Allison Irwin: The Otolympics, July 20, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

07-25 July 2019

Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 20, 2019

Weather at 1300 Pacific Standard Time on Friday 19 July 2019

We’re rockin’ and rollin’ out to sea. This transect carries us 138 miles off the coast, and the winds are steady at 35-40 knots. Waves keep slapping up over the deck outside our lab. I’m watching it through a window. As the boat rocks back and forth, the full frame of the window alternates between powder blue sky and foamy, purple blue sea. We’ve started tacking (zig-zag) through the water so we can minimize the effect of the roll. But with 12 foot waves, it’s only a minimal aide to our comfort. We’ve rolled a full 35° and pitched about 15° throughout the day. Though I haven’t been outside to compare it to other days, the temperature on the monitor reads 17° Celsius. With the strong breeze, I must assume it feels colder than that outside.

PERSONAL LOG

Let’s talk about seasickness.  It rattles everyone from the novice to the career fisherman. It depends on sea state and state of mind. The rougher the weather, the more people seem to feel woozy and nauseated. There’s no pattern I can see between people who are new versus people who have been at this a while. It doesn’t seem to get any better with experience. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has taken some sort of motion sickness medication at some point over the last three weeks for some reason. I’d like to believe that the more healthy you are going into it – physically fit, decent diet – the more stoic your stomach will be, but I haven’t seen a connection in that respect either.

All I know, is that some people are sick and some are not.  Differences? Medication is one. We’re all taking different types. Of those I’ve seen wearing a patch, they are not feeling well. I’ve been taking Bonine and I’ve felt great the whole trip. Bonine is a chewable tablet that you only need once each day. I took it for the first few days, stopped taking it, then started again when the weather forecast looked bleak. I’ve found that if it’s in my system before the waves get choppy, then I fair well through the storm.

Another difference is attitude. Of the people who are not feeling well, those who smile and take it in stride are able to spend more time out of their staterooms focused on the task at hand – whatever their role may be. Distraction is a bonus. It’s not like you have a virus that is running its course. If you can get yourself good and distracted, it eases the symptoms and provides some relief.

And also, sleep. There is a definite connection between quality of sleep and symptoms of sea sickness. I’ve seen a solid nap cure a couple people of their ails. Thankfully, due to a little bit of luck and a little bit of Bonine, the waves lull me to sleep each night so I wake feeling rested and I do not contend with nausea during the day. All in all, the best combination I could have hoped for.

And then there are the folks who need no meds at all and they feel fine. Lucky ducks.

THE SCIENCE

Jack Mackerel Otolith Under a Microscope
photo taken by Bryan Overcash, Fisheries Biologist

Fifteen hundred years ago, a thousand years before Magellen’s crew successfully sailed around the world, sailors used otoliths to divine whether rough or fair seas awaited them on their journey. During the era of John Smith and Peter Stuyvesant, some Europeans recognized the otolith as medicinal with the ability to cure colic, kidney stones, and persistent fevers. If you’re truly interested in the legends associated with the otolith, you should read the brief and probably only account of Fish Otoliths and Folklore ever published.  Though primarily informative, it reads with a touch of humor and it’s easy to tell that Christopher Duffin enjoyed researching the topic. As did I!

The science of otoliths as they’re used in the modern era is even more incredible than the folklore. You can determine the age of a fish by reading the annuli on its otolith under a microscope just as a botanist might count the rings on a tree to determine its age. The bands themselves can tell scientists how fast a fish grew and whether it went through periods of slower growth or not. The unique chemistry in each ring can also be studied to learn just about anything you’d want to know from that year – water temperature, migration patterns, what the fish ate, and how healthy it was. Since the shape of an otolith is unique to its species, we can even study the stomach contents and feces of other animals like sea lions or predatory fish to build a picture of their diets. Scientists use this information to craft complex food webs.

Anthropologists find otoliths in ancient scrap food piles called middens that are still intact and can shine light on the diets of bygone cultures. On this trip we’re saving fish for scientists at the San Diego Natural History Museum so they can compare bones from the coastal pelagic species with bones that they’ve excavated from archaeological expeditions.

Jack Mackerel Otolith on my Keyboard

But what is an otolith? Some call it an earstone. The otolith is a small structure of calcium carbonate that accumulates throughout a lifetime.  Where humans have an ear canal, fish have an otic capsule that houses, actually, three symmetrical otoliths on each side of its head.  When people say otolith though, they’re typically referring to the sagitta which is the largest one (in most fish) and is usually situated just behind the stem of the brain. Those are the ones we’re collecting during the Coastal Pelagic Species Survey. It takes such a concerted effort to collect them each night that one of the interns, Hilliard Hicks, started calling it the Otolympics!

To get to it is not pretty. The otoliths are situated within the brain cavity, posterior and ventral to the brain itself. The easiest way to get to them in a Jack Mackerel without breaking the otoliths is to first make a vertical incision where the base of the fish’s head meets its body. Then, turning the fish onto its side, you make another cut across the top of the fish’s head from one eye to the other. You’re essentially cutting off and removing a rectangular section at the top of the head to reveal the brain cavity.  Then, after removing the brain, you get easy access to the otic capsule where the otoliths sit. Using small forceps or tweezers, we pull them out, dry them off, and encapsulate each fish’s sagittae in a vial for further study back on land. Multiply that process by about 75-100 and add weight and length measurements, and you get a sense of what our routine is after each trawl. We usually have 3-5 people attending to the task and it takes us roughly 45 minutes.

If you’d like, you can try determining the age of a fish without all the mess. This interactive Age Reading Demonstration website from NOAA is a great one for someone interested in the topic. It can also be used with students. New technology for aging otoliths seems to be on the horizon for scientists as well.

The main component of an otolith, calcium carbonate, is used today for lots of familiar medicines. While not derived from an otolith itself, it is still notable that calcium carbonate is a very common substance in pharmacology. We use it in antacids to neutralize the acid in our upset stomachs, to boost calcium thereby warding off osteoporosis, and to save us from enduring heartburn. It’s no wonder people used to pop otoliths in their mouth to cure what they identified as kidney stones. Maybe on some level, it really did help to assuage pain associated with their stomachs and digestion. In 2015, a team of scientists published a study in the Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research to share how they’ve been researching the use of otoliths with diabetes. There are far easier ways to collect stores of calcium carbonate, but the study shows that interest in otoliths stems not just to ichthyology, but also to climatology, anthropology, and pharmacology. It is an important little item.

Don’t have diabetes or an upset stomach? Not looking to see what the folks were eating in your neighborhood 500 years ago? Maybe you’d like to add an otolith to your wardrobe instead. In Alaska there are a couple of different places you could stop to purchase otoliths as jewelry.  When used in earrings they look like tiny little feathers. A unique gift item for sure.

