Melissa Barker: Breaking the Land Lock, June 14, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Melissa Barker

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 22 – July 6, 2017

Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: June 14, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Here in Longmont, Colorado where I live, we are settling into warm summer days often topping out in the high 80’s to 90’s F and typically with low humidity. In Galveston, Texas, where I’ll board the ship it is in the 80’s F this week with 90% humidity. I’ll have to get used to that humid air.

Science and Technology Log

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NOAA Ship Oregon II. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

I will spend two weeks aboard the NOAA fisheries research vessel Oregon II, in the Gulf of Mexico, working on the SEAMAP (Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) Summer Groundfish Survey. The objective of the survey is to monitor the size and distribution of shrimp and groundfish in the Gulf of Mexico.

gfmexico

The Gulf of Mexico. Photo from world atlas.com

What are groundfish, you ask? These are the fish that live near or on the bottom of the ocean. This survey is conducted twice per year; the data help scientists monitor trends in shrimp and fish abundance as well as changes over time. We will also be collecting plankton samples and environmental data at each site. The second leg of the groundfish survey works off of the Louisiana coast and the outlet of the Mississippi River where a “dead” or hypoxic zone forms in the summer. I am very interested to see the what we pull up in this area.

Personal Log

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I’m all geared up and ready to go!

When the NOAA Teacher at Sea email arrived in my inbox in February, I held my breath as I opened and read it as fast as possible. I was accepted! I was going to sea! I am honored to be a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Teacher at Sea program.

I teach Biology and direct the Experiential Education program at the Dawson School in Lafayette, Colorado. I love sharing my passion for learning about the biological world with my students and engaging my students’ curiosities. Many of my favorite teaching moments have been times when I can take students outside to observe and explore their surroundings.

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My classroom for a week in the San Juan Mountain Range, CO. March 2017. Photo credit Pete Devlin

I’ve lived in Colorado for about 17 years and love to play in the mountain environment on foot, ski or bike. Having lived land locked for most of my life, I can’t wait for the opportunity to explore the ocean ecosystem this summer. As a child, I spent short amounts of time exploring tide pools in Maine and beaches in Florida and was always intrigued by the vastness and mystery of the ocean.

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Tending my garden to grow delicious food

Now, I’m heading out to sea for two weeks to dive right into (not literally) learning about the ocean. Like my students, I learn best by doing, so I am thrilled to be working with the NOAA Fisheries team.

Did You Know?

Did you know that June is national ocean month? Celebrate the ocean this month.Check out this great video from NOAA and visit NOAA’s Celebrate the Ocean page for more information.

Dawson Sixth Grade Queries

Just before the end of the school year, I visited the Dawson sixth graders to talk about my NOAA Teacher at Sea expedition. We learned about the importance of the ocean, even for us here in Colorado, and the sixth graders wrote questions for me to answer while I’m at sea. Look for this section in my blog where I will answer some of those questions.

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Dawson School sixth grade. Photo by RuthAnne Schedler.

-What do you think the most common organism is that you will find? (from Allison)

One of the main goals of the Groundfish survey is to collect data on the abundance and distribution of shrimp, so I think I’ll be seeing a lot of shrimp in our net. I’ll be sure to post photos of what we find.

 -Are you going to scuba dive? (from Gemma, Emma and Margaret)

I will not be scuba diving on my trip. I am not certified and the Teacher at Sea program does not allow teachers to scuba (even if they are certified). Instead I will be learning from above the water’s surface and pulling up samples to learn about what lives deep below.

Now it’s your turn to ask the questions…

What are you curious about? Maybe you are interested to know more about what we haul up in our nets or how to become a NOAA scientist. You can write questions at the end of any of my blog posts in the “comments” section and I’ll try to answer them.

Sarah Boehm: The Dead Zone, July 5, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013 

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 5, 2013

Weather at 19:13
Air temperature: 26°C (79°F)
Barometer: 1017mb
Humidity: 93%
Wind direction: 135°
Wind speed: 18 knots
Water temp: 27°C
Latitude : 28° 44’ N
Longitude: 85° 32’ W

Science and Technology Log

Mr. Cummiskey, the other science teacher at CDCPS, asked if we saw an influence from farming along the Mississippi River in the Gulf ecosystem. At first it seems crazy that something happening over a thousand miles away can have an impact on an ecosystem as vast as the Gulf of Mexico, but it really is happening and part of our research is to monitor the effects. The first clue I had that something was changing was the color of the water. In the deep waters off Texas the water was a beautiful clear blue. As we got closer to the Mississippi delta the sea water turned a murky brown–a mix of mud brought down by the river and the phytoplankton that was thriving in the nutrient dense waters. Just like eating too much food is bad for people’s health, too many nutrients is actually bad for an ecosystem.

