Erica Marlaine: The Dreaded Melanasty and the Volunteer Biologists, July 12, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Erica Marlaine

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

June 22 – July 15, 2019


Mission: Pollock Acoustic-Trawl Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 12, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Latitude: 57º 09.61 N
Longitude: 152º 20.99W
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Wind Direction: 210 º
Air Temperature:  12º Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1013 mb
Depth of water column 84m
Surface Sea Temperature: 12º Celsius

Science and Technology Log

Onboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson with me are two volunteer biologists: Evan Reeve and Nathan Battey.  Evan is on the opposite shift, so we often pass each other, but on occasion, we have been in the fish or chem lab at the same time.

Volunteer biologist Evan Reeve
Volunteer biologist Evan Reeve

I arrived here knowing very little about fish (other than how to care for a beta fish and how to cook salmon and trout).  Evan, on the other hand, is a recent graduate of the University of Washington (or as he likes to say, “U-DUB”) with a degree in Biology (and an emphasis in fish biology).  When I say recent, I mean recent. Evan graduated five days before we boarded the ship.

Evan has a remarkable “ready for anything” attitude whether it is the start of his 12-hour shift, or the end. His background may be one reason why. Originally from San Diego, he spent his freshman year at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. A planned-year studying abroad at the Universidad Veritas in San Jose, Costa Rica got cut short after one semester due to an illness that forced him to return to San Diego.  There, Evan made the decision to serve our country and joined the Navy. For a few years, he served as a Navy corpsman stationed with Marine infantry units until he was injured during training. That’s when Ready-for-Anything Evan resumed his studies, eventually arriving at his beloved “U-DUB”. 

Evan currently lives in Washington, where he volunteers with the NOAA Hatchery Reform Program in Port Orchard, Washington, tracking hatchery released juvenile salmon in Puget Sound using both acoustics and traditional fishing techniques.  When a biology professor mentioned the opportunity to spend time on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson in the Gulf of Alaska, Evan of course volunteered, eager to participate in a larger scale study involving different fish species.  In Puget Sound, the haul is often 10 salmon.  In contrast, the haul being studied onboard the Oscar Dyson is often 1000 pounds of Walleye pollock several times a day (along with prowfish, Pacific herring, rockfish, and a lot of jellyfish). Speaking of prowfish, herring, rockfish, and jellyfish…

FUN FISH FACTS AND PHOTOS:

PROWFISH: In my earlier blog, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, I wrote about the lumpsucker being the cutest fish I had ever seen.  A close runner up is the baby prowfish. 

juvenile prowfish
juvenile prowfish

Every time we get a prowfish in a catch, everyone wants to look at it! We usually get juvenile prowfish which are about the length of my finger. (Adults can get up to 3 feet long.) The juveniles are very soft and smooth looking, and their lower jaw juts out slightly, making them look like they are pouting.  Unlike adults prowfish, who spend most of their time near the bottom of the sea floor, juvenile prowfish spend their time in the middle levels of the water column, which is the area we are trawling on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.  I was surprised to learn that juvenile prowfish will try to avoid predators by hiding within the bells of large jellyfish.

PACIFIC HERRING, OR AS I LIKE TO CALL THEM, THE RAINBOW FISH:

Pacific herring
Pacific herring

As a special education preschool teacher, I often read and discuss The Rainbow Fish (by Marcus Pfister) with my students.

cover of The Rainbow Fish
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

It is a popular children’s book about a little fish with very sparkly scales who learns to share. Rainbow Fish was considered the most beautiful fish in the ocean because of his many sparkly scales.  When a plain, little fish asks for one of the sparkly scales, Rainbow Fish refuses to share. This makes all the other fish mad, and they no longer want to play with the Rainbow Fish. In the end, Rainbow Fish decides to share his sparkly scales with all the other fish, keeping only one for himself.  He is less beautiful than he was before, but he has new friends and is now the happiest fish in the sea.