TEACHING CONNECTIONS

Stick with me for a minute while I get to my point. Earlier this week one of the scientists taught me about ctenophores (pronounced teen-a-fours with emphasis on the first syllable). They’re a type of zooplankton that look like translucent globes. If you’ve ever blown a bubble and watched it shimmer in the sunlight, that is exactly what they look like under a microscope. Except now visualize that bubble with eight longitudinal stripes lined with hundreds of little hairs. This orb is a living creature called a ctenophore.

Later, while I was reading on my own to research otoliths, I stumbled across the word ctenoids. A ctenoid scale on a fish has many little cilia (tiny hairs or spikes) all around its edge. “Cteno-“ can be traced back to Latin or Greek origins to mean “little comb” and I was able to use that understanding to help me visualize a ctenoid fish scale. So, here’s my point. If it weren’t for that short exchange with the scientist earlier this week about ctenophores, I would have breezed right past the word ctenoid while reading without ever having paused to visualize what the fish scale looked like. I would not have learned as much while I was researching on my own.

As teachers, we can’t possibly know all the things our students will come across in a day. By teaching them Latin and Greek word parts that align to our curriculum, they stand a better chance of connecting their lives outside the classroom to our class content.

Prefixes, suffixes, and root words are used in every discipline to help identify concepts and patterns. Don’t teach them in the abstract, instead teach them in word groupings so our students’ brains have something to latch onto. I particularly enjoy using root word tree images. Spending 15 minutes per week going over a root word tree with students, and providing them a digital link so they can look over it again at their leisure, is an excellent way to ignite a conversation in your discipline. 

Sharing a root word tree with students can be a powerful way to solidify abstract concepts.

taken from https://membean.com/treelist

If I were a history teacher for example, I might choose to start a unit on modern democracy by passing out copies of the “dem: people” root word tree, telling each student to write a paragraph at the bottom of the page with whatever comes to mind while they’re looking at the tree. Then they could walk around the room sharing their writing with their classmates and highlighting patterns they find in the responses. They’ll hopefully never forget that a democracy is a government built of the people, by the people, and for the people (as the famous saying goes). At the very least, they’ll understand why the first three words of the preamble are “We the people…” and how a democracy is different from other forms of government like a monarchy, theocracy, and dictatorship.

TEACHING RESOURCES

Allison Irwin: In the Kitchen with Kathy, July 17, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

July 7-25, 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 17, 2019

Weather at 1000 Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday 17 July 2019

We’re expecting rougher weather at the end of the week. The wind is forecast to stay at 15 knots all day today with patchy fog. Then tomorrow and Friday winds double to 30 knots with waves of 12 feet. Currently the wind is 11 knots and the sea state is stable. The sunsets out on the water are spectacular! People gather on the fantail to watch the evening sun melt into the horizon when it’s exceptionally colorful or dramatic, and last night did not disappoint.

Sunset Tuesday July 16, 2019
Sunset Tuesday July 16, 2019


PERSONAL LOG


Most of the time during meals I sit with the science crew. Sometimes I’ll sit with my roommate, Lindsey, who works as an augmenter. Think of augmenters as floaters – they are employed full time but will move from one ship to another based on the needs of each ship. Lindsey helped me a lot this trip from learning how to do laundry and climbing in and out of a top bunk on a rolling ship (without falling) to understanding nautical terms. She’s also pretty good at spotting whales!

A couple of my meals have been spent talking with 2nd Cook Aceton “Ace” Burke. He normally is the Chief Cook on NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, but he’s augmenting on this trip to fill in for someone who is on vacation. When he’s cooking for his crew, his favorite meal to prepare is pork ribs. He cooks them low and slow for hours until they’re fall-off-the-bone tender.

He and Kathy keep the kitchen spotless, the food hot, and the mealtimes cheerful. Kathy was kind enough to share some recipes with me and I intend to take every one of them home to cook this summer! For dinner one night soon I’ll make Kalbi Ribs with Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes and Macadamia Nut Cookies for dessert. I’ll reserve the Creamy Chicken Rice Soup for a cold winter weekend and be sure to add chopped, roasted red peppers and wild rice to the recipe like Kathy instructed.


INTERVIEW WITH A CHEF

Kathy's kitchen
Kathy’s Kitchen

After working in an office environment for a few years in Los Angeles, our Chief Steward Kathy Brandts realized she didn’t fit the nine to five lifestyle. Plus, who would ever want to commute to work in LA? So she left LA and moved back to Colorado to live with her sister for a while until she found something more appealing.

That’s when cooking began to kindle in her blood. Every night she would sift through cookbooks and prepare dinner in search of a way to express gratitude to her sister for helping her get back on her feet. But it would still be a few years before she started earning a living in the kitchen.

First came the Coast Guard.  At 27 years old, she was less than a year away from the cutoff. If she didn’t enter basic training before her 28th birthday, a career with the Coast Guard would no longer be an option. It appealed to her though, and a recruiter helped her work a little magic.  She made the cut!  While she initially wanted to work deck personnel so she could maintain the ship and qualify as law enforcement (some Coast Guard personnel, in addition to belonging to a military branch, can simultaneously take on the role of federal law enforcement officers), she was too pragmatic for that. It would have taken her three years to make it to that position whereas cooks were in high demand. If she entered as a cook, she wouldn’t have to wait at all.

So the Coast Guard is where she had her first taste of formal training as a cook.  She traveled on a two year tour to places like Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean visiting port cities in Hawaii and Australia to resupply. Ironically, to be out to sea a little less often, she decided to join NOAA as a civilian federal employee after her service with the Coast Guard ended.  She’s not exactly out to sea any less than she used to be, but now she gets to go on shorter trips and she can visit family and friends while NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker is in port between cruises.

Kathy is a perfect example of someone who wasn’t willing to settle for a job. She spent the first half of her life searching for a career, a calling, to energize and motivate not just herself but all the people her meals feed throughout the day. She believes that food is one of the biggest morale boosters when you’re on a ship, and it’s clear at mealtime that she’s correct. I watch each day as the officers and crew beam and chatter while they’re going through the buffet line. I hear them take time to thank her as they’re leaving to go back to work.

A well-cooked, scratch meal has the power to change someone’s day. Not only does Kathy take pride in her work as a professional, I also get a touch of “den mother tending to her cubs” when I see her interact with everyone on the ship. She says she provides healthy, flavorful meals because she loves food and wouldn’t want to serve anything she wouldn’t eat herself. In turn, this seems to make everyone feel cared for and comforted. When you’re packed like sardines in a confined area for a month at a time, I can’t think of any better morale booster than that.

