Phil Moorhouse: The Rest of the Story, September 22, 2019

airport meal

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Phil Moorhouse

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 27, 2019 – September 15, 2019


Mission: Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska (Kodiak – Aleutian Islands)

Date: September 22, 2019


Weather Data from Richmond, Virginia

Latitude: 37 44.36 N
Longitude: 77 58.26 W
Wind Speed: 5 knots
Wind Direction: 195 degrees
Air Temperature: 31 C
Barometric Pressure: 1018 mBar
Sky:  Clear

Conclusion

Wow, it’s hard to believe that my time on the waters of Alaska aboard the Oscar Dyson are over.  It was an experience I will never forget.  I just hope that I can instill in my students the idea that all kinds of things are possible when you follow your interests. 

It has taken me several days to reacclimatize to life on land.  Standing in front of my class, I have caught myself swaying.  It also took several days to readjust my sleep schedule.  (I don’t get rocked to sleep anymore and my hours are completely different.)

There were so many things I will miss and never forget: all of the unique experiences and sights I got to see, starting with my side trip to Barrow and swimming in the Arctic Ocean before the start of the expedition, getting to explore some of Kodiak before we left port, all of the open sea and species that were part of the random samples, the little coves we snuck into when storms were approaching, getting a “close-up” of the Pavlof volcano, and getting to explore the native land around Dutch Harbor where we were able to watch Salmon spawning and Bald Eagles doing their thing. 

It was also interesting talking to and learning from the ship crew.  There are some interesting stories there about how they got to NOAA and what they have experienced since then.

At the top of the list though would have to be the connections I made with the scientists I spent almost three weeks with.  Being able to go out into the field with them and talking about what they have seen and learned over years of research has really reenergized my love for science in general.  Starting my shift looking forward to seeing what each Bongo station would bring up or what each trawl would bring to the sorting table, made for an expedition that went much too quickly.  It was interesting listening to my fellow scientists comparing how the numbers and ages of pollock caught at the various stations compared to what they had found in the Spring and in previous years. 

airport meal
The science crew all had the chance for one last meal together at the Anchorage airport before parting ways. I am very thankful for being accepted so well and for everything I have learned.

Overall, this has been an experience I will never forget.  I have learned so much about Alaska, the ocean, marine species, global warming, and scientific technology.  My time as a Teacher at Sea aboard the Oscar Dyson is something I will never forget and hope I can pass the excitement and experiences on to my students.

Phil Moorhouse: Look What the Net Dragged In! September 12, 2019

Pavlof Volcano

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Phil Moorhouse

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 27 – September 15, 2019


Mission: Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska (Kodiak – Aleutian Islands)

Date: September 12, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 57 35.35 N
Longitude: 153 57.71 W
Sea wave height: 1 ft
Wind Speed: 14 knots
Wind Direction: 208 degrees
Visibility: 8 nautical miles
Air Temperature: 15.4 C
Barometric Pressure: 1002.58 mBar
Sky:  Overcast


Science and Technology Log

Well, we only have a few days left on this trip and it looks like mother nature is going to force us to head for Dutch Harbor a little early.  I thought this might be a good time to spend some time sharing some information on some of the species we have been pulling out of the ocean.  This is far from a complete list, but just the ones that made “the cut”.

At the top of the list has to be the Pollock.  After all, this is the primary objective of this study.  On the left is an adult three-year-old pollock and on the right is an age-0 pollock.  The sampling of age-0 pollocks is a good indicator of the abundance of the future population.

There were several species of salmon caught on our trawls.  On the left is a Coho Salmon and on the right is a Pink Salmon.  These fish are very similar, but are classified as separately Coho Salmon are larger and have larger scales.  Coho also has a richer, fuller flavor with darker red meat while the Pink Salmon has a milder flavor and a softer texture.

zooplankton
Another important part of this survey is the collection and measurement of zooplankton as this is a primary food source and the amount and health of the zooplankton will have a lasting impact on the ecology of the fish population in the area.
capelin
Capelin is another common fish caught in our trawls. This fish eats krill and other crustaceans and in turn is preyed upon by whales, seals, cod, squid, and seabirds.
Pacific Saury
The Pacific Saury was a fish that wasn’t expected to be found in our trawls. Also called the knifefish, this species always seemed to be found in substantial quantities when they were collected – as if the trawl net came across a school of them. They are found in the top one meter of the water column.
Prowfish
The Prowfish was another interesting find. This fish is very malleable and slimy. Adults tend to stay close to the ocean floor while young prowfish can be found higher up in the water column where they feed on jellyfish. As with the saury, the prowfish was not kept for future study. It was weighed, recorded, and returned to the water.

Jellyfish were abundant on our hauls.  Here are the five most common species that we found. 

bubble jellyfish
The Bubble Jellyfish, Aequorea sp., is clear with a rim around it. This jellyfish is fragile and most of them are broken into pieces by the time we get them from the trawl net and onto the sorting table.
moon jellyfish
The Moon Jellyfish, Aurelia labiata, is translucent and when the sun or moon shines on them, they look like the moon all lit up.
white cross jellyfish
The White Cross Jellyfish, Staurophora mertensi, was another mostly clear jelly that was very fragile. Very few made it to the sorting table in one piece. You have to look close it is so clear, but they can be identified by their clear bell with a distinctive X across the top of the bell.
Lion's mane jellyfish
The Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, Cyanea capillata, are the largest known species of jellyfish. These guys can become giants. They are typically a crimson red but could appear faded to a light brown.
sunrise jellyfish
The Sunrise Jellyfish, Chrysaora melanaster, was the most common jelly that we found. It is also arguably the least fragile. Almost all made it to the sorting table intact where they were counted, weighed, recorded, and returned to the water. It lives at depths of up to 100 meters, where it feeds on copepods, larvaceans, small fish, zooplankton, and other jellyfish.
arrowtooth flounder
Arrowtooth flounder are a relatively large, brownish colored flatfish with a large mouth. Just one look at its mouth and you can tell how it got its name. Their eyes migrate so that they are both on the right side and lie on the ocean floor on their left side.
Eulachon
Eulachons, sometimes called candlefish, were another common find on the sorting table. Throughout recent history, eulachons have been harvested for their rich oil. Their name, candlefish, was derived from it being so fat during spawning that if caught, dried, and strung on a wick, it can be burned as a candle. They are also an important food source for many ocean and shore predators.
vermilion rockfish
The Vermilion Rockfish – This guy was the only non-larval rockfish that we caught. Most can be found between the Bering Sea and Washington State.

While the Smooth Lumpsucker is significantly larger than the Spiny Lumpsucker, both have unique faces.  The Smooth Lumpsucker is also found in deeper water than the smaller Spiny Lumpsucker.

Most of the squid caught and recorded were larval.  Here are a couple of the larger ones caught in a trawl.

There were a variety of seabirds following us around looking for an easy meal.  The Black-footed Albatross on the right was one of several that joined the group one day.

Pavlof Volcano
And of course, I couldn’t leave out the great view we got of Pavlof Volcano! Standing snow capped above the clouds at 8,251 feet above sea level, it is flanked on the right by Pavlof’s Sister. Pavlof last erupted in March of 2016 and remains with a threat of future eruptions considered high. Pavlof’s Sister last erupted in 1786. This picture was taken from 50 miles away.


Personal Log

In keeping with the admiration I have for the scientists and crew I am working with, I will continue here with my interview with Rob Suryan. 

Robert Suryan is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Scientist. He is currently a Research Ecologist and Auke Bay Laboratories, Science Coordinator, working on the Gulf Watch Alaska Long-term Ecosystem Monitoring Program.

How long have you been working with NOAA?  What did you do before joining NOAA?

One and a half years.  Prior to that, I was a professor at Oregon State University

Where do you do most of your work?

In the Gulf of Alaska

What do you enjoy about your work?

I really enjoy giving presentations to the general public, where we have to describe why we are conducting studies and results to an audience with a non-science background. It teaches you a lot about messaging! I also like working with writers, reporters, and journalists in conducting press releases for our scientific publications. I also use Twitter for science communication.

Why is your work important?

Having detailed knowledge about our surroundings, especially the natural environment and the ocean. Finding patterns in what sometimes seems like chaos in natural systems. Being able to provide answers to questions about the marine environment.

How do you help wider audiences understand and appreciate NOAA science?

I provide information and expertise to make well informed resource management decisions, I inform the general public about how our changing climate if affecting marine life, and I train (and hopefully inspire) future generations of marine scientists

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science an ocean career?

During middle school

What tool do you use in your work that you could not live without?

Computer! So much of our instrumentation and sampling equipment are controlled by software interfaces. Also, much of my research involves data assimilation, analysis, creating graphs, and writing scientific papers. Although, at the very beginning of my career, most of our data collection was hand written, as were our scientific papers before typing the final version with a typewriter. So glad those days are gone!

If you could invent one tool to make your work easier, what would it be?

For in the office: a computer program that would scan all of my emails, extract the important info that I need to know and respond to, and populate my calendar with meetings/events. For the field: a nano-power source that provided unlimited continuous power for instruments AND global cell phone or wireless connectivity.

What part of your job with NOAA did you least expect to be doing?

I joined NOAA later in my career and had collaborated with NOAA scientists for many years, so everything was what I expected for the most part.

What classes would you recommend for a student interested in a career in Marine Science?

Biology, math, chemistry, and physics are good foundation courses. If you have an opportunity to take a class in marine biology at your school or during a summer program, that would be ideal. But keep in mind that almost any field of study can be involved in marine science; including engineering, economics, computer science, business, geology, microbiology, genetics, literature, etc.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for a student exploring ocean or science as a career option?

I originally studied wildlife biology before marine science and one of my favorite books initially was A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. For marine biology, I would recommend The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck.

What do you think you would be doing if you were not working for NOAA?

I would probably work at a university again – I was a professor at Oregon State University before working for NOAA.

Do you have any outside hobbies?

Pretty much any type of outdoor adventure, most frequently kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, camping, and beachcombing with my family and our dogs.

Jessica Cobley: Not Just Fishing, August 1, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Jessica Cobley

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

July 19 – August 8, 2019


Mission: Midwater Trawl Acoustic Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska (Kodiak to Yakutat Bay)

Date: 8/1/2019

Weather Data from the Gulf of Alaska: Lat: 59º 18.59’ N Long: 146º 06.18W 

Air Temp:  14.8º C

Personal Log

We made it to Prince William Sound the other day, but I was asleep by the time we got all the way up. The part I did see, near the entrance, was pretty, but fog and clouds blocked the majority of the view. One of the beaches we attempted to fish by had what looked like an old red train car washed up on it. We wondered where it came from and how it got there!

Sunrise over Gulf of Alaska
Sunrise the day before we headed into Prince William Sound.

We are sailing the last few transects of the trip now and headed towards a small bay, called Broken Oar Bay, near Yakutat. Once we arrive, we need to calibrate the instruments used for collecting data and compare the results to the start of the trip. This will let the scientists know that their instruments are stable and making consistent measurements.

While calibrating we may have an opportunity to get a glimpse of the Hubbard Glacier at the head Yakutat Bay. The Hubbard Glacier is approximately 6 miles wide and when it calves, makes icebergs 3-4 stories tall. Fingers crossed we get to see it! 

On a side note, I have been drawing while on the boat. Here are some photos!

Jessica's sketch of a squid
One of the squids we caught… it was just a tiny little guy, about 2 cm.
Diagram of commercial fishing methods
Gus Beck, lead night fisherman, sat down with me yesterday and explained the main types of commercial fishing methods. Now I won’t get them mixed up.
Abigail's prowfish sketch
This is my favorite one! Abigail’s drawing of a prowl fish. They have the best facial expressions.


Science and Technology Log

The majority of my time has been spent above deck with the science and deck crews. Yesterday, I took the opportunity to head down below and learn some of the ways Oscar Dyson is kept running smoothly. 

Danielle and deck crew
Some of the deck crew that are responsible for putting the nets out. Danielle, one of our senior survey techs, is up top and controls the movement of the net.

There are several areas/rooms that hold different types of equipment below deck. One of the largest rooms is the engine room, where not 2 or 3, but 4 engines are located. At night, 2 of the engines are needed since the ship sails slowly for camera drops. During the day, when traveling along the transects and fishing, 3 engines are used. Engines 1 and 2 are larger with 12 cylinders and 3 and 4 are smaller with 8 cylinders. These engines are attached to generators. The engines give moving force to the generators, which they then convert into kilowatts/power and as a result, power everything on board. Also, I learned that the boat has at least 2 of every major piece of equipment, just in case!

Engineers Kyle and Evan
Two of the engineers, Kyle Mulkerin and Evan Brooks, who gave me a tour below deck. They are standing in front of engine #1.

The engine room also stores the water purification system, which Darin had mentioned to me the other day. He knew the ship converted seawater into potable water, but wasn’t exactly sure how the process worked. Here is a brief summary. 

  1. Seawater is pumped onto the boat and is boiled using heat from the engine.
  2. Seawater is evaporated and leaves behind brine, which gets pumped off of the ship.
  3. Water vapor moves through cooling lines and condenses into another tank producing fresh water. 
  4. The water is then run through a chemical bromide solution to filter out any left over unwanted particles.
  5. The finely filtered water is stored in potable water holding tanks.
  6. The last step before consumption is for the water to pass through a UV system that kills any remaining bacteria or harmful chemicals in the water.
Evan's notes
Notes from Evan Brooks on how to convert seawater into potable water. I wish all my student’s notes were this neat and organized!

After the engine room, Kyle and Evan took me one level deeper into the lower engine room. There are a few other lower areas but, being a bit claustrophobic, I was happy we didn’t explore those. The lower engine room (or shaft alley) holds the large rotating shaft which connects directly to the propeller and moves the ship. It was neat to see! 

Jessica descends to lower engine room
Heading down into the lower engine area.

We rounded out the tour in a workshop that holds most of the tools on board. The engineers help fix things from engines to air conditioners to plumbing. This week I may even be able to see them do some welding work. 

Did you know? 

If a large piece of equipment needs to be replaced, they do not take it apart and lug it to the upper deck and off the boat. Instead, they cut a giant hole in the side of the ship and get the parts in and out that way. I had no idea!

Cheers, Jess 

Catherine Fuller: Searching for Water in the Ocean, July 9, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 9, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 57° 47.549 N
Longitude: 147° 30.222
Wave Height: 0-1 with swell of 4 ft
Wind Speed: 1.7 knots
Wind Direction: 170 degrees
Visibility: 5 nm
Air Temperature:  13.1 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1014.4 mb
Sky: Overcast


Science and Technology Log

Ana’s Work: 

iron fish deployment
Dr. Aguilar-Islas oversees the iron fish deployment.
iron fish on deck
The “iron fish” on deck…
iron fish in water
..and in its habitat.

Dr. Ana Aguilar-Islas and her team of Annie, Kelsey, and Carrie are studying how the different sources of iron in the Gulf of Alaska influence its chemical structure.  Iron is considered a micronutrient, because it is a nutrient that is needed in lower quantities than silicate, phosphate and nitrate, which are macronutrients. Iron is essential for phytoplankton.  Iron does not easily remain dissolved in ocean water, but has a tendency to precipitate and become a particle.  It is essential for many functions within phytoplankton, including gene function and photosynthesis, so the presence or absence of iron in the water is an indicator of the viability of the ecosystem. 

Testing phytoplankton in both an iron-limited environment and an iron-rich one allows scientists to pinpoint the effect that iron has.  The water in the Gulf of Alaska is notable for having more iron, leading to larger zooplankton as compared to areas, such as Hawaii, where the lack of macronutrients in the water means that they’re much smaller.  The Copper River plume was an example of a naturally occurring source of iron although its decrease is exponential the farther you move from the plume. 

In order to test samples without any contamination from being in an iron ship, Ana’s team created a “bubble” room or a clean space to do testing.  Her samples come directly from the “iron fish,” a collection instrument that is towed along the starboard side of the ship, and a pump on deck sends water through a tube that is carefully strung from the “fish” through the hallways and into the “bubble.”  The team is testing water samples for dissolved iron, particulate iron, and ligands (naturally occurring structures that bind iron and allow it to stay dissolved in seawater).  Both the filtered (any plankton filtered out) and unfiltered samples that Ana’s team collects are also used by other teams to provide context for their own experiments, especially testing the behavior of phytoplankton populations in iron-rich and iron-poor water.

looking in the bubble
The bubble from the outside.
Annie at the bubble
Annie spends many hours patiently taking water samples in the bubble.


