NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard Oscar Dyson
June 8-28, 2017
Mission: MACE Pollock Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: June 9, 2017
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 57° 38’ 38” N
Longitude: 52° 23 48” W
Sky: Overcast with fog
Visibility: 3 Nautical Miles
Wind Direction: 130.96
Wind Speed: 2.41 Knots
Sea Wave Height: <1 foot swell
Barometric Pressure: 1003.4 Millibars
Sea Water Temperature: 9.3°C
Air Temperature: 9.6°C
Science and Technology Log
There such is so much science and technology aboard this vessel. I had a tour of the various labs that the research will take place in as well as the various types of equipment and technology that we will be using. We are holding stationary position right now, calibrating the acoustic equipment and have not actually collected any biological data yet. During my tour of the boat, I observed some of the various roles that different people play on this research cruise. It became very clear to me that it is a composition of talents, specialized skills, communication, and respect that is the underlying thread to the success of this research.
It’s a bit overcast in the Gulf of Alaska.
There are so many specialized skills that are needed for this cruise. Everyone on board has a specific function and it is essential that that function be carried out flawlessly. The central element in all of this is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), because everyone on board, from the engineers, to the deck crew, scientists and officers, work for NOAA. NOAA is an agency within the Department of Commerce that was founded in 1970. It merged three different agencies (the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, The Weather Bureau, and the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries) into one. Its mission is to “understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources”. This is easily condensed into three words: Science, Service and Stewardship.
The boat is run by the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). NOAA Corps is one of the nation’s seven uniformed services. The officers are (obviously) a part of NOAA, where they support nearly all of NOAA’s programs and missions. They are trained in many areas, including engineering, earth sciences, oceanography, meteorology, and fisheries science.
Becoming a NOAA Corps officer is a career path that some people may choose to pursue. One must have a baccalaureate degree, (preferably in a major course of study related to NOAA’s scientific or technical activities) and attend a 19-week Basic Officer Training Class. This course is very demanding and fast-paced. Once a candidate has completed the training, they are assigned to a NOAA ship for up to three years.
So, what exactly am I doing out here?
That’s a really good question, one that I have been asked many times. I will try to explain it in a nutshell. As you may already know, the fisheries in Alaska are a key part of the economies of Alaska as well as the U.S. Seafood is Alaska’s largest export. According to a study conducted by the McDowell Group in 2015, in 2014, close to 3 billion pounds of seafood product were processed in Alaska with a wholesale value of $4.2 billion. The total seafood harvest for the year was 5.7 billion pounds! That’s a lot of fish.
Needless to say, fishing has always been a way of life for the people of Alaska. Unfortunately, overfishing and poor fishing practices have resulted in a decline in marine health. Fishing regulations are now in place to ensure that the fisheries can continue to be a vital part of the economy while being sustainable at the same time.
Fishing and crabbing are a vital part of Alaska’s economy.
NOAA’s marine scientists conduct surveys to collect data on various aspects of the ocean to share with not only the fisheries, but the public as well. Ultimately, they are responsible for monitoring the conditions of the climate and environment, and additionally, taking steps to preserve them. The surveys are designed to monitor changes in the marine ecosystems and set sustainable catch limits for the fisheries.
The purpose of this cruise is to conduct a survey of walleye pollock in the Gulf of Alaska. The scientists will determine the abundance and distribution of pollock and provide the data to stock assessment managers that set pollock catch limits for the following year. The science team is from the Midwater Assessment and Conservation Engineering (MACE) group of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) in Seattle, Washington. They primarily conduct surveys on the status of walleye pollock in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. This is the first of 3 legs of the summer assessment. They will conduct the surveys on randomized transect lines using both the net catches and acoustic technology. Though the main focus is to gather data on the walleye pollock, everything that is caught will be weighted, measured, and entered into the data system.
Alaska Fisheries Science Center and Midwater Assessment and Conservation Engineering work together to conduct the walleye pollock surveys.
