive deeper than is allowed for a human diver (>130 feet) and it can stay down for a longer period of time without stopping to adjust to depth changes like a human. If a dive site has a potential risk due to its location or other factors, the ROV can be sent down instead. Scientists can make decisions based on the ROV images to make a plan for a safe live dive and save time and resources. Science is messy, sometimes, but it is cool too!

Personal Log

The weather has been simply amazing with calm crystal clear seas and very smooth sailing. Still, spending the day in the sun saps your energy. However, that feeling doesn’t last too long after a nice shower and a trip to the mess to enjoy a delicious meal prepared in the galley. There Chief Steward Lito Llena and 2nd Cook Randy Covington work their magic to cook some terrific meals including a BBQ dinner one evening on the upper deck. They have thought of everything, especially dessert! I will be paying for it later by running extra laps when I get back home but it will be worth it.

Mrs. Kaiser's stateroom on the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.
Mrs. Kaiser’s stateroom on the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.

My stateroom is a cozy spot with everything one would need and nothing more. A sink is in the room but showers and toilets are down the hall a few doors. One item that is missing is a window. It is so very dark when the lights are off you can’t see your hand in front of your face. It is easy to over sleep! Surprisingly noise has been minimal since the rooms are very well insulated. I share this space with three female scientists but we each have a curtain to turn our bunks into a tiny private space. I enjoy climbing up in my top bunk, closing my little curtain and reading my book Seabiscuit, An American Legend before being rocked to sleep by the ship.

NOAA Ship Nancy Foster officers and crew have been wonderful hosts on this cruise. All have patiently answered my questions and helped me find my way around to do what I need to do. I am curious about their life at sea and the opportunities it affords them to see new places, meet new people and engage in new experiences too. I hope to learn more about their careers as mariners before this voyage ends. The ship truly is a welcome place to call home for these two weeks.