Hayden Roberts: Data and More Data… July 11, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Hayden Roberts

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

July 8-19, 2019


Mission: Leg III of SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 11, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Latitude: 28.29° N
Longitude: 83.18° W
Wave Height: 1-2 feet
Wind Speed: 11 knots
Wind Direction: 190
Visibility: 10 nm
Air Temperature: 29.8°C
Barometric Pressure: 1013.6 mb
Sky: Few clouds


Science Log

As I mentioned in my introductory post, the purpose of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey is to collect data for managing commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the science involved is much more complex than counting and measuring fish varieties.

The research crew gathers data in three ways. The first way involves trawling for fish. The bulk of the work on-board focuses on trawling or dragging a 42-foot net along the bottom of the Gulf floor for 30 minutes. Then cranes haul the net and its catch, and the research team and other personnel weigh the catch. The shift team sorts the haul which involves pulling out all of the shrimp and red snapper, which are the most commercially important species, and taking random samples of the rest. Then the team counts each species in the sample and record weights and measurements in a database called FSCS (Fisheries Scientific Computer System).

Trawling nets
Trawling nets waiting on aft deck.

SEAMAP can be used by various government, educational, and private entities. For example, in the Gulf data is used to protect the shrimp and red snapper populations. For several years, Gulf states have been closing the shrimp fishery and putting limits on the snapper catches seasonally to allow the population to reproduce and grow. The SEAMAP data helps determine the length of the season and size limits for each species.

Tampa Bay area waters
Digital chart of the waters off the Tampa Bay area. Black dots represent research stations or stops for our cruise.

Another method of data collection is conductivity, temperature, and depth measurements (CTD). The process involves taking readings on the surface, the bottom of Gulf floor, and at least two other points between in order to create a CTD profile of the water sampled at each trawling locations. The data becomes important in order to assess the extent of hypoxia or “dead zones” in the Gulf (see how compounded data is used to build maps of hypoxic areas of the Gulf: https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/noaa-forecasts-very-large-dead-zone-for-gulf-of-mexico). Plotting and measuring characteristics of hypoxia have become a major part of fishery research especially in the Gulf, which has the second largest area of seasonal hypoxia in the world around the Mississippi Delta area. SEAMAP data collected since the early 1980s show that the zone of hypoxia in the Gulf has been spreading, unfortunately. One recent research sample taken near Corpus Christi, TX indicated that hypoxia was occurring further south than in the past. This summer, during surveys two CTD devices are being used. The first is a large cylinder-shaped machine that travels the depth of the water for its readings. It provides a single snapshot. The second CTD is called a “Manta,” which is a multi-parameter water quality sonde (or probe). While it can be used for many kinds of water quality tests, NOAA is using it to test for hypoxia across a swath of sea while pulling the trawling net. This help determine the rate of oxygenation at a different depth in the water and across a wider field than the other CTD can provide.

Setting up the CTD
Setting up the CTD for its first dive of our research cruise.


Did You Know?

Algae is a major problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia is often associated with the overgrowth of certain species of algae, which can lead to oxygen depletion when they die, sink to the bottom, and decompose. Two major outbreaks of algae contamination have occurred in the past three years. From 2017-2018, red algae, which is common in the Gulf, began washing ashore in Florida. “Red Tide” is the common name for these algae blooms, which are large concentrations of aquatic microorganisms, such as protozoans and unicellular algae. The upwelling of nutrients from the sea floor, often following massive storms, provides for the algae and triggers bloom events. The wave of hurricanes (including Irma and during this period caused the bloom. The second is more recent. Currently, beaches nearest the Mississippi Delta have been closed due to an abundance of green algae. This toxic algae bloom resulted from large amounts of nutrients, pesticides, fertilizers being released into the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Louisiana because of the record-high Mississippi River levels near Lake Pontchartrain. The spillway opening is being blamed for high mortality rates of dolphins, oysters and other aquatic life, as well as the algae blooms plaguing Louisiana and Mississippi waters.


Personal Log

Pulling away from Pascagoula yesterday, I knew we were headed into open waters for the next day and half as we traveled east down the coast to the Tampa Bay, FL area. I stood on the fore deck and watched Oregon II cruise past the shipyard, the old naval station, the refinery, navigation buoys, barrier islands, and returning vessels. The Gulf is a busy place. While the two major oceans that flank either side of the U.S. seem so dominant, the Gulf as the ninth largest body of water in the world and has just as much importance. As a basin linked to the Atlantic Ocean, the tidal ranges in the Gulf are extremely small due to the narrow connection with the ocean. This means that outside of major weather, the Gulf is relatively calm, which is not the case with our trip.

Navigation buoy
Navigation buoy that we passed leaving Pascagoula harbor.

As we cruise into open waters, along the horizon we can see drilling platforms jutting out of the Gulf like skyscrapers or resorts lining the distant shore. Oil and gas extraction are huge in this region. Steaming alongside us are oil tankers coming up from the south and cargo ships with towering containers moving back and forth between Latin America and the US Coast. What’s in the Gulf (marine wildlife and natural resources) has geographic importance, but what comes across the Gulf has strategic value too.

The further we cruised away from Mississippi, the water became choppy. The storm clouds that delayed our departure the day before were now overhead. In the distances, rain connected the sky to sea. While the storm is predicted to move northwest, the hope is that we can avoid its intensification over the Gulf Stream as we move southeasterly.

Choppy seas
Choppy seas as we cruise across the Gulf to the West Coast of Florida to start our research.

