NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker
May 29 – June 7, 2019
Mission: Rockfish Recruitment & Ecosystem Assessment
Geographic Area: Central California Coast
Date: May 28-29, 2019
I departed Chattanooga, TN, for San Francisco, CA, on May 28th to participate as a NOAA Teacher at Sea on Leg 2 of NOAA’s Juvenile Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment Survey. My job as a Teacher at Sea will be to share my experience and knowledge acquired over the next 10 days working alongside NOAA scientists with MY AUDIENCE. Who is my audience? You! I hope that you all can be my students! You, my McCallie students and colleagues, my friends, my swimming community and my family members. My intention here is to explain in layman’s terms what I learned, and especially, what I thought was cool.
After tapas in North Beach with my San Francisco friends Cathy Delneo and Evan Morrison, they dropped me off at Pier 15 to sleep in my stateroom on the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker. I felt rocking even while docked in the San Francisco Bay, but I slept great and am happy to report that my CVS brand “less drowsy” Dramamine tablets seem to be working as I am prone to motion sickness. This morning Evan and I got to explore the ship and take a bunch of photos of The City from the top deck of the ship, called the Flying Bridge. I imagine I will be spending many hours up here over the next 10 days!
Meeting the Science Team
The first science team member I met was Kelly Goodwin, Ph.D., an environmental molecular biologist from NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) La Jolla, and NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. Kelly is here along with Associate Researcher Lauren Valentino to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) from water collected at three depths (5 meters, the chlorophyll maximum, and 100 meters) during deployment of the Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) Rosette. There will be more about these marine scientists and the cool biotechnology they will be employing to come in a future post!
Next, I met my stateroom bunkmate Flora Cordoleani, Ph.D., of NOAA NMFS, SWFSC,Fisheries Ecology Division (FED). Her research lab at the University of California Davis focuses on the management of the endangered king salmon in the Central California Valley. I will definitely interview her for a future blog!
Meet the rest of the team: Doctoral student Ilysa (Ily) Iglesias, NMFS SWFSC FED/ University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), works in John Field’s Lab. Ily will be analyzing the myctophids (one of the most abundant mesopelagic fish groups) collected on this survey and elucidating their role in the trophic cascade. She was on the cruise last year as well and I can already tell is psyched about this opportunity and wants to teach everyone.
John Field, Ph.D., was on the previous leg of the cruise and is the Principal Investigator for this project while Keith Sakuma, of NMFS SWFSC FED, is the Chief Scientist and has been working on this survey for 30 years as of this cruise!
Kristin Saksa of NMFS SWFSC FED/ Moss Landing Marine Lab (MLML) and Kaila Pearson, NMFS SWFSC FED, of Scripps, who are both working on master’s degrees in marine science.
Jarrod Santora, Ph.D., an ecologist from NMFS SWFSC FED/UCSC, will be on the day shift. Brian Hoover, Ph.D., an ornithologist who works for the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research (FIAER), will be observing birds and marine mammals on the day shift.
Keith Hanson is a NOAA Corps Officer representing NMFS SWFSC FED and is also a valuable member of the science team.
After a welcome aboard orientation and safety briefing given by NOAA Corps Officer David Wang, we enjoyed a delicious reuben sandwich in the galley (cafeteria) of the Reuben Lasker. Meals are served at 7 AM, 11 AM and 5 PM. Since I will be on night shift I can request to have meals put aside for me to eat whenever I want. Below is a typical menu. The food is superb! See a menu from one of our last days below.
After a noon departure the engineers spent a couple of hours testing the dynamic positioning system just north of the Bay Bridge. This system takes inputs from ocean conditions such as the tide, wind, waves and swell and uses the propulsion and thrusting instruments on board to maintain a fixed position on the global positioning system (GPS). Most of the night shift science crew used this opportunity to nap since we had to stay up all night!
Kaila Pearson woke me up just in time as we exited San Francisco Bay to take in the spectacular view of passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a gorgeous sunny day in San Francisco and I felt super grateful to be a part of this research team, excited to get to know the team of amazing (mostly) female scientists I had just met, and ready to start fishing! It was fun to get to serve as a impromptu San Francisco tour guide as we departed the Bay, since I am quite familiar with this landscape. This body of water was my first open water swimming playground when I used to live in San Francisco during my postdoc at UCSF and was a member of the South End Rowing Club.
Night 1 of Cobb Trawl and Fish Sorting
We arrived at our first trawl line, Monterey Bay, around 11:00 P.M. My job as part of the night crew is to participate in marine mammal watches before and during fishing, and then to sort, count and measure the different species of animals collected, as well as bag and freeze specimens for various research organizations. The fishing method used on this survey is a modified Cobb midwater trawl. The net is deployed to fish at 30 meters depth and has a 9.5 mm codend liner (mesh at the end of the net where the fish gather). Trawl operations commence just after dusk and conclude just before dawn, with the goal of conducting up to 5 trawls per night. The duration of fishing at target depth before “haul back” of the net can be either 5 minutes or 15 minutes. Five minute trawls are used in areas of high abundance of gelatinous organisms such as jellyfish in order to reduce the size of the catch (e.g., fishing the additional 10 minutes would result in catches large enough to damage the net).
There are two marine mammal watches per trawl: the inside watch and the outside watch. The inside watch goes to starboard side of the bridge 30 minutes prior to reaching the planned trawl station. If any marine mammals such as sea lions, seals, dolphins or whales are spotted within one nautical mile of the planned trawl station, then the ship must move. This protocol is employed for mitigating interaction with protected marine species.
