Kate Schafer: The Importance of Science, October 4, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kate Schafer

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

September 17 – 30, 2017

 

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: October 4, 2017

 

Weather Data from the San Francisco Bay area:

Latitude: 37o 38.4’ N
Longitude: 122o 08.5’ W

Visibility 16 km

Winds 5-10 mph

San Francisco Bay Water Temperature 16 oCelsius

Air Temperature 17 o Celsius

 

Science and Technology Log:

Well, I’m back on dry land, with lots of great memories of sharks, big and small, and all the interesting people who I spent two weeks with on the Oregon II.  And let’s not forget the red snappers either.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The largest shark we caught: 10 foot tiger shark

 

CubanDogfish

Cuban dogfish: The smallest species we caught

On our last day, we fished at a couple of sites right off the coast of Alabama and caught lots of sharks, plus a new species of grouper for the trip.  The scamp grouper (Mycteroperca phenax) is apparently not frequently found on the longlines along the coast of Texas but becomes more common along the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama and up the Eastern Atlantic coast as well.

ScampTail

Tail of a Scamp Grouper

The groupers are mostly protogynous, meaning that when they become sexually mature, they are always females.  Only later in life, when they have grown bigger (and have the right environmental influences), do they transition to males.  This species can live for more than 30 years, but that’s actually relatively short for a lot of the grouper species, some of which can live to 60 years or more. Scamp grouper come together in groups to reproduce, so this makes them vulnerable to overfishing.  The management councils take this into consideration when making a management plan and will close off areas known to be spawning grounds during the reproductive season.  These are also great areas to target as Marine Protected Areas.

ScampHead

Scamp Grouper being measured

All of this knowledge about the scamp grouper (and other species we encountered on this survey) was gained through careful scientific research.  As mentioned before, the long line survey was started in 1995 and has been conducted using the same methods every year since then.  These data are used by fisheries managers to set catch limits and detect changes that might indicate problems for the species living in these areas.  In other words, the science forms the basis for decision making and planning.

This is true for the various surveys that NOAA conducts in the Gulf each year.  The Groundfish Survey, for example, provides vital information about the extent of the Dead Zone off the coast of Louisiana, by measuring dissolved oxygen levels on the sea floor as part of the survey.  This data tells us that we need to continue to work on controlling nutrient inputs into the Mississippi River from agriculture lands and cities that span much of the eastern United States.  Scientific research also tells us that we need to be planning for and mitigating the effects of the looming problem of climate change.

Climate change will certainly bring about significant change to the Gulf.  As ocean temperatures rise, water becomes less dense and therefore takes up more space.  Along with continued melting of land-supported ice in the polar regions, this is contributing to a cumulative increase in sea level of 3.2 mm per year (https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sealevel.html).  In the Gulf, this increase will particularly impact estuarine ecosystems that are rich nurseries for many fish species and are extremely productive habitats.

One of the predictions of many climate models is that increased global temperatures are likely to bring about more frequent and more intense hurricanes.  This 2017 hurricane season is a stark reminder of the devastating impacts that hurricanes can have, even when we have the scientific tools to predict approximately where and when the storm will make landfall.

Finally, the increase in global temperatures will make the regions surrounding the Gulf less pleasant places for people to live.  The summers are already very hot and humid, and a degree or two hotter will make a lot of difference in the livability of the region.

We know all of this through careful scientific research, and there is a consensus amongst scientists that this is happening.  To prepare for the effects of climate change and to know how to best minimize those effects, we must continue to collect data and do science.  After all, what is the point of scientific research if we don’t use the results to make better choices and to address the problems that are facing us?

IMG_4151

At the end of my time on the Oregon II

Personal Log:  I am so grateful for the opportunity to go on this research survey and for the Teacher at Sea program as a whole.  I strongly encourage any teacher thinking of applying to the program to do so.  Thanks to NOAA and everyone at the TAS office for all your help and support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kate Schafer: A Day in the Life… September 29, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kate Schafer

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

September 17 – 30, 2017

 

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: September 29, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Latitude: 29o 11.3′ N
Longitude: 88o 18.3′ W

Few clouds

Visibility 10 nautical miles

Wind speed 8 knots

Sea wave height 1 foot

Temperature Seawater 29.4 o Celsius

Science and Technology Log:

So, as my time on the Oregon II is winding down, I thought I’d share a bit about what it is like to do science on a boat.  First of all, there is a tremendous amount of planning that must go into a successful survey in the weeks and months beforehand.  In addition to all the logistics of going to sea for two weeks, there is the challenge of putting together a crew of scientists that can be away from their day to day jobs and lives, and agree to work 12 hour days, for weeks on end.  Lisa Jones is the Field Party Chief for this survey and must figure out those logistics plus organize the science part as well.  This survey has been going since 1995, and one of the keys to longitudinal data sets is that they keep standard methods throughout, or else the data aren’t comparable.