  • dessert
  • Halibut Picatta
  • garlic and black beans
  • Chicken Pad Thai and Kalbi Ribs
  • roasted vegetables
  • Fresh Salad Bar


TEACHING CONNECTIONS


I think it’s hard sometimes for students to visualize all the steps it takes to get to where they want to end up. As with all people, teenagers don’t always know where they want to end up, so connecting the dots becomes even less clear. Take Kathy as an example. She started her adult life in an office and ended up in a tiny kitchen out in the middle of the ocean. I doubt that at sixteen years old, sitting in some high school classroom, she ever would have imagined she’d end up there.

So our job as teachers is not to push students in one direction or the other. Part of our job, I believe, is to help students get out of their own way and imagine themselves in settings they won’t hear about in their counselor’s office. One way to do this is to invite people from our communities to come in and share how their profession connects to our curriculum. I can think of plenty of people to invite – the local candy maker, a trash collector, a professor researching octopods, a farmer, a cyber security professional or white hat, a prison guard, military personnel, an airline pilot, or a bosun (even though I probably won’t find any of those in my local community since I don’t live near the water). Reading about the profession is one thing. Talking to someone who lives it everyday is another.

One lesson I’m taking from my day spent in the kitchen is the value of scenario based activities. If student teams are posed with a problem, given a text set to help them form their own conclusions and plan for the solution, and then asked to present their solution to the class for feedback, that is a much more enriching lesson plan than direct instruction.  In November my students will be tasked with preparing a budget and presenting a plan to feed 30 people for a three week cruise. I like the idea of the cruise because they can’t just run out to the store if they forget a few things – the plan has to be flawless. This one activity, though it would take a week to execute properly, would have my students making inferences and drawing conclusions from text, communicating with one another using academic language and jargon specific to the scenario, solving a real-world problem, and critically evaluating an assortment of potential solutions.

We can prepare students for “the career” regardless of what that ends up being. Every career requires critical thinking skills, problem solving, patience, a growth mindset, and the ability to communicate with others.  And all these skills are essential to the classroom regardless of grade level or discipline.

TEACHING RESOURCES

Allison Irwin: Whales! July 16, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

07-25 July 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 16, 2019

Weather at 1300 Pacific Standard Time on Monday 15 July 2019

We’re slowly coasting through a dense patch of fog. I can see about 20 meters off the deck before the horizon tapers to a misty, smoky haze. Then my eyes are affronted with a thick wall of white. It’s like we’re inside a room covered in white felt wallpaper – one of those rooms in a funhouse where the walls keep closing in on you as you walk through it.  For safety, the ship keeps sounding a loud horn at least once every 2 minutes to announce our position for other boats in the area. It’s been like this for an hour now. It’s a little spooky.


PERSONAL LOG


On a brighter note, we saw whales earlier this morning! We were one mile off the coast of southern Oregon, and ahead of us we saw the backs of a few whales peeking out of the surface. I was able to grab a pair of binoculars sitting next to me on the bridge, and with those I could clearly see their dark bodies in the water! Every once in a while one would gracefully lift its tail above the surface as it prepared to dive. They were so cute!

Eventually we got closer to them and we started to see more whales on either side of the ship. I spent probably 15 minutes moving from one side of the bridge to the other with my binoculars to get a better look. I’m lucky the NOAA Corps officers are so accommodating! Otherwise I think my constant fluttering from one area to another could’ve been construed as a pain.

The officers like to see whales too, so they were happy to share what they knew with me. It turns out we were most likely watching Humpback Whales. LT Dave Wang, Operations Officer on the ship and trained as an ichthyologist (fish biologist), said most whales have a distinctive blow pattern, tail shape, and dorsal fin size that makes it easier to identify which kind he’s looking at. I had no idea before today that there were so many different species of whales. I knew Orca – Free Willy, Humpback, and maybe something called a Blue Whale? But that would’ve been the extent of it. In the marine mammals identification guide housed on the ship, there are 45 types of whales in the table of contents! And that’s probably not a complete list of all whale species.

At one point today, eventually, once the fog lifted, we were 36 miles off shore and started seeing shoals of coastal pelagic species all around the ship. We could pick them out easily because each shoal looked like a dark, churning, rippled inkspot on the otherwise smooth-as-glass surface. While the low wind conditions are partly what left us in a thick layer of fog all afternoon, it is what also kept the water smooth enough to pick out the shoals. So I guess not all was lost. We saw even more whale activity around these shoals than we saw this morning, and they were a lot closer to the ship! 

One of the whales just off the starboard bow left a footprint. Larger whales like the Humpback produce larger footprints, and the calm sea state today allowed us to see them! It looked like a smooth patch of water in the center of concentric circles.

I’ve been trying to see whales and other marine mammals the whole trip. I saw a sea lion the other day, just one glimpse of it before it went under the water and we left the area, but now having seen the whales I feel pretty content.  The Commanding Officer of the ship also told me that seals or sea lions like to hang out on the pier that we’ll be docking at in San Francisco, so there’s still hope yet!


THE SCIENCE


If you’ve ever been whale watching on a boat, the type of whale you probably saw was a Humpback Whale. They can often be seen near the shore since they like to stay within the continental shelf, and they spend a lot of time near the surface compared to other whales. Not all whale species exhibit this same behavior.  If whales had a personality, I would call the Humpback Whales the Jersey Shore cast of the sea. They do things that come across as attention-seeking behaviors to the outside observer – slapping their unusually long flippers on the surface of the water, smacking their tails against the water in agitation, flipping their tails in the air before diving, and sometimes breaching the surface with their whole bodies. Of course, they’re not doing it to get our attention. But it makes for easy and exciting observation!

All Humpback Whales have unique patterns of coloration and texture on their flukes, so scientists can use photos to track specific animals as they migrate or go about their regular activities in a similar fashion to how we use fingerprints to uniquely identify people.

They also have the advantage of something called countershading. One of the whales I saw today had a silvery-shiny underside to its fluke that glistened in the sunlight and contrasted greatly with the dark, almost black color of its back. A lot of fish and marine mammals like whales and porpoises use countershading to help camouflage them by having naturally darker backs (dorsal side) and lighter stomachs (ventral side). This way when something is looking down at the creature, it blends in with the dark depths of the ocean, and when something is looking up at the creature, it blends in better with the lighter, sunlit layer of water near the surface.