The Pacific herring is similarly covered in sparkly scales, but boy, is he a super sharer (as we say in preschool)!  Since herring are a small fish, they compensate for their size by forming schools (or groups of fish that swim together). Swimming in schools protects them as it reduces the likelihood that any one of them will be eaten by a predator. Sometimes we get only one herring with our huge haul of pollock.  They are somewhat similar in shape and color.  Evan (the volunteer biologist) has a theory: that it’s a herring who got separated from his school and sought protection by joining and blending in with a school of pollock. As a preschool teacher, I love the idea that a group of pollock would allow or even invite a lost little herring to “play” with them.

Other times, we get a lot of herring, and as I mentioned they love to share their sparkly scales.  Everything (and everyone) ends up sparkly: the pollock, the fish belt, the measuring boards, the tables, and ME!  You can always tell when there is herring in a catch by the sparkly fish scales in my hair.

ROCKFISH: Occasionally a few rockfish are in the trawl net.  Rockfish have large eyes, and are not particularly sparkly or cute, but they are delicious! I even learned to fillet them!

Erica fillets a rockfish
My first time filleting a fish
Erica fillets a rockfish
It’s easier than I thought it would be!

It was exciting to later see the rockfish cooked and served for dinner.

prepared rockfish
The rockfish deliciously prepared by the Chief Steward, Judy Capper

AND FINALLY THE JELLYFISH: Not yet… keep reading…

FIRST, Nathan Battey: Nathan, the other volunteer biologist onboard, is on my shift, and works in the fish lab with me 12 hours a day processing the fish hauls. He is my “go-to fisheries biologist” whenever I need help identifying a fish or jellyfish.”

Nathan and lumpsucker
Volunteer biologist Nathan Battey with a lumpsucker

Since he is originally from Goffstown, New Hampshire, it should not come as a surprise that Nathan ended up on a ship since Goffstown is home to the famous Giant Pumpkin Regatta! Every October, Goffstown residents transform enormous pumpkins into boats. They scoop out the sometimes 1000-pound pumpkins, climb in, and race them down the Piscatoquag River. 

Nathan studied biology and earth science at the University of New Hampshire and took a lot of oceanography courses along the way.  Since graduating in 2015, he has done a myriad of fascinating things.  He quantified nitrogen cycling in the wetlands of coastal New England, worked in a microbiology lab, counted larval fish under a microscope, regulated the upstream passage of salmon on the Seattle fish ladder, worked as a scallop fisheries observer, was a State Park Ranger on the eastern shore of Virginia, and worked with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (alongside NOAA scientists, tribal scientists, fish and wildlife scientists, and National Park scientists) on the recolonization of the Elwha River for salmon and other fish after the dams there were removed.  (The tribe had successfully sued the U.S. for the removal of the dams based upon their right to fish there.)

The last two positions were through AmeriCorps, which he highly recommends! AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs.  It is sometimes thought of as the domestic Peace Corps since members serve on projects within the United States. According to their website: “AmeriCorps is your moment to take the path less traveled, to break the status quo, to stop talking about the problem and be the solution.” Whatever your passion, it is likely there is an AmeriCorps opportunity perfect for you. There are projects in the fields of education, public safety, health care, and environmental protection. If you are interested in learning more about AmeriCorps, visit https://www.nationalservice.gov/programs/americorps

Nathan is also a talented artist and drew detailed sketches of both marine and bird species which amazed everyone and now hang on the walls of the chem lab. 

Nathan's sketch
Nathan’s sketch of the albatross that would visit the ship during fishing times.

He will also be remembered for the nickname he gave to the Chrysaora melanaster jellyfish: Chrysaora melanasty.

Nathan's jellyfish
Nathan’s sketch of the beautiful but dreaded melanasty

AT LAST, THE JELLYFISH:

Chrysaora melanaster are magnificent creatures. The photo below, captured one night using the drop camera, shows how elegantly they glide through the water with their ribbon-like tentacles flowing gracefully behind them.

Chrysaora melanaster swimming
Chrysaora melanaster captured on drop camera

It is often my job to grab the jellyfish as they come down the belt, separating them from the pollock.  I have held some that are an inch wide, and some that are almost 3 feet wide (and quite heavy). Jellyfish are measured by their bell diameter, or how wide the top part is (not the tentacles).

