NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jenny Gapp (she/her)
Aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
July 23, 2023 – August 5, 2023
Mission: Pacific hake (Merluccius productus) Survey (Leg 3 of 5)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean off the Northern California Coast working north back toward coastal waters off Oregon.
Date: July 26, 2023
Weather Data from the Bridge
Sunrise 6:31am | Sunset 8:46pm
Current Time: 0700 (7:00am Pacific Daylight Time)
Lat 40 16.7 N, Lon 124 33.6 W
Visibility: 10 nm (nautical miles)
Sky condition: broken cloud cover, aka partly sunny
Wind Speed: 25 knots
Wind Direction: 355°
Barometer: 1014.3 mb
Sea Wave height: 4-5 ft | Swell: 340°, 6-8 ft
Sea temp: 9.8°C | Air Temp: 12.6°C
Science and Technology Log
The Wet Lab:
In addition to interviewing members of the crew, working on my blog, and doing a bit of independent research, I am here to help in the wet lab. What does this entail? It begins with waiting. First, there is a marine mammal watch that lasts for 10 minutes. If an animal is within 500 meters we wait until it moves off. Then a second 10-minute watch is started. We continue monitoring mammal activity even after the net is deployed. Sometimes the navigation crew scouts the transect first to make sure the ocean floor won’t cause issues with the net when it is deployed.
Deploying the net is a team effort among deck crew, navigation officers, and scientists. Once the net is off the reel and in the water, the crew disconnects the wire line to the reel and it is transferred to the doors. Winches connected to the trawl doors take the weight of the load. Depending on fish sign, the net is payed out according to depths the acousticians wish to fish at.
The length of time the net is streamed is also determined by the scientists. They monitor how many fish are going into the net via an FS70 third-wire trawl sonar which has a similar function to Doppler radar. Nicknamed “the turtle,” it is attached to the head rope. Sometimes there’s a “thunderstorm” of fish, and sometimes a “drizzle.” Once the acousticians have determined how much to punish the wet lab (joke), the lead scientist calls, “haul back.” The average fishing time is around 20 minutes, although it can be as little as a half minute in a fish thunderstorm or as long as 40 minutes in a fish drizzle. A sensor attached to the net records temperature and depth.
Once the net is back on board and we get a look at the catch size, a decision is made where to dump the haul. Under 100kg (220lbs), the catch goes in a black crate; over 100 kg, it goes into a hopper that leads to a conveyor belt inside the wet lab. The hopper door is opened a little at a time to avoid a fishy waterfall over the sides. Dominant species—hake in this case—go down the belt, and all other species are pulled out and sorted.
All our hauls to date have been on the smaller side, and so the net is hoisted and dumped into the black crate containing three smaller baskets. The deck crew slides this through double doors leading into the wet lab and we begin sorting species. Crew members often linger to see what cool things have been hauled aboard, and when they are impressive enough—like medium-sized squid and King-of-the-Salmon almost as long as you are tall—we take photos of each other, shaking our heads at the marvel of it. Ethan weighs the biomass of creatures that are not hake, then they go down the chute back to the ocean and return to the food chain.
The goal is 400 hake per haul, and to date we’ve counted 282 as the biggest catch. A handful of other species are measured, usually others that are commercially fished.
Depending on the number of hake collected, 50 have otoliths (ear bones) removed for aging and a random 10 of these have their stomachs examined. Krill and Blue lampfish appear to be favorite foods. A measuring device for the stomachs provides us with a number for the volume of food in their stomach.
If the ideal haul is taken, 350 hake are sexed and measured. The sexes are sorted into baskets of different colors: green (“little green men”) for the males and white (“snow white”) for the females. A set number of females have their liver and gonads taken for examination. I have yet to find out why just the females have this done.
After we’ve processed everything we clean the lab after each haul. If you don’t, the fishy aspect can get out of control quickly. Allegedly herrings are the smelliest.
Taxonomy of Sights
Day 3. Multiple whale spouts throughout the day. Species that appeared in our hauls: King- of-the-Salmon, Pyrosomes, Spiny dogfish, Brown cat shark, Glass shrimp, Jewel squid, and a viperfish that looked like the stuff of nightmares! A couple of albatross cruised behind us during one of the trawls, hoping for some fishy treats.
Day 4. One Jack mackerel mixed in with hake, a monitored species, so we took its measurements. One partial squid tangled in the trawl net.
You Might Be Wondering…
Do you have to wear a life jacket the whole time?
Life jackets and hard hats are required on the aft deck when there is an operation in progress. The safety mantra is, “If you don’t need to be on the deck, don’t go on the deck.” Each of us carries a PLB, or personal locator beacon, in the event of a worst-case scenario. Life jackets, along with immersion suits, are located in staterooms as well as the wet lab. No, I do not wear a life jacket while sleeping, showering, and spending time on the interior of the ship. Safety equipment is never far away. Emergency egress arrows show you a way out, and there are three emergency shower and eye wash stations on the ship. There are also devices called EEBD (Emergency Escape Breathing Device) that contain 15 minutes of oxygen.
If you have questions you are curious about, please leave them in the comments section!