This can be challenging in all sorts of unforeseen ways.  For example, a few years ago, it became difficult to find the mackerel used as bait on the longlines.  During an experimental survey in the spring, they tried out squid as an alternative and caught a totally different composition of species.  Fortunately, the mackerel became more available again, and the problem is no longer an issue, for now.

MackerelBaitedHooks

Hooks baited with mackerel

Lisa is also the one responsible for working with the captain and his crew to determine sampling locations and a plan for getting to those locations.  There’s a plan at the beginning, but, of course, that changes frequently, due to weather, the locations of other ships and a myriad of other unforeseen circumstances.  The goal is to reach 200 sites per year, with 50% between 5-30 fathoms (1 fathom=6 feet), 40% between 30-100 fathoms, and 10% between 100-200 fathoms.  These percentages reflect the depths of the continental shelf area throughout the sampling region. Below is a sampling map for the 2015 longline survey.

SamplingStations

Sampling stations for 2015 Longline survey from 2015 Cruise report

During a longline set, the line is deployed for one hour before retrieval, with 100 baited hooks.  As the line comes in, each fish is given three to four measurements (depending on the species) and is weighed.  Many of the sharks are tagged, as this provides the possibility of someone finding the tagged shark in the future.  With a tag retrieval, we can learn about how far the organism has traveled and how much and how quickly it has grown.

Shark Cradling team_Shark LL SEP2017

Measuring and tagging shark in the cradle

As I mentioned in my post about the red snappers, the snappers, groupers and tilefish are dissected for their otoliths and gonads.  They can’t be successfully released in most circumstances anyway, due to barotrauma from pulling them quickly to the surface from depth.

YellowEdgeGrouper

A Yellowedge Grouper weighing nearly 20 kg

Sharks are less affected by barotrauma because they don’t have swim bladders to maintain their buoyancy like the bony fishes we’ve been catching.

PullingInShark

Caught on the longline

Here are a couple examples of our data sheets.  As you can see, some sets have more fish than others (in fact the full one, was only one of three pages).  Once all the data are collected, they have to be entered in the computer for later summary and analysis.  Some days it can be a big challenge to get all the data entered before it’s time to start all over again.  Other days, like today, include lots of travel time.

DataSheetEmpty

Only a tilefish on this set…

 

DataSheetFull

Many more on this one…in fact this is only one of three pages

 

Personal Log:

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Tiger shark filling the 10 foot cradle

For me, it has been truly wonderful to get to work as a scientist again, if just for a couple of weeks, especially with such an amazing group of scientists.  I’ve learned so much from my fellow day crew members (Lisa, Christian, Nick and Jason).  They have patiently answered all my questions, even when it was keeping them from getting to dinner.  Lisa Jones has gone above and beyond in her support of me, even though she has had many other responsibilities on her plate.  I also appreciate being made to feel welcome lurking around the night crew’s catches.  Thanks especially to Christophe, Vaden, and Eric for allowing me to hang out in the measuring pit.  I love my job as a teacher, but part of me definitely misses working as a field biologist.  I am grateful for the opportunity and especially thankful for my wonderful family.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support and love.

 

Barney Peterson: What Are We Catching? August 28, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Barney Peterson

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

August 13 – 28, 2016

Mission: Long Line Survey

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Sunday, August 28, 2016

Weather Data is not available for this post because I am writing from the Biloxi/Gulfport Airport.

WHAT ARE WE CATCHING?

This is a long-line survey.  That means we go to an assigned GPS point, deploy hi-flyer buoys, add weights to hold the line down, add 100 baited hooks, leave it in place for an hour, and retrieve everything.

mackerel-bait-fish

Mackerel is used to bait the hooks.

