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.

Carmen Andrews: Transforming Fish into Data, July 15, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Carmen Andrews
Aboard R/V Savannah
July 7 – 18, 2012

Mission: SEFIS Reef Fish Survey
Location: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida
Date: July 15, 2012

Latitude:      28 ° 50.28   N
Longitude:   80 ° 26.26’  W       

Weather Data:
Air Temperature: 28.6° C (83.48°F)
Wind Speed: 18 knots
Wind Direction: from the Southeast
Surface Water Temperature: 27.6 °C (81.68°F)
Weather conditions: Sunny and Fair

Science and Technology Log

How are fish catches transformed into data? How can scientists use data derived from fish to help conserve threatened fish species?

The goal of the Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey or SEFIS is to monitor and research reef fish in southeast continental shelf waters.  Marine and fisheries scientists have developed sophisticated protocols and procedures to ensure the best possible sampling of these important natural resources, and to develop fisheries management recommendations for present and future sustainability.

During the cruise, important commercial fish in the snapper and grouper families are caught over as wide an area as possible; they are also taken in large enough numbers that they can be worked up into statistically reliable metrics. In addition to counts and measurements, biological samples are also taken at sea for future analysis in land-based research labs.

Gag grouper ready for its work up

Gag grouper ready for its work-up

Scientists strive to render an informative snapshot of reef fish stocks in a given time interval. Reports that analyze and summarize the data are submitted to policy-makers and legislators to set fisheries rules, restrictions and possible quotas for commercial and sports fishermen.

After fish are caught and put on ice, processing includes several kinds of measurement that occur on deck. This data is referred to as ‘Length Frequency’. Tag information from the trap follows the fish through all processing.  Aggregate weight measurements for all the fish of one species caught in a trap are made and recorded in kilograms.

David is weighing the gag grouper, with Adam P. looking on

David is weighing the gag grouper, with Adam P. looking on

The length for each fish in the trap is noted, using a metrically scaled fish board. Not all fish are kept for further processing.

David measuring the length of the gag grouper

David measuring the length of the gag grouper

Species-specific tally sheets randomly assign which fish from the catch are kept and which ones are tossed back into the ocean. These forms, which specify percentages of fish identified as ‘keepers’, are closely consulted by the data recorder and the information is shared with the scientist who is measuring the catch.

Shelly is recording length frequency measurement data

Shelly is recording length frequency measurement data

Length frequency data entries

Length frequency data entries

Red Porgy keep/toss percentage sheet

Red Porgy keep/toss percentage sheet

Kept fish are put in a seawater and ice slurry. The others are thrown over the side of the boat.

Age and reproductive sampling are done next in the wet lab.

Small yellow envelopes are prepared before fish work up can begin. Each envelope is labeled with cruise information, catch number, fish number, and the taxonomical name of the fish, using  binomial nomenclature of genus and species.

Adam P. and Shelly labeling envelopes and plastic specimen containers

Adam P. and Shelly labeling envelopes and plastic specimen containers

A small color-coded plastic container (the color indicates fish species tissue origin), with the fish’s source information riveted at the top, is also prepared. This container will store fish tissue samples.

The fish trap catch number is documented on another data form, along with boat and science team identification, collection method and other important information about the circumstances surrounding the fish catch.  Each species’ data is separately grouped on the data form, as individual fish in a catch are sequentially numbered down the form.

Me, transcribing fish weight & length data

Me, transcribing fish weight & length data

Each fish is weighed, and the weight is noted in grams. The scale is periodically calibrated to be sure the fish is weighed accurately.

Vermilion snappers and scamp, labeled and  ready for dissection

Vermilion snappers and scamp, labeled and ready for dissection

Three length measurements that are made: standard length (SL), total length (TL), and if the fish species has a fork tail — fork length (FL). The fish is laid, facing left on a fish board. The board is long wooden plank with a metric measuring scale running down the center.

Standard length does not include the caudal fin or tail. It begins at the tip of the fish’s head; then the fish measurer lifts the tail up slightly to form a crease where the backbone ends. Standard length measurement includes the fish’s head to end of backbone dimension only. Total length is the entire length of the fish, including the caudal fin. In fork-tailed species, the fork length measurement begins at the fish’s snout and ends at the v-notch in the tail.