The Search for “Perfect” Water

After completing our comprehensive zig-zagging study through the Copper River plume, it was decided to continue on a path south to find HNLC (high nitrate low chlorophyll) water.  We’re specifically looking for water with a salinity over 32.4 psu and nitrates over 3 micromoles. Water like this would be low in iron.  Normally, the lack of iron is a factor that limits photosynthesis,.  However, in areas with these numbers, phytoplankton communities have evolved to survive in an iron-deprived environment. 

What Clay, Suzanne and Ana hope to do is to introduce both Copper River iron-rich water and commercially available iron into samples of these communities to see if a “bloom” or a sudden growth in population will occur.  It’s been a long search so far, taking us through an offshore eddy, watching salinity numbers slowly creep up as we leave the plume’s fresh water influence behind us.  To pass the time, my cribbage board came out and I’ve lost to Pete, Seth and Ana (although I beat Seth once).  To help Suzanne and Ana find their water, Seth stitched together a composite satellite picture of the chlorophyll in the Gulf from images taken over the last few weeks.  This showed an eddy south of the Copper River plume that provided a possible location for the right sampling of water.

Our initial target was 58 degrees N, 146 degrees W, however, we’re continuing on the journey south to see if we can find the right spot.  For a long time, we were towing the Acrobat behind us, trying to get additional readings, however, our speed with the Acrobat is limited to a maximum of 7 kts.  Early this morning, the Acrobat was pulled in and we’re now cruising at about 10 kts.  We’re supposed to move over to the GAK (Seward) line of waypoints after this, but the joke is that we’ll reach GAK 125, i.e. Honolulu, before we find water that fits the parameters we need.

After careful monitoring of our position and the information screens in the computer lab, it seems that our target water is between 57 degrees 21 minutes N between 145 degrees 42.8 minutes W and 145 degrees 39.9 W.  Finding the perfect water is complicated by the number of anomalies in the sea surface. We’re having the bridge go through specific maneuvers to take us back and forth through the target patch of water. As we move through what seems reasonable, Ana’s iron fish will be deployed to start bringing in  “perfect” water samples. 

Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies
These anomalies represent changes in sea surface temperature, and in turn in the chemical composition of the water. On the map, you can see the lines we’re surveying from left to right: Kodiak, Seward (GAK) and Middleton.
our course
Our zigzag course: the bridge asked if we were making course lines with an Etch-a-Sketch!

Since last night, there has been at least one person stationed in the computer lab with eyes on the underway data display to monitor the salinity and nitrate levels.  Today, with Dr. Strom, Clay and myself there, we jump every time the nitrate value does.  Once our target patch is isolated, Dr. Strom directs the bridge to zigzag the ship through it to find maximum nitrate values and then radios the iron fish team. It’s 2.1….it’s 2.7…quick! Collect samples!  It’s a crazy system, but for now it’s getting us the best results we can, considering the fluidity and changeability of the ocean. 

I’m not sure what the bridge thinks about our maneuvers, and we’re all imagining what they’re saying! They have been very patient and willing to go along with requests; they’re pretty used to the demands of scientists in search of specific answers.  We’re finding our highest values to be about 3.2 micromoles, and it seems that we’ve also narrowed down the “sweet spot.” In addition, a group of fin whales is moving through the area and is making regular appearances as we trace and retrace our path. At one point, Eric, the captain came down to chat and helpfully volunteered to look up the definition of “zig” and “zag” so that we would have our terminology correct.  Is zig the upward progression or the downward one?

Most of the science done on board is carefully planned and prepared for.  Methodologies are clean and precise in order to produce specific and incontestable results.  Sometimes, however, science requires taking advantage of the situation at hand to find optimum data.  Science can be messy and inexact, too, if the end result is finding the perfect drops of water in the ocean.


Personal Log

We are now over the 50% point in our trip.  It is a bit ironic that as the science team and the crew get to know each better and develop friendships, both sides are also looking ahead to the end of the trip.  It’s been fun to get to know the crew and to discover the personalities that make this ship run so smoothly. 

Our weather has been notably calm so far, with today’s nearly flat seas being the smoothest to date.  We have fog every day; every day the sea surface temperature is higher than the air temperature.  What might that be an indication of? Russ seems to think it’s a fairly unusual pattern.  Even though today’s temperature is in the mid-50s, the stillness and reflected light off the surface of the ocean almost make it seem warmer.  It looks like we can continue to expect fairly calm seas for the next few days, too.  Every day someone posts a weather forecast in the mess hall, and every day the forecast is similar.    

fog bank on the horizon
Seeing fog banks on the horizon is a daily occurrence.

We continue to eat remarkably well.  Today’s lunch was spaghetti or zoodles with eggplant parmigiana, shrimp, and hot veggies.  This week already, we’ve had pecan pies and oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert and apple and berry turnovers for breakfast.  The food is definitely one of the benefits of being on this ship!


Did You Know?

The fresh water measured in the Copper River plume equates to a quarter of the yearly excess melt from area glaciers.  The question then is, where does the other three-quarters go?


What do you want kids to know about your research?

Ana: There are nutrients in the water that sea creatures need: large nutrients and small ones.  The small ones are important because they’re needed more often, like vitamins being a more regular part of your diet than hamburgers.


Sea Creatures seen today:

fin whales
A small group of fin whales came near us several times during our zigzag maneuvers.

Katie Gavenus, Bonus Blog: MIXOTROPHS, May 5, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26 – May 9, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently in transit from ‘Seward Line’ to ‘Kodiak Line’

Date: May 5, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 2305
Latitude: 57o 34.6915’
Longitude: 150o 06.9789’
Wind: 18 knots, South
Seas: 4-6 feet
Air Temperature: 46oF (8oC)
Air pressure: 1004 millibars
Cloudy, light rain

 

Science and Technology Log

I was going to just fold the information about mixotrophs into the phytoplankton blog, but this is so interesting it deserves its own separate blog!

On land, there are plants that photosynthesize to make their own food. These are called autotrophs – self-feeding.  And there are animals that feed on other organisms for food – these are called heterotrophs – other-feeding.  In the ocean, the same is generally assumed.  Phytoplankton, algae, and sea grasses are considered autotrophs because they photosynthesize.  Zooplankton, fish, birds, marine mammals, and benthic invertebrates are considered heterotrophs because they feed on photosynthetic organisms or other heterotrophs.  They cannot make their own food.  But it turns out that the line between phytoplankton and zooplankton is blurry and porous.  It is in this nebulous area that mixotrophs take the stage!

Mixotrophs are organisms that can both photosynthesize and feed on other organisms.  There are two main strategies that lead to mixotrophy.  Some organisms, such as species of dinoflagellate called Ceratium, are inherently photosynthetic.  They have their own chloroplasts and use them to make sugars.  But, when conditions make photosynthesis less favorable or feeding more advantageous, these Ceratium will prey on ciliates and/or bacteria.  Bacteria are phosphorous, nitrogen, and iron rich so it is beneficial for Ceratium to feed on them at least occasionally. Microscopy work makes it possible to see the vacuole filled with food inside the photosynthetic Ceratium. 

illustration of mixotrophic dinoflagellate Ceratium
I created this drawing after viewing a number of microscopy photos of the mixotrophic dinoflagellate Ceratium under different lights and stains. This artistic rendition combines those different views to show the outside structure of the dinoflagellate as well as the nucleus, food vacuole and chloroplasts. (Drawing by Katie Gavenus)

Other organisms, including many ciliates, were long known to be heterotrophic.  They feed on other organisms, and it is particularly common for them to eat phytoplankton and especially cryptophyte algae. Recent research has revealed, however, that many ciliates will retain rather than digest the chloroplasts from the phytoplankton they’ve eaten and use them to photosynthesize for their own benefit. Viewing these mixotrophs under blue light with a microscope causes the retained chloroplasts to fluoresce.  I saw photos of them and they are just packed with chloroplasts!

illustration of mixotrophic ciliate Tontonia sp.
The mixotrophic ciliate Tontonia sp. eats phytoplankton but retains the chloroplasts from their food in order to photosynthesize on their own! I made this drawing based off of photos, showing both the outside structure of the Tontonia and how the chloroplasts fluoresce as red when viewed with blue light. (Drawing by Katie Gavenus)

Mixotrophs are an important part of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.  They may even help to explain how a modestly productive ecosystem (in terms of phytoplankton) can support highly productive upper trophic levels. Mixotrophy can increase the efficiency of energy transfer through the trophic levels, so more of the energy from primary productivity supports the growth and reproduction of upper trophic levels. They also may increase the resiliency of the ecosystem, since these organisms can adjust to variability in light, nutrients, and phytoplankton availability by focusing more on photosynthesis or more on finding prey. Yet little is known about mixotrophs.  Only about one quarter of the important mixotroph species in the Gulf of Alaska have been studied in any way, shape or form!

Researchers are trying to determine what kinds of phytoplankton the mixotrophic ciliates and dinoflagellates are retaining chloroplasts from.  They are also curious whether this varies by location, season or year.  Understanding the conditions in which mixotrophic organisms derive energy from photosynthesis and the conditions in which they choose to feed is another area of research focus, especially because it has important ramifications for carbon and nutrient cycling and productivity across trophic levels.  And it is all very fascinating!

food web illustration
A drawing illustrating a fascinating, tightly linked portion of the Gulf of Alaska food web. Mesodinium rubrum must eat cryptophyte algae (this is called obligate feeding). The Mesodinium rubrum retain the chloroplasts from the cryptophyte algae, using them to supplement their own diet through photosynthesis. In turn, Dinophysis sp. must feed on Mesodinium rubrum. And the Dinophysis retain the chloroplasts from the Mesodinium that originally were from cryptophyte algae! (Drawing by Katie Gavenus)

Did you know?

Well over half of the oxygen on earth comes from photosynthetic organisms in the ocean.  So next time you take a breath, remember to thank phytoplankton, algae, and marine plants!

Personal Log:

Tonight was likely our last full night of work, as we expect rough seas and high winds will roll in around midnight tomorrow and persist until the afternoon before we head back to Seward.  We were able to get bongo net sampling completed at 6 stations along the Kodiak Line, and hope that in the next two nights we can get 2-4 stations done before the weather closes in on us and 2-4 nets on the last evening as we head back to Seward.

Despite our push to get 6 stations finished tonight, we took time to look more closely at one of the samples we pulled up.  It contained a squid as well as a really cool parasitic amphipod called Phronima that lives inside of a gelatinous type of zooplankton called doliolids.  Check out the photos and videos below for a glimpse of these awesome creatures (I couldn’t figure out how to mute the audio, but I would recommend doing that for a less distracting video experience).

 

 

Phronima
A parasitic Phronima amphipod. This animal typically lives inside doliolids, a type of gelatinous zooplankton. Apparently its body structure and fierce claw-like appendages inspired the design of “Predator.”

 

 

 

 

Katie Gavenus: Don’t Forget the Phytoplankton! May 5, 2019

niskin bottles on the rosette

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26 – May 9, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently in transit from ‘Seward Line’ to ‘Kodiak Line’

Date: May 5, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 2305
Latitude: 57o 34.6915’
Longitude: 150o 06.9789’
Wind: 18 knots, South
Seas: 4-6 feet
Air Temperature: 46oF (8oC)
Air pressure: 1004 millibars
Cloudy, light rain

Science and Technology Log

Phytoplankton!  These organisms are amazing.  Like terrestrial plants, they utilize energy from the sun to photosynthesize, transforming water and carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen.  Transforming this UV energy into sugars allows photosynthetic organisms to grow and reproduce, then as they are consumed, the energy is transferred through the food web.  With a few fascinating exceptions (like chemotrophs that synthesize sugars from chemicals!), photosynthetic organisms form the basis of all food webs. The ecosystems we are most familiar with, and depend upon culturally, socially, and economically, would not exist without photosynthetic organisms.

Indeed, productivity and health of species like fish, birds, and marine mammals are highly dependent upon the productivity and distribution of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Alaska. Phytoplankton also play an important role in carbon fixation and the cycling of nutrients in the Gulf of Alaska.  For the LTER, developing a better understanding of what drives patterns of phytoplankton productivity is important to understanding how the ecosystem might change in the future.  Understanding the basis of the food web can also can inform management decisions, such as regulation of fisheries.

niskin bottles on the rosette
Seawater captured at different depths by niskin bottles on the rosette transferred to bottles by different scientists for analysis.

To better understand these patterns, researchers aboard R/V Tiglax use the rosette on the CTD to collect water at different depths.  The plankton living in this water is processed in a multitude of ways.  First, in the lab on the ship, some of the water is passed through two filters to catch phytoplankton of differing sizes.  These filters are chemically extracted for 24 hours before being analyzed using a fluorometer, which measures the fluorescence of the pigment Chlorophyll-a.  This provides a quantitative measurement of Chlorophyll-a biomass. It also allows researchers to determine whether the phytoplankton community at a given time and place is dominated by ‘large’ phytoplankton (greater than 20 microns, predominantly large diatoms) or ‘small’ phytoplankton (less than 20 microns, predominantly dinoflagellates, flagellates, cryptophyte algae, and cyanobacteria).

Preparing filters
Preparing filters to separate large and small phytoplankton from the seawater samples.

For example, waters in Prince William Sound earlier in the week had a lot of large phytoplankton, while waters more offshore on the Seward Line were dominated by smaller phytoplankton.  This has important ramifications for trophic interactions, since many different consumers prefer to eat the larger phytoplankton.  Larger phytoplankton also tends to sink faster than small plankton when it dies, which can increase the amount of food reaching benthic organisms and increase the amount of carbon that is sequestered in ocean sediments.

The Chlorophyll-a biomass measurements from the fluorometer are a helpful first step to understanding the biomass of phytoplankton at stations in the Gulf of Alaska.  However, research here and elsewhere has shown that the amount of carbon fixed by phytoplankton can vary independently of the Chlorophyll-a biomass.  For example, data from 2018 in the Gulf of Alaska show similar primary productivity (the amount of carbon fixed by phytoplankton per day) in the spring, summer, and fall seasons even though the Chlorophyll-a biomass is much higher in the spring.  This is likely because of at least two overlapping factors.  Vertical mixing in the winter and spring, driven primarily by storms, brings more nutrients and iron into the upper water column. This higher nutrient and iron availability in the spring allow for the growth of larger phytoplankton that can hold more chlorophyll.  This vertical mixing also means that phytoplankton tend to get mixed to greater depths in the water column, where less light is available.  To make up for this light limitation, the phytoplankton produce more chlorophyll in the spring so they can more effectively utilize the light that is available.  This variation in chlorophyll over the seasons probably helps to make the phytoplankton community overall more productive, but it makes it problematic to use Chlorophyll-a biomass (which is relatively easy to measure) as a proxy for primary productivity (which is much more challenging to measure).

Phytoplankton sample in the flourometer
A sample of filtered, extracted phytoplankton is placed into the fluorometer.

To address the question of primary productivity more directly, researchers are running an experiment on the ship.  Seawater containing phytoplankton from different depths is incubated for 24 hours.  The container for each depth is screened to let in sunlight equivalent to what the plankton would be exposed to at the depth they were collected from.  Inorganic carbon rich in C13 isotope is added to each container as it incubates. After 24 hours, they filter the water and measure the amount of C13 the phytoplankton have taken up.  Because C13 is rare in ecosystems, this serves as a measurement of the carbon fixation rate – which can then be converted into primary productivity.

Phytoplankton samples from the rosette are also preserved for later analysis in various labs onshore.  Some of the samples will be processed using High Performance Light Chromotography, which produces a pigment profile.  These pigments are not limited to Chlorophyll-a, but also include other types of Chlorophyll, Fucoxanthin (a brownish pigment found commonly in diatoms as well as other phytoplankton), Peridinin (only found in photosynthetic dinoflagellates), and Diadinoxanthin (a photoprotective pigment that absorbs sunlight and dissipates it as heat to protect the phytoplankton from excessive exposure to sunlight).  The pigment profiles recorded by HPLC can be used to determine which species of plankton are present, as well as a rough estimate of their relative abundance.

A different lab will also analyze the samples using molecular analysis of ribosomal RNA.  There are ID sequences that can be used to identify which species of phytoplankton are present in the sample, and also get a rough relative abundance.  Other phytoplankton samples are preserved for microscopy work to identify the species present.  Microscopy with blue light can also be used to investigate which species are mixotrophic – a fascinating adaptation I’ll discuss in my next blog post!