As the equipment is pulled in we identify, measure and record everything we catch.  Sometimes, like in the case of a really large, feisty shark that struggles enough to straighten or break a hook or the lines, we try to identify and record the one that got away.  We tag each shark so that it can be identified if it is ever caught again.  We tally each hook as it is deployed and retrieved, and the computer records a GPS position for each retrieval so scientists can form a picture of how the catch was distributed along the section we were fishing.  The target catch for this particular survey was listed as sharks and red snapper.  The reality is that we caught a much wider variety of marine life.

We list our catch in two categories: Bony fish, and Sharks.  The major difference is in the skeletons.  Bony fish have just that: a skeleton made of hard bone like a salmon or halibut.  Sharks, on the other hand, have a cartilaginous skeleton, rigid fins, and 5 to 7 gill openings on each side.  Sharks have multiple rows of sharp teeth arranged around both upper and lower jaws.  Since they have no bones, those teeth are embedded in the gums and are easily dislodged.  This is not a problem because they are easily replaced as well.  There are other wonderful differences that separate sharks from bony fish.

Bony Fish we caught:

The most common of the bony fish that we caught were Red Groupers (Epinephelus morio), distinguished by of their brownish to red-orange color, large eyes and very large mouths.  Their dorsal fins, especially, have pointed spikes.

chrissy-with-enormous-grouper

Chrissy holding an enormous grouper

We also caught Black Sea Bass (Centropristus striata) which resemble the groupers in that they also have large mouths and prominent eyes.

sea-bass

Black Sea Bass

A third fish that resembles these two is the Speckled Hind (Epinephelus drummondhayi).  It has a broad body, large mouth and undershot jaw giving the face a different look.  Yes, we did catch several Red Snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), although not as many as I expected.  Snappers are a brighter color than the Red Groupers, and have a more triangular shaped head, large mouth and prominent canine teeth.

red-snapper

Red Snapper

The most exciting bony fish we caught was barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda).  We caught several of these and each time I was impressed with their sleek shape and very sharp teeth!

barracuda

TAS Barney Peterson with a barracuda

Most of the bony fish we caught were in fairly deep water.

 

Sharks:

We were fortunate to catch a variety of sharks ranging from fairly small to impressively big!

The most commonly caught were Sandbar Sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus): large, dark-gray to brown on top and white on the bottom.

sandbar-shark

Sandbar Shark

Unless you really know your sharks, it is difficult for the amateur to distinguish between some of the various types.  Experts look at color, nose shape, fin shape and placement, and distinguishing characteristics like the hammer-shaped head of the Great Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) and Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) sharks that were caught on this trip.

great-hammerhead

Great Hammerhead Shark

The beautifully patterned coloring of the Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is fairly easy to recognize and so is the yellowish cast to the sides of the Lemon Shark (Negaprion brevirostris).

Other sharks we caught were Black-nose (Carcharhinus acrontus), Atlantic Sharp-nosed (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae), Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), Blacktip (Carcharhinus limbatus) and Bull Sharks (Carcharhinus leucus).

Several of the sharks we caught were large, very close to 3 meters long, very heavy and very strong!  Small sharks and bony fish were brought aboard on the hooks to be measured against a scaled board on the deck then weighed by holding them up on a spring scale before tagging and releasing them.  Any shark larger than about 1.5 meters was usually heavy and strong enough that it was guided into a net cradle that was lifted by crane to deck level where it could be measured, weighed and tagged with the least possibility of harm to either the shark or the crew members.  Large powerful sharks do not feel the force of gravity when in the water, but once out of it, the power of their weight works against them so getting them back into the water quickly is important.  Large powerful sharks are also pretty upset about being caught and use their strength to thrash around trying to escape.  The power in a swat from a shark tail or the abrasion from their rough skin can be painful and unpleasant for those handling them.

PERSONAL LOG

The Night Sky

I am standing alone on the well deck; my head is buzzing with the melodies of the Eagles and England Dan.  A warm breeze brushes over me as I tune out the hum of the ship’s engines and focus on the rhythm of the bow waves rushing past below me.  It is dark! Dark enough and clear enough that I can see stars above me from horizon to horizon: the soft cloudy glow of the Milky Way, the distinctive patterns of familiar favorites like the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper with its signature bright point, the North Star.  Cassiopeia appears as a huge “W” and even the tiny cluster of the “Seven Sisters” is distinct in the black bowl of the night sky over the Gulf of Mexico.  The longer I look the more stars I see.