I learned that water in the Gulf this July is much warmer than normal. As a result, locally produced tropical storms have formed over the Gulf. Typically, tropical storms (the prelude to a hurricane) form over the Atlantic closer to the Equator and move North. Sometimes they can form in isolated areas like the Gulf. Near us, an isolated tropical storm (named Barry) is pushing us toward research stations closer to the coast in order to avoid more turbulent and windy working conditions. While the research we are conducting is important, safety and security aboard the ship comes first.

Andria Keene: The sun is setting on my adventure! October 21, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Andria Keene

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

October 8 – 22, 2018

 

Mission: SEAMAP Fall Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: October 21, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge
Date: 2018/10/21
Time: 12:52
Latitude: 029 23.89 N
Longitude 094 14.260 W
Barometric Pressure 1022.22mbar
Air Temperature: 69 degrees F

The isness of things is well worth studying; but it is their whyness that makes life worth living.
– William Beebe

 

Last sunset

My last sunset aboard the Oregon II.

Science and Technology Log

Today is our last day at sea and we have currently completed 53 stations!  At each station we send out the CTD.   CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth.   However, this device measures much more than that.  During this mission we are looking at 4 parameters: temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen and fluorescence which can be used to measure the productivity of an area based on photosynthetic organisms.

science team with the CTD

Some of the science team with the CTD.

Once the CTD is deployed, it is held at the surface for three minutes.  During this time, 4,320 scans are completed!  However, this data, which is used to acclimate the system, is discarded from the information that is collected for this station.

CTD Collage

The crane lifts the CTD from the well deck and deploys it into the water.

Next, the CTD is slowly lowered through the water until it is about 1 meter from the bottom.  In about 30 meters of water this round trip takes about 5 minutes during which the CTD conducts 241 scans every 10 seconds for a grand total of approximately 7,230 scans collected at each station.

CTD Graph

The computer readout of the data collected at one of the stations.

Our CTD scans have gathered the expected data but during the summer months the CTD has found areas of hypoxia off the coast of Louisiana and Texas.

Summer Hypoxia Zones

Data from CTD scans was used to create this map of hypoxic zones off the coast of Louisiana in summer of 2018.

 

Personal Log

The gloomy weather has made the last few days of the voyage tricky. Wind and rough seas have made sleeping and working difficult. Plus, I have missed my morning visits with dolphins at the bow of the ship due to the poor weather.  But seeing the dark blue water and big waves has added to the adventure of the trip.

Dark clouds lifting

The gloom is lifting as a tanker passes in the distance.

We have had some interesting catches including one that weighed over 800 pounds and was mostly jellyfish.  Some of the catches are filled with heavy mud while others a very clean. Some have lots of shells or debris.  I am pleasantly surprised to see that even though I notice the occasional plastic bottle floating by, there has not been much human litter included in our catches.  I am constantly amazed by the diversity in each haul.  There are species that we see at just about every station and there are others that we have only seen once or twice during the whole trip.

Catch collage

A few of the most unique catches.

I am thrilled to have had the experience of being a NOAA Teacher at Sea and I am excited to bring what I have learned back to the classroom to share with my students.  

 

Challenge Question:

Bonus points for the first student in each class to send me the correct answer!

These are Calico Crabs, but this little one has something growing on it?  What is it?

Calico crabs

Calico crabs… but what is that growing on this small one?

Did you know…

That you can tell the gender of a flat fish by holding it up to the light?

Flatfish collage

The image on the top is a female and the one of the bottom is the male. Can you tell the difference?

 

Today’s Shout Out! 

Kudos to all of my students who followed along, answered the challenge questions, played species BINGO, and plotted my course!  You made this adventure even more enjoyable!  See you soon 🙂

Stephen Kade: Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth, August 5, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Stephen Kade

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

July 23 – August 10, 2018

 

Mission: Long Line Shark/ Red Snapper survey Leg 1

Geographic Area: 30 54 760 N, 76 32 86.0 W, 40 nautical miles E of Cape Lookout, North Carolina

Date: August 5, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Wind speed 11 knots,
Air Temp: 30.c,
Visibility 10 nautical miles,
Wave height 1 foot

Science and Technology Log

While our main mission aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II is to survey and study sharks and red snapper, it is also very important to understand the environmental conditions and physical properties of the sea water in which these animals live. The CTD instrument is used to help understand many different properties within the water itself. The acronym CTD stands for Conductivity (salinity), Temperature, and Depth. Sensors also measure dissolved oxygen content and fluorescence (presence of cholorphyll).

CTD

The CTD instrument itself is housed in a steel container and is surrounded by a ring of of steel tubing to protect it.

Conductivity is a measure of how well a solution conducts electricity and it is directly related to salinity, or the salt that is within ocean water. When salinity measurements are combined with temperature readings, seawater density can be determined. This is crucial information since seawater density is a driving force for major ocean currents. The physical properties and the depth of the water is recorded continuously both on the way down to the ocean floor, and on the way back up to the surface.  There is a light, and a video camera attached to the CTD to provide a look at the bottom type, as that is where the long line is deployed, and gives us a good look at the environment where our catch is made. These data can explain why certain animals gather in areas with certain bottom types or physical parameters. This can be particularly important in areas such as the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This is an area of low oxygen water caused by algal blooms related to runoff of chemical fertilizers from the Mississippi River drainage.

The CTD instrument itself is housed in a steel container and is surrounded by a ring of of steel tubing to protect it while deployed and from bumping against the ship or sea floor. Attached water sampling bottles can be individually triggered at various depths to collect water samples allowing scientists to analyze water at specific depths at a particular place and time. The entire structure is slowly lowered by a hydraulic winch, and is capable of making vertical profiles to depths over 500 meters. An interior computer display in the ship’s Dry Science Lab profiles the current location of the CTD and shows when the winch should stop. We have found this to be a tricky job, during large wave swells, as the boat rocks quite a bit and changes the depth by a meter or more. The operator must be very careful that the CTD doesn’t hit the ocean floor too hard which can damage the equipment.