It is a lot of work, but all of these various facets of the phytoplankton research come together with analysis of nutrients, iron, oxygen, dissolved inorganic carbon, temperature, and salinity to answer the question “What regulates the patterns of primary productivity in the Gulf of Alaska?”

There are already many answers to this question.  There is an obvious seasonal cycle due to light availability.  The broad pattern is driven by the amount of daylight, but on shorter time-scales it is also affected by cloud cover.  As already mentioned, vigorous vertical mixing also limits the practical light availability for phytoplankton that get mixed to greater depths.  There is also an overall, declining gradient in primary productivity moving from the coast to the deep ocean. This gradient is probably driven most by iron limitation.  Phytoplankton need iron to produce chlorophyll, and iron is much less common as you move into offshore waters.  There are also finer-scale spatial variations and patchiness, which are partly driven by interacting currents and bathymetry (ocean-bottom geography). As currents interact with each other and features of the bathymetry, upwelling and eddies can occur, affecting such things as nutrient availability, salinity, water temperature, and intensity of mixing in the water column.

View of horizon from station GAK
The early-morning view from station GAK on the ‘Seward Line.’ Patterns of primary productivity are driven both by amount of cloud cover and amount of daylight. During our two weeks at sea, we actually sampled at GAK1 3 separate times. The amount of daylight (time between sunrise and sunset each day) at this location increased by nearly 60 minutes over the two week cruise!

The current work seeks to clarify which of these factors are the most dominant drivers of the patterns in the Gulf of Alaska and how these factors interact with each other. The research also helps to determine relationships between things that can be more easily measured, such as remote-sensing of chlorophyll, and the types of data that are particularly important to the LTER in a changing climate but are difficult to measure across broad spatial scales and time scales, such as primary productivity or phytoplankton size community. Phytoplankton are often invisible to the naked eye.  It would be easy to overlook them, but in many ways, phytoplankton are responsible for making the Gulf of Alaska what it is today, and what it will be in the future.  Understanding their dynamics is key to deeper understanding of the Gulf.

Personal Log

The schedule along the Seward Line and as we head to the Kodiak Line had to be adjusted due to rough seas and heavy winds.  This means we have been working variable and often long hours on the night shift. It is usually wet and cold and dark, and when it is windy the seawater we use to hose down the zooplankton nets seems to always spray into our faces and make its way into gloves and up sleeves.  But we still manage to have plenty of fun on the night shift and share lots of laughs.  There are also moments where I look up from the task at hand and am immersed in beauty, wonder, and fascination. I get to watch jellies undulate gracefully off the stern (all the while, crossing my fingers that they don’t end up in our nets  — that is bad for both them and us) and peer more closely at the zooplankton we’ve caught.  I am mesmerized by the color and motion of the breaking waves on a cloudy dawn and delighted by the sun cascading orange-pink towards the water at sunset.  I am reminded of my love, both emotional and intellectual, for the ocean!

Float coats
We experienced a lot of wind, rain, waves, and spray from the high-pressure hose (especially when I was wielding the hose), but bulky float coats kept us mostly warm and dry.

Did You Know?

Iron is the limiting nutrient in many offshore ecosystems.  Where there is more iron, there is generally more primary productivity and overall productive ecosystems.  Where there is little iron, very little can grow.  This is different than terrestrial and even coastal ecosystems, where iron is plentiful and other nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous) tend to be the limiting factors.  Because people worked from what they knew in terrestrial ecosystems, until about 30 years ago, nitrogen and phosphorous were understood to be the important nutrients to study.  It was groundbreaking when it was discovered that iron may be a crucial piece of the puzzle in many open ocean ecosystems.

Question of the Day:

Regarding sustainability and scalability of intensive ocean resource harvesting: If humans started eating plankton directly, what could happen? And a follow-up: Can we use algae from harmful bloom areas?

Question from Leah Lily, biologist, educator, and qualitative researcher, Bellingham, WA

I first shared this question with the zooplankton night crew.  The consensus was that it was not a good idea to harvest zooplankton directly for large-scale human consumption.  Some krill and other zooplankton are already harvested for ‘fish oil’ supplements; as demand increases, the sustainability of this practice has become more dubious.  The zooplankton night crew were concerned that if broader-scale zooplankton harvest were encouraged, the resource would quickly be overharvested, and that the depletion of zooplankton stocks would have even more deleterious consequences for overall ecosystem function than the depletion of specific stocks of fish. They also brought up the question of how much of each zooplankton would actually be digestible to humans.  Many of these organisms have a chitinous exoskeleton, which we wouldn’t be able to get much nutrition from.  So it seems like intensive ocean harvesting of zooplankton is likely not advisable.

However, when I talked with the lead phytoplankton researcher on board, she thought there might be slightly more promise in harvesting phytoplankton.  It is more unlikely, she thinks, that it would get rapidly depleted since there is so much phytoplankton out there dispersed across a very wide geographic scale.  Generally, harvesting lower on the food chain is more energy efficient. At every trophic level, when one organism eats another, only a fraction of the energy is utilized to build body mass. So the higher up the food web we harvest from, the more energy has been ‘lost’ to respiration and other organism functions.  Harvesting phytoplankton would minimize the amount of energy that has been lost in trophic transfer.  Unlike most zooplankton, most phytoplankton is easily digestible to people and is very rich in lipids and proteins.  It could be a good, healthy food source.  However, as she also pointed out, harvesting phytoplankton in the wild would likely require a lot of time, energy, and money because it is generally so sparse.  It likely would not be economically feasible to filter the plankton in the ocean out from the water, and, with current technologies, not particularly environmentally friendly.  Culturing, or ‘farming,’ phytoplankton might help to address these problems, and in fact blue-green algae/Spirulina is already grown commercially and available as a nutritional supplement.  And there may be some coastal places where ‘wild’ harvest would be practical.  There are a number of spots where excess nutrients, often from fertilizers applied on land that runoff into streams and rivers, can cause giant blooms of phytoplankton.  These are often considered harmful algal blooms because as the phytoplankton die, bacteria utilize oxygen to decompose them and the waters become hypoxic or anoxic.  Harvesting phytoplankton from these types of harmful algal blooms would likely be a good idea, mitigating the impacts of the HABs and providing a relatively easy food source for people.  However, it would be important to make sure that toxin-producing plankton, such as Alexandrium spp. (which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning) were not involved in the HAB.

Katie Gavenus: Thinking Like A Hungry Bird, April 28, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26-May 9, 2019

 

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently on the ‘Middleton [Island] Line’

Date: April 28, 2019

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 1715
Latitude: 59o 39.0964’ N
Longitude: 146o05.9254’ W
Wind: Southeast, 15 knots
Air Temperature: 10oC (49oF)
Air pressure: 1034 millibars
Cloudy, no precipitation

 

Science and Technology Log

Yesterday was my first full day at sea, and it was a special one! Because each station needs to be sampled both at night and during the day, coordinating the schedule in the most efficient way requires a lot of adjustments. We arrived on the Middleton Line early yesterday afternoon, but in order to best synchronize the sampling, the decision was made that we would wait until that night to begin sampling on the line. We anchored near Middleton Island and the crew of R/V Tiglax ferried some of us to shore on the zodiac (rubber skiff).

This R&R trip turned out to be incredibly interesting and relevant to the research taking place in the LTER. An old radio tower on the island has been slowly taken over by seabirds… and seabird scientists. The bird biologists from the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation have made modifications to the tower so that they can easily observe, study, and band the black-legged kittiwakes and cormorants that choose to nest on the shelfboards they’ve augmented the tower with. We were allowed to climb up into the tower, where removable plexi-glass windows look out onto each individual pair’s nesting area. This early in the season, the black-legged kittiwakes are making claims on nesting areas but have not yet built nests. Notes written above each window identified the birds that nested there last season, and we were keen to discern that many of the pairs had returned to their spot.

Gavenus1Birds
Black-legged kittiwakes are visible through the observation windows in the nesting tower on Middleton Island.

Gavenus2Birds
Nesting tower on Middleton Island.

The lead researcher on the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation (ISRC) project was curious about what the LTER researchers were finding along the Middleton Line stations. He explained that the birds “aren’t happy” this spring and are traveling unusually long distances and staying away for multiple days, which might indicate that these black-legged kittiwakes are having trouble finding high-quality, accessible food. In particular, he noted that he hasn’t seen any evidence they’ve been consuming the small lantern fish (myctophids) that generally are an important and consistent food source from them in the spring. These myctophids tend to live offshore from Middleton Island and migrate to the surface at night. We’ll be sampling some of that area tonight, and I am eager to see if we might catch any in the 0.5 mm mesh ‘bongo’ nets that we use to sample zooplankton at each station.

The kittiwakes feed on myctophids. The myctophids feed on various species of zooplankton. The zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, or sometimes microzooplankton that in turn feeds on phytoplankton. The phytoplankton productivity is driven by complex interactions of environmental conditions, impacted by factors such as light availability, water temperature and salinity as well as the presence of nutrients and trace metals. And these water conditions are driven by abiotic factors – such as currents, tides, weather, wind, and freshwater input from terrestrial ecosystems – as well as the biotic processes that drive the movement of carbon, nutrients, and metals through the ecosystem.

Scientists deploy CTD
This CTD instrument and water sampling rosette is deployed at each station during the day to collect information about temperature and salinity. It also collects water that is analyzed for dissolved oxygen, nitrates, chlorophyll, dissolved inorganic carbon, dissolved organic carbon, and particulates.

CTD at sunset
When the sun sets, the CTD gets a break, and the night crew focuses on zooplankton.

Part of the work of the LTER is to understand the way that these complex factors and processes influence primary productivity, phytoplankton, and the zooplankton community structure. In turn, inter-annual or long-term changes in phytoplankton and zooplankton community structure likely have consequences for vertebrates in and around the Gulf of Alaska, like seabirds, fish, marine mammals, and people. In other words, zooplankton community structure is one piece of understanding why the kittiwakes are or are not happy this spring. It seems that research on zooplankton communities requires, at least sometimes, to consider the perspective of a hungry bird.

Peering at a jar of copepods and euphausiids (two important types of zooplankton) we pulled up in the bongo nets last night, I was fascinated by the way they look and impressed by the amount of swimming, squirming life in the jar. My most common question about the plankton is usually some variation of “Is this …” or “What is this?” But the questions the LTER seeks to ask are a little more complex.

Considering the copepods and euphausiids, these researchers might ask, “How much zooplankton is present for food?” or “How high of quality is this food compared to what’s normal, and what does that mean for a list of potential predators?” or “How accessible and easy to find is this food compared to what’s normal, and what does that mean for a list of potential predators?” They might also ask “What oceanographic conditions are driving the presence and abundance of these particular zooplankton in this particular place at this particular time?” or “What factors are influencing the life stage and condition of these zooplankton?”

Euphausiids
Euphausiids (also known as krill) are among the types of zooplankton we collected with the bongo nets last night.

Copepods in a jar
Small copepods are among the types of zooplankton we collected with the bongo nets last night.

As we get ready for another night of sampling with the bongo nets, I am excited to look more closely at the fascinating morphology (body-shape) and movements of the unique and amazing zooplankton species. But I will also keep in mind some of the bigger picture questions of how these zooplankton communities simultaneously shape, and are shaped by, the dynamic Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. Over the course of the next 3 blogs, I plan to focus first on zooplankton, then zoom in to primary production and phytoplankton, and finally dive more into nutrients and oceanographic characteristics that drive much of the dynamics in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Personal Log 

Life on the night shift requires a pretty abrupt change in sleep patterns. Last night, we started sampling around 10 pm and finished close to 4 am. To get our bodies more aligned with the night schedule, the four of us working night shift tried to stay up for another hour or so. It was just starting to get light outside when I headed to my bunk. Happily, I had no problem sleeping until 2:30 this afternoon! I’m hoping that means I’m ready for a longer night tonight, since we’ll be deploying the bongo nets in deeper water as we head offshore along the Middleton Line.

WWII shipwreck
While on Middleton Island, we marveled at a WWII shipwreck that has been completely overtaken by seabirds for nesting.

Shipwreck filled with plants
Inputs of seabird guano, over time, have fertilized the growth of interesting lichens, mosses, grasses, and even shrubs on the sides and top of the rusty vessel.

 

Did You Know?

Imagine you have a copepod that is 0.5 mm long and a copepod that is 1.0 mm long. Because the smaller copepod is half as big in length, height, and width, overall that smaller copepod at best offers only about 1/8th as much food for a hungry animal. And that assumes that it is as calorie-dense as the larger copepod.

 

Question of the Day:

Are PCBs biomagnifying in top marine predators in the Gulf of Alaska? Are there resident orca populations in Alaska that are impacted in similar ways to the Southern Resident Orca Whale population [in Puget Sound] (by things like toxins, noise pollution, and decreasing salmon populations? Is it possible for Southern Resident Orca Whales to migrate and successfully live in the more remote areas of Alaska? Questions from Lake Washington Girl’s Middle School 6th grade science class.

These are great questions! No one on board has specific knowledge of this, but they have offered to put me in contact with researchers that focus on marine mammals, and orcas specifically, in the Gulf of Alaska. I’ll keep you posted when I know more!

Katie Gavenus: Just Around the Corner (or two!): April 22, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26 – May 9, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska (Port: Seward)

Date: April 22, 2019

Personal Introduction

Later this week, R/V Tiglax will depart the Homer Harbor in Homer, Alaska and begin the trip ‘around the corner.’  From the Homer Harbor, she will enter Kachemak Bay, flow into the larger Cook Inlet, and enter the Northern Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific Ocean. Veering to the east, and then north, she will arrive in Seward, Alaska. That trip will take about 3 days, with stops along the way for some research near the Barren Islands. Meanwhile, I’ll be working in Homer for a few extra days before I begin my own trip to Seward. I will travel on the road system, first heading north and then jaunting southeast to Seward.  It will take me 3.5 hours to drive there.

However you get there, Seward and the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project area are just around the corner from Homer.  Homer is the place where I was born and raised, the place where I became inspired by science, the place where I now have the incredible privilege of working as an environmental educator for students participating in field trips and intensive field study programs from Homer, around Alaska, and beyond.  At the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS), one of the highlights of my job is guiding youth and adults into the intertidal zone to explore the amazing biodiversity that exists there.

img_1918.jpg
A 4th grade student from West Homer Elementary explores a tidepool in Kachemak Bay

In my lifetime as a Homer resident, and over the past 12 years as an educator in Kachemak Bay, I have witnessed seemingly unfathomable changes in the Bay’s ecosystems.  These changes have been concerning to all of us who live here and are sustained by Kachemak Bay.  Most recently, we watched as many species of sea stars succumbed to sea star wasting syndrome, their bodies deteriorating and falling apart in the intertidal zone. By fall of 2016, only leather stars (Dermasterias imbricata) seemed to remain.  But over the past year, we’ve watched as true stars (Evasterias troschelii), blood stars (Henricia spp.), little six-rayed stars (Leptasterias spp.), and others have begun to reappear in the tidepools.

IMG_1959.JPG
Tidepooling in Kachemak Bay, this 4th grader found a healthy, large adult true star!

This past week, I was lucky enough to be the naturalist educator for students from West Homer Elementary as they spent 3 days in a remote part of Kachemak Bay.  This was particularly poignant for me, as many of my most treasured memories from my own elementary school experience come from a similar field trip with CACS in 4th grade.   That trip helped to inspire me towards a life of curiosity and wonder, passion for science and teaching, and commitment to stewardship of ecosystem and community.

So it was even more special that on this trip we observed a wonderfully diverse array of sea star species, including over a dozen sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides). I’ve only seen a couple of these magnificent sea stars since they all-but disappeared from Kachemak Bay in August 2016, leaving behind only eery piles of white goo.  Their absence hurt my heart, and the potential impacts of losing this important predator reverberated in my brain.  Though the future of these stars remains unknown, it was such a joy and relief to see a good number of apparently healthy sunflower stars in the intertidal this week!

IMG_1962.JPG
Finally, a healthy, good-sized sunflower star!

The Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site was created, in part, to develop an understanding of the response and resiliency of the Northern Gulf of Alaska to climate variability.  In a time when people, young and old, across Alaska and beyond are increasingly concerned about impacts of climate change, it can be challenging for educators to get youth involved in ways that aren’t overwhelming, saddening, or frustrating.  Part of my work at CACS has been thinking and working with teachers, community educators, and researchers about how we can engage youth in ways that are realistic but hopeful and proactive.  The idea that I’ll be learning about not just climate impacts but the potential resiliency of the Northern Gulf of Alaska is so cool!  I’m excited to find out more about the unique species, life cycles, and natural histories that make the Gulf of Alaska such a good place to study ecosystem resiliency, and I’m inspired to learn more about other ecosystems close to Kachemak Bay and their own potential resilience.

I am really looking forward to my time on R/V Tiglax in the Gulf of Alaska!

IMG_1721
A day kayaking with my partner Nathan and his 6-year old daughter, Johanna. I love spending time on the water, and am excited to get out in the Gulf on a much larger vessel!

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Marine Debris, September 22, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 22, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Southeast wind to 20 knots, rain showers, 6-8 with occasional 12 feet seas

59.913 N, 144.321 W (Kayak Island)

 

Science Log

Marine Debris

The wind came up a bit today, and so did the waves, but we are far enough ahead of schedule that the captain and head scientist decided we should take a two-hour excursion to Kayak Island before taking the eighteen-hour trip into Prince William Sound.  The Tiglax has a pretty deep draft, and the waters surround Kayak Island are shallow, so the boat was anchored about a mile off shore.  The waves were pretty mellow when we departed and it was a pleasant zodiac ride to shore.

The ocean side of Kayak Island is as remote as you can get, but it is covered with human trash. Marine debris is not new, fishing lines, nets, and glass floats have been washing up on beaches for hundreds of years, but the issue changed with the advent of plastics in the 1950’s.  Plastic is buoyant, supremely durable, and absolutely ubiquitous in modern human society.

The beach we walked on faces the ocean and the intense energy of winter storms was obvious.  There were logs thrown up to the high tide of the beach that were nearly four feet in diameter.  The rocks on the beach were polished, rubbed free of their edges.  Driftwood pieces were sanded smooth by the energetic action of waves smashing against rocks.  There were all kinds of interesting things to discover, including fresh bear tracks and some rather large piles of scat.  But more than anything else, there was plastic.  Plastic bottles, plastic fishing floats, fishing line, and wide variety of other refuse.  Some of it below the high tide line, and much of it thrown far back into the dense alder and salmon berry bushes above the high tide line.  Labels and lettering indicated much of the debris was from Asia.  Some of it may have been debris from the large tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, but much of it was just fishing gear lost during ordinary storms or accidents.

The Kuroshio Current
The Kuroshio Current

So how does fishing gear from Taiwan or Japan end up on a remote Alaskan beach?  Currents is the simple answer, specifically, the Kuroshio Current that flows towards the northeast from Japan.  The Kuroshio Current is a swift moving, warm water current, and it pushes debris into the North Pacific Gyre.  A Gyre is clockwise moving merry-go-round of ocean moved by the rotation of the Earth around its axis and by the prevailing winds.  Much of the debris from Asia gets trapped in that Gyre and coalesces into a floating soup of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage patch. Some of that debris ends up washing ashore on the islands of Northwestern Hawaiian Archipelago, and some of it takes a left-hand turn, getting caught up in the counterclockwise movements of the Gulf of Alaska Current.  Kayak Island sticks out into the Gulf of Alaska like a hitchhiker’s thumb, and does a good job of catching floating debris.

Kayak Island Alaska
Kayak Island Alaska

Marine debris is more than a problem of unsightly litter.  Fishing gear lost in the water keeps on fishing, catching fish, birds, and sea turtles.  Plastic breaks apart into smaller pieces and ends up in the bellies of seabirds, turtles, marine mammals, and fish.  It’s not uncommon to find dead sea birds in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands with bellies completely filled with human trash.  Seabirds don’t consciously eat plastic, but in lower light conditions floating plastic can look like squid or krill.  To a hungry sea turtle, plastic bags and bottles can look like floating jellies and may clog the digestive system of an animal that eats them.  Plastics also concentrate potentially toxic organic chemicals that can work their way up the food chain into the fish and seafood that we eat.

Much to the annoyance of the crew, we picked up some of the larger floats and brought them on board the Tiglax. Larger efforts have been organized to do summer clean-up work on the outer islands of the Prince William Sound, but their efforts are a drop in a very large bucket.  The problem of plastic debris is enormous and in desperate need of a global solution.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Personal Log

Big Wave Riders

A rainbow visible as we left Kayak Island.
A rainbow visible as we left Kayak Island.

It doesn’t take long for waves to build in the Gulf of Alaska.  Within an hour and a half, the waves had risen to six feet with occasional ten foot monsters cresting just off the beach.  You could see white caps and even a mile away on the beach you could see the Tiglax bobbing up and down.  Marin, our ever-calm skiff driver, told us in a pleasant voice that the ride would be a little bumpy and that we might be “uncomfortable.”  In reality, it was a harrowing fifteen minutes that seemed to take much longer. I was sitting in front of the zodiac and was thrown several feet in the air more than once as we crested waves much larger than our boat. While on the beach I had discovered an intact 500-watt red lightbulb, used as a squid attractor by fishermen in Asia.  We had seen some of these floating on the surface the last few days, and to me it was the perfect piece of marine debris to take back to my classroom.  Unfortunately, that meant I was riding the bucking bronco that was our zodiac with a very fragile piece of glass in my left hand.  As I was getting air going over each wave, I was very conscious of the potential laceration I was risking to my hand or worse to the rubber zodiac.  Somehow we made it back to the boat, light bulb intact.  For the last two weeks, the Tiglax has grown to feel quite small, even confining, but as we approached the boat it seemed gigantic, dwarfing our skiff with its large steel hull crashing up and down in the waves like a giant hammer.  We tossed our bow line to the crew waiting on the back deck and they held us marginally in place as each of us timed our climb up a safety line with a rising wave.  “Don’t jump, take it slow, wait for the next wave if you need to,” said the captain.  The three other passengers on the zodiac did just as instructed.  The last passenger out, I grabbed the safety line with my right hand, but was unable to climb because of the glass treasure in my left hand. I jumped, skidding onto the back deck as if it was home plate, light bulb still in my left hand.

[Postscript: That lightbulb survived a trip across the Pacific Ocean, washing ashore on a rocky beach, and a trip to the Tiglax by a possibly foolish collector.  However, it only survived 24 hours in my classroom, smashed by an unknown student while I was visiting the bathroom.  Just so you know, high school students are rougher than the Pacific Ocean.]

Red Light Bulb Marine Debris
Red Light Bulb Marine Debris

We all managed to get back on board safely.  The experience and training of the crew really showed through.  When asked later if that was crazy, they answered with a casual dismissal, “just another day at the office.”

We got underway in large seas, six to eight feet, with the occasional twelve-footer.  I don’t know the techniques used to calculate such things, but some of those waves were huge.  As we positioned the boat perpendicular to the waves, each dip into a trough sent spray crashing over the bow of the boat.  I went up to the flying bridge, held on tight to a railing, and enjoyed the ride. The waves were wild and beautiful.  The sun occasionally peaked out from the clouds and the seas reflected a diverse assortment of blue and grey hues.

At the end of Kayak Island there stands the sharp cliffs of Point Elias, a lighthouse at its base, and a rock spire called Pinnacle Rock in front of it.  I’ve seen pictures of this place. It’s an iconic Alaskan image.   I felt lucky to be watching it as we rounded the point and headed into Prince William Sound for the last leg of our trip.

Did you know?

The size of a wave is determined by the multiplication of three variables.  The speed of the wind, the duration the wind blows, and the fetch (distance the wind blows.)  Increase any of those three and waves get bigger.  The size of waves can also be impacted by changing tides or currents and the specific topography of a shoreline.

Animals seen today

  • Stellar Sea Lions
  • Sea otter
  • Lots of birds including Haroquin ducks, double crested cormorants, gulls, common murres, and a blue heron

Mark Van Arsdale: Kodiak, September 17, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 17, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

This morning 25 knot winds from the NE, waves to 8ft, tonight calm seas variable winds, light rain

58.14 N, 151.35 W (Kodiak Line)

Science Log

Kodiak  

CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Kodiak line.
CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Kodiak line.

My wife and I have traveled to Raspberry and Kodiak Islands twice.  The island’s raw beauty, verdant colors, and legendary fishing make it one of my favorite places on Earth.  Its forests are dense, with huge hemlocks and thick growths of salmon berries.  The slopes are steep and covered with lush grasses.  Fish and wildlife abound.  As we moved our way down the Kodiak line, getting closer and closer to land, that richness of life was reflected in waters surrounding the Island.  In just fifty nautical miles we moved from a depth of a few thousand meters to less than one hundred.  Seabirds became more abundant, and we saw large groups of sooty and Buller’s shearwaters, some of them numbering in the thousands.  Sooty shearwaters nest in the southern hemisphere and travel half way across the planet to feed in the rich waters surrounding Kodiak.  Fin whales were also abundant today, and could be seen feeding in small groups at the surface. Our plankton tows also changed.  Deep sea species like lantern fish and Euphausiids disappeared and pteropods became abundant. We caught two species of pteropods that go by the common names – sea butterflies and sea angels.  Sea butterflies look like snails with clear shells and gelatinous wings.  Sea angels look more like slugs, but also swim with a fluttering of their wings.  Pteropods are an important part of the Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem, in particular to the diets of salmon.

Sooty shearwaters as far as you can see.
Sooty shearwaters as far as you can see.

In the last decade, scientists have become aware that the ocean’s pH is changing, becoming more acidic. Sea water, like blood, is slightly basic, typically 8.2 on the pH scale.  As we have added more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, about half of that gas has dissolved into the oceans. When CO2 is dissolved in sea water if forms carbonic acid, and eventually releases hydrogen ions, lowering the waters pH.  In the last decade, sea water pH has dropped to 8.1 and is predicted to be well below 8 by 2050.  A one tenth change in pH may not seem like much, but the pH scale is logarithmic, meaning that that one tenth point change actually represents a thirty percent increase in the ocean’s acidity.   Pteropods are particularly vulnerable to these changes, as their aragonite shells are more difficult to make in increasingly acidic conditions.


A nice introduction to Pteropods

Personal Log

I chose teaching

We have been at sea now for one week. I feel adrift without the comforts and routines of family, exercise, and school. There are no distractions here, no news to follow, and no over-scheduled days.  There is just working, eating, and sleeping. Most of the crew and scientists on board seem to really enjoy that routine.  I am finding it difficult.

There was a point in my twenties where I wanted nothing more than to become a field biologist. I wanted to leave society, go to where the biological world was less disturbed and learn its lessons. I see the same determination in the graduate students aboard the Tiglax. When working, they are always hyper focused on their data and the defined protocols they use to collect it.  If anything goes wrong with tow or sampling station, we repeat it. You clearly need that kind of focus to do good research. Over time, cut corners or the accumulation of small errors can become inaccurate and misleading trends.

When I was in graduate school hoping to become a marine biologist, I was asked to be teaching assistant to an oceanography class for non-science majors. Never having considered teaching, the experience opened my eyes to the joys of sharing the natural world with others, and changed my path in ways that I don’t regret. I am a teacher; over the last twenty years it has come to define me. On this trip, they call me a Teacher at Sea, yet the title is really a misnomer.  I have nothing to teach these people, they are the experts.  Really, I am a student at sea, trying to learn all that I can about each thing I observe and each conversation I have.

Bowler's shearwater, photo credit Callie Gesmundo.
Buller’s shearwater, photo credit Callie Gesmundo.

 

Animals seen today

  • Fin whales
  • Lost of shearwaters (mostly sooty but also Buller’s), along with puffins, auklets, skua

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part III – Zooplankton, September 15, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 15, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Mostly cloudy, winds southerly 20 knots, waves to eight feet

57.56 N, 147.56 W (in transit from Gulf of Alaska Line to Kodiak Line)

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part III Zooplankton

The North Gulf of Alaska Long-term Ecological Research Project collects zooplankton in several different ways.  The CalVET Net is dropped vertically over the side of the boat to a depth of 100 meters and then retrieved.  This net gives researchers a vertical profile of what is going on in the water column.  The net has very fine mesh in order to collect very small plankton.  Some of these samples are kept alive for later experiments. Others are preserved in ethanol for later genetic analysis. One of the scientists aboard is interested in the physiological details of what makes copepods thrive or not.  Copepods are so important to the food webs of the Gulf of Alaska, that their success or failure can ultimately determines the success or failure of many other species in the ecosystem.  When “the blob” hit the Gulf of Alaska in 2014-2016, thousands and thousands of sea birds died.  During those same years, copepods were shown to be less successful in their growth and egg production.

Chief Scientist Russ Hopcroft prepping the Multi-net
Chief Scientist Russ Hopcroft prepping the Multi-net

The second net used to collect zooplankton is the Multi-net.  We actually use two different Multi-nets.  The first is set up to do a vertical profile.  In the morning, it’s dropped vertically behind the boat.  Four or five times a night, we tow the second Multi-net horizontally while the boat moves slowly forward at two knots.  This allows us to collect a horizontal profile of plankton at specific depths.  If the water depth is beyond 200 meters, we will lower the net to that depth and open the first net.  The first net samples between 200 and 100 meters, above 100 meters we open the second net.  As we go up each net is opened in decreasing depth increments, the last one being very close to the surface.  Once the net is retrieved, we wash organisms down into the cod end, remove the cod end, and preserve the samples in glass jars with formalin. In a busy night, we may put away twenty-five pint-sized samples of preserved zooplankton.  When those samples go back to Fairbanks they have to be hand-sorted by a technician to determine the numbers and relative mass of each species.  We are talking hours and hours of time spend looking through a microscope.  One night of work on the Tiglax may produce one month of work for technicians in the lab.

 

Underwater footage of a Multi-net triggering.

The last type of net we use is a Bongo net.  Its steel frame looks like the frame of large bongo drums.  Hanging down behind the frame is two fine mesh nets, approximately seven feet long terminating in a hard plastic sieve or cod end.  Different lines use different nets based on the specific questions researchers have for that transect line or the technique used on previous years transects.   To maintain a proper time series comparison from year to year, techniques and tools have to stay consistent.

A cod end
A cod end

I’ve spent a little bit of time under the microscope looking at some of the zooplankton samples we have brought in. They are amazingly diverse. The North Gulf of Alaska has two groups of zooplankton that can be found in the greatest abundance: copepods and euphausiids (krill.)    These are food for most other animals in the North Gulf of Alaska.  Fish, seabirds, and baleen whales all eat them.  Beyond these two, I was able to observe the beating cilia of ctenophores and the graceful flight of pteropods or sea angels, the ghost-like arrow worms, giant-eyed amphipods, and dozens of others.

Deep sea squid, an example of a vertical migrator caught in our plankton trawls
Deep sea squid, an example of a vertical migrator caught in our plankton trawls

By far my favorite zooplankton to watch under the microscope was the larvae of the goose neck barnacle.  Most sessile marine organisms spend the early, larval stage of their lives swimming amongst the throngs of migrating zooplankton.  Barnacles are arthropods, which are defined by their exoskeletons and segmented appendages.  Most people would recognize barnacles encrusting the rocks of their favorite coastline, but when I show my students videos of barnacles feeding most are surprised to see the delicate feeding structures and graceful movements of this most durable intertidal creature.  When submerged, barnacles open their shells and scratch at particles in the water with elongated combs that are really analogous to legs. The larva of the goose neck barnacle has profusely long feeding appendages and a particularly beautiful motion as it feeds.

We have to “fish” for zooplankton at night for two reasons.  The first is logistical.  Some work needs to get done at night when the winch is not being used by the CTD team.  The second is biological.  Most of the zooplankton in this system are vertical migrators.  They rise each night to feed on phytoplankton near the surface and then descend back down to depth to avoid being seen in the daylight by their predators.  This vertical migration was first discovered by sonar operators in World War II.  While looking for German U-boats, it was observed that the ocean floor itself seemed to “rise up” each night.  After the war, better techniques were developed to sample zooplankton, and scientists realized that the largest animal migration on Earth takes place each night and each morning over the entirety of the ocean basins.


One of my favorite videos on plankton.

Personal Log

The color of water

This far offshore, the water we are traveling through is almost perfectly clear, yet the color of the ocean seems continuously in flux.  Today the sky turned gray and so did the ocean.  As the waves come up, the texture of the ocean thickens and the diversity of reflection and refraction increases.   Look three times in three directions, and you will see three hundred different shades of grey or blue.  If the sun or clouds change slightly, so does the ocean.