This is one of the first really cloudless nights of this cruise so far.  Mike Conway, a member of the deck crew came looking for me to be sure I didn’t miss out on an opportunity to witness this amazingly beautiful show.  As I first exited the dry lab and stumbled toward the bow all I could pick out were three faint stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper.  The longer I looked, the more my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, and the more spectacular the show became.  Soon there were too many stars for me to pick out any but the most familiar constellations.

As a child I spent many summer nighttime hours on a blanket in our yard as my father patiently guided my eyes toward constellation after constellation, telling me the myths that explained each one. Many years have passed since then.  I have gotten busy seeing other sights and hearing other stories.  I had not thought about those long ago summer nights for many years.  Tonight, looking up in wonder, I felt very close to Pop again and to those great times we shared.

 

Barney Peterson: Cut Bait and Fish! August 17, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Barney Peterson

Aboard NOAA Ship OREGON II
August 13 – 28, 2016

 

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Latitude: 25 29.664 N

Longitude: 082 02.181 W

Air temperature: 84.56 F

Pressure: 1018.13 Mb

Sea Surface Temperature: 30.5 C

Wind Speed: 13.54 Kt    East 12.72 degrees

Science Log:

The fishing process on the ship repeats itself in a well-defined cycle: cut bait, bait 100 hooks, drop hi-flyer, drop weight,  attach 50 tags and baited hooks, drop weight, attach 50 more tags and hooks, drop weight, deploy hi-flyer.  Put the CTD over the side and retrieve for water quality data.  Wait an hour.  Retrieve hi-flyer, retrieve weight, pull in first 50 hooks and detach tags logging any catch as they come in, retrieve weight, pull in next 50 hooks and detach tags logging any catch as they come in, retrieve last weight, retrieve last hi-flyer.  Process the catch as it comes in, logging tag number, gender, species, lengths at 3 points, life stage, and tag number if the catch is a shark that gets tagged, return catch to water alive as quickly as possible. Transit to the next sample site.  Wash, rinse and repeat.

That boils it down to the routine, but long line fishing is much more interesting and exciting than that!  Bait we use is Atlantic Mackerel, caught farther north and frozen, thawed just before use and cut into 3 pieces per fish.  A circle hook is inserted through each piece twice to ensure it will not fall off the hook…this is a skill that takes a bit of practice.  Sometimes hooks are pulled in with bait still intact. Other times the bait is gone and we don’t know if it was eaten without the hook catching, a poor baiting job, or more likely eaten by smaller fish, too little to be hooked.  When we are successful we hear the call “FISH ON!” and the deck comes alive.

The line with a catch is pulled up as quickly and carefully as possible.  Some fish are not securely hooked and are lost between the water and the deck…not what we want to happen.  If the catch is a large shark (generally 4 feet or longer) it is raised to the deck in a sling attached to the forward crane to minimize the chance of physical injury.  For large sharks a camera with twin lasers is used to get a scaled picture for estimating length.  There is a dynamometer on the line between the sling and the crane which measures pressure and converts it to weight.  Both of these processes help minimize the time the shark needs to be out of water with the goal of keeping them alive to swim away after release.  A tag is quickly attached to the shark, inserted under the skin at the base of the second dorsal fin.  A small clip is taken from a fin, preferably from the pelvic fin, for DNA studies. The sling is lowered back to the water and the shark is free to swim away.  All data collected is recorded to the hook-tag number which will identify the shark as to geographic location of the catch.

Shark in sling

A sandbar shark being held in the sling for measurements.

Sometimes the catch is a smaller shark or a bony fish:  a Grouper, a Red Snapper, or any one of many different types of fish that live in this area.  Each of these is brought onto the deck and laid on a measuring board. Species, length, and weight are recorded. Fin clips are taken.  Many of them are on the list of species of recreational and commercial importance.  These fish are retained for life history studies which will inform future management decisions.  In the lab they are dissected to retrieve otoliths (ear stones) by which their age is determined.  Depending upon the species, gonads (the reproductive organs) may be saved for study to determine the possibilities of future reproductive success.  For certain species a good-sized piece of flesh is cut from the side for fraudulent species voucher library use.