Dry Lab

An interior computer display in the ship’s Dry Science Lab profiles the current location of the CTD and shows when the winch should stop.

The data collected while deployed at each station is instantly uploaded to NOAA servers for immediate use by researchers and scientists. The current data is also available the general public as well, on the NOAA website. Once safely back aboard the Oregon II, the CTD video camera is taken off and uploaded to the computer, The CTD must be washed off and the lines flushed for one minute with fresh water, as the salt water from the ocean can damage and corrode the very sensitive equipment inside. The instrument is also calibrated regularly to ensure it is working correctly throughout all legs of the long line survey.

Personal Log

TAS Stephen Kade

TAS Stephen Kade

I am having such a great time during my Teacher at Sea experience. In the 9 days aboard ship so far, we have traveled the entire coasts of Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Never in my life did I think I would get an opportunity to do something like this as I’ve dreamed about it for decades, and now my dreams have come true. I’m learning so much about fishing procedures, the biology of sharks, navigational charting, and the science of collecting data for further study while back on land at the lab. I can’t wait to get home and spread the word about NOAA’s mission and how they are helping make the world a better place, and are advocating for the conservation of these beautiful animals!

 

Animals Seen: Sharpnose shark, Tiger Shark, Grouper, Red Drum fish, Moray Eel, Blue Line Tile fish

Angela Hung: “The Solution to Pollution is Dilution”, July 3, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Angela Hung

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 27-July 5, 2018

 

Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 3, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Conditions at 1610

Latitude: 29° 30’ N

Longitude: 92° 51’ W

Relative Humidity: 83%

Temperature: 26° C

Wind Speed: 13 knots

Cloudy with rain

 

Science and Technology Log

“The solution to pollution is dilution” was a common refrain during the midcentury as large scale factories became more common. This mindset applied to both air and water as both seemed limitless. Looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, a relatively small body of water, it’s easy to see how this logic prevailed. Even the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh surface water in the world, accepted incalculable amounts of pollution and sewage from coastal factories, steel and wood mills, and of course major cities.

Sky and water as far as the eye can see. (It's hard to take a steady shot on a rocking boat!)

Sky and water in the Gulf of Mexico as far as the eye can see from the deck of NOAA Ship Oregon II. (It’s hard to take a steady shot on a rocking boat!)

The rise of the modern technological age that took humans to the moon gave us the first glimpse of the fallacy of the “solution”. “Earthrise” is the first photo of the entire Earth taken from space, showing us how thin our protective atmosphere really is and how delicately the Blue Planet floats in the vastness of space. This is the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

"Earthrise" Photo courtesy of nasa.gov

“Earthrise” Photo courtesy of nasa.gov

To truly guide the development of national policies including those that protect air and water quality, federal agencies such as NOAA are responsible for collecting data about our atmosphere and oceans, now knowing that these ecological compartments cannot endlessly dilute the pollution we generate. What seemed to be an obvious solution has today ballooned into a number of serious problems, from acid rain and blinding smog in cities to burning rivers, mass fish die offs that wash up on Lake Michigan beaches and dying coral reefs in the oceans.

The Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland, OH caught fire over a dozen times. This fire in 1969 finally motivated action towards creating the Clean Water Act.

The Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland, OH caught fire over a dozen times. This fire in 1969 finally motivated action towards creating the Clean Water Act. Photo from: https://www.alleghenyfront.org/how-a-burning-river-helped-create-the-clean-water-act/

A major pollutant in the Gulf is sourced from industrial agriculture practices from as far away as Illinois and the rest of the Midwest farm belt. Fertilizer and pesticides enter local rivers that find their way to the Mississippi River which carries contaminants into the Gulf of Mexico.

We have reached the Gulf’s “Dead Zone”, yielding a few tiny catches. Station W1601 may have given the smallest catch ever—a clump of seaweed and a whole shrimp.

The case of the shrinking trawls. On left, a catch from the night of July 2. Center and right, samples from two stations in hypoxic waters. The fish in the right photo may have been stuck in the net from the previous trawl.

The case of the shrinking trawls. On left, a catch from the night of July 2. Center and right, July 3 samples from two stations in hypoxic waters. The fish in the right photo may have been stuck in the net from the previous trawl.

Hypoxia literally means “low oxygen”. When fertilizers used to grow corn and soy enter bodies of water, they likewise feed the growth of algae, which are not technically plants but they are the aquatic equivalent. But plants make oxygen, how can this lead to low oxygen? Algae and land plants only produce oxygen during the day. At night, they consume oxygen gas through respiration. They do this during the day as well, but overall produce more oxygen in the light through photosynthesis. For hundreds of millions of years, that’s been fine, but the recent addition of fertilizers and the warm Gulf waters cause an explosion of the kind of microscopic algae that are suspended in the water column and turn water bright green, or red in the case of “red tides”. These explosions are called algal blooms.

Algal blooms can cloud up water, making life hard for other photosynthetic organisms such as coral symbionts and larger seaweeds. At night, animals can suffocate without oxygen. During red tides, some algae release toxins that harm other life. When these organisms die and sink, bacteria go to work and decompose their bodies. The population of bacteria explodes, consuming the remaining oxygen at the sea floor. Animals that wander into the hypoxic zone also suffocate and die, feeding more decomposer bacteria that can survive with little to no oxygen. Thus, hypoxic areas are also called “dead zones”.  The hypoxic zone is just above the sea floor, as little as a half a meter above, and oxygen levels can drop precipitously within a meter of the bottom.