The sea is anything but consistent. Rips or streaks of current can periodically be seen separating the ocean into distinct bodies.  So far in our trip, calm afternoons have turned into windy and choppy evenings. Still, the crew tells me that by Gulf of Alaska standards, we are having amazing weather.

Variations in water texture created by currents in the Gulf of Alaska.
Variations in water texture created by currents in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Did You Know?

The bodies of puffins are much better adapted to diving than flying.  A puffin with a full belly doesn’t fly to get out of the way of the boat so much as butterfly across the surface of the water.  Michael Phelps has nothing on a puffin flapping its way across the surface of the water.

 

Animals Seen Today

  • Fin and sperm whales in the distance
  • Storm Petrels, tufted puffins, Laysan and black-footed and short-tailed albatross, flesh footed shearwaters

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part II – Phytoplankton, September 14, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 14, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Mostly cloudy, winds variable 10 knots, waves to four feet

58.27 N, 148.07 W (Gulf of Alaska Line)

 

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem?  Part II Phytoplankton

Most of my students know that the sun provides the foundational energy for almost all of Earth’s food webs.  Yet many students will get stumped when I ask them, where does the mass of a tree comes from?  The answer of course is carbon dioxide from the air, but I bet you already knew that.

Scientists use the term “primary productivity” to explain how trees, plants, and algae take in carbon dioxide and “fix it” into carbohydrates during the process of photosynthesis.  Out here in the Gulf of Alaska, the primary producers are phytoplankton (primarily diatoms and dinoflagellates). When examining diatoms under a microscope, they look like tiny golden pillboxes, or perhaps Oreos if you are feeling hungry.

Primary productivity experiments running on the back deck of the Tiglax.
Primary productivity experiments running on the back deck of the Tiglax.

One of the teams of scientists on board is trying to measure the rates of primary productivity using captive phytoplankton and a homemade incubation chamber. They collect phytoplankton samples, store them in sealed containers, and then place them into the incubator.  Within their sample jars, they inject a C13 isotope.  After the experiment has run its course, they will use vacuum filtration to separate the phytoplankton cells from the seawater.  Once the phytoplankton cells are captured on filter paper they can measure the ratios of C12 to C13. Almost all of the carbon available in the environment is C12 and can be distinguished from C13.  The ratios of C12 to C13 in the cells gives them a measurement of how much dissolved carbon is being “fixed” into sugars by phytoplankton.  Apparently using C14  would actually work better but C14 is radioactive and the Tiglax is not equipped with the facilities to hand using a radioactive substance.

During the September survey, phytoplankton numbers are much lower than they are in the spring.  The nutrients that they need to grow have largely been used up.  Winter storms will mix the water and bring large amounts of nutrients back to the surface.  When sunlight returns in April, all of the conditions necessary for phytoplankton growth will be present, and the North Gulf of Alaska will experience a phytoplankton bloom.  It’s these phytoplankton blooms that create the foundation for the entire Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.

Personal Log

Interesting things to see

The night shift is not getting any easier.  The cumulative effects of too little sleep are starting to catch up to me, and last night I found myself dosing off between plankton tows.  The tows were more interesting though.  Once we got past the edge of the continental shelf, the diversity of zooplankton species increased and we started to see lantern fish in each of the tows.  Lantern fish spend their days below one thousand feet in the darkness of the mesopelagic and then migrate up each night to feed on zooplankton.  The have a line of photophores (light producing cells) on their ventral sides.  When they light them up, their bodies blend in to the faint light above, hiding their silhouette, making them functionally invisible.

A lantern fish with its bioluminescent photophores visible along its belly.
A lantern fish with its bioluminescent photophores visible along its belly.

Once I am up in the morning, the most fun place to hang out on the Tiglax is the flying bridge.  Almost fifty feet up and sitting on top of the wheelhouse, it has a cushioned bench, a wind block, and a killer view.  This is where our bird and marine mammal observers work.  Normally there is one U.S. Fish and Wildlife observer who works while the boat is transiting from one station to the next.  On this trip, there is a second observer in training.  The observers’ job is to use a very specific protocol to count and identify any sea bird or marine mammal seen along the transect lines.

Today we saw lots of albatross; mostly black-footed, but a few Laysan, and one short-tailed albatross that landed next to the boat while were casting the CTD.  The short-tailed albatross was nearly extinct a few years ago, and today is still considered endangered. That bird was one of only 4000 of its species remaining.  Albatross have an unfortunate tendency to follow long-line fishing boats.  They try to grab the bait off of hooks and often are drowned as the hooks drag them to the bottom.  Albatross are a wonder to watch as they glide effortlessly a few inches above the waves.  They have narrow tapered wings that are comically long. When they land on the water, they fold their gangly wings back in a way that reminds me of a kid whose growth spurts hit long before their body knows what to do with all of that height.   While flying, however, they are a picture of grace and efficiency.  They glide effortlessly just a few inches above the water, scanning for an unsuspecting fish or squid.  When some species of albatross fledge from their nesting grounds, they may not set foot on land again for seven years, when their own reproductive instincts drive them to land to look for a mate.

Our birders seem to appreciate anyone who shares their enthusiasm for birds and are very patient with all of my “What species is that?” questions.  They have been seeing whales as well.  Fin and sperm whales are common in this part of the gulf and they have seen both.

A Laysan Albatross
A Laysan Albatross, photo credit Dan Cushing

 

Did You Know?

Albatross, along with many other sea birds, have life spans comparable to humans.  It’s not uncommon for them to live sixty or seventy years, and they don’t reach reproductive maturity until well into their teens.

 

Animals Seen Today

  • Fin and sperm whales
  • Storm Petrels, tufted puffins, Laysan and black-footed and short-tailed albatross, flesh footed shearwater

 

Jenny Smallwood: From Jellies to Worms, September 21, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Jenny Smallwood

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

September 4 – 17, 2017

Mission: Juvenile Pollock Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: September 21, 2017

Weather Data from Virginia Beach, Virginia
Latitude: 36⁰ 49’13.7 N
Longitude: 75⁰ 59’01.2 W
Temperature: 19⁰ Celsius (67⁰ Fahrenheit)
Winds: 1 mph SSW

In just a matter of days, my world has gone from this

(we often had a crazy amount of jellyfish to sort through to find the year 0 Pollock)

to this….

(my super worms are warming up their races at the scout overnight tomorrow)

It’s also given me a few days to reflect on the incredible experience I had at sea.

Science and Technology Log

Science is a collaborative. Many people do not realize the amount of teamwork that goes into the scientific process. For instance, several of the scientists on board my cruise don’t actually study Pollock. One of the guys studies Salmon, but he was still on the cruise helping out. I think that’s what really struck me. The folks from the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center pull together as a team to make sure that everyone gets the data they need. They all jump on board ships to participate in research cruises even if it’s not their specific study area, and it’s quite likely someone else is in another location doing the same thing for them. At the end of the day, it’s the data that matters and not whose project it is.

Personal Log

Since returning home, the most frequent question I have received is “what was your favorite part?” At first, I didn’t know how to answer this question. To have such an incredible experience crammed into two weeks, makes it difficult to narrow it down. After a few days of reflection, I finally have an answer.

The onboard relationships were my favorite part of my Teacher at Sea cruise. I appreciated that the entire crew took me under their wing, showed me the ropes, and made 12 hour shifts sorting through jellyfish for Pollock fun! This is the only place where I could have the opportunity to work and live with scientists in such close proximity. I was fascinated by each scientist’s story: how they got into their specialty, what their background is, why they feel what they’re doing is important, etc. I learned that 10 pm became the silly hour when the second cup of coffee kicked in along with the dance music. I learned that beyond Pollock research these folks were also rescuers taking in tired birds that fell onto the ship, warming them up, and then releasing them.

When the next person asks “what was your favorite part?” I will be ready with an answer along with a big smile as I remember all the goofy night shifts, the incredible inside look at sea based research, and the wonderful people I met.  Oh, and the views.

IMG_20170915_104329
The view from Captain’s Bay near Dutch Harbor, Alaska before a big storm blew in.

 

Jenny Smallwood: Rough Seas Asea, September 13, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Jenny Smallwood

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

September 4 – 17, 2017

Mission: Juvenile Pollock Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: September 13, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 55 06.6N
Longitude:158 39.5W
Winds: 20 S
Temperature: 11 degrees Celsius (51.8 degrees Fahrenheit)

Up. Down. Up. Down. Left. Right….no I’m not in an aerobics class. High winds and seas cause my chair to slide across the floor as I type.

weather

Thus far we’ve been working 12 hour shifts, 24 hours a day. Today we’re sitting about twirling our thumbs as 12 feet seas toss us about. It’s not too bad actually, but it is bad enough to make operations unsafe for both crew and equipment. I’ve been impressed with the safety first culture on-board the Oscar Dyson. Hopefully, it’ll calm down soon, and we can start operations again.

Science and Technology Log

Ship support systems for power, water, sewage treatment, and heating/cooling are all several levels below the main deck, which makes ship engineers a bit like vessel moles. These hard working guys ensure important life support systems work smoothly. Highlights from my time with them include a lesson on the evaporator and engines.

The evaporator, which for some reason I keep calling the vaporizer, produces the fresh water drinking supply. The evaporator works by drawing in cold seawater and then uses excess engine heat to evaporate, or separate, the freshwater from the seawater. The remaining salt is discarded as waste. On average, the evaporator produces approximately 1,400 gallons of water per day.
*Side note: the chief engineer decided vaporizer sounds a lot more interesting than evaporator. Personally, I feel like vaporizer is what Star Trek-y people would have called the system on their ships.

IMG_20170909_145438
The evaporator in action.

The Oscar Dyson has 4 generators on board, two large, and two small. The generators are coupled with the engines. Combined they produce the electricity for the ship’s motors and onboard electrical needs, such as lights, computers, scientific equipment, etc.

IMG_20170909_145326

IMG_20170909_145132
I even got to see the prop shaft.

Personal Log

This week I also spent time in the Galley with Ava and Adam. (For those of you who know me, it’s no surprise that I befriended those in charge of food.) Read on for a summary of Ava’s life at sea story.

Me: How did you get your start as a galley cook?

Ava: When I was about 30 years old, a friend talked me into applying to be a deck hand.

Me: Wait. A deck hand?

Ava: That’s right. I was hired on to a ship and was about to set out for the first time when both the chief steward and 2nd cook on a different ship quit. My CO asked if I cook to which I replied “for my kids,” which was good enough for him. They immediately flew me out to the other ship where I became the 2nd cook. 12 years later I’m now a Chief Steward.

Me: Wow! Going from cooking for your kids to cooking for about forty crew members must have been a huge change. How did that go?

Ava: To be honest, I made a lot phone calls to my mom that first year. She helped me out a lot by giving me recipes and helping me figure out how to increase the serving sizes. Over the years I’ve paid attention to other galley cooks so I now have a lot of recipes that are my own and also borrowed.

Me: What exactly does a Chief Steward do?

Ava: The Chief Steward oversees the running of the galley, orders food and supplies, plans menus, and supervises the 2nd Cook. I’m a little different in that I also get in there to cook, clean, and wash dishes alongside my 2nd Cook. I feel like I can’t ask him to do something that I’m not willing to do too.

Me: So you didn’t actually go to school to be a chef. Did you have to get any certifications along the way?

Ava: When I first started out, certifications weren’t required. Now they are, and I have certifications in food safety and handling.

There are schools for vessel cooking though. My daughter just recently graduated from seafarers school. The school is totally free, except for the cost of your certification at the very end. For people interested in cooking as a career, it’s a great alternative to other, more expensive college/culinary school options. Now she’s traveling the world, doing a job she loves, and putting a lot of money into her savings.

Me: Talking with crew members on this ship, the one thing they all say is how hard it is to be away from family for long stretches of time. A lot of them are on the ship for ten months out of the year, and they do that for years and years. It’s interesting that your daughter decided to follow in your footsteps after experiencing that separation firsthand.

Ava: I was surprised too. Being away from friends and family is very hard on ship crew. Luckily for me, my husband is also part of the NOAA crew system so we get to work and travel together. Nowadays I’m part of the augment program so I get to set my own schedule. It gives me more flexibility to stay home and be a grandma!

Did You Know?

Nautical miles are based on the circumference of the earth and is 1 minute of latitude. 1 nautical mile equals 1.1508 statue miles.

Jenny Smallwood: Adventure Awaits, August 29, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Jenny Smallwood

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

September 4 – 17, 2017

 

Mission: Juvenile Walleye Pollack Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Current Location: Virginia Beach, Virginia

Date: 8/29/2017

 

Weather Data from the beach

Currently Virginia Beach is experiencing Potential Tropical Cyclone 10.  The temperature is topped out at 75°F.  The winds are out of the NE at about 13 mph right now.  That’s expected to increase to 25-35 mph with gusts up to 50 mph this afternoon.  Forecasts predict mild flash flooding and some tidal flooding around the 2 pm high tide.

Potential Tropical Cyclone 10
Potential Tropical Cyclone 10 Wind Speed Probability Map. Image courtesy of the National Hurricane Center

Introduction – Personal Log

My name is Jenny Smallwood, and I’m a school and youth programs educator at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  I’m in my 11th year as an educator, which included 8 years as a high school science teacher.  These days I get to hang out with and educate scouts, school groups, and other visitors to the Aquarium.  One of the coolest things I’ve experienced working here is watching as a student sees the ocean for the very first time!  It was that experience that helped me realize how important it is to share the oceans and oceanic research with people who can’t experience it themselves.  I want to bring my Teacher at Sea experience to those individuals who don’t have the Chesapeake Bay or an ocean in their backyard.  I want to help them experience the life of a marine researcher.

Outside of my role as an educator, I love to go on all the adventures.  My husband, Lee, and I enjoy traveling and have nicknamed ourselves “adventure nerds.”  We even have a theme song.  Like I said, we’re nerds.  I’m super excited about this latest adventure with Teacher at Sea.  I’m still amazed that I was one of the few chosen for this year’s research cruises.

Eldfell Volcano
Warming our hands from the heat emitted by Eldfell, a volcano located on the Westman Islands in Iceland.

Science and Technology Log

The Oscar Dyson is a NOAA research vessel used for fisheries surveys important to fisheries management.  Commissioned in 2005, this 208.6 feet long ultra-quiet survey ship is considered one of the most technologically advanced fisheries survey vessels in the world.  That’s right.  This ship is super stealthy so we can sneak up on the fish.  It also has numerous labs onboard, including a wet, dry, bio, and hydro lab.

Oscar Dyson
The Oscar Dyson near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Courtesy of NOAA.

On this trip, the Oscar Dyson will pull out of Kodiak, Alaska and make its way southwest through the Gulf of Alaska to take up position for Leg 2 of the EMA-EcoFOCI Juvenile Walleye Pollock and Forage Fish Survey.

Leg 2 Map
Leg 2 Sampling Station Map in the Gulf of Alaska. Image courtesy of NOAA

What does that mean exactly?  Well, it means that scientists will collect Walleye Pollock data to get an idea of what the population looks like.  They’ll also take zooplankton samples, smaller prey fish samples, and collect environmental data to see how these factors might be affecting Pollock.  Basically scientists and policy makers need information in order to properly manage this fishery, and this is where NOAA comes in.  I can’t wait to learn more about the application of this research as scientists learn even more about the ecology of Pollock. 

To collect these samples, scientists will be using a variety of tools.  Bongo nets will be used to collect zooplankton samples.  From what I’ve learned so far, it sounds like specially mounted equipment collects water data along with the plankton.  A Stauffer trawl net will be used to sample fish species.  A CTD rosette (CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, and density) will be used along the way to corroborate that the other water data equipment is indeed working correctly.  Scientists, like mathematicians, do love to double check their work.

 

Did You Know?

Did you know that NOAA is part of our daily lives?  Both the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center are part of this organization.  To learn more about the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Harvey, or Potential Tropical Cyclone 10, visit their website: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/

 

 

 

Amanda Dice: Bongos in the Water, August 24, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Amanda Dice

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 21 – September 2, 2017

 

Mission: Juvenile Pollock Fishery Survey

Geographic area of cruise: Western Gulf of Alaska

Date: August 24, 2017

Weather Data: 11.5 C, Foggy

Latitude 56 35.5 N, Longitude 153 21.9 W

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This map on the bridge helps everyone keep track of where we are and where we are headed next.