After the smaller sharks are measured, fin clipped, gender identified, life stage is determined and weight is taken, they are tagged and returned to the water as quickly as possible.  Tags on these sharks are a small, numbered plastic tag attached by a hole through the first dorsal fin.

This is a lot to get done and recorded and it all happens several times each shift.  The routine never varies.  The amount of action depends upon the success of the catch from any particular set.  This goes on 24 hours per day.  The only breaks come as we travel between the sites randomly selected for our sets and that time is generally spent in the lab.

(Thanks go to Kevin Rademacher, Trey Driggers and Lisa Jones, Research Fisheries Biologists, for contributing to this entry.  File photo NOAA/NMFS)

Personal Log:

I do not need 12 hours of sleep.  That means I have several hours at the start or end of each shift to write in my journal, talk to the other members of the crew, take care of personal business such as laundry and communicate with home via email.  Even so, every day seems to go by very quickly and I go to bed thinking of all the things I have yet to learn.  In my next posts I will tell more about the different kinds of sharks and introduce you to some of the other people on the ship.  Stay tuned.

Denise Harrington, Getting Ready for an Adventure, April 23, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Denise Harrington
(Almost) aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 04, 2016 – May 17, 2016

Greetings from Garibaldi, Oregon. My name is Denise Harrington and I teach Second Grade at South Prairie Elementary School in Tillamook, Oregon, along the north Oregon coast. There are 300 amazing second and third graders at our school who can prove to you that no matter how young you are, you can be a great scientist.  Last year they were caught on camera by Oregon Field Guide studying the diversity of life present in our ocean.

 

I applied to become a NOAA Teacher at Sea because I wanted to work with scientists in the field. I seem to learn best by doing.  In 2014, I joined the crew of NOAA ship Rainier, mapping the ocean floor near Kodiak Island, Alaska.  I learned how vast, connected, and undiscovered our oceans are. Students watched in disbelief after we discovered a sea floor canyon.  I learned about the technology and skills used to map the ocean floor. I learned how NOAA helps us stay safe by making accurate nautical charts.  It was, for our students and myself, a life changing experience.

As an avid sea kayaker, I was able to share my deeper understanding of the ocean with fellow paddlers. Photo courtesy of Bill Vonnegut

Now, I am fortunate enough to participate in another NOAA survey. On this survey aboard NOAA ship Pisces, scientists will be collecting data about how many fish inhabit the area along banks and ledges of the Continental Shelf of the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA believes in the value of sharing what they do with the public, and students in particular. The crew of Pisces even let fifth grader students from Southaven, Mississippi name the ship after they won a writing contest. Maybe you can name the next NOAA ship!

On May 3, 2016, Ship Pisces will begin Leg 3 of their survey of reef fish. I have so many questions.  I asked Chief Scientist Kevin Rademacher why the many survey partners chose snapper and grouper to survey. He replied “Snapper and grouper are some of the most important commercial fisheries here in the Gulf of Mexico. There are 14 species of snapper in the Gulf of Mexico that are good to eat. Of those the most commercially important is the red snapper. It is also currently over-fished.”   When I hear “over-fished” I wonder if our second graders will have many or any red snapper to eat when they they grow up. Yikes!

Another important commercial catch is grouper.  My brother, Greg, who fishes along the Kenai River in Alaska understands why grouper is a focus of the survey. “It’s tasty,” he says. I can’t believe he finds grouper tastier than salmon.  NOAA is making sure that we know what fish we have and make sure we save some for later, so that everyone can decide which fish is the tastiest when they grow up.

I have so many questions keeping me up at night as I prepare for my adventure. What do I need to know about fish to do my job on the ship?  Will I see evidence of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon spill? How crowded will we all be aboard Ship Pisces? If I dissect fish, will it be gross? Will it stink?  Will I get sea sick? With my head spinning with questions, I know I am learning. Yet there is nothing more I can do now to prepare myself for all that I will learn, except to be early to the airport in Portland, Oregon, and to the ship in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on May 3rd.

I will get home in time to watch my daughter, Elizabeth, graduate from high school.  Ever since I returned from the NOAA cruise in Alaska, she has been studying marine biology and even competed in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl.

liz with a crab

 

During research in the Gulf of Mexico with the crew of Ship Pisces, I will learn about the many living things in the Gulf of Mexico and about the technology they use to protect and manage commercial fisheries.  Soon, you will be able to watch me collect data about our ocean critters. Hope for fair winds and following seas as I join the crew on Ship Pisces, “working to protect, restore, and manage the use of our living ocean resources.”