NOAA scientists including those conducting the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish survey on Oregon II track the location, size and movement of the Gulf hypoxic zone using the conductivity-temperature-dissolved oxygen probe, or CTD. The CTD is sent into the water before every trawl to take a variety of measurements. Besides conductivity (a measure of ions), temperature and oxygen, the CTD also checks the salinity, clarity and amount of photosynthetic pigments in the water, which gives an idea of plankton populations. Ours uses two different sensors for conductivity, salinity, temperature and oxygen, double-checking each other. A pump pulls water through the various sensors and the measurements are sent directly to a computer in the dry lab to record these data.

The CTD is lowered to just under the surface of the water to make sure the pump is working and to flush the system. Then it is lowered to within a meter of the bottom. The CTD also has an altimeter to measure the distance from the bottom, while the ship also uses sonar to determine the water depth at each station. Water is measured continuously as the CTD is lowered and raised, creating a graph that profiles the water column. Crewmen are on deck controlling the winches according to the directions from a scientist over the radio who is monitoring the water depth and measurements in the dry lab.

Conductivity, temperature, dissolved oxygen sensor (CTD). The gray cylinders are bottles that can store water samples.

Conductivity, temperature, dissolved oxygen sensor (CTD). The gray cylinders are bottles that can store water samples.

Casting the CTD is a coordinated effort.

Casting the CTD is a coordinated effort.

The CTD also has bottles that can store water samples so oxygen can be tested a third time in the lab onboard. When we only get a few fish where the CTD recorded normal oxygen, the CTD is launched again to verify oxygen levels using all three methods. In the CTD output, oxygen is coded in green as a line on the graph and in the data tables. Most stations read in the 5-6 range, the cutoff for hypoxia is 2. We are reading less than 1 in the Dead Zone.

CTD output. Depth is on the vertical axis and each measurement is scaled on the horizontal axis, showing how each variable changes as the CTD moves to the bottom and back to the surface.

CTD output. Depth is on the vertical axis and each measurement is scaled on the horizontal axis, showing how each variable changes as the CTD moves to the bottom and back to the surface.

Quadruple check on dissolved oxygen in Gulf waters the "old fashioned" way using a Winkler titration.

Triple check on dissolved oxygen in Gulf waters the “old fashioned” way using a Winkler titration.

 With storms in the path and not-so-plenty of fish in the sea, today is a slow day.

 

Personal Log

Looking out over the water, I can’t help but think how intrepid, even audacious, early mariners must have been. I know we are within a couple miles of the coast but there’s no sign of land anywhere in any direction. Even with the reassurance that satellites, radar, radios, AND trained NOAA Corps officers steering in the bridge are all keeping track of us, I still swallow a moment of panic. What kind of person decides to sail out in search of new continents when it only takes a couple hours to lose track of where you came from? And yet, the Polynesians set out thousands years ago in canoes from mainland Asia, the Aborigine ancestors managed to find Australia, and of course, Europeans sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas, whether they knew it or not. It was all possible through careful observations of the winds, waves, ocean currents, stars and other indications of direction, but I still have to think that that’s a pretty bold move when you don’t know if land lies ahead.

No land in sight.

No land in sight.

At least we’re not alone out here. These are some other animals that we’ll leave for the mammal survey and birders to count.

 

Did You Know?

The CTD also shows the layers of ocean water. Looking at the graph again for the red (salinity) and blue (temperature) lines, we can see where they cross at about 15 meters. This shows where colder, saltier water starts compared to the warm surface water that is diluted by fresh water and mixed by wind.

Anna Levy: Fish Rules, July 17, 2017


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Anna Levy

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

July 10-20, 2017

Mission: Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 17, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Warm weather and blue skies are making it easy to spend a lot of time out on deck, looking for wildlife! In addition to the lazy seagulls who keep hitching a ride on the ship’s trawling gear, we continue to spot dolphins, flying fish, and even a shark feeding frenzy!

IMG_1191

Lazy sea gulls hitch a ride on our trawling gear

Latitude: 28 24.13 N
Longitude: 83 57.32 W
Air temp: 27.7 C
Water temp: 31.3 C
Wind direction: light and variable
Wind speed: light and variable
Wave height: 0.3 meter
Sky: 50% cloud cover, no rain

 

Science and Technology Log

The organisms in each catch provide a snap shot of the marine life in one location in one moment in time. It’s interesting to see what we catch, but there are not many scientific conclusions that we can draw based on what we see in just 10 days. However, this survey has been completed twice per year (once in the summer and once in the fall) for over 35 years. It is looking at trends, or changes and patterns over time, that allows scientists to draw conclusions about the health and ecology of the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the major practical applications of this research is to prevent overfishing, the removal of too many individuals from a population causing that population to become unstable. Continued overfishing can lead to the extinction of a species because it leaves too few mature individuals to reproduce and replace those that are removed.

Cod Graph

Graph Created by Boston Globe

One famous example of overfishing and its consequences occurred in the late 1980’s off the Atlantic coast of Canada. Cod was a major food source and commercial industry in the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrodor. However, unregulated overfishing depleted the cod population and, between 1988 and 1992 the cod population crashed, losing more than 99% of its biomass – they were essentially gone. This destroyed the industry, putting over 40,000 people out of work. In 1992, the government finally imposed a complete ban on cod fishing in hopes that the cod population could still recover. The fishing ban is still in place today, though just last year, Canadian scientists released a report stating that there are some signs of hope!