Fish length measurements

Fish length measurements

Source: Australian Government – Department of Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Part of the dissection of every fish (except gray triggerfish) is the extraction of  otoliths from the fish’s head. An otolith is a bone-like structure made of calcium carbonate and located in the inner ear of fish. All vertebrates have similar structures that function as gravity, balance, movement, and directional indicators. Otoliths help fish sense changes in horizontal motion and acceleration.

To extract the otoliths, the scientist makes a deep cut behind the fish’s head and pulls it away from the body. The left and right otoliths are found in small slits below the brain. They must be removed carefully, one at a time with forceps. They can easily break or slip into the brain cavity.

Red snapper with removed otolith

Red snapper with removed otolith

Otoliths reveal many things about a fish’s life. Its age and growth throughout the first year of its life can be determined. Otoliths have concentric rings that are deposited over time. The information they show is analogous tree ring growth patterns that record winter and summer cycles. Other otolith measurements can determine when the fish hatched, as well as helping to calculate spawning times in the fish’s life.

The oxygen atoms in calcium carbonate (CaCO3) can be used to assay oxygen isotopes. Scientists can use these markers to reconstruct temperatures of the waters the fish has lived in. Scientists also look for other trace elements and isotopes to determine various environmental factors.

Each pair of otoliths is put into the small labeled yellow envelope.

The otoliths on the gray triggerfish are too small to be studied, so the spine from its back is collected for age and growth analysis.

Spine removed from a gray triggerfish

Spine removed from a gray triggerfish

The last step standard data collection is determining the sex and maturity of the fish. The fish is cut open at the belly, similar to preparing the fish as a filet to eat it.

Making a cut into a vermilion snapper

Making a cut into a vermilion snapper

If the fish is big, the air bladder must be deflated. The intestines are moved or cut out of the way. The gonads (ovaries and testes) are found, and the fish can be identified as a male or female. (Groupers can be hermaphroditic.) The fish’s stage of maturity can also be determined this way.  Maturational stages can be classified with a series of codes:

U = undetermined

1 = immature virgin (gonads are barely visible)

2 = resting (empty gonads – in between reproductive events)

3 = enlarging/developing (eggs/sperm are beginning to be produced)

4 = running ripe (gonads are full of eggs/sperm and are ready to spawn)

5 = spent (spawning has already occurred)

Dissected gonad specimens are removed from the fish and placed in a plastic containers, snapped shut and stored in a formalin jar to preserve them. These preserved samples will be analyzed later by histology scientists. Histology is the science of organ tissue analysis.

Dissected fish gonads

Dissected fish gonads

Red snappers have their fins clipped to provide a DNA sample. They may also have their stomachs removed and the contents studied to better understand their diets.

Video data from the underwater cameras is downloaded in the dry lab. This data will be analyzed once scientists return to their labs on land.

Personal Log

Many different kinds of echinoderms and other invertebrates have been pulled up in the fish traps. Several are species that I’ve never seen before:

Basket Star

I am holding a basket star. It is a type of brittle star in the echinoderm phylum.

A red sea star

A red sea star

Spikey sea star

Spikey sea star

Small crab, covered in seaweed, shell and sand

Small crab, covered in seaweed, shell and sand

We also catch many unusual large and small fish in the traps and on hooks. Several of these have been tropical species that I’ve only seen in salt water aquariums.

Lizardfish

Lizardfish

Sargassumfish

Sargassumfish

Hooked blacktip shark

Hooked blacktip shark

Scrawld Filefish

Scrawld Filefish

Spotted butterflyfish

Spotted butterflyfish

Jack knife fish

Jack knife fish

Marsha Skoczek: Lionfish, Groupers, and Bigeye, Oh My! July 11, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marsha Skoczek
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 6 – 19, 2012

Mission: Marine Protected Areas Survey
Geographic area of cruise:  Subtropical North Atlantic, off the east coast of South Carolina
Date:  July 11, 2012

Location:
Latitude:  32.2899N
Longitude:  78.5443W

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temperature:  28.1C (82.4F)
Wind Speed:   9.75 knots ( 11.2 mph)
Wind Direction:  From the SSW
Relative Humidity: 86 %
Barometric Pressure:  1017
Surface Water Temperature:  27.7C (80.6F)

Science and Technology Log

Lionfish off the South Carolina coast.