Erica with large jelly
Here I am with a large Chrysaora melanaster. Before my time on the Oscar Dyson, if I saw a jellyfish in the ocean, I swam away as quickly as I could. Now I probably touch 100 jellyfish per day, albeit with gloves on. Also, look at the sparkly scales in my hair. It must have been a herring day!
Evan and jellies
Volunteer biologist Evan Reeve and a tangled mess of Chrysaora melanster

The photo above might give you an idea of how the nickname “melanasty” came to be.  In the net, all the glorious, long, sticky, ribbon-like tentacles of the Chrysaora melanaster get tangled and attached to all the glorious, long, sticky, ribbon-like tentacles of the other Chrysaora melanaster.  As you try to pull one jellyfish off the belt, several more are attached in a slimy mess, and you often get splashed in the face, mouth, or eyes with jellyfish “goo.”  One day, dealing with the tangle, Nathan dubbed them “melanasty” and the nickname stuck. 

Kainoa Higgins: Atop the Flying Bridge! June 20, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kainoa Higgins
Aboard R/V Ocean Starr
June 18 – July 3, 2014

Mission: Juvenile Rockfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Northern California Current
Date: Friday, June 20, 2014, 1500 hours

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Current Latitude: 42 ° 34.7’ N
Current Longitude: 124 ° 37.6’ W
Air Temperature: 12.8 Celsius
Wind Speed: 25-30 knots
Wind Direction: North
Surface Water Temperature: 11.3 Celsius
Weather conditions: Clear Skies

Find our location in real time HERE!

Science and Technology Log:

As we exit the harbor in Eureka, CA I join Amanda Gladics of Oregon State University perched at her post on the flying bridge, scanning the surrounding surface waters for signs of seabirds and marine mammals.

Amanda- Observations

On the flying bridge Amanda Gladics scans the water for signs of marine life

Amanda earned an undergraduate degree at OSU in natural resources. Soon after, she completed a Master’s program with a focus on marine resources, also through OSU. She now serves as a faculty research assistant for Oregon State University at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

On first hearing, her role aboard the RV Ocean Starr sounds relatively simple but is actually a critical contribution to a long term survey of seabird and mammal life observed in waters along the Northern California Current. The study is an example of collaboration between the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) and the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC), both NOAA entities, and Oregon State University. Amanda’s observation data, combined with the monitoring of the southern reaches of the current system, will add to the ongoing collection of information that will serve as a point of cross-reference for a host of other research initiatives including the principal mission of this cruise, the juvenile rockfish survey. In addition, the collected information furthers our understanding of the upper trophic predators of the region. The length of the time over which data has been collected by observers, 25+ years, makes for an exceptionally valuable time series.

I take a captain’s seat next to Amanda and help scan the horizon for signs of life. I quickly point out a small … black and white-ish bird … off the right side of the bow. My bird doesn’t count. Amanda tells me to imagine that our surrounding is broken into four quarters with sections I and II ahead of us on the left and right and III and IV behind us, respectively. Because the study assumes that the observer sees ALL seabirds and marine mammals possible it is important to narrow the range of scope to increase confidence. For the same reason, animals beyond 300 meters in distance do not count towards data collection either. I’m immediately critical wondering how one could possibly tell whether a bird or other was in range. Amanda reveals her trusted “rangefinder”. It’s not a fancy device – in fact, it more strongly resembles a glorified piece of kindling than anything else. Amanda explains that by taking into the account the height of her location on the ship in relation to true water level and the horizon, she can use basic trigonometry to calculate distance. When she holds the top of her rangefinder in line with the horizon she can estimate the animal’s distance away from the ship based on values she has marked on the stick. She records all observations both in writing and digitally. It goes to show that good science doesn’t always require expensive equipment. It’s not long before I begin to get the hang of it all. We soon see a small pod of harbor porpoises and not long after, a humpback whale spouts on the horizon.

Rangefinder

Amanda’s “Rangefinder” is used to estimate how far away from the boat a sea bird or marine mammal is.