When NOAA scientists notice overfishing occurring in US waters, they can recommend that protective regulations, or rules, are put in place to limit or even stop fishing in an area until the species has had a chance to recover.

Here are a few examples of the types of regulations that have been created in the Gulf of Mexico in response to the data from the Groundfish Survey.

Texas Shrimping Closure

To prevent overfishing of shrimp in the western Gulf of Mexico, NOAA and the Texas Department of Wildlife collaborated to implement an annual closure of state and federal waters off the coast of Texas to shrimping. This is called the “Texas Closure.”

The Texas closure runs each year from about May 15 to July 15, though the exact dates vary depending on the health of the shrimp population that year. This break allows the shrimp time to mature to an age at which they can reproduce, and to migrate out to deeper waters, which is where females spawn. It also allows the shrimp to grow to a size that is more commercially valuable.

IMG_1177

A shrimp we caught off the coast of Florida.

We saw quite a few shrimp in our recent catches. Because this species is being more intensively monitored, we collected more detailed data about the individuals we caught, including the length, mass, and sex of a sample of least 200 individual shrimp (instead of a the smaller sample size of 20 that we used for most other species.)

In addition to sending out an annual notice to fisherman of the dates of the Texas Closure, NOAA also makes all of the shrimp survey data available. This can help fishermen to target the best fishing locations and work efficiently. For example, this is a plot showing the amount of brown shrimp found at various locations, created using this year’s survey data.

Shrimp Map

Plot Created By NOAA

Red Snapper Regulation

Another species that is currently under regulation is the red snapper, which has been a popular seafood in the US since the 1840s. As fishing technology improved and recreational fishing expanded in the 1950’s, the number of red snapper captured each year increased dramatically. The shrimp industry was also expanding rapidly at this time, and juvenile red snapper were often accidentally caught and killed in shrimp trawls. As a result of these three pressures, the red snapper population began to decline dramatically.

Red Snapper SP

Graph created by NOAA

By 1990, the spawning potential, or the number of eggs produced by the population each year, was only 2% of what it would have been naturally, without any fishing. This was far below the target spawning potential level of 26% that is necessary to sustain the species.

 

Several types of regulations were implemented to protect the snapper. These included:

  • Limiting the number of commercial and recreational fishing licenses issued each year
  • Restricting the size and number of fish that a fisherman could collect on a fishing trip
  • Reducing the amount of time each year that fishermen could fish for red snapper
  • Regulating the type of fishing gear that could be used
  • Requiring commercial shrimp fishermen to install devices on their trawls to reduce the by-catch of juvenile red snapper
  • Requiring fishermen to avoid areas where red snapper spawn

Survey results in the last 5 years show that these regulations are working and that the red snapper population is growing. This is good news. However, the red snapper is not out of the woods yet. It is important to understand that, as a species with a long life span (they can live over 50 years!), it will take time for the population to regain

Red Snapper Productivity

Graphic created by NOAA

its normal age structure. Currently, the majority of red snapper found in the Gulf are less than 10 years old. These fish are still juveniles capable of producing only a fraction of the offspring a fully mature individual would produce. It is important to continue to closely monitor and regulate the fishing of snapper until both the number and age of individuals has been restored to a sustainable level.

We were fortunate to catch members of three different species of red snapper during my leg of the survey. I did notice that most of them were relatively small – less than 10 inches – which is consistent with the concern that the population is still disproportionately young.

As with the shrimp, we collected more detailed information about these individuals. We also removed the stomachs of a sample of snappers. As I discussed in my last blog (“What Tummies Tell Us”), scientists back on land will examine the contents of their stomachs as part of a diet study to better understand what snapper are eating. Because the invasive lionfish has a competitive relationship with red snapper, meaning that it eats many of the same foods that red snapper eat, fisheries biologists are concerned that red snapper may be forced to settle for alternative and/or reduced food sources and that this could also slow their recovery.

IMG_1235

A typical red snapper from our catch. Note that each mark on the ruler is one centimeter.

IMG_0045

Red snapper from one catch.

 

Hypoxia Watch

CTD

Getting ready to deploy the CTD sensors.

In addition to collecting data about the fish and other organisms we find, remember that we also use a group of instruments called a CTD to collect information about the quality of the water at each survey station. (For more about CTDs, please see my previous blog “First Day of Fishing.”)

One of the measurements the CTD takes is the amount of oxygen that is dissolved in the water. This is important because, just like you and me, fish need to take in oxygen to survive. (The difference is that you and I use our lungs to remove oxygen from the air, whereas fish use gills to remove oxygen from the water!) When dissolved oxygen concentrations in the water drop below 2 mg/L, a condition called hypoxia, most marine organisms cannot survive.

When waters become hypoxic, organisms that are able to migrate (like some fishes) will leave the area. Organisms that cannot migrate (like corals or crabs) will die from lack of oxygen. This creates large areas of ocean, called dead zones, that are devoid of typical marine life. Often anaerobic microorganisms, some of which are toxic to humans, will then grow out of control in these areas. Not only is this stressful for the marine populations, it hampers regular fishing activities, and can even pose a threat to human health.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to the largest hypoxic zone in US waters. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers and animal waste from farming activities throughoAnnual Hypoxic Zone Graphut the Midwest United States all collect in the Mississippi River, which drains into the Gulf. Though nitrogen is a nutrient that organisms need in order to grow and be healthy, excess nitrogen causes an imbalance in the normal nitrogen cycle, and stimulates high levels of algae plant growth called an algal bloom. Once the algae use up the excess nitrogen, they begin to die. This causes the population of decomposers like fungi and bacteria to spike. Like most animals, these decomposers consume oxygen. Because there are more decomposers than usual, they begin to use up oxygen faster than it can be replenished.