You might be wondering what pollock are. Do you eat fish sticks? Have you ever had imitation crab at a sushi restaurant? Then you have most likely eaten pollock. Alaska pollock is a white fish that is wild caught in the Gulf of Alaska, mostly with trawl vessels. They are used in many fish products, including Filet-O-Fish. It has consistently been one of the top five seafood species consumed in the U.S. That’s a pretty popular fish!
Pollock makes up over half of the fish harvested in Alaska (photo credit: FishWatch.gov)
Trawl vessels use trawling as a way to get their fish. It involves dragging or pulling a large net through the water behind one or more boats. We will be using midwater trawls to catch the fish we will be collecting data from.
An Aleutian Wing Trawl is 140 meters long and can gather fish from 30 to 1,000 meters underwater.
I arrived in Kodiak on Tuesday afternoon and was met at the airport by the scientists who will be conducting the pollock survey. My flight into Kodiak was fairly uneventful. I was, however, a bit baffled though when we entered the plane from the rear and only the back half of the plane was designated for passengers. The front half of the plane was for cargo. There are two primary ways to get things to Kodiak: cargo planes and freighters.
We took a quick 10-minute car ride to the dock. The weather reminded me of Humboldt County. It was drizzly, cool, and people had on their layers. They took me aboard and gave me a quick tour of the vessel where we will be spending the next three weeks. The NOAA ship Oscar Dyson is said to be one of the most technologically advanced fisheries survey vessels in the world and was named after Oscar Dyson, who was a well-known fishing activist in Alaska. Mr. Dyson was dedicated to managing and improving the industry for those that make their living at sea.
The Oscar Dyson is a survey vessel used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Of course I got lost immediately and spent a good 10 minutes trying to find my way back to my room. After a dinner of tacos back in town, we all went to sleep. The rocking of the boat was a nice way to be lulled to sleep. I do not yet know if I will feel the same way once we are out on the open ocean.
The city of Kodiak has a population of about 6,000 people. (photo credit: Matthew Phillips)
On Thursday, we fueled up. The ship has an 110,00 gallon capacity and uses about 2,100 gallons of gas a day. (Here is a task for my class: Can you calculate how much it costs per day to drive the boat if the cost of gas is $3.00/ gallon?) Fueling up a ship this size is quite a task. It requires a lot of people and a lot of communication. Fuel spill booms are put around the boat to protect the water should there be a gas spill. After the fuel up (which takes over 4 hours!), the booms are removed again. We left the pier and started out. The sky was gray and there was some light rain, but I was still mesmerized by the pure beauty surrounding us. We pulled into a nearby quiet bay so the scientists could calibrate their equipment.
Leaving the Port of Kodiak
The scientists have been working hard to calibrate the machinery. This requires many hours, many hands, and minds all working together. Once all of the machinery is calibrated, we can set sail to the starting point near the Islands of the Four Mountains in the Aleutian Islands. It should take us 2 and half days (760 miles) to get there. The Oscar Dyson can go 12.5 knots. A “knot” is 1.151 miles/hour.
We are currently holding stationary position while the scientists calibrate their equipment (photo credit: marinetraffic.com)
We have started adjusting to our 12-hour shifts. My shift will be from 4 am to 4 pm. This means that I will be setting my alarm for 3:30 every morning, grabbing a cup of coffee (well, a double latte, actually!) and heading down to the “Wet lab”. There we will be pull up the hauls of fish, sort them by species, separate males and females, measure their lengths, and remove the otoliths (ear bones). The purpose of studying the otolith is to determine the age of the fish. An otolith is a calcium carbonate structure in the inner ear of the fish. They are very similar to the rings of a tree. They add a new layer every year and give the scientists valuable data on the age structure of the population.
Did You Know?
- All Pollock is wild-caught in the ocean. There is no commercial aquaculture for this species.
- Since 2001, U.S. commercial landings of Alaskan Pollock (primarily in Alaska) have been well over 2 billion pounds each year.