While I help to point out black-footed albatrosses here and marbled murrelets there, Amanda explains more specifically her role with the Hatfield Marine Science Center at the Oregon State University. The focus of her current research revolves around an attempt to reduce, or stop altogether, the bycatch of albatross by commercial fisheries. The process is simple and sad:

Albatross hone in on fishing boats hoping for of an easy meal → Long line fishing vessels use a series of hooks on which they attach a piece of bait (generally squid) and send down said long line into the water in series → The birds attempt to steal the bait from the hook as it leaves the boat and occasionally snag themselves → If unable to get free, they are dragged underwater with the gear and drown. It is an unintentional and seemingly unavoidable process.

Streamer lines create visual barrier against scavenging seabirds

Streamer lines create visual barrier against scavenging seabirds (photo courtesy of Amanda Gladics)

Of the 22 species of albatross in the world, 19 are considered endangered. In the North Pacific there is special concern when it comes to the short-tailed albatross of which there are less than 4,000 world-wide. In many parts of the world, fishing vessels are required to use a simple device to scare the birds away from the baited hooks: a “streamer line”. If there is hope, it is in the “streamer line”, a device extended during the release of hook lines which creates a visual barrier to the relentless albatross — keeping them out of harm’s way. Amanda and her program are currently working on testing and modifying this preventative measure so as to continue to reduce the number of fatal encounters off the West Coast.

Streamer line

Albatross and others kept at bay (photo courtesy of Amanda Gladics)

Amanda has had many adventures in her field studies but most notably recalls spending time with albatross colonies on Midway Island in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as well as a leading a two-person expedition to monitor puffin colonies and other critters in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on an uninhabited Aleutian island in Alaska.

Amanda encourages young scientists to pursue their passions and be enthusiastic. Volunteer a lot and be willing to take low-paying jobs. Look for opportunities to work close to home with local agencies and initiatives; it’s all about connecting with people in a field of study you are interested in.

Amanda Midway

Amanda in her front yard on Midway Island in the Northern Hawaiian Islands (photo courtesy of Amanda Gladics)

Personal Log:

I’m not even sure it has sunk in…I am sailing off the coast of Northern California with a field research team thanks to this once-in-a-teacher’s-career NOAA opportunity. Wow. When I arrive at the ship I am immediately greeted by various members of both the ship crew and research team, all incredibly welcoming. I meet Captain Bud right away and he warmly invites me to explore the Ocean Starr and “make myself at home”. I did so right away. The first thing I did was head straight for the highest point. The view will be unprecedented! I’ve never been that high over the water. I was immediately fantasizing about whales breaching

Collection of Intro Pictures

Top left: View of the cobb trawl net on open deck at the stern. Top right: Teacher at Sea Logo (NOAA). Bottom Left: RV Ocean Starr. Bottom right: CTD device at drop point on deck.

in the sunset and dolphins riding the wake of the bow. I would later learn this top observation deck is referred to as the flying bridge. Wandering the halls I meet Toby, the right hand man of Ric, the chief scientist on the mission. He shows me to my stateroom. It’s Cozy, especially for a guy at 6’2” and 225 lbs. This is home for the next two and a half weeks.

Ric arrives and I meet the rest of the team. Everyone I meet continues to be exceptionally friendly, talkative and happy to share their focus of research and role on this cruise. It’s exciting to hear about all the different things that will be happening while I am onboard: bongo nets, box cores, trawls, CTDs, manta tows – the list goes on…

Delvan, my cabinmate, has no preference on bunk and so we let a coin toss seal our fate. I get the top. I look forward to the top because my brother and I shared bunk beds as kids and I rocked the top then as well, though I do recall the ceiling being a bit taller. I hit the sack ready to greet the sunrise and the 5:00 am departure bright eyed and bushy tailed. I sleep hard and fast.

5:30 A.M. I awake to the blast of the ship horn calling all final passengers on board. Not realizing what the sound meant in the moment, I fear I had already missed the shove off the dock. I spring out of bed and throw on deck-worthy clothes as quick as possible. We are still tied up on dock. Adrenaline is pumping in anticipation of the adventure I snag a delicious and filling breakfast. Before I know it, we’re moving. It’s begun!