CTD

The CTD instrument. The bottles on the top collect water and the instruments on the bottom take measurements.

Each time we get to a sampling station we start by taking measurements of the water quality with the CTD (conductivity temperature and depth). From the bridge the officers control the ship to keep it in one place. Then the deck crew uses a winch and pulley system to move the heavy CTD equipment overboard and down into the water almost to the sea floor. All the way down and back up the machine is taking dozens of readings a second that are transmitted back to a computer in the dry lab.

The CTD records the depth, water temperature, the salinity (how salty the water is), and the dissolved oxygen. We are most concerned with the oxygen level because it greatly impacts the organisms living in the water. Fish and marine invertebrates breathe oxygen molecules that are mixed in with the water. Without enough dissolved oxygen in the water they will suffocate and die. Healthy levels in the Gulf of Mexico are 4 to 6 milligrams of O2 per liter of water.  If there is less than 2 mg/L it is considered hypoxic, meaning there is not enough oxygen. This map uses the data we have collected this cruise to show dissolved oxygen levels in the bottom waters of the Gulf. The green and yellow colors shows the healthy areas, the orange areas are hypoxic.

Click on the map for a larger version. The map is updated as new data comes in.

hypoxia map

See those orange areas in close to the coast of Louisiana? That is known as the Dead Zone. Runoff of fertilizer and other nutrient sources wash down rivers and out to sea where they contribute to algae blooms. When the algae dies it sinks and is decomposed, a process that uses up a lot of oxygen. Check out this video to learn more. All my 6th graders should notice similarities between this situation and the virtual pond we worked with this spring.

Hypoxia video

Not only do the oxygen levels change, but the composition of the fish trawls changed dramatically too.  At station #144 we had an oxygen reading of 3 mg/L and an average sized trawl (26 kg) with a variety of species. At station #146 we had an oxygen reading of 1 mg/L (which is hypoxic) but pulled up a huge net of fish that filled 18 buckets. The total weight was 340 kg, but over 300 kg was just two species – croaker and butterfish. We were surprised by this catch and so did another oxygen reading and found while our nets started in hypoxic waters, during the 30 minute trawl we moved into better water with 3 mg/L of oxygen .  At station #147 we had a very low oxygen reading of only 0.2 mg/L. Our trawl only brought up 1.7 kg, most of which were jellies and crabs with just a few little fish.  There just wasn’t enough oxygen to support more life. Why was station #146 so huge? As the low oxygen waters spread out from the Mississippi River delta, critters were fleeing the hypoxia zone and moving to better water. So along the edge of the dead zone is an area with high population density; the oxygen refugees and the fish swooping in to eat them.  However, not all creatures can move themselves out of the way. Creature like bivalves and gastropods (clams and snails) don’t have the capability to move much and so get caught in the annual hypoxic zone of the Gulf.

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Bringing up the big catch at station 146

Hypoxia zones caused by nutrient runoff from fertilizer and other man-made sources do not just happen in the Gulf of Mexico. They have also been recorded in the Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound and at the mouths of rivers around the world. They can also happen in fresh water ponds and lakes.

The CTD is our main method of recording oxygen levels, but we need to make sure it is functioning properly. So each day we also take a water sample and use a titration method to find the amount of dissolved oxygen. Check out the colorful chemical reactions in this video.

Personal Log

People, like fish, need oxygen and water to survive. Out on the ship oxygen in the air is easy to come by, but fresh water is another story. We are surrounded by water of course, but cannot drink the salt water. I tracked down out Chief Engineer, Sean Pfarrer, to find out more about where all the fresh water on board comes from.