Science and Technology Log

At each sampling site, we take two types of samples. First, we dip what are called bongo nets into the water off of the side of the boat. These nets are designed to collect plankton. Plankton are tiny organisms that float in the water. Then, we release long nets off of the back of the boat to take a fish sample. There is a variety of fish that get collected. However, the study targets five species, one of which is juvenile walleye pollock, Gadus chalcogrammus. These fish are one of the most commercially fished species in this area. I will go into more detail about how the fish samples are collected in a future post. For now, I am going to focus on how plankton samples are collected and why they are important to this survey.

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Juvenile walleye pollock are fish that are only a few inches long. These fish can grow to much larger sizes as they mature.

As you can see in the photos below, the bongo nets get their name because the rings that hold the nets in place resemble a set of bongo drums. The width of the nets tapers from the ring opening to the other end. This shape helps funnel plankton down the nets and into the collection pieces found at the end of the nets. These collection devices are called cod ends.

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Bongo nets being lowered into the water off of the side of the ship.

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This is the collection end, or cod end, of the bongo nets.

This study uses two different size bongo nets. The larger ones are attached to rings that are 60 centimeters in diameter. These nets have a larger mesh size at 500 micrometers. The smaller ones are attached to rings that are 20 centimeters in diameter and have a smaller mesh size at 150 micrometers. The different size nets help us take samples of plankton of different sizes. While the bongo nets will capture some phytoplankton (plant-like plankton) they are designed to mainly capture zooplankton (animal-like plankton). Juvenile pollock eat zooplankton. In order to get a better understanding of juvenile pollock populations, it is important to also study their food sources.

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Here I am, helping to bring the bongo nets back on to the ship.

Once the bongo nets have been brought back on board, there are two different techniques used to assess which species of zooplankton are present. The plankton in nets #1 of both the small and large bongo are placed in labeled jars with preservatives. These samples will be shipped to a lab in Poland once the boat is docked. Here, a team will work to identify all the zooplankton in each jar. We will probably make it to at least sixty sampling sites on the first leg of this survey. That’s a lot of zooplankton!

 

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A jar of preserved zooplankton is ready to be identified.

The other method takes place right on the ship and is called rapid zooplankton assessment (RZA). In this method, a scientist will take a small sample of what was collected in nets #2 of both the small and large bongos. The samples are viewed under a microscope and the scientist keeps a tally of which species are present. This number gives the scientific team some immediate feedback and helps them get a general idea about which species of zooplankton are present. Many of the zooplankton collected are krill, or euphausiids, and copepods. One of the most interesting zooplankton we have sampled are naked pteropods, or sea angels. This creature has structures that look very much like a bird’s wings! We also saw bioluminescent zooplankton flash a bright blue as we process the samples. Even though phytoplankton is not a part of this study, we also noticed the many different geometric shapes of phytoplankton called diatoms.

 

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A naked pteropod, or sea angel, as seen through the microscope.

Personal Log

Both the scientific crew and the ship crew work one of two shifts. Everyone works either midnight to noon or noon to midnight. I have been lucky enough to work from 6am – 6pm. This means I get the chance to work with everyone on board at different times of the day. It has been really interesting to learn more about the different ship crew roles necessary for a survey like this to run smoothly. One of the more fascinating roles is that of the survey crew. Survey crew members act as the main point of communication between the science team and the ship crew. They keep everyone informed about important information throughout the day as well as helping out the science team when we are working on a sample. They are responsible for radioing my favorite catchphrase to the bridge and crew, “bongos in the water.”

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A sign of another great day on the Gulf of Alaska.

Did You know?

You brush your teeth with diatoms! The next time you brush your teeth, take a look at the ingredients on your tube of toothpaste. You will see “diatomaceous earth” listed. Diatomaceous earth is a substance that contains the silica from ancient diatoms. Silica gives diatoms their rigid outer casings, allowing them to have such interesting geometric shapes. This same silica also helps you scrub plaque off of your teeth!

diatoms
Diatoms as seen through a microscope.

 

Amanda Dice: From Sea to Shining Sea, August 17, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Amanda Dice

Soon to be aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 21 – September 2, 2017

 

Mission: Juvenile Walleye Pollock and Forage Fish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska (near Kodiak)

Date: August 17, 2017

Weather Data: 30.5°C, cloudy, 78% humidity

Location: Baltimore, MD

Intro
Out on the east coast waters utilizing my favorite form of Baltimore’s transportation options – its fleet of kayaks!

Introduction

It is hot and sticky here in Baltimore and I am looking forward to breathing in the crisp air in Alaska. I am also looking forward to being out on the water. As a Baltimore resident, I am able to spend time in the beautiful Chesapeake Bay. It is a great place to get out on a kayak and take in nature. I can’t wait to take this experience to the next level on the waters of the Gulf of Alaska. I try to go on at least one big adventure each year, and the Teacher at Sea experience definitely will fulfill this goal for 2017! I am also excited about all of the new things I will learn on this trip and I am looking forward to sharing these with my students. I teach STEM courses to students who attend online school. I have seen how connecting scientific experiences and data with students can spark their interest in STEM fields.  I am very excited to have the opportunity to use this experience to engage students in scientific activities and discussions.

 

Science and Technology Log

This mission will take place on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson, which has its home port in Kodiak, Alaska. From Kodiak we will move through the waters surrounding Kodiak Island and eastward into the Gulf of Alaska. The scientific team will be studying populations of walleye pollock and zooplankton in these waters. The mission will be conducted in two parts. I will be aboard for Leg 1 of the mission. Leg 2 will begin shortly after we return to port on September 2nd. The map below show all of the sampling locations that will be visited during this mission. Leg 1 sampling locations are indicated by red dots. At each location, a variety of sampling will take place. From what I have learned about the mission, it looks like we will be using several different trawls to collect samples. We will then use a variety of methods to identify species and collect data once the samples are onboard.

leg 1 map
This map shows the sampling locations of Leg 1 (red) and Leg 2 (blue) for the Gulf of Alaska Juvenile Walleye Pollock Survey. Courtesy of NOAA.

The Oscar Dyson is described as “one of the most technologically advanced fisheries survey vessels in the world.” From what I see on the NOAA website, it seems to have an impressive amount of scientific equipment onboard. It has a wet lab, dry lab, computer lab, biology lab and hydrology lab. It also has a wide array of data collection gear and mechanical equipment. I am looking forward to checking out all of this equipment for myself and learning more about how it will be used.

Science and Tech Log
NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson on the chilly waters in Alaska. Courtesy of NOAA.

This study will focus on collecting data on walleye pollock populations. This fish is a member of the cod family and lives primarily in the waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. As juveniles, this species feeds on krill and zooplankton. As they mature, they eat other fish, including juvenile pollock!  Many marine species rely on populations of these fish as a food source in the Gulf of Alaska. Humans also like to eat pollock. It is sold as fillets, but is also used in fish fingers and to make imitation crab meat. Pollock fillets are becoming more popular as cod and haddock populations become overfished. Pollock populations have fluctuated over the years, but are not currently overfished. The dotted line in the graph below shows population numbers in the Gulf of Alaska (GOA).

pop graph
The dotted line on this graph shows the population numbers of walleye pollock in the Gulf of Alaska (GOA). Courtesy of NOAA.

A scientist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will also be aboard the Oscar Dyson conducting a seabird observation study. She will work mainly from the bridge, keeping track of the different seabird species she sees as we move from one sampling location to the next.

Personal Log

I am excited about my upcoming adventure for many reasons. As an undergrad, I majored in Natural Resource Management. I went on to be a science teacher, but have always been interested in learning about findings from ecological studies. This experience will allow me to get an up close look at the technology and techniques used to conduct this kind of study. I am looking forward to being able to contribute to the team effort and learn new things to bring back to my students. I am also very excited to be aboard a ship off the coast of Alaska. A trip to Alaska has always been on my bucket list and I am looking forward to taking in the scenery and spotting marine mammals and seabirds. I am also hopeful that we will be able to see a partial solar eclipse from the water. I am bringing my sun viewers, just in case!

Did You Know?

It would take 88 hours to drive from Baltimore, MD to Kodiak, AK.

Did You Know
Glad I am flying! Courtesy of Google Maps.

Sian Proctor: It’s Getting Fishy, July 20, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Sian Proctor

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

July 2 – 22, 2017

Mission: Gulf of Alaska Pollock Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 20, 2017

 

Me with an adult pollock.
Me with an adult pollock.

Weather Data from the Bridge

  • Latitude:  57° 47.02 N
  • Longitude: 152° 24.56 W
  • Time: 1700
  • Sky: Overcast
  • Visibility:  2 nautical miles
  • Wind Direction: variable
  • Wind Speed:  Knots
  • Sea Wave Height:  0  foot swell
  • Barometric Pressure:  994 millibars
  • Sea Water Temperature:   11.9° C
  • Air Temperature:   12.2° C

Science and Technology Log: It’s Getting Fishy!

Alaska pollock are found in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska and are part of the cod family. The dorsal side of the pollock is speckled brown in color with a slight olive green hue and the ventral side is silver. They eat krill, copepods, and small fish – mainly their own offspring. They quickly grow into adults, reaching reproductive age after 3-4 years, and are very fertile, replacing harvested fish in just a few years. Pollock swim in large schools during the day and disperse overnight. They can be found throughout the water column, but young pollock tend to live in the mid-water region while the older fish tend to live near the sea floor.

Alaska_Pollock_-_source_NOAA_fishwatch.govScience-based monitoring and management play a key role in the sustainability of the Alaska pollock fishery. It is managed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council based on data provided by the NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. The Alaska pollock fishery is the largest, by volume, in the United States and one of the most valuable in the world.  Products made from pollock include fish fillet, roe eggs, and imitation crab. The entire industry is valued at over a billion dollars. It is also considered one of the best-managed fisheries in the world. Scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center conduct acoustic trawl surveys to estimate the abundance of Alaska pollock using acoustics and by catching small samples.

While on NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson I had the opportunity to spend time in  the fish lab learning how pollock data are collected.. This video is an example of what I experienced.

The main way commercial pollock is caught in the United States is by net. Scientifically trained observers are sent out on U.S. pollock fishing boats and, similar to the NOAA scientists, they collect sample data from each catch and send it back to NOAA.  They also observe the fishing practices on the boat and  report any regulatory infractions. All the collected data and interactions between the fishing industry and NOAA have been established to make sure the Alaska pollock fishery remains sustainable.

NOAA Opportunities for students: https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/education/students/careers.htm 

Interview with Michael Martin

Fisheries Biologist

  • Official Title
    • Deputy Director
  • Normal Job Duties
    • Leadership and administration of the Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering (RACE) Division within Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC)
  • What is your current position on Oscar Dyson?
    • Fish lab biologist
  • How long have you been working on Oscar Dyson?
    • of and on for ~ 10 years
  • Why the ocean? What made you choose a career at sea?
    • I loved exploring sea creatures a the beach as a kid; Jacques Cousteau.
  • What is your favorite thing about going to sea on Oscar Dyson?
    • Getting out of the office; Seeing amazing scientists do their work and getting to participate.
  • Why is your work (or research) important?
    • The information we collect plays a very important role in managing fisheries in Alaska, providing economic and food security for many people. We also do tremendous research that benefits the science community and subsequently people world-wide. We are among the leaders in understanding fish and invertebrate abundance and behavior in the world.
  • When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science or an ocean career?
    • I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do if I grow up! Probably between 10 and 13 years old I developed an interest in the ocean.
  • What part of your job with NOAA (or contracted to NOAA) did you least expect to be doing?
    • Dealing with bureaucracy.
  • What are some of the challenges with your job?
    • Leading a group of scientists is, in some ways, like herding a group of very intelligent cats. They are very focused on their research and have very strong opinions about things that they feel could detract their ability to do the best job possible. This can be a challenge for me at times, but is a great problem to have!
  • What are some of the rewards with your job?
    • Being able to facilitate scientists and help them accomplish their goals is very rewarding.
  • Describe a memorable moment at sea.
    • Rescuing a family in a life raft that had been missing for 3+ days.

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Interview with Meredith Emery

Fisheries Biologist

  • Official Title
    • Survey Technician
  • Normal Job Duties
    • As Survey Technicians, our primary responsibility is to monitor and maintain fisheries and oceanographic equipment. In addition, we have to run and verify the Scientific Computer System (SCS) is collecting quality data and all the ship’s sensors connected to SCS are working properly. We also are the liaison between scientists and the crew members, and assist the scientists with any part of their research. Survey Technicians have the unique opportunity to participate in all aspects of the fisheries or oceanographic operation start to finish. During the fishing operations: 1. Scientist communicates to the people on the bridge, deck and survey technicians when they are going to fishing. 2. We put the fishing equipment on the net, as the net is casting out. 3. Assist the scientists log net dimension data when the net is in the water. 4. As the net is being recovered, we retrieve all the fishing equipment. 5. We help the deck with emptying the catch on the fish table, when needed. 6. Lastly, which is my favorite part, is when we get to assist the scientists collect biological fish samples in the wet lab. During oceanographic operations we are in charge of deploying and recovering the equipment (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD)). In addition we verify all the sensors on the CTD are presenting quality real time data. From the CTD we can collect water samples that can be used for several studies, like salinity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, or micro plankton. We are able to see the operations in action, understand the importance of the research through the science perspective and ultimately know the reason the Oscar Dyson is in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska.
  • What is your current position on Oscar Dyson?
    • I am one of two Survey Technicians on the Oscar Dyson.
  • How long have you been working on Oscar Dyson?
    • I have been working on the Oscar Dyson about 10 months.
  • Why the ocean? What made you choose a career at sea?
    • My fascination for the ocean started when I was young playing with the anemones on the rocky intertidal beach. I’ve always enjoyed being at the beach and seeing the organisms there. I became curious of life at sea and really wanted to see the marine wild life in action, especially when the ice first melts and there is a high abundance of phytoplankton and zooplankton that attracts marine mammals, birds and fish to migrate there. Being on the Oscar Dyson, I was able to observe the fluctuation between high abundance of phytoplankton, zooplankton or fish, depending on the area and time of year.
  • What is your favorite thing about going to sea on Oscar Dyson?
    • I enjoy seeing the scenery. Like the untouched lands, glaciers, marine wild life; the fishes, mammals or birds. Also I like seeing the endless blue of the ocean, especially calm weather. Really puts the vastness of the ocean in perspective.
  • When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science or an ocean career?
    • The reason I pursued a career in studying the ocean is because I come to realize that people take the ocean for granted and don’t recognize how much we depend on it. I obtained a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biology emphasis marine. One of my favorite college courses was oceanography. It was the first time for me to see the connection between geology, physics, chemistry and biology in one scenario like in the ocean processes. Each component relies on the other. First the geological features of the ocean floor and land masses influences the physics of the current flow, wave motion, and up-welling. Then the ocean movement determines the mixing and distribution of the water chemistry. Finally the biodiversity, location, and populations of marine organisms rely on the water chemistry, like nutrients or dissolved oxygen.

Personal Log

I really enjoyed learning about the variety of sea creatures in the Gulf of Alaska. Here is a video showing a few of the sea creatures I encountered. Totally amazing!

Education Tidbit: FishWatch Website

Another cool resources is the Fishwatch website. Here you can learn more information about sustainable fisheries and the science behind the fish we eat. It is worth checking out!

Did You Know?

Did you know that fresh pollock have a very distinctive smell that isn’t like any other fish? It’s not fishy – more like dirty feet!

Marsha Lenz: Celebrating Science and the Solstice, June 21, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Marsha Lenz

Aboard Oscar Dyson

June 8-28, 2017

Mission: MACE Pollock Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Date: June 21, 2017

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Though modern technology is used daily, one can still find traditional charting tools on the Bridge.

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 55 15.0 N

Longitude: 160 06.7 W

Time: 1300

Visibility: 10 Nautical Miles

Wind Direction: VAR

Wind Speed: LT

Sea Wave Height: <1 foot

Barometric Pressure: 1003.4 Millibars

Sea Water Temperature: 9.8°C

Air Temperature: 7.0°C

Science and Technology Log

            We have been surveying transect lines (sometimes we fish, sometimes we don’t). During the times that we aren’t fishing, I find myself looking out at the ocean A LOT! During these quiet times on the ship, I am reminded of how large the oceans are. I found a quiet window to sit by in the Chem Lab and enjoy watching as the waves dance off of the side of the ship.