Things are a bit wobbly. I grew up fishing and working off my dad’s boat in Hawai’i. That boat was 17ft. The Ocean Starr is over ten times bigger both in length and width. Its pitch and roll are slower and relatively docile in comparison but unsettling all the same. I put one foot in front of the other as I make my way up to the flying bridge. From the best view in the house, I soak in the slow ride out of the harbor and am enamored by the striking terrain of the Eureka/Arcata region in the early sunlight. As we exit the entrance to the harbor the wind and waves pick up. A few swells break the bow of the boat. The pitch and roll of the boat continues to increase as do the winds. By the afternoon winds are reaching 25 knots, approximately 30 mph. It is a windy bumpy ride. I am glad I decided to take motion sickness medication after all.

After chatting with Amanda about her role on ship and contributions to the oceanographic world on a larger scale, I decided to perform my first “TAScast” from the flying bridge and nearly lost my prized Teacher at Sea hat in the high winds. The sound quality of the video is halfway decent thanks to the $3.00 lapel microphone attached to my GoPro.

Sorting catch from various tows.

Top: Sorting catch from a mid-water trawl.  Bottom left: Megalops stage of Dungeness crab caught in the manta tow.  Bottom right:  Sifting through copious amounts of krill to find the rock fish.

We enter a holding pattern on the first afternoon due to the high winds and are unable to begin operations of any kind until the evening when the weather calms down. Once lifted, we hit the ground running and over the next 24 hours, I participate in a variety of experiences: Ken gives me a tour of the dry lab computer station where all of the data relayed from field instruments is collected. I watch Jason and Curtis drop box core sampling devices to examine the contents of the seafloor. I help Sam spot and net sea nettle jellies for gut content analysis. I also evaluate resulting footage of Curtis’s attempt to mount a GoPro in cod end of a Neuston net. So far either the camera has refused to stay in position or debris has muddled the view. We’ve recently modified the mount and will see if that footage comes out any better after the next tow. The highlight of the evening is sorting the trawl catch. Each new station promises to bring a slightly different sample of critters on board and the suspense is invigorating.

Though some on board are struggling to adapt, I am just fine when it comes to motion sickness. That being said, I am slightly regretting not having a bit more of an opinion on the bunk situation because getting in and out of a top bunk on a rocking ship can be challenging. Those are the only moments where I feel a bit…uneasy; the moments when I have to engage physically and mentally when I am half asleep in tight quarters. Taking showers and standing still enough to use the bathroom are also incredibly taxing. Though the ocean was placid all of yesterday, the seas picked up overnight and I recall a bit of tossing and turning that was out of my control. I am also adjusting to my shift which has modified since the beginning of the cruise. Originally the thought was that I would work noon – midnight but because I want to catch more of the trawl catches, which only happen on the night shift, I’ve begun working from about noon – 2:00 am catching a nap here and there if necessary and we have the time.

I sit here finalizing my thoughts as my computer and chair slide back and forth across the table and floor and I see the horizon appear and disappear out the porthole across from me and I love every minute of it! I can’t wait to share more of my experience with you!

Sunset

Our first sunset at sea

Critter Spotting Report:

Seabirds: Common Murre, Sooty Shearwater, Western Gull, Black-Footed Albatross, Immature Gull, Northern Fulmar, California Gulls, Pink-Footed Shearwater, Heerman’s Gull, Buller’s Shearwater, Cassin’s Auklet, Caspian Tern, Marbled Murrelet.

Marine Mammals: Humpback Whale, Blue Whale, Stellar Sea Lion, Harbor Porpoise.

Specimens in Trawl Haul #166: Krill, Northern lampfish, Blue lanternfish, Sergestid Shrimp, California Headlight Fish, Pyrosome, Gonatid Squid, Pacific Sanddab, Rex Sole, Stoplight Loosejaw, Blacktip Squid, Various Rockfish, Speckled Sanddab, Chiroteuthis squid, Pacific black dragonfish, Longfin dragonfish

A Stoplight loosejaw complete with photophore spotlights and unhinged jaw

A Stoplight loosejaw complete with photophore spotlights, angler appendage and unhinged jaw

Something to think about:

Where 5,280 ft. is equivalent to 1 statute (standard) mile, 1 nautical mile is equivalent to 6,000 ft. Perhaps when one says, “Go the extra mile!” they might instead say, “Go the nautical mile!”

 

TAScast:  From the Flying Bridge