This hypoxic zone is largest in the summer, when farming activities are at their peak. In the winter, there is less farming, and therefore less nitrogen. As the hypoxic water continues to mix with normal ocean water, the levels of oxygen begin to return to normal. (When there are tropical storms or hurricanes in the Gulf, this mixing effect is more significant, helping to reduce the impact of the hypoxia. This is often the primary cause of low-hypoxia years like 2000.) Unfortunately, the average size of the annual dead zone remains at nearly 15,000 square kilometers, three times the goal of 5,000 square kilometers.

The data collected from this year’s Groundfish Survey was used to create this map of hypoxic areas. How might this map be different if tropical storm Cindy had not occurred this summer?

This Years Hypoxic Zone

A plot of dissolved oxygen levels created from this year’s survey data.

The data we collect on the Groundfish survey is combined with data gathered during other NOAA missions and by other organizations, like NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and USGS (the United States Geologic Survey). By collaborating and sharing data, scientists are able to develop a more complete and detailed understanding of hypoxia levels.

In response to the levels of hypoxia seen in the data, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required Midwestern states to develop and implement plans that will allow them to make greater progress in reducing the nutrient pollution that flows into the Mississippi. Specifically, the EPA wants states to do things like:

  • Identify areas of land that have the largest impact on pollution in the Mississippi
  • Set caps on how much nitrogen and other nutrients can be used in these areas
  • Develop new agricultural practices and technologies that will reduce the amount of these pollutants that are used or that will flow into the water
  • Ensure that the permitting process that states use to grant permission to use potential pollutants is effective at limiting pollutants to reasonable levels
  • Develop a plan for monitoring how much nutrient pollution is being released into waters

These EPA regulations were only recently implemented, so it is still unclear what, if any, impact they will have on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf. It will be interesting to keep an eye on the data from the Groundfish survey in coming years to help answer that question!

In the mean time, though, things still seem to be moving in the wrong direction. In fact, NOAA just announced that this summer’s dead zone is the largest ever recorded.

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Photo credit: Goddard SVS, NASA

Personal Log

Getting a PhD in your chosen field of science is an awesome accomplishment and is necessary if your goal is to design and carry out your own research projects. However, I’ve noticed that the PhD is often presented to students as the only path into a career in science. I think this is unfortunate, since this often discourages students who know they do not want to pursue a graduate degree from entering the field.

I’ve noticed that most of the scientists I’ve met while on board the Oregon II and in the NOAA lab at Pascagoula do not hold PhDs, but are still deeply involved in field work, lab work, and data analysis every day.

I asked Andre DeBose, a senior NOAA fishery biologist and the Field Party Chief for this mission, if he feels a PhD is necessary for those interested in fishery biology. Andre agreed that a graduate degree is not necessary, but he cautioned that it is a very competitive field and that education is one way to set yourself apart – “if you have the opportunity to get an advanced degree, take the opportunity.”

However, he continued, “the MOST important thing you can do is take the opportunity to do internships, volunteering, and fellowships. Those open a lot of doors for you in the world of biology.” Andre himself holds a bachelors degree in biology, but it was his years of experience working in aquaculture and as a contractor with NOAA that were most helpful in paving the way to the permanent position he holds today. “When I graduated from college, I took a low-paying job in aquaculture, just to start learning everything I could about fish. When contract [or short-term] positions became available at the NOAA lab, I applied and tried to make myself as useful as possible. It took time and I had to be really persistent – I would literally call the lab all the time and asked if they had anything they needed help with – but when a full time position finally became available, everyone knew who I was and knew that I had the right skills for the job.”

Now, Andre tries to help others navigate the tricky career path into marine biology. In addition to his responsibilities as a biologist, he is also the Outreach and Education Coordinator for the NOAA lab, which allows him to mentors all of interns (and Teachers at Sea like me!) and to talk with students at schools in the community.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in marine biology, it’s never to early to start looking for some of those volunteer opportunities! There are lots of scientists out there like Andre who are excited to share their knowledge and experience.

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The Day-Shift Science Team as we head back in to port.  From left to right:  TAS Anna Levy, NOAA Summer Intern Jessica Pantone, NOAA Biologist & Field Party Chief Andre DeBose, NOAA Fellow Dedi Vernetti Duarte, NOAA Volunteer Elijah Ramsey.

Did You Know?

In the Gulf of Mexico, each state has the authority to regulate the waters that are within about 9 miles of the coast. (This includes making rules about fishing.) Beyond that, the federal government, with the help of federal agencies like NOAA, make the rules!

 

Questions to Consider:

Research:  This article discussed the political side of the Snapper situation. Research other news articles about this issue to ensure that you have a balanced perspective.

Reflect: To what extent do you believe this issue should be governed by science? To what extent do you believe this issue should be governed by politics?

Take action: Propose some specific ways that fisherman, scientists, and policy-makers could work together to address issues like the overfishing of red snapper fairly and effectively.

Review: Examine the graph showing the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf each summer. There are unusually small zones in 1988 and 2000. How do you explain this?

Research: Two other reoccurring hypoxic zones in the US are found in Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. What is the cause of each of these zones?

 

 

 

 

Melissa Barker: Reflections from Land, July 20, 2017

 

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Melissa Barker

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 22 – July 6, 2017

 

Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 20, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge: I am now back in Longmont, Colorado

Latitude: 40 08.07 N

Longitude: 105 08.56 W

Air temp: 31.1 C

 

Science and Technology Log

One of the major questions I had before my Teacher at Sea voyage was how the level of oxygen in the water will affect the species we collect. Typically, in the summer, a dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico spreading out from the mouth of the Mississippi river. You can see an image of the dead zone from 2011 below.