Aft is the back of the boat where the trawling happens. The bow, or forward, is the front of the ship. Port is left, which you can distinguish from starboard because port and left have the same number of letters. Starboard is right. Stairs are referred to as “ladders,” walls are “bulkheads,” not to be confused with “bulwark,” which are the sides of the vessel above the main deck.
New Blue Economy
The “blue economy” is a new term for me. According to Dr. Richard Spinrad, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere & NOAA Administrator, it’s “a knowledge-based economy, looking to the sea not just for extraction of material goods, but for data and information to address societal challenges and inspire their solutions.”
40% of the U.S. population lives in or near coastal communities. A NOAA article on the blue economy states, “If American coastal counties were an individual country, they would rank third in the world in gross domestic product, surpassed only by the United States and China.” I assume this means as compared to the remainder of the United States that do not qualify as a “coastal community.”
The demands of climate change only hasten the need for information about our oceans and coastal regions. NOAA serves as a foundation for the blue economy, providing free, open source data–temperature, water level, hydrography, fisheries health, pH, salinity, and surface currents to name a few. The shipping challenges that the recent global pandemic posed have increased the need for U.S. seaports to add terminals and piers. Maritime commerce is expected to triple by 2030. (source: New Blue Economy, NOAA)
If you are an educator and have not been to the Oregon Coast STEM hub website, it is highly recommended. It is managed by Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. There’s something for everyone, even if you and your students aren’t located in Oregon.
While aboard I learned that the University of Oregon—my alma mater—also has a Marine Biology program. In fact, U of O’s Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB), located in Charleston, Oregon near Coos Bay, is a field institute like the Hatfield Marine Science Center. OIMB also has a section on its website for educators including lessons and resources. There is some crossover with the STEM hub, but both sites are valuable and worth examining. Note that at the time of my visit to the OIMB site there were some broken links on the resources page.
The NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada has seven levels: (from top to bottom) flying bridge–where our marine mammal and bird observers spend much of their time; bridge–where officers spend much of their time, where navigation happens, where a marine mammal watch happens before a trawl, where the boatswain, also known as a bosun, (deck boss) has a view of the nets going in and out, operates the net reel and communicates between nav crew and deck crew; officers berth–along with the hospital and quarters for the Chief Engineer; science berth–including lounge and offices; labs, mess deck, and access to the aft deck where the net is pulled in and the catch is transferred to the wet lab; deck crew berth–along with gym, winch and trawl rooms, centerboard access; and finally additional machinery rooms–including one for the bow thruster. I have been promised a tour of the engine room toward the end of our cruise, so I am looking forward to that!
Monday and Tuesday were great days, particularly Tuesday. I felt good, held all my meals, talked with a variety of crew members about their work, and got my hands dirty for the first time in the wet lab. Julia Clemons said of Tuesday, “It was a great day for science!” We made a record number of trawls—three—for the 2023 survey thus far.
Highlights of Wednesday’s trawl were part of a squid tangled in the net (much larger than the jewel squid), and some baby hake. I got into a rhythm assisting Ethan with entering data. He measured, weighed, sexed, examined stomach contents of some, and removed otoliths. I supported by entering the barcodes from the otolith collection vials manually (nothing new for a librarian who has her own trouble with temperamental barcode scanners from time to time), entered sex and maturity level, entered data on stomach contents (primarily blue lanternfish, and euphausiids, aka krill).
Librarian at Sea
“The world turns and the world spins, the tide runs in and the tide runs out, and there is nothing in the world more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on.” ~Gary D. Schmidt, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
In this middle-grade novel, a friendship is formed between Turner Buckminster, son of a preacher, and Lizzie Bright Griffin, a resident of Malaga Island. Malaga is located off the coast of Maine and was founded by people who were formerly enslaved. The quote above refers to a moment when the two young people are in a boat and Turner comes eye to eye with a whale five times the size of the dory they are traveling in. It reminds me a little of looking into the eyes of the creatures who come aboard in our net. I wonder if some are still capable of seeing…
Hook, Line, and Thinker
The NOAA Teacher at Sea program requires fortitude, flexibility, and following orders.
On Monday the crew followed orders for our first safety drills. These include special signals indicating fire, abandon ship, and man overboard. The science crew (which includes me) musters in the wet lab for fire, where the Chief Scientist reports muster to the bridge. “Muster” means that all are assembled who should be there. During an abandon-ship drill, the crew is split up between six life rafts, three on each side of the ship. New members of the crew try on their immersion suit, a bulky get-up that guards against hypothermia and increases flotation. I tried on two different sizes, and while neither was quite right we concluded bulkier was better than too small. As the XO put it, “It will save your life. Throw in your shoes and a loaf of bread and you’re good to go!” The man overboard drill requires the science crew to muster on the flying bridge where we locate the individual in trouble (in the case of a drill, a couple of buoys tied together) and point.
Can you think of an example in which following orders may save your life?
A Bobbing Bibliography
On the bridge you will find binoculars on the sill of many windows. You will also find whale and dolphin identification guides, as well as one for birds. Some of the binoculars are “reticulated.” When you look into the eyepieces of these you see a series of fine lines (reticules) to determine distance between marine mammals and the vessel. Line up the top line to the horizon and you have the distance between objects and the ship.
There are many great spots along the Oregon Coast for whale watching that don’t require going out on the ocean. Oregon State Parks has a whale watching site with more information.