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The reverse osmosis machine

Down in the engine room there is a reverse osmosis machine that processes salt water and turns it into fresh water. The salt water is pumped into the machine under 950 psi of pressure. The pressurized water is forced through a selectively permeable membrane that lets water molecules through, but not the larger salt molecules. (My 6th graders should find this all sounding familiar) The super salty water left behind is pumped back out to sea, and the fresh water is used on board. Our sinks, showers and laundry all use fresh water. We go through about 1,000 gallons a day, which is close to the 1,200 gallon limit of the RO system (but only about half what 30 average Americans would use on land). To conserve fresh water the heads (toilets in sailor speak) flush with salt water.

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A rod from the RO machine. Water is pumped in the tube and forced through the yellow filter.

Which brings me to one of my favorite science teacher topics – poop. Thirty people over the course of fifteen days generate a fair amount of waste. What happens to all that poop? Just emptying it into the water would be harmful to the marine environment, so we have a little waste water treatment system right on board. When you flush, it all goes down to the marine sanitation device where poop eating bacteria consume our waste.  The waste water then passes by chlorine tablets that kill any bacteria before it gets dumped into the sea. I’ll admit I’m a little fascinated by the systems and technology that keeps our floating community operating in a rather comfortable fashion.

We completed our science work this afternoon and are now heading back to port. Check out the Ship Tracker to see where we have been.

CDCPS Science Students:

How did sailors long ago during the age of exploration deal with the drinking water problem?

What do you think we could do to lessen the hypoxia problem in the Gulf?

Bruce Taterka, July 7, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Bruce Taterka
NOAA Ship: Oregon II

Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Trawling in Deeper Waters

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 2015 (8:15pm)
Position: Latitude = 27.20.39 N; Longitude = 096.35.21 W
Present Weather: Could cover 90%
Visibility: 4-6 nautical miles
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Wave Height: 2-4 feet
Sea Water Temp: 28.6 C
Air Temperature: Dry bulb = 28.5 C; Wet bulb = 26.7 C
Barometric Pressure: 1008.27 mb

Science and Technology Log

Since setting out on Friday we’ve headed south along the Gulf coast of Texas almost to the Mexican border, and now we’re heading back north but farther offshore, in deeper water. As a result our trawls are pulling up a deep-water assemblage of species different from those we saw in shallower waters a few days ago. There is still no sign of oil in this part of the Gulf, but we’re still taking samples of fish and shrimp for analysis to make sure there’s no contamination here from the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Ten-foot seas are predicted for tonight so we’re heading north along the Texas coast, away from the storm, and we’ve put away the fishing gear until it gets calmer.

Last log we talked about FSCS (Fisheries Scientific Computer System). So what is it, how is it used, and what is so great about it?

FSCS, pronounced ‘fiscus’, is an automated system for recording the massive amount of biological and oceanographic data generated 24 hours a day by NOAA scientists during fisheries surveys. During a trawl survey, fish and invertebrates from each haul are sorted, counted and weighed by species. Scientists record data from individual fish, such as sex, weight, length and even stomach contents, resulting in tens of thousands of new data points every day. Before NOAA rolled out FSCS in 2001 aboard the ship Albatross IV, scientists recorded all data by hand, an incredibly tedious process. With FSCS, however, data are recorded digitally which is much faster, allows integration of biological and oceanographic data. It also enables NOAA to obtain critical real-time information to assess and manage the health of the marine ecosystem and individual fish stocks.

FSCS uses a Limnoterra FMB4 (fish measuring board) which has a magnetic pen to upload the length of an organism within a millimeter, and software that annotates all of the data on length, mass, sex, etc. The software has an index of species scientific names and can print labels for specimen samples that are to be shipped to other scientists and to the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, MS.

We use FSCS 24 hours a day, and I can’t imagine how NOAA scientists did this work without it.


Personal Log

I’m enjoying my 12-hour shifts processing fish, shrimp and invertebrates on theOregon II. Our noon-to-midnight watch is working well together and starting to bond.

My watch-mates in the Oregon II wet lab.

I’m seeing lots of very cool marine life that we’re hauling up from the bottom of the Gulf with our trawling net. Here are just a few of the things I’ve seen in the past two days:

Singlespot frogfish – Antennarius radiosus.

Note the lure on its snout.

Examining the stomach contents of a catfish.

Red snapper – Lutjanus campechanus.

Camouflage in the Sargassum. Can you spot the crabs?

