NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
September 16-30, 2016
Mission: Longline Survey
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Monday, October 3, 2016
I asked Kevin Rademacher, Research Fisheries Biologist at the Pascagoula, Mississippi Lab, what fish I could eat and still support sustainable fisheries. He answered with a question, “Have you read the book Four Fish?” When I finished reading the book by Paul Greenberg, I spoke to Kevin again. “What do you think now?” He asked.
I said “There is something about wild fish that makes me want to catch and eat them, but I worry about whether we are eating wild fish out of existence.”
“Have you talked with Adam? He’s the numbers guy,” Kevin said. It seems like the good teachers are always sending students away in search of their own answers.
Adam Pollack is a contract Fisheries Biologist with Riverside Technology, Inc., and works on the night crew. We sometimes cross paths at midnight or noon. Catching him wouldn’t be easy.
During one of these transition times, we had a moment to talk. I asked Adam about his earliest fish memory. He smiled. “At about five, I went fishing with my dad. We had a house in the mountains surrounded by a bunch of lakes.” Adam and his dad would sit by the lake with their lines in the water “watching the bobber disappear.” He smiles again. These little largemouth bass changed his life.
At first, he was set on becoming a professional bass fisherman but made a practical switch to marine biology. He took all the science electives and the hardest math classes he could. He went on to Southampton College on Long Island, New York, where he got lots of hands-on experiences beginning in his freshman year. He believes a good education should include lots of opportunities, as early as possible, for interactive learning in a real world environment.
Once he graduated, Adam got his dream job: working in the Gulf of Mexico during the field season and then crunching numbers the rest of the year. He takes the data scientists collect to the SouthEast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR). SEDAR is a cooperative process through which scientists, fishermen, and policy makers look at the life history, abundance trends, and other data to determine how many fish we can catch sustainably.
Adam, and many others, also look at how catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill affect marine species in the Gulf of Mexico. After Hurricane Katrina, he said, shrimping efforts died down by about 40%. The effects of the oil spill are still a little murky. Many of the biologists on board initially predicted dire and immediate effects. Yet unlike the spill in Alaska, the warm Gulf of Mexico water is host to bacteria, plants, and other living things that might be eating up the oil. Many questions, such as whether these living things will mitigate the effects of a spill, are still being asked. “Deepwater Horizon is always on our minds,” Adam says. There are also naturally occurring events like harmful algal blooms and long term issues like climate change that affect fish populations.
“Can you tell me about snapper?” I asked Adam. Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), assessed every other year, is a hot button topic for commercial and recreational fishermen alike in the Gulf. The species was in decline. Recreational fishermen went from a 180 day season to catch fish to an 8 day season and from 10 to 2 fish a day per person. Commercial fishermen weren’t happy either: they could only take 49% of the year’s quota for red snapper, while the recreational fishermen get to catch 51% of the quota. Fairness is not just a second grade concern, it is a major sticking point in regulating fisheries world wide.
Red snapper is a vulnerable species. Snapper settle to the bottom of the water column from larvae. They are at high risk of mortality from ages 0-5, the same time when they are close to human activity such as oil rigs, shrimping grounds and easy to access fishing areas. Those who manage the fisheries are trying to get the snapper through that vulnerable stage. Like money in the bank accruing interest, a 10 year old snapper can produce more eggs than a five year old. Before we take snapper from the sea, we must make sure a healthy older population remains to reproduce.
Once an assessment is complete, scientists determine a maximum sustainable yield: how many fish can be taken from the population and still keep enough around to make more fish for the future. Take a look at a shark assessment and a snapper assessment. Looking at these long and complicated assessments, I am glad we have people like Adam who is willing to patiently work with the numbers.
Gathering the best data and making it available to people who collaborate to make informed decisions is an important part of Adam’s job. We all want fish and NOAA fisheries biologists are doing their best to make that happen for us, and for generations to come.
My time aboard the Oregon II has come to an end. Bundled up in my winter clothes, I look out over a rainy Oregon landscape filled with fishermen hoping to catch a fall Chinook salmon. Two places with different weather and many different fish species. Yet many of our challenges are the same.
Back at school, students and teachers welcome me enthusiastically. Instead of measuring desks and books as part of our Engage NY curriculum, we measured sharks and their jaws. Many of these students have never been out of Oregon, many have not been to the beach, even though it is only 4 miles away. With NOAA, South Prairie Elementary students were able to learn about faraway places and careers that inspire them.
Soon these seven year old children will be in charge. I am thankful to the NOAA crews and the Teacher at Sea program staff, as they’ve prepared generations of students of all ages to collaborate and creatively face the task that lies ahead.