Anything from krill to small fish are fair game for Humpback Whales when they’re hungry. Sometimes a group of Humpback Whales will work together as a team to catch fish. One way they do this is by bubble net feeding. It’s rare to witness, but a bubble net is a pretty sophisticated way to catch fish. It reminds me of the trawling we do each night from NOAA Ship Reuban Lasker except in this case the whales use a circular pattern of bubbles to corral a bunch of fish into one area… then they thrust forward aggressively, quickly, to scoop up the masses. We use a trawl net to corral the little critters into a codend instead of swallowing them whole.

bubble net
Photo of Humpback Whale Using Bubble Net to Catch Anchovies.
Photo by LT Dave Wang, taken earlier this year
krill in a jar
Quart Jar Filled with Krill Collected in a Bongo Tow

Baleen whales, like the Humpback, have a unique mouth that is hard to explain. If you can visualize a pelican’s beak, it looks a bit like that from the outside. These whales gulp a whole mouthful of water – including zooplankton, krill, and small fish – into their mouths, but they don’t swallow it down outright and they don’t exactly chew their food either. With all that saltwater and prey in their mouths, they use long rows of baleen attached to their upper jaw like a fine-toothed comb. And just like we would use a cheesecloth to strain the moisture off of runny yogurt, Humpback Whales filter the water out of their mouths through the baleen and keep the fishy goodness for themselves.


TEACHING CONNECTIONS


Watching the whales all day kept drumming up images in my mind from when I read Grayson by Lynne Cox. I wrote a review of Grayson in July 2014 on the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA) blog. This book, by far, is one of my favorite recommendations to read aloud to students.

If you’re not an English teacher, you probably didn’t spend a lot of late nights in college reading novels to cram for a test. It wasn’t part of your major. But you’re missing out! There are so many ways to use novels and literary nonfiction across the content areas.  Grayson, for example, is artfully written. In the book review I wrote it tells Lynne’s “account of meeting a baby whale in the ocean during one of her early morning training swims. This lonely whale, separated from its mother, stays close to Lynne in the water while fishermen search for the mother.  This true yet almost unbelievable story is hauntingly beautiful.”

Taking 15 minutes of class time to read an excerpt from this book aloud could enrich any classroom. There are many instances when she writes about wanting to give up and swim back to shore. The baby whale is ultimately not her responsibility. It was very cold. She’d been out there in the ocean for hours with nothing but her own strength and experience to keep her afloat. She hadn’t eaten all day. But she stayed with the baby whale. She resolved to see it through to the very end. Any teacher can use her stick-with-it attitude as an example to encourage students to work through academic challenges.

One of my friends, blogger Allyn Bacchus, is a middle school social studies teacher. He uses historical fiction in his class every year. He writes, “My 8th grade U.S. History class covers a unit on Industry and Urban Growth in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  I have supplemented our unit with the historical fiction novel Uprising written by Margaret Peterson Haddix.  It covers the story of 3 teenage girls and their involvement in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911.  The author brings to life the living, working, and social conditions of the time period and allows my students to experience this unit through the eyes of girls who are living in it.”

Through the eyes of girls who are living in it.  This is something a textbook cannot do.

No one knows your discipline, your students, and your intended classroom environment better than you. Take an hour to fall down the Amazon rabbit hole! Search for a topic you find interesting and relevant to your curriculum, read the book review, click on the comparable book recommendations… you get the point.  Most of the time you can find a book preview to check out the text before purchasing – is the font too small? Too complicated? Too boring? Choose a short excerpt from a text you like for your first attempt at using literature in the classroom and build from there.


TEACHING RESOURCES


Since we’re talking about literature today, I’ll narrate the resource list.

  • We can search online for other educators who have already blazed the trail for us. Here is a blog post written by Terry McGlynn titled Assigning Literature in a Science Class.  The post itself is well written, and if you take the time to read through 54 comments below it, you will find lots of other text recommendations for a science classroom.  This article written by Kara Newhouse titled How Reading Novels in Math Class Can Strengthen Student Engagement shows why two math teachers read books in their high school classrooms. One of those teachers, Joel Bezaire, wrote a blog post with suggestions for other novel studies in math class. The other teacher, Sam Shah, shares a student example to explain how powerful it can be to use literature in a math class. It gets students to understand abstract and often elusive mathematical concepts.
  • I’ve written four nonfiction book reviews to accompany this NOAA Teacher at Sea experience and PCTELA is posting one review each week in July to the new media platform on their website. If not Grayson, then maybe you’ll find useful one of the books I read and reviewed to prepare for this trip. They include Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, and Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
  • And finally, I would be remiss to end this post without steering you toward The Perfect Storm written by Sebastian Junger about a small fishing vessel and crew caught in an Atlantic storm and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick – a captivating true story about the whaling industry which is thought to be the inspiration for Moby Dick.

Allison Irwin: Trawling for Fish, July 13, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

July 7-25, 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 13, 2019

Weather at 1600 Pacific Standard Time on Thursday 11 July 2019

Happy to report we’re back to a much calmer sea state! I finally made it up to the flying bridge again since it isn’t raining or choppy anymore. It’s the first time in two days I’ve needed to wear sunglasses. The ocean looks almost level with scattered patches of wavelets which indicates about a 5 knot wind speed. It reminds me of the surface of my palms after I’ve been in the water too long – mostly smooth but with lots of tiny wrinkles. Check out this awesome weather website to look at what the wind is doing in your area!

weather conditions
A weather map from Windy.com


PERSONAL LOG


Stretch everyday. I should stretch everyday. I do not. On the ship it’s even more of a necessity. One of the scientists calls it “Boaga” – like mixing “boat” with “yoga.” Try doing yoga on the ship and the rocking might cause you to tumble, but I enjoy a good challenge. Fitness requires strength and flexibility, so if I do some yoga and have to work harder to stay balanced since the ship is rocking, all the better.

A combination of the good food, constant access to homemade snacks, and lack of natural ways to burn calories on the ship, I need to turn to deliberate exercise. I just haven’t started that routine yet. The ship does have a nice, albeit small, gym on the same floor as my stateroom. It includes free weights, kettlebells, a treadmill, and a few other pieces of equipment. Now that our first week is coming to a close, my goal for today – and everyday forward – is to develop a routine for stretching and cardio. Sigh. Otherwise the five pounds I’ve already gained will turn into fifteen. And I have no desire to work off fifteen pounds of belly fat when I get home.


THE SCIENCE


“Trawl” has its origins in Latin. The original word meant “to drag” and it still carries a similar denotation. Fishermen use trawl as a noun, verb, and adjective. On NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker we use a Nordic 264 Surface Trawl to conduct the Coastal Pelagic Species Survey each night. The trawl is spooled onto a giant iron net reel which connects to the deck with sixteen 2.5 inch bolts and is securely welded.  We try to get three trawls in per night, but sometimes we don’t quite make it. Poor weather, issues with the net, or sighting a marine mammal can all put a quick end to a trawl.