Sunset

Sunset


Bruce Taterka, July 4, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Bruce Taterka
NOAA Ship: Oregon II

Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Sunday, July 4, 2010

Out in the Gulf

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 1000 hours (10:00am)
Position: Latitude = 27.58.38 N; Longitude = 096.17.53 W
Present Weather: partly cloudy, haze on the horizon
Visibility: 8-10 nautical miles
Wind Speed: 17 knots
Wave Height: 2-4 feet
Sea Water Temp: 28.6 C
Air Temperature: Dry bulb = 29.2 degrees Celsius; Wet bulb = 26.1 C
Barometric Pressure: 1011.1 mb

Science and Technology Log

The purpose of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey is to collect data for managing commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. SEAMAP stands for Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program.

Right now we’re working along the Gulf Coast of Texas, far from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, so we’re not seeing any effects of oil here. However, part of our mission is to collect fish for testing to make sure that oil spill has not impacted the marine life in this area and that the fish and shrimp from Texas are safe to eat. We’re also collecting water samples from this area to use as baseline data for the long-term monitoring of the impact of the oil spill in Gulf.

Analyzing a water sample in the Oregon II’s lab.

There are four main ways the Oregon II is gathering SEAMAP data on this cruise, and we’ve already learned how to use all of them. The main way we collect data is by trawling, and this is where we do most of our work on the Oregon II. In trawling, we drag a 42’ net along the bottom for 30 minutes, haul it up, and weigh the catch.

Hauling in the trawl net.

We then sort the haul which involves pulling out all of the shrimp and red snapper, which are the most commercially important species, and taking random samples of the rest. Then we count each species in the sample and record weights and measurements in a computer database called FSCS (Fisheries Scientific Computer System).

Logging a sample into FSCS.

Here on the Texas coast, where we’re working now, the SEAMAP data is used to protect the shrimp population and make sure that it’s sustained into the future. Since 1959, Texas has been closing the shrimp fishery seasonally to allow the population to reproduce and grow. The SEAMAP data allows Texas to determine the length of the season and size limits for each species. Judging by our trawls, the Texas shrimp population is healthy.

Another tool for data collection is the CTD, which stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth. The CTD also measure dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and other characteristics of the marine ecosystem and takes measurements from the surface to the bottom, creating a CTD profile of the water column at our trawling locations. These data are important to assess the extent of the hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, and to relate the characteristics of our trawling hauls to dissolved oxygen levels. SEAMAP data collected since the early 1980s show that the zone of hypoxia in the Gulf has been spreading, causing populations to decline in hypoxic areas.

We also use Bongos and Neustons to gather data on larval fish, especially Bluefin Tuna, Mackerel, Gray Triggerfish, and Red Snapper. The Neuston is a rectangular net that we drag along the surface for ten minutes to collect surface-dwelling larval fish that inhabit Sargassum, a type of seaweed that floats at the surface and provides critical habitat for small fish and other organisms.

Examining the results of a Neuston drag.

Bongos.

We drag the Bongos below the surface to collect ichthyoplankton, which are the tiny larvae of fish just after they hatch. The Neuston and Bongo data on fish larvae are used for long-term planning to maintain these important food species and keep fish stocks healthy.

Personal Log

This is a great learning experience, not only about marine science but also about living and working on a ship. The Oregon II is literally a well-oiled machine, and the operation of the ship and the SEAMAP study depends on a complex effort and cooperation among the science team, the crew, the officers, engineers, and the steward and cook. Everyone seems to be an expert at their job, and the success of our survey and our safety depends on that. It’s a different feeling from life on land.

Life aboard the Oregon II is comfortable, especially now that I’ve gotten my sea legs.(I was hurting after we set out on Friday in 4’ to 6’ swells, but by Saturday afternoon I felt fine.) The food is excellent and most of the ship is air conditioned. The Gulf – at least the Gulf Coast off of Texas right now – is beautiful. The seas are deep green and blue and teeming with marine life. I’m looking forward to spending the next 2 weeks on board the Oregon II and being part of the effort to study the marine ecosystem in the Gulf and how it’s changing.