Leah Johnson: Fish Identification & Pisces Farewell, August 1, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Saturday, August 1, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:13 PM
Latitude 033.995650
Longitude -077.348710
Water Temperature 24.37 °C
Salinity 36.179 ppt
Air Temperature 27.4 °C
Relative Humidity 83 %
Wind Speed 15.95 knots
Wind Direction 189.45 degrees
Air Pressure 1012.3 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
I am still amazed at the wealth of data collected aboard the Pisces on this survey cruise. I am getting better at identifying the fish as they are hauled up in the traps, as well as when I see these fish on video. Because of light attenuation, many fish look very different in color when they are underwater. Light attenuation refers to the gradual loss of visible light that can penetrate water with increasing depth. Red light has the longest wavelength on the visible light spectrum, and violet has the shortest wavelength. In water, light with the shortest wavelength is absorbed first. Therefore, with increasing depth, red light is absorbed, followed by orange, then yellow. Fish that appear red in color at the surface will not appear red when they are several meters below the sea surface where they are captured on camera.

For example, we hauled in some blackfin snapper earlier this week. At the surface, its color is a distinct red like many other types of snappers, and it has a black spot near the base of its pectoral fin. When I looked at the videos from the trap site, I did not realize that all of the fish swimming around with yellow-looking tails were the very same blackfin snappers that appeared in the traps! When I remembered that red light is quickly absorbed in ocean water and noticed the black spot on the pectoral fin and shape of the dorsal fin, it made more sense.

Top: Blackfin snapper collected from trap.
Bottom: Video still of blackfin snappers swimming near trap.

I tell my geology students every year that when identifying minerals, color is the least reliable property. I realize now that this can also apply to fish identification. Therefore, I am trying to pay closer attention to the shape of the different fins, slope of the head, and relative proportions of different features. The adult scamp grouper, for example, has a distinct, unevenly serrated caudal fin (tail) with tips that extend beyond the fin membrane. The tip of the anal fin is elongated as well.

scamp grouper

Scamp grouper

Another tricky aspect of fish identification is that some fish change color and pattern over time. Some groups of fish, like wrasses, parrotfish, and grouper, exhibit sequential hermaphroditism. This means that these fish change sex at some point in their lifespan. These fish are associated with different colors and patterns as they progress through the juvenile phase, the initial phase, and finally the terminal phase. Some fish exhibit fleeting changes in appearance that can be caught on camera. This could be as subtle as a slight darkening of the face.

The slight shape variations among groupers can also lead groups of scientists to gather around the computer screen and debate which species it is. If the trap lands in an area where there are some rocky outcrops, a fish may be partially concealed, adding another challenge to the identification process. This is no easy task! Yet, everyone on board is excited about the videos, and we make a point to call others over when something different pops up on the screen.

warsaw grouper

We were all impressed by this large Warsaw grouper, which is not a common sight.

I have seen many more types of fish and invertebrates come up in the traps over the past week. Here are a few new specimens that were not featured in my last “fish” post:

Did You Know?

Fish eyes are very similar to those of terrestrial vertebrates, but their lenses that are more spherical.

lens from fish eye

Lens from fish eye

Personal Log:

I love being surrounded by people who are enthusiastic about and dedicated to what they do. Everyone makes an extra effort to show me things that they think I will be interested to see – which I am, of course! If an interesting fish is pulled up in the trap and I have stepped out of the wet lab, someone will grab my camera and take a picture for me. I continue to be touched by everyone’s thoughtfulness, and willingness to let me try something new, even if I slow down the process.

me, standing on the deck at the stern

Me, on the deck of the ship. We just deployed the traps off the stern.

As our cruise comes to an end, I want to thank everyone on board for letting me share their work and living space for two weeks. To the NOAA Corps officers, scientists, technicians, engineers, deckhands, and stewards, thank you for everything you do. The data collection that takes place on NOAA fishery survey cruises is critical for the management and protection of our marine resources. I am grateful that the Teacher at Sea program allowed me this experience of a lifetime. Finally, thank you, readers! I sincerely appreciate your continued support. I am excited to share more of what I have learned when I am back on land and in the classroom. Farewell, Pisces!

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.