Now let’s use it as a verb. The origin “to drag” deals more with how you operate the net than the construction of the net itself. To trawl for fish like we do each night means to slowly unravel 185 meters in length of heavy ropes, chains, and nylon cord mesh into the water off the stern with an average of 15,000 pounds of tension while the ship steams at a steady rate of about 3 knots. Getting the net into the water takes about 15 minutes.

Scott Jones, Chief Bosun, took me on a tour of the equipment. Two reels below deck spooled with cable the diameter of my forearm, one even larger reel on the fantail to house the net and ropes, a winch to lift the weight of the trawl as it transitions from deck to water, plus two work stations for the Chief Bosun to manually monitor and control all those moving pieces. There are three additional nets on board in case they need to replace the one we’ve been using all week, but the deck crew are pretty adept at sewing and mending the nets as needed.

As I stand on the bridge watching the net snake its way into the water behind the ship, everything pauses for a brief moment so the deck crew can use daisy knots to sew floatable devices into the kites. Later, they attach two more of these floats to the headrope (top line). The floats keep the mouth of the net open vertically.   A couple minutes later they stop to attach 250lb Tom weights to the footrope (bottom line) of the trawl opening. When fully deployed, this roughly 25 meter vertical opening is as tall as an 8-story building!

It’s like watching choreography – every detail must be done at exactly the right moment, in the right order, or it won’t work. The Chief Bosun is the conductor, the deck crew the artists. Hollow metal doors filled with buoyant wood core – together weighing more than a ton on land – are the last to enter the water. Each hangs on large gallows on the starboard and port side of the ship, just off stage, until they’re cued to perform. These doors are configured with heavy boots and angled in the water to act as a spreading mechanism to keep the net from collapsing in on itself.

largemouth bass

If unspooled properly, the net ends up looking like an enormous largemouth bass lurking just under the surface.

photo from http://www.pixabay.com

Commercial fishermen use all kinds of nets, long lines, and pots depending on the type of catch they’re targeting, fishing regulations, and cultural traditions. But if we use “trawl” as an adjective, it describes a specific kind of net that is usually very large and designed to catch a lot of fish all at one time. It looks like a cone with a smaller, more narrow section at the very end to collect the fish.

I imagine something like a cake decorating bag that’s being used to fill a mini eclair. Except, instead of squeezing delicious icing into the pastry, we’re funneling a bunch of fish into what fishermen call a “codend.” This codend (pronounced cod-end, like the fish) houses the prize at the end of the trawl! When they haul everything back in – taking a little longer, about 45 minutes to complete the haul back – they end up with (hopefully) a codend full of fish to study.

mini eclairs
Two Mini Eclairs Filled with Pastry Cream

A trawl net can either be used like we are to collect fish close to the surface or it can be weighted and dropped to the sea floor in search of groundfish. We’re searching for pelagic fishes that come up to the surface to feed at night, so it makes sense for us to trawl at the surface. Think of pelagic fish as the fishes in the water. Sounds funny to say, but these fishes don’t like to be near the seabed or too close to the land by the coast. They like to stay solidly in the water. Think of where anchovies, mackerel, tuna, and sharks like to hang out.

To catch groundfish on the other hand, we’d need to trawl the bottom of the ocean since they prefer to stay close to the ocean floor. Trawling the seabed in the Northeast Pacific Ocean would bring in flavorful rockfish and flounder, but we’re not looking for groundfish during this survey. One very lucrative and maybe less known groundfish in this area is the sablefish. In commercial fishing, they use bigger nets, and a trawl can bring in tens of thousands of pounds in just one tow. When I spoke to someone on board who used to work on a commercial trawl boat, he said catching sablefish are a pain!  They live in very deep waters. Plus, the trawl must hit the seabed hard and drag along the bottom in order to catch them. This causes huge tears, many feet wide, in the mesh. He said they used to keep giant patches of mesh on the boat deck so they could patch up the holes in between trawls. When I get home, I’m definitely going to purchase sablefish and try it for dinner.

  • Trawl Net Spooled
  • Chief Bosun Scott Jones
  • Trawl Entering the Water
  • Codend Floating in the Water
  • Trawl Net Snaking off the Stern
  • Floats Sewn into the Kites
  • Floats
  • Daisy Knot
  • Getting Ready to Add Tom Weights
  • Hauling the Net back on Deck
  • Prepping the Codend
  • Emptying the Catch


TEACHING CONNECTIONS


I’ve never once wondered how the fish I buy at the grocery store ends up on my plate. Now I can’t seem to stop asking the scientists and deck crew questions. There are all these regulations to follow, methods to learn based on what type of fish you’re targeting, and so much that someone would need to understand about traveling in the ocean before even attempting to fish commercially. I’ve been immersed in a world I don’t recognize, and yet the fishing industry impacts my life on a daily basis. We are so far removed from what we eat.

The other aspect to the trawling topic that interests me is just how effortless it looks. The deck crew make such an intricate task look, truly, easy. An article on BBC News called Can 10,000 Hours of Practice Make You an Expert? does a nice job of summarizing how this might be possible. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I’m currently reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth, that I’ve already read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and that as a teacher I’m familiar with Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice. I know how many years and cumulative hours they each must have put in to make it appear seamless.

Like most teachers, I want my students to find a career that they love enough to practice with such diligence. I want them to find a vocation instead of just work to pay the bills. I feel very much led to making sure my students have access to as much information as possible about post-secondary career and training options. For that reason, I’m glad to have met these folks and learn from them so I can share their practice with the hundreds, possibly thousands of teenagers I’ll teach over the course of my career.

It’s easy for me to do this as a reading specialist since I can read career profiles with students, let them annotate the text, and then engage them in a discussion on a regular basis. Reading, analyzing, and discussing text are kind of my bread and butter. For other disciplines, it might take a bit of a re-work to fit this in, but certainly not impossible. A science, math, art, STEM, you-name-it teacher could post a career profile specific to their discipline to their digital classroom space each week for students to read at their leisure. Or you could bring discipline specific literacy skills into your classroom by incorporating short texts into your lessons a few times each quarter.

I’m planning now to read a career profile with my students one time per week. I’ll keep the texts short so that reading, annotating, and discussing the text will stay under 15 minutes.  Some careers from the ship they might find interesting are the Chief Bosun position or a NOAA Corps Officer, but I’ll share a wide variety of career profiles from many disciplines based on the students’ interests once I meet them this year.