Hypoxia2011

Bottom Dissolved Oxygen Contours, Gulf of Mexico, 2011

Phytoplankton, or microscopic marine algae, are the base of the marine food web. There are two main classes, diatoms and dinoflagellates, which are both photosynthetic and typically live towards the top of the water column. We did not sample plankton on our leg of the cruise, but if you want to learn more you can check out this site: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/phyto.html. In the summer, phytoplankton and algae can build up due to excess nutrients in the water that are running off from urban areas, agriculture and industry. Much of our sampling was near the mouth of the Mississippi River, which is a significant source of excess nutrients. The extra nitrogen and phosphorus in the runoff cause the excess growth of photosynthetic organisms which leads to a buildup of zooplankton (heterotrophic plankton). Once the phytoplankton and zooplankton die and sink to the bottom they are decomposed by oxygen consuming bacteria which deplete the oxygen in the water column. According to NOAA, hypoxia in aquatic systems refers to an area where the dissolved oxygen concentration is below 2 mg/L. At this point, most organisms become physiologically stressed and cannot survive.

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How The Dead Zone Forms: Infographic by Dan Swenson, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune

Tropical Storm Cindy, which kicked up just as I was arriving in Galveston, brought significant freshwater into the gulf and mixed that water around so we did not see as many low oxygen readings as expected. While I was talking with Andre about hypoxia when we were on the ship, he used the analogy of stirring a bowl of soup. There is a cool layer on top, but as you stir the top layer and mix it with the lower layers, the whole bowl cools. Similarly, the oxygen rich freshwater from the storm is mixed around with the existing water, reducing the areas of low oxygen. You can see in the map below that we had fewer hypoxic areas than in 2011.

2017-hypoxia-contours

Bottom Dissolved Oxygen Contours, Gulf of Mexico, 2017

We used the CTD to obtain oxygen readings in the water column at each station. In the visuals below you can see a CTD indicating high oxygen levels and a CTD indicating lower, hypoxic, oxygen levels. The low oxygen CTD was from leg one of the survey. It corresponds with the red area in the hypoxia map above.

Non Hypoxic station copy

CTD for a non-hypoxic station

Hypoxic Station copy

CTD of a hypoxic station

 Personal Log and Reflections

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Final sunset over the Gulf of Mexico

When I arrived back on land I still felt the rocking of the Oregon II. It took two to three days before I felt stable again. As friends and family ask about my experience, I find it hard to put into words. I am so grateful to the NOAA Teacher at Sea program for giving me this incredible experience and especially thankful to Science Field Party Chief Andre Debose and my day shift science team members, Tyler, David and Sarah, for teaching me so much, being patient and making my experience one that I will never forget.

The ocean is so vast and we have explored so little of it, but now, I have a strong understanding of how a large scale marine survey is conducted. Being an active participant in fisheries research was definitely out of my comfort zone. The experience helped stretch me and my learning and has giving me great insight to bring back to share with my students and school community. The map below shows our journey over the two weeks I was on the ship traveling along the Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida coasts.

Summer GroundfishLEG2 Oregon II ALL

The blue line maps our route on the Oregon II

My experience on Oregon II has also re-engaged me with the ocean. As a child, I spent time each summer on an island off the coast of Maine and even got to go fishing with my Dad and his lobsterman buddies. But for the last 20 years or so, my exposure to the ocean has been limited to just a few visits. My curiosity for the marine world has been reignited; I look forward to bringing more fisheries science and insight into my classroom.

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Brown shrimp (Penaeus aztecus) on the left Pink shrimp (Penaeus duorarum) on the right

I mentioned in a previous blog that our shrimp data was sent daily to SEAMAP and made available to fisheries managers and shrimpers to allow them to make the best decisions about when to re-open the shrimp season. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD), the commercial shrimp season for both the state and federal waters re-opened just after sunset on July 15, 2017. TPWD said, “The opening date is based on an evaluation of the biological, social and economic impact to maximize the benefits to the industry and the public.” It is satisfying to know that I was part of the “biological evaluation” to which they refer.

 

Finally, I took some video while out at sea and now with more bandwidth and time, I’ve been able to process some of that video to shed additional light on how fisheries research is conducted. I’ve added two videos. The first one shows the process of conducting a bottom trawl and the second one show the fish sorting and measuring process. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did You Know?

You can use the following sites to help you make smart sustainable seafood choices:

FishWatch (http://www.fishwatch.gov)

Monterey Bay Aquarium (http://www.seafoodwatch.org). There is also a free app you can put on your phone so you can do a quick look up when you are at a restaurant, the grocery or a fish market.

 

The largest Gulf of Mexico dead zone recorded was in 2002, encompassing 8,497 square miles. The smallest recorded dead zone measured 15 square miles in 1988. The average size of the dead zone from 2010-2015 was about 5,500 square miles, nearly three times the 1,900 square mile goal set by the Hypoxia Task Force in 2001 and reaffirmed in 2008.

(source: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov)

 

Dawson Sixth Grade Queries

Thank you to the Dawson sixth graders (now seventh graders!) for your great questions. I look forward to speaking with you all when school starts in a few weeks.

What is at the bottom of the low oxygen part of the ocean? (Allison)

There is a lot of accumulated dead organic matter that is decomposed by oxygen consuming bacteria.