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Abigail enjoys singing to the fish.

During some of these times when we are not collecting data from fish, identifying species from the DropCam, or preparing for the next haul, I find myself reading, which is a luxury all in itself. A friend of mine lent me to book to read and as I was reading the other day, the author quoted Jules Verne, author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Verne said, “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” I found this to be fitting for what I am doing on this survey, for the three weeks that I am a Teacher At Sea.   Though I am surrounded by trained and educated professionals, I have realized that mistakes still happen and are something to be expected.   They happen regularly. Often, actually. And, it’s a good thing that they do. They are important for learning. When humans make mistakes, hopefully, we can adjust our actions/behaviors to reduce the chances of that same “mistake” from happening again. When applied to science, the same idea is also true. When  we can collect data from something that we are studying, we learn about the ways that it interacts with its surroundings. Through these findings, we not only learn more about what we are studying, but then take measures to protect its survival.

We had a real experience like this happen just the other day. For days, the “backscatter” was picking up images of fish that the scientists didn’t think were pollock on the bottom of the ocean. Backscatter is what the scientists use to “see” different groups of fish and quantify how many are in the water. The ship uses various echosounders.  Several times, the science team decided to collect fish samples from these areas.  Every time that they decided to “go fishing”, we pulled up pollock. The team was baffled. They had a hypothesis as to why they were not catching what they thought they saw on the backscatter. They thought that it was rockfish that were hanging around rocks, but the pollock were being caught as the net went down and came back up.  Finally, after several attempts of not catching anything but pollock, they decided to put down the DropCam and actually try to see what was going on down there.

At that point, the Chem lab was filled with scientists. Everyone wanted to see what was going to show up on the monitor. The NOAA Corps Commanding Officer even came to see what was going to show up on the monitor.  The room will filled with excitement.

 

Abigail steers the DropCam and watches the monitor simultaneously.

We see rockfish!

          It was just as they predicted!  The rockfish were hanging out in the rocks.  It was a moment of great satisfaction for the scientists. They were able to identify some of the fish on the backscatter that was causing them so much confusion! Yay, science!

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This is a pollock!

Later in the day, we went fishing and collected the usual data (sex, length, weight, etc.) from the pollock.  There are usually 4 of us at a time in the Fish lab.  We are getting into a routine in the lab and I am getting more familiar with my responsibilities and duties. I start by controlling the door release, which controls the amount of fish released onto the conveyor belt. After all of the fish have been weighed, I separate the females and males.  Once that has been done, I take the lengths of a sample of the fish that we caught. When I finish, I assist Ethan and Abigail in removing and  collecting the otoliths from a selected fish sample.  Then, its clean-up time.  Though we all have appropriate gear on, I somehow still end up having fish scales all over me.  Imagine that!

Every time that we “go fishing”, a “pocket net” is also deployed.  This is a net that has finer mesh and is designed to catch much smaller marine life.  On this haul, we caught squid, age “zero” pollock, and isopods.

In the evening, we headed towards Morzhovoi Bay.  There, we were greeted by a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins.  They spent some time swimming next to us.  When they discovered that we were not that interesting, they swam off.  They did leave us though with a great sense of awe and appreciation (and a few great pictures!).

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Personal Log

Happy Summer Solstice!  Today is the longest day of the year!  We have had some spectacular days. We were all excited as we got up this morning to welcome the rising of the sun. We woke up and were holding position in front of Mt. Pavlof.  We saw the sunrise and went up to the  Flying Bridge to do some morning yoga.  After a wonderful breakfast of a bagel with cream cheese, salmon, Larrupin sauce, and Slug Slime, I went back up to the Bridge to get a full 360 degree view of the bay.  There I saw a humpback whale swimming around.  This will definitely be a summer solstice to remember!

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Did You Know?

A humpback whale is about the size of a school bus and weighs about 40 tons! They also communicate with each other with songs under the water.

sidenote: I know I wrote in my last blog that I was going to discuss the fishing process today, but there were so many other amazing things that happened that it is going to have to wait until next time. Sorry!

 

Cristina Veresan, Nets and the Wet Lab, August 3, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Cristina Veresan
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 28 – August 16, 2015 

Mission: Walleye Pollock Acoustic-Trawl survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: Monday, August 3, 2015

Data from the Bridge:
Latitude: 58° 51.5 N
Longitude: 149° 30.8 W
Sky: Scattered Clouds
Visibility: 10 miles
Wind Direction: SSE
Wind speed: 8 knots
Sea Wave Height: <1 feet
Swell Wave: 0 feet
Sea Water Temperature: 16.3° C
Dry Temperature: 17.2 ° C

Science and Technology Log

Once it is determined where to fish, the scientists also have to decide which trawl to deploy and tow behind the ship in order to catch the targeted fish. The most common trawl we use to catch mid-water pollock is the Aleutian wing trawl (AWT). Our AWT is 140 meters long, and it can be fished anywhere from 30-1,000 meters underwater. A net echosounder is mounted at the top of the net opening and transmits acoustic images of fish going in the mouth of the net in real time to a display on a computer on the bridge that is monitored by the scientist and the Lead Fisherman. Additionally, at the entrance of the codend (the end of the net where the fish are collected), a stereo camera called the  CamTrawl takes pictures of anything entering the codend. CamTrawl pictures are later analyzed to determine species and lengths of the fish that were caught.  Sometimes the net is fished with the codend opened and the catch is only evaluated based on what is seen in the CamTrawl images. As this technology gets perfected less fish will need to be brought onboard.

A view of the stern as the deck crew prepares to deploy the AWT. Note the net reel at the bottom of the frame.
A view of the stern as the deck crew prepares to deploy the AWT. Note the AWT on the net reel at the bottom of the frame.

Cooperation among many different people is necessary during a trawl. The wet lab team prepares  the CamTrawl to collect data. The deck crew physically handles all the gear on deck, including attaching the CamTrawl camera, net echosounders, and physical oceanography instruments to the net and deploying and recovering the net. From the bridge, the Lead Fisherman controls the winches that move the trawl net in and out of the water. Once the trawl net is in the water, the scientists work closely with the Lead Fisherman and the officers to ensure a safe, effective trawl. Sometimes the trawl net will be down for a few minutes, and other times it will be closer to an hour. Once the net is back on the ship and emptied out, the catch and CamTrawl images are ready to be analyzed by the scientist and wet lab team.

CamTrawl images were filmed by two cameras in stereo and so scientists can run a program that calculates length.
Fish are filmed in stereo so scientists can run a program that calculates their length.

Two other nets, more seldom used, are the bottom trawl net, known as the Poly Nor’easter (PNE) and the Methot net, used to catch krill and zooplankton. The PNE is deployed if there is a large concentration of fish close to the ocean floor. It is smaller than the AWT and it is usually lowered to just above the ocean floor. The Methot net was named after Dr. Richard Methot, a famous fisheries modeler who designed the net. This net has an opening of 5 square meters, and it has a finer mesh than the AWT or the PNE. At the end of the net is a small PVC codend where the sample is taken from.

Shipmate Spotlight: Interview with Kirk Perry

Kirk Smith, Lead Fisherman and Chief Boatswain
Kirk Perry, Lead Fisherman and Chief Boatswain

What is your position on the Oscar Dyson?
I am the Lead Fisherman and also sailing as active Chief Boatswain.

What training or education do you need for your position?
I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and got a BS in Natural Resource Management. I have certifications from the Coast Guard like an AB (Able-Bodied Seaman) unlimited, which means I have over 1070 days sailing as an AB. I also have a Masters license to operate a 100-ton vessel. You need a lot of fishing experience.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Fishing! Obviously. You just never know what you are going to get, and it’s always exciting.

Have you had much experience at sea?
I have been fishing since I was 10 years old and I helped a neighbor build a boat and go salmon fishing in Monterey Bay. When I visited family in Hawai’i, we would go trolling, set net fishing, beach casting, and spearfishing. I have been sailing professionally with NOAA for 11 years on different vessels in Hawai’i, Mississippi, and here in Alaska.

Where do you do most of your work aboard the ship? What do you do?
As Lead Fisherman I operate the machinery from the bridge when we are trawling. Basically, I get the fishing gear in and out of the water safely. As Chief Boatswain, I am in charge of the Deck Department, so I schedule crew, assign daily crew duties, maintain supply inventories, oversee the ship’s survival gear, and operate deck equipment like winches, anchor, and cranes.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a marine career?
By 25 years old I knew I had to be on the water, full time, all the time, but I did not get to be here until I was 44 years old.

What are your hobbies?
When I’m not fishing, I like to hunt. Mainly ducks and geese.

What do you miss most while working at sea?
Home, my family. And my own bed!

What is your favorite marine creature?
Tuna because they are so fast powerful and so delicious! When you are fishing for them, it’s like nothing else. It can turn into a wide open frenzy.

Inside the Oscar Dyson: The Wet Lab

The ship's wet lab
The ship’s wet lab

The wet lab is where we do most of our work, and it gets really busy in here after a trawl. It is called a “wet” lab because it is designed to get just that. When a trawl net is full of fish, it is emptied onto a table that tilts onto a conveyor belt feeding into the wet lab. We have controls to run the conveyor belt as well as tilt the tableAs the fish are brought in on the conveyor, we sort them in large and small baskets, and then collect data from the different species. The metal counters, outfitted with electronic balances and automated length readers provide us with workspace to process our samples. The work of the wet lab is messy and fun. When we process a catch, fish scales get everywhere! The shiny, sticky little discs coat every surface, especially areas that you touch like the computer screens and handles. It is fun to clean this lab because you spray everything down with the salt water from hoses that are rigged from the ceiling. You can even spray down the computer screens themselves, and then rinse them with fresh water. Water washes over everything and drips down, entering drains in troughs along the edges of the floor.

 

Processing pollock in the wet lab!
Processing pollock in the wet lab! Photo by Emily Collins

Personal Log

Whenever it’s time to process fish in the wet lab, I have to get geared up! What is the latest in fisheries fashion, you might ask? Rubber boots are a must. We take the lead of Alaskans and wear brown XtraTuf boots. Once I get my boots on, I put on my Grundens foul weather coveralls over my pants. The weather has been mild, so I have been forgoing the matching foul weather jacket and just wearing a long sleeved t-shirt or sweatshirt. I have not been wearing a hat, but I do pull my hair back. Lastly, I pull on elbow-length yellow rubber gloves over my sleeves.

Before you enter the wet lab, you get geared up here. Sometimes to make a quick entrance/exit, you leave your boots in your coveralls (bottom right)
Before you enter the wet lab, you get geared up here. Sometimes to make a quick entrance/exit, you leave your boots in your coveralls (bottom right)

These boots are made for fishin'
These boots are made for fishin’

I am really enjoying my time with this ship’s crew and the rest of the science party. Everyone has been very welcoming, and, though we work hard, we maintain a sense of fun. If we have down time between data collection, Emily and I play cribbage. Or we go out on deck and take in the sights, like the Holgate glacier we passed the other day. Quite a few people on board have spent time in Hawai’i, so we can ‘talk story’ about the islands from all the way up here in the North Pacific. It is amazing how we are all connected in some way through our love of the ocean.

My voyage of discovery continues…

glacier
We sailed within 4 miles of Holgate Glacier on a beautiful sunny morning

Vincent Colombo, Into the Fog, June 21, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Vincent Colombo
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
June 11 – 30, 2015

Mission: Annual Walleye Pollock Survey
Geographical area of the cruise: The Gulf of Alaska
Date: June 21, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:

  • Wind Speed: 6.02 knots
  • Sea Temperature: 9.99 degrees Celsius
  • Air Temperature: 9.06 degrees Celsius
  • Air Pressure: 1016.59 mb

Unimak Island at sunrise
Unimak Island at sunrise

Unimak Bight
Unimak Bight

Shishaldin Volcano - One of Alaska's many active volcanoes
Shishaldin Volcano – One of Alaska’s many active volcanoes

Science and Technology Log:

You are sleeping soundly in your bed. Awakening you is your phone ringing… it’s 5:30 am… that could only mean one thing, it’s the school calling to say school is delayed 2 hours… FOG. No, it’s not the kind of fog depicted in John Carpenter’s thriller; it’s the kind that the local weatherman says is a localized phenomenon that reduces visibility to less than a quarter mile. If you live on Delmarva, you have experienced this sort of fog and know that it can turn a normal commute into a complicated one.

Here in the Alaskan summer, especially the Aleutian Chain, Gulf of Alaska, and the Bering Sea, fog is a normal, and potentially ALL day event. The only constant on this research cruise so far has been waking up every day and watching our NOAA Corps Officers navigate through a very dense fog.

A view from the bridge of the fog. You can barely see past the bow
A view from the bridge of the fog. You can barely see past the bow

But what causes fog, and why is it so prevalent here?

Fog is most simply described as a cloud on the ground. It is made up of condensed water droplets that have encircled some sort of condensation nuclei (something water can attach to). On the open sea, that condensation nuclei is salt, which has upwelled (brought to the surface) from turbulent seas or breaking waves. That translates to the rougher the seas, the more chance there is for condensation nuclei, and thus fog.

Fog is able to be formed when the air temperature is cooler than the dew point. The dew point refers to the specific temperature which water can condense. Dew point varies with humidity and temperature, you can calculate dew point here.

Because the sun exposure is so long here in the Alaskan summer day, there is ample time for the sun’s radiant energy to heat up the upper layer of the ocean causing evaporation. The now warmer air, filled with water vapor, meets the cool waters of the Northern Pacific or Bering Sea, and bam, here comes a fog bank. The most common name for this type of fog is Sea Fog, scientifically called Advection fog. The combination of salt is especially important because salt is a unique condensation nuclei in that it will allow fog to form when the humidity is as low as 70%. It can also turn from a gentle fog to a dense fog in little to no time. Air movement, or wind can actually cause more fog, rather than the contrary belief it will just blow away.

As the day goes on, the fog lowers
As the day goes on, the fog lowers. Notice the sea is calm, and the dew point is raising.

The sky is crystal clear, however the surface is still covered in dense fog
The sky is crystal clear, however the surface is still covered in dense fog

So what have I learned? NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson has a very loud fog horn which the NOAA Corps Officers sound on a regular basis during these conditions.

Here is what you need to know if you are ever on the ocean in a fog bank!

  • One prolonged sounding of the horn – this means “Hey! I am here and moving, don’t hit me!”
  • Two prolonged soundings of the horn – this means “Hey! I am a big boat, but not moving, don’t hit me!”
  • One prolonged sounding of the horn followed by two short blasts – “Hey! I am a big boat and am either towing something (like a fishing net) or lowered in my ability to maneuver. Stay away and make room!”
  • One prolonged sounding of the horn followed by three short blasts – “Hey! I am a big boat that is being towed. Stay away from me because I have no power!”
  • One short blast of the horn, followed by a prolonged sounding, then one short blast; or rapidly ringing of a bell for five seconds every minute –  “Hey I am anchored over here, you can’t see me, stay away.”

Here the land is still covered. Under that blanket is another mountain.
Here the land is still covered. This is what is called radiant fog. The conditions on land are still perfect for fog to exist. Radiation fog typically disappears as the sun warms up the land.  Under that fog blanket is another mountain.

The sun is able to eliminate and produce fog
The sun is able to eliminate and produce fog

 

You have to trust the Radar
You have to trust the Radar

 

Personal Log:

The life at sea is quite interesting. Luckily we have every luxury of home on board the Oscar Dyson, to include internet (sometimes), hot showers, and a nice bed. I have also been introduced to the game of Cribbage, an apparent maritime tradition. I cannot say that I fully understand it, but there are bunches of ways the number 15 can be made.

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Busy on the ship’s fantail

Fishing is life up here, and every day I can expect at least one or two trawls (pulling of a net behind the ship). I was introduced to what is called a Methot net, which is used for catching smaller organisms. I was able to look at Krill for the first time in my life the other day, a keystone organism for a lot of the Alaskan food web.

Krill!
Krill!