TEACHING RESOURCES

Allison Irwin: Working in the Acoustics Lab, July 11, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

July 7-25, 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 11, 2019

Weather at 1100 Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday 10 July 2019

The winds picked up. Dreary is a good way to describe the sky – an overcast layer on top with smoky-gray smudges of smaller clouds just a little lower. According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, I can describe the sea as moderately choppy with 4’ – 8’ waves, white caps scattered throughout, and some spray.  But on the scale that only accounts for 17-21 knots of wind.  The instruments on the ship track the wind in real time, and it’s showing anywhere from 20 – 30 knots. Today I need a couple of light layers under a warm, cozy jacket to keep me feeling comfortable. And a hat to keep my hair in place while the wind blows all around us.

PERSONAL LOG


I didn’t want to get my hopes up in regard to food on the ship. Between the constant rocking, less than ideal conditions for fruits and vegetables, and confined space, I didn’t have high expectations. But once I got to NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker, the regulars on the ship thankfully put my worries at ease. They told me we have one of the best chefs on the NOAA fleet of ships.

Fresh Cherries
Fresh Cherries

Our Chief Steward, Kathy, is in charge of the kitchen. She makes her job look effortless, though I’m sure it’s not. She puts out an eclectic menu each day that would rival any popular restaurant. Since I’m a Food Network junky, I really think she belongs on Chopped. She’d blow her competitors out of the water! She seasons everything perfectly.

She always has snacks available like fresh baked macadamia nut cookies or homemade rice crispy treats. So far she’s served Peruvian chicken, kalbi ribs, chicken pad thai, open-faced meatloaf sandwiches, West African peanut soup, and chicken marsala. Oh, and pancakes, and omelets, and cheeseburgers, and Cuban sandwiches, and black bean soup, and… the list goes on. She always offers fresh fruit or a fresh salad bar. It’s clear she’s had a lot of experience working with the constraints this unique environment must put on her. I’m lucky to be on a ship with someone who so clearly loves to cook! The foodie in me is very happy.

Pork Chop
Mustard Glazed Pork Chop, Veggies & Rice, Side Salad


THE SCIENCE


The acoustics lab is something to behold. If you took a classroom and cut it in half lengthwise, it would be that large. Since we’re on a ship where space is limited, I get the sense that this equipment is important. And after working a shift in the room, I know why. The data collected in this room provides the backbone for the whole survey.

Acoustics Lab
Chief Scientist Kevin Stierhoff in the Acoustics Lab

NOAA scientists use sonar to identify various types of fish in the water below us – and to the sides – as we travel along. Individual echoes from discreet targets – noise, small plankton, large fishes – show up on one screen as raw data. Through post processing, the system removes most of the unwanted echoes so that all we’re left with are echoes from the fishes of interest on a separate screen.

The Coastal Pelagic Species show up as a seemingly indistinguishable, colorful blob of dots on the screen, but our chief scientist Kevin Stierhoff interprets each blob with a fair amount of accuracy. He explained what looked like hocus pocus to me originally is really just simple logic. For example, pelagic species tend to stay relatively close to the surface. So if I see a blob of red and yellow that’s, let’s say, more than 100 meters below the surface, then I’m probably looking at a type of fish that prefers deeper waters near the rocky seabed. Those deeper blobs could indicate a species of Rockfish (of which there are plenty), but probably not one of the pelagic species we’re searching for.

Ever try searching for a needle in a haystack? Get frustrated and walk away? Yeah. NOAA is more strategic than that. Acoustic sampling is conducted during the day when the Coastal Pelagic Species are deeper in the water and schooled together. This makes them easier to see using the sonar equipment on board. Later we’ll return at night to noted areas of high activity to trawl for the anchovies, sardines, herring, mackerel, and squid while they’re closer to the surface feeding.  Plus, they can’t see the net at night and therefore won’t be able to avoid it like they would if we attempted to trawl for fish during the day.

Acoustic sampling allows us to efficiently survey a much larger area than we could without it. Its primary purpose is to more precisely determine the biomass of the pelagic fish community over a large area. NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center started using this style of acoustic data collection to enhance its fisheries mission about 15 years ago, but this is only the second year they’ve deployed saildrones – wind and solar powered unmanned surface vehicles – to extend the survey area both in shore where it’s more shallow and far off shore where Reuben Lasker will not have time to travel during this survey. The saildrones allow scientists to capture more acoustic data from a wider survey area.


TEACHING CONNECTIONS


One of the coolest things about education is that we can connect students not just to their local community, but to their global community. For the last three years, the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has written a blog to help classrooms and individuals follow the adventures of their latest saildrone missions. They’re intending to write another series of blog entries to track a mission in 2019 and 2020, but you could easily use one of the previous year’s text in the classroom if you can’t wait for the new entries to be posted. Read a few of these entries with your students and use them as a springboard to teach about cutting edge technology, stewardship, environmental science, storytelling, culture, math, or navigation.

Thankfully, almost any topic can be used to build literacy skills. When texts like this inspire me to connect my students to local and global community leaders in a particular field of interest, I usually reach out to the authors directly. Some teachers will find it more challenging to make these connections to their classrooms, but it is worth the effort. If I can find an email address or contact information for the person who wrote an article I enjoy, typically they can lead me to someone who is a dynamic speaker and willing to come into my classroom. Or sometimes they will offer to come out themselves if they live nearby. Then I find companion texts to read with my students before and after the person comes in to present.

The possibilities are almost too voluminous to count. In one direction, you could bring in a local scientist or graduate student doing interesting research to speak on some topic as it relates to your classroom content. You should also consider arranging a field site visit to a unique local gem if the funding is available. Usually local field trips are much less expensive. Our local communities are filled to the brim with places that relate to our class content. It takes a little leg work to find them sometimes, but if you choose the right place you’ll see a return on your investment for the full school year.

Last year I was lucky enough to coordinate a visit to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia which is one of the leading working dog training facilities in the nation. It’s housed in a tiny little building off some obscure road in Philadelphia. I never would have found it if I weren’t out there directly searching for something like it. Most places like this can be found and initially filtered online with a little bit of strategic searching. Something as small as a one-day site visit or facility tour, if it’s the right location, can motivate students to push themselves academically a little bit further than they thought they could go on their own.

This one visit ended up being the springboard for my students to read authentic nonfiction texts (like media release forms and liability release forms), to think critically and make decisions, to write a press release, to build background knowledge, to enhance their vocabulary, and to learn the value of reading not for the sake of a grade but because interpreting the texts and being able to share information with others (like younger students they ended up mentoring or like our district’s administrative team who were interested in their project) was vital to the success of their project. Most important, it provided a means of intrinsic motivation for my students – that elusive creature that often comes so close to my grasp but then flutters away again when I use less engaging methods of classroom instruction.