What do you find in the dead zone? Do less animals live there? (Leeham, Mae, Shane, Alfie, Bennett)

Typically, trawls are smaller and the diversity of organisms decreases in the low oxygen areas. Often you will find resilient organisms like croaker. There is a lot of research looking at which organisms can live in dead zones and how these organisms compensate for the low levels of oxygen.

Is there any way to fix the dead zone? What can we do about the dead zone? (Isaac, Owen, Ava)

It is estimated that seventy percent of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus that runs off into the Gulf of Mexico comes from industrial agriculture. Reducing the amount of fertilizer used to grow our food would help decrease the extent of the dead zone area. Perhaps one of you will come up with a way to feed our communities in a more sustainable way or a technology that can remove these excess nutrients before the water reaches the Gulf.

Thanks for reading my blog!

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Safety first on the Oregon II.

 

Carol Schnaiter, Home Again! June 25, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Carol Schnaiter

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 7 – 21, 2014

Mission: I am back home in Amboy, IL, now so my mission is getting back to a “normal” schedule and getting my land legs back!

Weather: Partly sunny, 82 degrees

Date: June 25, 2014

Early morning work

Early morning work!

Science and Technology:

Hypoxia or low oxygen levels in the water is my final topic. The “dead zone” may seem like it does not relate to me being home, but in reality it really does.

This “dead zone” is affected by many things such as the oceanographic conditions, but a major cause is excessive nutrient pollution from agriculture and waste water. Being from a rural agricultural area I wonder how much of what we are doing here in the north affects the ocean waters far away?

So how does this all start? The nitrogen and phosphorus that flows into the water fuels the growth of algae, later when the algae dies and decays, it sinks to the bottom. At the bottom the bacteria will devour the dissolved oxygen from the water. With little or no oxygen the organisms living there must either move, if they can, or they will die.

Where does this nitrogen and phosphorus come from? Most of this can be found in fertilizers from agriculture, golf courses and suburban lawns, discharges from sewage treatment plants, and even from erosion of soil full of nutrients. Since past spring was very rainy and there were floods near the Mississippi River much of this was taken from the soil into the water. The flood waters then drained back into the river and into the gulf carrying many of these nutrients.

How do we know this is happening and that it is getting worse? On the NOAA Ship Oregon II and other ships there are daily checks of the water oxygen levels. Tests similar to these have been conducted for many years. The results are compared and they show that changes in the oxygen levels are happening and not for the better.

While on the ship the scientist performed these tests using the CTD.  Water taken from the CTD is handled very carefully so no oxygen is added by accident. As chemicals are added, you can see the changes where the oxygen in the water bonds to the chemicals. The results of these tests are compared to the results collected by the computer.  Having both tests generate similar results show more proof of the oxygen levels.

CTD coming up

CTD coming up!

I noticed that when the ship was closer to land, the oxygen levels would be lower and Lead Scientist Kim Johnson said as the ship traveled closer to the mouth of the Mississippi River, the levels would drop even more. (I plan on watching the results as they are posted.)

Can anything be done to stop this? Some scientist say one of the solutions would be to use fewer fertilizers another would be to maybe watch when the chemicals were added, so there would be less runoff.

Of course checking septic systems and sewage treatment plants to be sure they are up to code and working correctly would help. These solutions sound simple, but maybe people do not even realize what happens up north and how it really does affect what is going on at the bottom of the ocean.

Maybe our Amboy Marsh is the beginning, a place where the water can be filtered.

Here is a map showing the levels of oxygen in the water.

https://teacheratsea.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/20140625_051938-1.jpg

Personal Log:

I have been home now for four days. My land legs are back and I only feel dizzy when closing my eyes while washing my hair in the shower. I want to thank everyone for reading my blogs, I hope you enjoyed my adventure and learned something new.

As I look through my pictures, memories of the sixteen days I spent at sea flood my mind. I look at the safety precautions that were taken to make sure everyone on the ship stayed safe. The drills, the posting of where everyone was to go and what they were suppose to do in case of an emergency, and the sign stating how many days the ship had gone without a problem. I always felt safe, everyone was very careful and followed rules to ensure the safety of everyone….just like we do at school!

Accident free days

525 Days without an accident!

Ship's emergency bullets

Emergency bullets

I also think about how what seemed like a tiny space became my home away from home. Everything you need to survive on a mere 178 ft ship! Two showers for everyone to share, three heads (toilets) and one washing machine and one dryer. I thought it would be impossible, but it just proved my husband’s theory that we have too much in our home!

laundry area

Laundry Area!

Shower room

Two showers to share with everyone!

I want to tell you how thankful I am that NOAA has this wonderful program and allowed me to participate. I know many teachers applied for this and I am honored that I was selected. Thank you to the scientists aboard the ship: Kim, for EVERYTHING, the Night Shift: Taniya, Andre, Lee, Chrissy, and Rebeca for all of their guidance and help.

The deck crew: Chris, Chuck and Mike-thanks for your support and for making the night go by so quickly!  Master Dave Nelson and ALL the members of his crew for their help in explaining everything and the tours on the ship!

This survey opened my eyes to what is happening under the water and how fragile life in the deep blue sea really is. It confirmed my thinking that we (the human race) need to look closely at what we are doing everyday and how it affects others. I plan on following the NOAA Ship Oregon II during the rest of the summer groundfish survey and during the fall groundfish survey. I want to see how the oxygen level changes, how the data collected affects the shrimp season, and follow the members of the ship!

Day One

Our first day together! (Photo by Karen Mitchell)

I cannot wait to share with my students and with anyone that will listen! Would I do this again? YES, I would go back to sea in a minute if I had the chance!