Even though our mission focuses on the five species of grouper and the two species of tilefish that I have shared in earlier postings, something that has surprised us all is the sheer number of lionfish that have invaded these reef areas.  I sat down with Andy David, Co-Principal Investigator on our cruise, to get the full scoop on this  invasive species.

An invasive species is one that does not naturally occur in an area but was either deliberately or accidentally released into the wild and competes with native species.  Alien invasive species often have very few, if any, natural predators to help keep their populations in check. As a result, invasive species populations often explode.  These invasive species begin competing with the native inhabitants for the same food supply potentially starving out the native fish and forcing them to move out of that region in search of food.

Lionfish native habitat.
Credit NOAA

Lionfish are native to the western Pacific.  They were first observed in the Atlantic Ocean in 1992 on coral reefs off West Palm Beach, FL.  Since the water temperature and bottom habitat in the South Atlantic very closely resemble that of the lionfish’s native habitat, conditions were favorable for the population to spread very rapidly.  Unlike most fish in this region the lionfish spawns year round, so it does not have a normal spawning season.  A female lionfish can spawn every couple of days and each time can release up to 15,000 eggs.  These eggs were carried off by the current and spread to other parts of the east coast.  Since few of the native Atlantic predators eat lionfish, they were able to reach maturity and continue building their population.  So what the genetic analyses indicates started as six individual lionfish off West Palm Beach in 1992, now has spread all the way north to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina via the Gulf Stream, then on other currents across to Bermuda and down to the Bahamas, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands. And they have now made their way into the Gulf of Mexico and are moving along the coastal states in the Gulf. Check out this  animation demonstrating the spread of the lionfish.

Short bigeye with lionfish

Lionfish tend to live in the same rocky reef habitats as the grouper and short bigeye, so we see them together quite frequently on our ROV dives.  All of these reef fish are competing for the same food supply — small fish and crustaceans.  The grouper, short bigeye, and lionfish prefer to live in rocky overhangs or crevasses.  Lionfish are ambush predators and will wait for their prey to swim by and suck them into their mouths.  They also have a voracious appetite.

All of the lionfish we have seen are extremely fat and happy.  They are gobbling up the food supply just as fast as they can.  Often times we will see multiple lionfish using the same rock as shelter.  In fact, in a single three-hour dive covering about 1.5 nautical miles, we saw upwards of 150 lionfish!!  And that was only within the 6-10 foot wide field of view from the ROV camera.  There are plenty more that we were not able to document since they were out of view.  In one week alone we have seen nearly 700 lionfish! Imagine how much of the available food source a whole gaggle of lionfish can consume on the reef.  The concern is that the lionfish are using up all of the food available so that the commercially important fish such as grouper and snapper will no longer have anything to eat and will be forced to leave the area.  This could be devastating to the grouper population which could result in fewer fish being available for commercial and recreational fishermen as well as a blow to the species in general.

A gaggle of lionfish off the coast of South Carolina. Can you tell how many lionfish are in this picture?

So what can we do about this?  Agencies like NOAA are encouraging divers to hunt any lionfish they see and take them home to eatLionfish derbies are sponsored by local diving organizations, such as REEF,  to encourage divers to participate in these hunts.  But hunting lionfish with scuba divers will not solve the entire problem.

On this particular research cruise, we have seen lionfish down to depths of about 100 meters (330 feet).  This is well below the limits of recreational scuba diving.  Lionfish have been seen at depths of 300 meters (1,000 feet).  How can we control the spread of this invasive species at depth?  Some groups such as the Roatan Marine Park think that training sharks to prey on lionfish might be a solution.  This is a lengthy process and it is uncertain if the sharks would continue to hunt lionfish once they are out in nature on their own.  Some species of grouper and moray eels can also eat lionfish, but they prefer to just leave them alone rather than risk being the recipient of a sharp sting from those pesky poisonous fins.  The cornet fish might also prey upon juvenile lionfish by sneaking up on them from behind.  We have seen about a dozen cornetfish in this first week of ROV footage compared to the one per year that are seen normally.  Could the cornetfish be a partial solution to this invasion?  We can only hope.