If you want to go in more of a global direction, you could ask a facility farther away in another state or country if they have the capacity to involve your students in an integrated learning experience via Skype or old school pen-pal style communication throughout the year. Students can participate in or monitor on-going research around the world all while learning about unfamiliar cultures and locations.  And of course, bring your own diverse experiences and travel into the classroom! Apply for the NOAA Teacher at Sea program to get out of your own comfort zone and be a positive means of bridging your classroom to the global community.

Teaching Resources

Allison Irwin: Tsunami Awareness, July 10, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

July 7-25, 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 10, 2019

Weather at 1600 Pacific Standard Time on Monday 08 July 2019.

We’ve made our way back near the coast and we’re currently progressing south at a cautious 6 knots through a relatively shallow, protected area called Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve.  The winds and sea are both calm. The deck is warm and sunny! The sky has just a few high level clouds that look like wisps of white painted onto a clear blue canvas. A long-sleeved cotton shirt is comfortable in this weather along with long pants and boots.

PERSONAL LOG

Sunday Night

07 July 2019

We left Yaquina Bay just after 1700 on Sunday evening. I was eating dinner when we left and had no idea we were moving. The ship is that smooth when it’s traveling slowly. I made it out just in time to see us pass the boundary between the bay and the Pacific Ocean. My job tonight is to stay up until 0200 so I can prepare for my 12 hour shift that starts Monday and runs from 1400-0200. We’ll see how that works out. I’m typically in bed long before 0200.

As the ship started making its way along the coast this evening, I sat on the Flying Bridge.  The Bridge on a ship is often at one of the highest levels and it’s the command center. The Flying Bridge is one level above that. It is all open air with no windows and no walls (there are railings, of course). It was freeing and frightening at the same time! I think that’s my favorite area on the ship. I plan to go there a lot over the next few weeks to feel the sunshine, clear my head, and prepare for the day. 

One of the scientists on board made a sensible comment yesterday. She said we should walk as much as we can before the ship sails because after that we won’t walk more than a few feet at a time in any given direction. Today I walked 7.5 miles all over Newport Marina. I’m tired, but I’m glad I heeded her advice!

THE SCIENCE

Sunday Morning

07 July 2019

Today I learned more than I ever wanted to know about tsunamis. I went on an estuaries tour with the Hatfield Marine Science Center this morning and we saw a lot of “Tsunami Evacuation Route” signs along our tour. The tour guide explained a tsunami is actually a series of waves and not just one giant wave like we see in movies. Additionally, it doesn’t really “break” the way we’re used to seeing waves crash into the beach. Those waves are caused by the wind moving over the surface of the water. A tsunami reaches the coastline more like a storm surge or like a very strong tide because the energy forcing this wave forward comes from deep within the ocean floor – from seismic or volcanic activity – and not from the wind. Thankfully, in the ocean (where I’ll be for the next three weeks!) a tsunami is only barely noticeable with maybe a three foot height increase. But once the force of all that moving water hits the shallow bottom of our coastline, the water begins to pile up and can reach anywhere from a few feet all the way up to 100 feet above sea level.

The Newport Marina is in a Tsunami Hazard Zone. Most tsunamis tend to be less than ten feet high because energy from the point of origin must travel many miles before reaching a coastline, but the Newport Marina is in a particularly hazardous area because it lies within the Cascadia Subduction Zone. If a major earthquake hits this close to home, a larger than average tsunami could follow in just fifteen minutes! The Newport Marina is only six feet above sea level, so even a relatively small tsunami would cause intense damage from both flooding and debris.

A major earthquake shakes the Cascadia Subduction Zone once every 300-350 years on average. The last major earthquake in Newport, OR occurred in 1700, so… they’re due for another one soon. That might be why the Hatfield Marine Science Center decided to design its brand new building in Newport Marina to be both earthquake and tsunami resistant using state-of-the-art engineering methods. It includes a unique ramp on the outside of the building that spans multiple levels so people have easy access to the evacuation location on top of the roof. After seeing the current evacuation location, a very small hill just across the street from the marina, I think it’s good they’re adding a facility with capacity for another 900 people!

NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) provides a U.S. Tsunami Warning System. It works much like our system for tornadoes and thunderstorms by communicating four different levels – warnings, advisories, watches, or threats.

TEACHING CONNECTIONS

Sunday Afternoon

7 July 2019

The man I met yesterday while he filleted his catch from Yaquina Bay is still sitting on my mind. He shared his story with me.  When he was 18 years old, he was homeless. He had no connection to school because he didn’t fit into the square peg the narrow curriculum required. Pausing his rhythm with the fish, he tried to explain.

He’s dyslexic. When he was a kid, that threw him a gigantic curve ball. It took him a long time to learn how to adapt and overcome that challenge.  What strikes me about his story is that school didn’t help him, it held him back. Dyslexia is one of the most common types of learning disabilities. Students are faced with challenges in school every day – whether it’s a learning disability or other challenge – and teachers are often there to support, teach, and guide students through those challenges. But I see students every year who, like this gentleman, don’t fit into the script. They’re the outliers who need a different approach. 

Last year my district engaged in a study of Continuous School Improvement. While my understanding of it is still in its infancy, I do know that it requires us to look at multiple forms of data in order to get a wider picture of what is going on in our schools. We then use what we find to determine “where the fire is burning the hottest” (according to our Continuous School Improvement guru working with our district) and correct those issues first. Typically, by correcting those big ticket items, a trickle-down effect occurs that will solve some of the smaller issues organically.

I would definitely categorize the nature of this fisherman’s story as a big ticket item that many districts are trying to understand and correct. We all know that teacher in the building who connects with the students who don’t connect to school. There’s always that one teacher who manages to make this look easy – though it is not. 

Even though reading comprehension, the primary means to learning in most disciplines, is difficult for the gentleman I spoke to at the filleting station, he valued learning so much that he stuck with it even as he failed his classes. He told me that he has thousands of audiobooks and a whole library of traditional books at home which he’s been accumulating for years. We talked about Malcolm Gladwell, tax preparation, real estate, and a host of other diverse topics. He runs his own successful business that he politely called “medium sized” as he smiled, sheepishly at his friend.

I hope, just as I’m sure all teachers hope, that my students who struggle each year will value learning enough to push through the challenges they each face. While I might not always succeed in teaching every student the content of my discipline, I at least hope that they each leave my classroom at the end of the year with a sense of desire to learn more. To not give up when the challenges pummel them, wave after wave, and feel unrelenting. I hope that someone will speak to them one day, 20 years from now, and they’ll wink as they describe how successful they’ve become due to their hard work, resilience, and unshakable love for learning. And that they’ll come to realize strong literacy skills are an integral part of learning.

Teaching Resources

Allison Irwin: Traveling to the Ship, July 8, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

Aboard NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

July 7-25, 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 8, 2019

Weather at 0800 on Monday 08 July 2019.