View of Gulf of Mexico

View of Gulf of Mexico

Bruce Taterka, July 1, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Bruce Taterka
NOAA Ship: Oregon II 

Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey 
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico 
Date: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 

On board the Oregon II in the Port of Galveston

I arrived in the Port of Galveston last night in the rain on the edge of Hurricane Alex, which was making landfall farther south along the Gulf Coast. The boat was quiet. I found my quarters – Stateroom 4, below deck – which I am sharing with Walter, the Second Cook for our cruise.
Stateroom 4

Stateroom 4

We were supposed to set sail today, but given the wind and rain that Alex brought to the Gulf our departure is delayed until tomorrow. Today is a wait-out-the-weather day.
Porthole

Porthole

Kim (the other Teacher at Sea the Oregon II) and I are meeting the officers and the crew and scientists and learning about our work for the next two weeks. I’ll be working the “day” shift – noon to midnight – while Kim will be on nights.

We set out tomorrow, heading south along the coast. Heavy seas are expected in the aftermath of Alex, which will be a major test for my sea legs. You can follow the Oregon II’s progress here.

 

Me on board

Me on board

Mechelle Shoemake, June 29, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Mechelle Shoemake
Onboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 19 – 30, 2010

Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Northwestern Gulf of Mexico
Date: Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge
Time: 0000 hours (12:00pm)
Position: Latitude = 28.45.067 N; Longitude = 091.35.189 W
Present Weather: cloudy
Visibility: 6 nautical miles
Wind Speed: 8 knots
Wave Height: 4-6 foot swells
Sea Water Temp: 29.8 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: Dry bulb = 27.3 degrees Celsius;
Wet bulb = 26.2 degrees Celsius

Science and Technology Log

The Groundfish Survey’s purpose is to find out what species are here in the Gulf how many, and their size, sex, and maturity status. On average the trawl produces at least 20-40 different species on each tow. The type of trawl used on the Oregon II is the Bottom Otter Trawl. The deck hands put the net out, it trawls for around 30 minutes, and it is then pulled back in by the deck hands. The catch is then placed in basket where it is weighed and then separated by species Each species is then individually weighed, measured, and sexed.

This is a red snapper I’m sorting out of the catch

We caught a nice red snapper that will be sent back to the lab for testing. It will also be determined if the oil spill had any effect on the fish, shrimp, crabs, and other species we caught. We also took some more water samples using the CTD to determine how much oil is in the water. We We used the Neuston net and the Bongo nets to gather plankton, which is also being collected for testing. The Neuston gathers plankton on the surface while the Bongo nets gather plankton all the way from the bottom of the gulf to the surface. This plankton is then placed inglass jars with a preservative Twenty-four hours later the plankton is transferred to a lesser preservative. The initial set sample is too strong for long storage. The plankton samples are then sent to Poland to a specialized plankton lab. In this lab, the plankton is identified to the family level. It is then sent back to the NOAA labs where it is identified to the species level. It was amazing to see all the little critters in the jar. There were so many of them.

Deploying the bongo net

Later in the day, we did another trawl….the catch of the day. Well it was a tire! It did have two little critters living in it, though. They were both identified and weighed and then frozen and packaged for the lab. The speculated reason for the trawl producing so few specis what’s called hypoxia. Hypoxia is the depletion of the oxygen in the water. If there is no oxygen,the fish and many other species cannot live. You can read more about hypoxia at http://www.ncddc.gov.

A frog fish

To the right is a frog fish that we found living in the tire. It has a trick to catch its food. The tentacle on the top of the head acts as a lure to attracts its prey. When a smaller fish comes by to eat what it thinks is food at the end of the frog fish’s lure…..well it gets caught and the frog fish eats the little fish. This frog fish still had its dinner in its mouth.

To the left is a picture of the last trawl that my shift made. You can see that this catch was full of shrimp and little crabs. We had to turn back towards Texas due to Tropical Storm Alex, which is forecasted by NOAA’s National Weather Service to become a hurricane by tomorrow. It’s too dangerous for the ship to be out in weather like that.

Some of the critters from out last trawl

Personal Log

Well, I can say that this has definitely been an adventure of a lifetime. I have enjoyed my voyage with all of my new NOAA friends. They have taught me a lot. As I am writing this, we are sailing back to port in Galveston, TX. As I said earlier, we had to cut our trip short due to Tropical Storm Alex. Believe me, I know he is out there. Our ship is rolling with the waves. I had a quick lesson in securing my belongings. You never know what you might encounter when you go to sea. Thanks to NOAA for giving me this opportunity.