If the inside watch does not see any marine mammals, then trawl operations can begin. This is when the outside mammal watch takes over and looks for marine mammals during net deployment, trawling, and haul in. The outside watch is conducted one floor above the fishing deck, and the person must wear foul weather gear, a life vest, and a helmet. This is summer, but it is the Pacific, and it is COLD out there. If a marine mammal is spotted by the outside watch then the trawl net must immediately be reeled in.
I spotted a school of dolphins in Monterey Bay during haul back and reported the sighting via radio to the bridge officers and recorded my observations in the lab on the provided data sheet in the lab.
The duration of the entire fishing operation from net deployment, dropping the two “doors” (large metal plates weighing 900 pounds each) used to spread the net mouth open, fishing, haul in, properly wrapping the net on the winch, and finally, dispensing the harvested fish into the collection buckets, takes between 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on conditions.
Our first catch consisted primarily of Northern anchovies (Engraulis mordax) and California market squid, Doryteuthis (Loligo) opalescens. Ily was excited by the presence of a few plainfin midshipman, Porichthys notatus, and showed us their beautiful pattern of large photophores located on their ventral surface. These fish are quite hardy and survive the trawling procedure, so as soon as we saw one in the bucket, we placed it in a bowl of sea water for release after obtaining its length. Photophores are glandular organs that appear on deep sea or mesopelagic fish and are used for attracting prey or for confusing and distracting predators.
Mesopelagic depths start around 200 meters, a depth at where 99% of the sunlight can no longer penetrate, and extend down to 1000 meters below the ocean surface. Above the mesopelagic zone is the epipelagic zone where sunlight reaches from the ocean surface down to 200 meters and, in California, corresponds to the ocean above the continental shelf.
In this survey, we will conduct trawls at 30 meters, which is technically the epipelagic zone, so why do we catch deep sea creatures? Many deep sea creatures participate in a daily vertical migration where they swim up into the upper layer of the ocean at night as that area is relatively rich in phytoplanktonic organisms. Phytoplankton are the sun-powered primary producers of the food chain, single-celled photosynthetic organisms, which also provide the majority of the oxygen we breath.
After the first night of work I feel confident that I can identify around 10 species of mesopelagic fish and forage organisms, the California Headlight Fish (more to come on these amazing myctophids from my interview with Ily), a juvenile East Pacific red octopus, Octopus rubescens, (alive), and ctenophores! Thanks to the Tennessee Aquarium’s Sharyl Crossly and Thom Demas, I get to culture ctenophores in my classroom.
Scientist Spotlight: Ornithologist Brian Hoover
Brian Hoover, Ph.D., an ornithologist who works for the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research (FIAER) in Petaluma, CA, observes birds and marine mammals on the day shift of this NOAA research cruise.
Brian is from Colorado and earned his doctorate at UC Davis in 2018. On this cruise we will be traversing through biological hotspots that occur near islands, underwater canyons, and where there is strong upwelling of the cold and nutrient rich deeper waters of the California Current. Small fish feed on these nutrient rich waters, and birds feed on these fish. Hotspots on this cruise included the Gulf of the Farallons (just south of the Point Reyes upwelling plume) , the Channel Islands, and Monterey Bay with its submarine canyon. Brian’s hours on the ship are from 7am to 7pm.
Brian can be found perched on the flying bridge during the day shirt with a pair of binoculars in his hand and his laptop off to his right on a table. Every time a bird or marine mammal is spotted within 300 yards of the ship to the right of the mid centerline of the bow, Brian records the species and numbers of animals observed in his database on his laptop. The objective of Brian’s work aboard the ship is to study how what is present underwater correlates with birds observed above the water. In other words, he aims to find correlations between the distribution and abundance of seabirds and marine mammals to the species and abundance of prey we collect during our night trawls and data collected from the ship’s acoustic krill surveys which collect data during the day. Brian explains that such information teaches us about what is going on with the bird’s prey base and how well the ecosystem is functioning as a whole. His observations allow him to observe shifts in the system over time and how this affects tertiary and apex predators. To find trends in these datasets, he used R software, Python, and ArcGIS mapping software to run spatial statistics and linear models.
Since 2010 Brian has been on 12 to 13 cruises and this is his third on the Reuben Lasker. Brian is excited to perhaps spot the Cooks Petrel, Pterodroma cookii, or the Short-tailed albatross, Phoebastria albatrus, which only lives in a volcano in japan. His favorite birds are the storm petrels because these birds are small and live in open ocean, only coming onshore to breed once a year. His dissertation focus was on the reproduction and behavior of the leeches storm petrol. He explains that seabirds have an incredible sense of smell which they utilize to find a mate and food. Brian was able to collect blood samples from burrowing birds for genotyping. He found that the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules located on antigen-presenting cells may play a role in odor detection and mate selection in these birds. He found that males chose and avoided particular genotypes combinations and that healthier birds had more diverse MHCII complexes.
Brian is a sensory ecologist and studies how seabirds interact with their environment through observations of their behavior and physiology. When Ily asked Brian how do the seabirds know where the fish are in the open ocean, he explained that birds have a sense of smell that is as good or better than any commercial sensor that detects sulfur. Why have some seabirds evolved to be so good at sniffing out traces of sulfur in the ocean breeze up to 10 miles away from its source? Brian explained that sulfur is an important part of the photosynthetic pathway for phytoplankton (algal cells) and that when krill eat the algae, the algae releases the chemical dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Marine plastic debris floating on the sea surface also release DMS and provides an explanation as to why seabirds eat plastic.