There is also a concern with the push to make lionfish a commercial species.  Since they inhabit coral reefs, it is possible that lionfish, along with grouper and amberjacks, could become tainted with a toxin called ciguatera.  In a joint study between NOAA and the FDA in the seas surrounding the Lesser Antilles islands of St. Maarten, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, ciguatera was found in 26% of the lionfish sampled.  These larger reef fish prey upon the smaller herbivorous reef fish that have eaten the algae carrying the ciguatera toxin.  Through biomagnification, the lionfish, grouper, amberjacks and snapper carry enough of the toxin to make humans extremely ill.  Symptoms of ciguatera poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, muscle aches, and reversal of hot and cold sensation, just to name a few.  Symptoms can last for weeks to years depending on the individual.  This toxin cannot be removed from the fish by cooking, so the debate continues as to whether lionfish are safe enough to be marketed as a commercial fish in areas where ciguatera is present.

Personal Log

Here I am in the drylab counting lionfish from ROV images.

I am amazed at how quickly the lionfish have spread throughout the Western Atlantic region.  So what started out as six lionfish in 1992, now numbers over 10,000,000 just twenty years later.  Their coloring allows them to remain camouflaged so they are able to just sit and wait for food to come to them.  When we are looking at the ROV screen, it is not always easy to spot these invaders at first. Their prey probably don’t even realize that they are about to be eaten, they blend in that well.  Andy David says that with most invasive species, we see a spike in numbers initially, but eventually the numbers should come back down as the lionfish run out of food and as other predators learn how to eat them.  How long until we start to see a decline?  That remains to be seen.  Things may get worse before they get better, or we may already be seeing a decline in numbers.  More research needs to be done.

Ocean Careers Interview

Andy David

In this section, I will be interviewing scientists and crew members to give my students ideas for careers they may find interesting and might want to pursue someday.  Today I interviewed Andrew David, Co-Principal Investigator on this expedition.

What is your job title? I am a Research Fishery Biologist and the Chair of the NOAA Diving Control and Safety Board.

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  As a fishery biologist for NOAA, I am currently conducting research on the commercial fish of the South Atlantic such as grouper and tilefish.  As part of my research, we also study the habitat that these fish live in which are the shelf edge and deep reefs.  The data that we collect on these species is used to help fishery managers determine where the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico MPAs should be placed and if they should be maintained.

As the Chairman of the NOAA Diving Control and Safety Board, I work with the diving officers of other NOAA programs to monitor the safety of the roughly 500 divers in the agency.  We do this by creating a set of standards that all divers in NOAA must adhere to, testing new diving equipment, and working with other diving organizations to ensure safe and effective procedures are followed.  Our safety record is very good. We normally make close to 15,000 dives a year with an incident rate of below 0.01 percent.

What type of education did you need to get this job? I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and Biology from Stetson University in Deland, Florida.  My Master’s Degree is in Marine Science from the University of Southern Florida.  My Master’s work focused on the effects of genetically engineered bacteria in the marine environment. It wasn’t exactly what I thought I would study in graduate school, but it was an excellent opportunity that I could not pass up and it helped me to network with other scientists in the field.  This led to me getting my job with NOAA straight out of graduate school where I work on topics that have a greater interest to me.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  Working on these deep corals projects has been very rewarding.  We have discovered many things on these projects, such as a greater coverage of deep coral reefs than was previously thought, new species of crustaceans, and range and depth extensions for several species.  Plus I get to spend time at sea every year while we conduct our research.

What advice do you have for students wanting a career in marine biology?  You do not have to go straight into marine biology at a school near the coast as an undergraduate.  In fact, it is probably better if you major in a core science such as chemistry or biology for your Bachelor’s and then focus more on marine science when you start looking for a graduate school.  Send your applications out to professors at universities with good marine biology programs.  If you are offered a position working with a professor who offers you research support, you should strongly consider taking it even if the research topic is not your favorite.  Graduate school is about learning how to become a good scientist — you have plenty of time to specialize in an area of interest to you when you get out of school.

Also, take internship opportunities when you can find them!  That is how scientists in the field get to know you and what you are capable of.  Internships might lead you to your first job out of college.  For example, Stacey Harter, the Chief Scientist on our cruise, started with Andy David as an intern.  When she graduated from college, they offered her a job!  Get internships!