Also very cool was seeing the MACE scientists use a cool underwater camera. Ever wonder what is under 300 meters of water? With this camera that can be deployed in less than 5 minutes, scientists can get a picture of the sea floor on a live feed.

colombo3
Looking at the live feed of the sea floor

Meet the Crew:

Richardo Guevara. Richardo has been with NOAA for 7 years and is the Ship’s Electronics Technician. What does this mean? Richardo works on various systems on the ship that involve communications, such as radios, acoustics, data sensors, radar, telephones, televisions, navigation, and computer systems. Richardo is the IT guru and knows everything about the ship’s day to day mission with technology. Richardo works for NOAA because he enjoys the life at sea, its benefits, and the satisfaction of working side by side with scientists.

Richardo Guevara, Electronics Technician
Richardo Guevara, Electronics Technician

Richardo is a 23 year veteran of the United States Air Force. During his service he gained a plethora of knowledge suited towards his current position on board the Oscar Dyson. Richardo was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida, but now resides on the Oregon coast. Richardo says that this job requires a lot of flexibility, and his time in the military gave him this valuable life skill. According to Richardo: “A lot of times people seem to get the notion that you must have college to succeed, but I do not have a college degree. I cannot understate how important it is to get your high school diploma and to value that. Then it is up to you to go your own way and have success.”

Meet the crew:

Kirk Perry. Kirk is the lead fisherman aboard the Oscar Dyson and is acting Chief Boatswain for our research cruise. Kirk has been with NOAA since 2004, and is in charge of any activity which takes place on deck. His job includes, but is not limited to, using fishing equipment, deploying science equipment, anchoring, net maintenance, standing lookout on the bridge, being a helmsman, managing a deck crew of 6, and operating a crane. Kirk joined NOAA for the adventure of a lifetime, to fish in Alaska. He never intended to stay this long but absolutely loves his job and he says working with scientists is very rewarding.

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Kirk Perry, Lead Fisherman

Out of curiosity in the neighborhood, Kirk discovered the world of fishing and hunting from a Czechoslovakian neighbor in San Jose, California. Kirk started commercially fishing at age 10 in Monterey Bay, California and has not looked back since. He graduated from Cal Poly SLO with a degree in Natural Resources Management while on scholarship for college baseball. Kirk loves baseball and football and is a diehard San Francisco Giants and 49ers fan. He also isn’t too bad on the guitar either.

Kirk was my unofficial, but official Alaskan fishing guide. It was his handy work that set me up with rigs and a tackle for my Halibut at the beginning of my trip. Kirk and I have a lot in common and have had countless discussions about the outdoors. A fun fact about Kirk, he can identify any bird that flies by the ship, whether it’s out of necessity or because he has been hunting so long.

Britta Culbertson, Big Fish Little Fish, Sept 15, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Britta Culbertson
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
September 4-19, 2013

Mission: Juvenile Walleye Pollock and Forage Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: Saturday, September 15th, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Wind Speed: 11kts
Air Temperature: 12.2 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 87%
Barometric Pressure: 1010.7 mb
Latitude: 59 degrees 26.51″ N              Longitude: 149 degrees 47.53″ W

Science and Technology Log

Finally, as we near the end of the cruise, I’m ready to write about one of the major parts of the survey we are doing.  Until now, I’ve been trying to take it all in and learn about the science behind our surveys and observe the variety of organisms that we have been catching. In my last few entries, I explained the bongo net tow that we do at each station.  Immediately after we finish pulling in the bongo nets and preparing the samples, the boat repositions on the station and we begin a tow using an anchovy net.  It gets its name from the size of fish it is intended to capture, but it is not limited to catching anchovies and as you will see in the entry below, we catch much more than fish.

 Why are we collecting juvenile pollock?

We are interested in measuring the abundance of juvenile pollock off of East Kodiak Island and in the Semidi Bank vicinity.  We are not only focusing on the walleye pollock, we are also interested in the community structure and biomass of organisms that live with the pollock.  Other species that we are measuring include: capelin, eulachon, Pacific cod, arrowtooth flounder, sablefish, and rockfish.  As I described in the bongo entries, we catch zooplankton because those are prey for the juvenile pollock.

Pollock trio
On the top is an age 2+ pollock, below that an age 1 pollock, and then below that is an age zero pollock. (Photo credit: John Eiler)

The Gulf of Alaska juvenile walleye pollock study used to be conducted every year, using the same survey grid.  Now the Gulf of Alaska survey is conducted every other year with the Bering Sea surveyed in alternating years.  That way, scientists can understand how abundant the fish are and where they are located within the grid or study area.  With the data being collected every year (or every other year), scientists can establish a time series and are able to track changes in the population from year to year. The number of age 0 pollock that survive the winter ( to become age 1) are a good indicator of how many fish will be available for commercial fisheries. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will provide this data to the fisheries industry so that fishermen can predict how many fish will be available in years to come.  The abundance of age one pollock is a good estimate of fish that will survive and be available to be caught by fishermen later, when they reach age 3 and beyond, and can be legally fished.

The other part of our study concerns how the community as a whole responds to changes in the ecosystem (from climate, fishing, etc.).  That is why we also measure and record the zooplankton, jellyfish, shrimp, squids, and other fish that we catch.

How does it work?

The anchovy net (this particular design is also called a Stauffer trawl) is pretty small compared to those that are used by commercial fishermen.  The mesh is 5 millimeters compared to the 500 micrometer mesh that we used for the bongo.  The smallest organisms we get in the anchovy net are typically krill.

Trawl net
A picture of a generic trawling net. It’s very similar to the anchovy net that we are using.

Typically, we don’t catch large fish in the net, but there have been some exceptions.  You might wonder why larger fish do not get caught in the net. It’s because the mesh is smaller and it’s towed through the water very slowly.  Fish have a lateral line system where they can feel a change in pressure in the water.  The bow wave from the boat creates a large pressure differential that the fish can detect.  Larger fish are usually fast enough to avoid the net as it moves through the water, but small fish can’t get out of the way in time.  One night we caught several Pacific Ocean Perch, which are larger fish, but very slow moving.  They are equipped with large spines on their fins and are better adapted to hunkering down and defending themselves as opposed to other fish that are fast swimmers and great at maneuvering.

Pacific Ocean Perch
This is one of the Pacific Ocean Perch (rockfish) that got caught in our net.

When we pull in the trawl net, it is emptied into buckets and then the haul is sorted by species and age class.  The catch is then measured, weighed, and recorded on a data sheet.  After that, we return most of the fish to the sea and save 25 of the juvenile pollock, capelin, and eulachon to take back to Seattle for further investigation.  We also save some of the smaller flatfish and sablefish to send back to Seattle. Check out the gallery below to see the process from beginning to end.

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Where are the pollock in the food web?

Eulachon and capelin are zooplanktivores and compete with the juvenile pollock for food. Larger eulachon and capelin are not competitors (those over 150 mm).  Arrowtooth flounder and Pacific Cod are predators of the juvenile walleye pollock.  Cyanea and Chrysaora jellyfish are also zooplanktivores and could potentially compete with juvenile walleye pollock, so that is why we focus on these particular jellyfish in our study.

 What’s in that net?

When we pull in the trawl, we sort it into piles of different species and different age classes.  If we get a lot of juvenile pollock (age 0), we measure and weigh 100 and freeze 25 to take back to the lab so their stomach contents can be examined.  We do the same procedure for young capelin, eulachon, and flatfish.  Other organisms like jellyfish are counted and weighed and put back in the ocean.

Below is a list of different organisms we have found in the anchovy net during this cruise:

  • Walleye Pollock
  • Eulachon
  • Capelin
  • Shrimp
  • Larger zooplankton
  • Pink and Coho Salmon
  • Pacific Ocean Perch
  • Lanternfish
  • Prowfish
  • Arrowtooth Flounder
  • Cyanea Jellyfish
  • Chrysaora Jellyfish
  • Miscellaneous clear jellyfish (some moon jellyfish)
  • Ctenophores (comb jellyfish)
  • Spiny Lumpsucker
  • Toad Lumpsucker
  • Grenadier
  • Flathead sole
  • Pacific cod
  • Herring
  • Sablefish
  • Sand Fish
  • Octopus
  • Snail fish

Personal Log

As we wind down the cruise, I’m feeling a little sad that it’s ending.  I’m looking forward to going home and seeing my husband and our dog, but I’ll miss the friends I’ve made on the ship and I’ll certainly miss collecting data.  Even though it can be quite repetitive after awhile, I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do this work than the Gulf of Alaska.  The last few days we have had a couple of stations near the coastline around Seward, Alaska and we have ventured into both Harris Bay and Resurrection Bay.  There we caught sight of some amazing glaciers and small islands.  There was even an island that had bunkers from WWII on it.  Yesterday, 3 Dall’s Porpoises played in our bow wake as I stood on the bridge and watched.  It’s moments like this that all of the discomforts of being at sea fall away and I can reflect on what an incredible experience this has been!

Glacier
Beautiful scenery from Resurrection Bay.

Dall's Porpoise
Three Dall’s porpoises that were playing in our bow wake.

 

Did You Know?

Spiny lumpsuckers are tiny, cute, almost spherical fish that have a suction disk on their ventral (bottom) side.  The suction disk is actually a modified pelvic fin.  They use the suction disk to stick to kelp or rocks on the bottom of the ocean.

Their family name is Cyclopteridae (like the word Cyclops!).  It is Greek in origin.  “Kyklos” in Greek mean circle and “pteryx” means wing or fin.  This name is in reference to the circle-shaped pectoral fins that are possessed by fish in this family.

These lumpsuckers are well camouflaged from their predators and their suction disk helps them overcome their lack of an air bladder (this helps fish move up and down in the water).  Because lumpsuckers don’t have an air bladder, they are not great swimmers.

Spiny lumpsuckers are on average about 3 cm in length, but there are larger lumpsuckers that we have found, like the toad lumpsucker that you can see in the photo below.

You can read more about the spiny lumpsucker on the Aquarium of the Pacific’s website.

Britta Culbertson: Hiding Out During Rough Seas, September 6, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Britta Culbertson
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
September 4-19, 2013

Mission: Juvenile Walley Pollock and Forage Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: Friday, September 6th, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge (for Sept 6th at 5:57 PM UTC):
Wind Speed: 42.65 knots
Air Temperature: 11.8 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 81%
Barometric Pressure: 987.4 mb
Latitude:57.67 N          Longitude: 153.87 W

Science and Technology Log

Weather Advsisory
The weather advisory for the Gulf of Alaska and around Kodiak Island (screen shot from NOAA Alaska Region Headquarters)

Spiridon Bay
Spiridon Bay (screenshot from Shiptracker.noaa.gov)

As you can see from my weather data section, the wind speed this morning was up to 42.65 knots.  We had waves near 18 feet and thus the Oscar Dyson ran for cover and tucked itself in an inlet on the North side of Kodiak Island called Spiridon Bay.  The Oscar Dyson’s location can be viewed in near real-time using NOAA’s Shiptracker website.   The screenshot above was taken from the Shiptracker website when we were hiding from the weather. The weather forecast from NOAA’s Alaska Region Headquarters shows that the winds should diminish over the next few days.  I’m thankful to hear that!

…GALE WARNING TONIGHT….TONIGHT…S WIND 45 KT DIMINISHING TO 35 KT TOWARDS MORNING. SEAS 23FT. PATCHY FOG..SAT…SW WIND 30 KT DIMINISHING TO 20 KT IN THE AFTERNOON. SEAS15 FT. PATCHY FOG..SAT NIGHT…W WIND 15 TO 25 KT. SEAS 8 FT. RAIN..SUN…SW WIND 20 KT. SEAS 8 FT..SUN NIGHT…S WIND 25 KT. SEAS 8 FT..MON…SE WIND 25 KT. SEAS 13 FT..TUE…S WIND 30 KT. SEAS 11 FT..WED…S WIND 25 KT. SEAS 9 FT.

Since the Dyson has been in safe harbor in Spiridon Bay for the last few hours, I have had some time to catch up on some blogging!  Let’s backtrack a few days to Wednesday, September 4th, when the Dyson left Kodiak to begin its journey in the Gulf of Alaska.  We headed out after 1PM to pick up where the last cruise left off in the research grid.  We reached our first station later in the afternoon and began work.  A station is a pre-determined location where we complete two of our surveys (see map below).  The circles on the map represent a station location in the survey grid.  The solid circles are from leg 1 of the cruise that took place in August and the hollow circles represent leg 2 of the cruise, which is the leg on which I am sailing.

The first step once we reach a station is to deploy a Bongo net to collect marine zooplankton and the second step is to begin trawling with an anchovy net to capture small, pelagic juvenile pollock and forage fishes that are part of the main study for this cruise. Pelagic fish live near the surface of the water or in the water column, but not near the bottom or close to the shore.  Zooplankton are “animal plankton”.  The generic definition of plankton is: small, floating or somewhat motile (able to move on their own) organisms that live in a body of water. Some zooplankton are the larval (beginning) stages of crabs, worms, or shellfish.  Other types of zooplankton stay in the planktonic stage for the entirety of their lives. In other words, they don’t “grow up” to become something like a shrimp or crab.

Station Map
Station map for leg 1 and leg 2 of the juvenile pollock survey. I am on leg 2 of the survey, which is represented with hollow circles on the map.

Before we reached the first station, we conducted a few safety drills.  The first was a fire drill and the second was an abandon ship drill.  The purpose of these drills is to make sure we understand where to go (muster) in case of an emergency.   For the abandon ship drill, we had to grab our survival suits and life preservers and muster on the back deck.  The life rafts are stored one deck above and would be lowered to the fantail (rear deck of the ship) in the event of an actual emergency.  After the drill I had to test out my survival suit to make sure I knew how to put it on correctly.

Life Jacket
Britta Mustering for Abandon Ship Drill on Oscar Dyson

survival suit
Britta models a survival suit – they even found a size SMALL for me!

On the way to our first station, we traveled through Whale Pass next to Whale Island, which lies off of the northern end of Kodiak Island.  While passing through this area, we saw a total of 4 whales spouting and so many sea otters, I lost track after I counted 20.  Unfortunately, none of my pictures really captured the moment.  The boat was moving too fast to get the sea otters before they flipped over or were out of sight.

Whale Island
A nautical chart map for Whale Island and Whale Passage

Personal Log

secure for sea!
Last night’s warning about high seas in the early morning of September 6th.

A lot of people have emailed to ask me if I have been getting seasick.  So far, things haven’t been that bad, but I figured out that I feel pretty fine when I’m working and moving about the ship.  However, when I sit and type at a computer and focus my attention on the screen that seems to be when the seasickness hits. For the most part, getting some fresh air and eating dried ginger has saved me from getting sick and fortunately, I knew about the threat of high winds last night, so I made sure to take some seasickness medication before going to bed.  After what we experienced this morning, I am sure glad I took some medication.

Everyone on board seems very friendly and always asks how I am doing.  It has been a real pleasure to meet the engineers, fisherman, NOAA Corps officers, scientists, and all others aboard the ship.  Since we have to work with the crew to get our research done, it’s wonderful to have a positive relationship with the various crew members.  Plus, I’m learning a lot about what kinds of careers one can have aboard a ship, in addition to being a scientist.

So far, I’ve worked two 12-hour shifts and even though I’m pretty tired after my long travel day and the adjustment from the Eastern Time Zone to the Alaskan Time Zone (a four hour difference), I’m having a great time!  I really enjoy getting my hands dirty (or fishy) and processing the fish that we bring in from the trawl net.  Processing the haul involves identifying, sorting, counting, measuring the length, and freezing some of the catch.  The catch is mainly composed of different types of fish like pollock and eulachon, but sometimes there are squid, shrimp, and jellyfish as well.

One of the hardest parts of the trip so far is getting used to starting work at noon and working until midnight.  We have predetermined lunch and dinner times, 11:30 AM and 5:00 PM respectively, so I basically eat lunch for breakfast and dinner for lunch and then I snack a little before I go to bed after my shift ends at midnight.  As the days go by, I’m sure I’ll get more used to the schedule.

Did You Know?

During one of our trawls, we found a lanternfish.  Lanternfish have rows of photophores along the length of their bodies.  Photophores produce bioluminescence and are used for signaling in deep, dark waters.  The fish can control the amount of light that the photophores produce.  Lanternfish belong to the Family Myctophidae and are “one of the most abundant and diverse of all oceanic fish families” (NOAA Ocean Explorer).

lanternfish
Lanternfish caught during a trawl. Note the dots along the bottom of the fish, these are photophores that emit bioluminescence.

Lanternfish
Photo of bioluminescing lanternfish (Photo Credit: BBC Animal Facts http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/blueplanet/factfiles/fish/lanternfish_bg.shtml)