Winds and sea are calm. Weather is cool. Heavy overcast layer of white, thick clouds in the sky. Very comfortable out on deck with a sweater or light jacket. The visibility is unreal – I can see for miles! Nothing but cold water and salty air.


PERSONAL LOG

Friday Night

05 July 2019

Tomorrow I’ll board a ship with NOAA Officers and scientists headed for a three week research cruise in the Pacific Ocean. My whole life at home is not skipping a beat without me. But I feel like I’ve hit a pause button on my character. Like I won’t return to the movie of my life until the end of July. Important decisions get made without me. Disputes with family and friends won’t include my voice again for almost a month. Everything moves forward at home this summer but me.

I have a new appreciation for folks who dedicate their lives to careers requiring them to be away from home for long periods of time. This is only three weeks. I can’t imagine the way I would feel if I were leaving for three months. Or a year.  I do feel very grateful for the opportunity to spend the next three weeks with these people though. They will be, no doubt, passionate about their careers, and I’ll learn a lot from traveling with them.

THE SCIENCE

Saturday Morning

06 July 2019

After a 6 hour flight from the East Coast to the West Coast and a 2.5 hour car ride from Portland International Airport to Newport, Oregon, I’m finally on NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker! A handful of scientists, two volunteers, and myself met at the airport. We coordinated so all our flights would arrive within an hour of each other so we could drive together. As soon as we got there, my roommate gave me a tour of the ship. It didn’t take very long, but there are a lot of ways to get lost! I felt a little disoriented after that. There is a galley and dining area which they call the mess. I’ve been told we have one of the best chefs on board our ship! A laundry room, exercise room, plenty of deck space, the bridge where NOAA Officers will navigate and operate the ship, and stairs. So. Many. Stairs.

Upon meeting the chief scientist, Kevin Stierhoff, it became clear that the Coastal Pelagic Species Survey is a big deal. NOAA runs this survey every year for about 80 days! They break it up into four 20 day legs. Most of the scientists will rotate through only one or two legs, but the NOAA Corps Officers in charge of the ship’s operation typically stay for the full survey. That’s a very long time to be away from home.

We’re traveling on the 2nd leg, so the survey has already been underway since June. It started farther north off the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia and will meander down the coast for almost three months until it reaches the US-Mexico border. Kevin described the ship’s movements like someone explaining how to mow the lawn – we will run perpendicular to the coast in a back-and-forth pattern traveling south, slowly, until we get to the waters off San Francisco Bay. First we’ll travel straight out into the ocean, turn south for a bit, then travel straight back toward the coast. Repeat. Repeat… for three weeks.

mowed lawn
Patterned lines in a freshly mowed lawn – accessed on pixabay.com

Why such a funky pattern, you might ask? We’ll be using acoustic sampling during the day to determine where the most densely populated areas of fish are located. Then at night, we’ll put that data to good use, immediate use, as we trawl the waters for specific types of pelagic species. There are five species in particular that the scientists want to study – anchovy, herring, sardines, mackerel, and squid – because they’re managed species or ecologically important as prey for other species. That funky pattern of travel allows us to sample the whole coastal region.

It reminds of me of one of the scanning patterns the Civil Air Patrol uses when we conduct search and rescue missions from a Cessna. When I was trained to be a scanner in the back seat of the plane, they taught me to look for signs of a missing person or downed plane below me in a systematic way. If I just look sporadically at everything that pops into my line of scan, I’ll never find anything. It’s too haphazard. But if I start from a fixed point on the aircraft and scan out up to a mile, then bring my scan line back in toward the plane, I’ll naturally scan all the ground below me for clues as the plane moves forward.

Even though they’re looking primarily at those five coastal pelagic species, the scientists will catalogue every kind of fish or marine life they find in their trawl nets. They are meticulous. It’s such an important endeavor because it helps us to fish our waters using sustainable practices. If this survey finds that one of the fish species in question is not thriving, that the population sample of that species is too low, then NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council will set harvest guidelines next year to help that species rebound. If it’s looking very dire, they might even determine that commercial fishing of that species needs to be put on pause for a while.

For more details about NOAA Fisheries and the importance of the annual Coastal Pelagic Species Survey, read this short two page guide called U.S. Fisheries Management: Sustainable Fisheries, Sustainable Seafood.

TEACHING CONNECTIONS

Saturday Evening

06 July 2019

Since the three hour time change traveling in this direction worked in my favor, I gained three extra hours of daylight to explore Newport.  I spent most of the evening walking around the small port where NOAA docked Reuben Lasker. It’s only a couple square miles, but it houses the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Visitor Center, Rogue Brewer’s on the Bay, and a public fishing pier. I walked a total of 6 miles today and was never bored.

The fishing culture struck me the most. Kids, adults, everyone seemed to have a working knowledge of local sustainability, ecosystems, commercial fishery practices, things that are so foreign to me. I suppose it would be like going to Pennsylvania and asking someone to explain deer hunting. Trust me, we can. But fishing? Not as much. I wish that we as teachers would tap into the local knowledge base more fully. From Pennsylvania for example, we could share Amish culture and heritage, details about the coal mining industry, steel production and engineering practices, hunting, and so much more. Until I realized how unaware I was of the local knowledge here in Newport, I never stopped to think about how rich and diverse my students’ local knowledge must be as well. One thing I plan to do this school year is dig into that local culture and explore it with my students.

I watched one gentleman as he filleted his catch at the filleting station just off the pier. To me it looked like a cooler of fish. I could tell you with certainty that they were indeed fish. But he knew each type, why the Lingcod had blue flesh instead of white, how many of each type he was allowed to take home with him, how to cook them, and the list goes on. I was impressed. In talking with others this evening, it seems like that’s par for the course here. Later, a couple of fishermen with a cooler full of crab started talking to me and offered me some to try. It was cleaned, cooked already, fresh out of Yaquina Bay. It was delicious – sweet and salty.

The people I interacted with today, every single one of them, were genuinely kind. They were patient and explained things to me when I didn’t understand. This is a lesson every teacher can take to the classroom. We know how important it is to smile and be kind. We know it. But sometimes it’s hard to put that into practice when we’re rounding into May and having to explain that one tricky concept again, pulling a different approach out of our magic hat, and hoping that this time it will click.

It’s not always easy to mask the frustration we feel when something that is so natural for us (in no doubt because we love the subject and have studied it for at least a decade) just doesn’t make sense to a student. And it’s not always the student I get frustrated with, it’s myself. Teachers tend to be their own worst critics. When a lesson doesn’t go as well as we expected, we double down and try harder the next day. No wonder so many of us burn out in the first five years and switch to a different career!

TEACHING RESOURCES