Melissa Barker: Data, Samples and Research, Oh My, June 29, 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 29, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 29 11.93 N

Longitude: 92 40.31 W

Air temp: 28.6 C

Water temp: 28 C

Wind direction: 180 degrees

Wind speed: 13 knots

Wave height: 1 meter

Sky: Overcast

Science and Technology Log

We had a slight lull in the sampling yesterday due to storms and lightning risk, but today has been full speed ahead with the trawling. In this blog I’ll talk more about taking data and how the data and samples are used.

We use the FSCS system, designed by NOAA, to record our data for each trawl. The program walks us through all the data need for each species. The pattern goes something like this: select species, measure length with the Limnoterra magnetic measuring board, then mass the individual, and finally try to determine the sex of the organism. Without this technology I can image that the whole sampling process would take a lot longer.

 

 

Determining sex can be tricky at times and there are some species that we cannot sex such as squid, scallops and very small fish. We cut the fish open and look for male and female gonads. If possible we also mark the maturity state of the individual.

Female gonads

Male gonads

When recording shrimp, we measure length, weight and sex for each individual up to 200. This can take a while, but working in pairs we get pretty efficient. Female shrimp have a circular breast plate, called a thelycus, under the head or just above their first set of legs. Males have a petasma, the male sex organ, between their two front legs.

Female shrimp on the left, male shrimp on the right. The knife is indicating the petasma, the male sex organ.

David (left) and Tyler work together to measure, weigh and sex the shrimp efficiently

You might be wondering what happens to all this data that we are collecting?

The data we collect is sent to SEAMAP (Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) and is made publicly available. Scientists can use this data for their research. The SEAMAP Groundfish survey happens twice per year and has been ongoing for 42 years, allowing for identification of long term trends in the data.

SEAMAP gives the shrimp data to the different state agencies who make the data available to fishermen, who will use it to determine if shrimp are of marketable size and thus worth heading out to shrimp.

Bagged lizard fish headed to the freezer

In addition to the data we are collecting, we also collect and freeze samples. Any scientists can make requests for a study species to be saved from our trawls. These requests are entered into the computer system, which prompts us to bag, label and freeze the species to be taken off the ship at the end of the cruise.

Samples stored in the freezer. There are many more in additional freezers.

For example, we save all Red Snapper and send them to the NOAA lab in Panama City, Florida, for an age and growth study. Red Snapper is the top commercial fish in Gulf of Mexico, so this is critical data for fisherman and sustaining a healthy fish stock.

 

Several of the students who are part of the science team are collecting samples for their research.

Tagged Blue Crabs (photo credit: Helen Olmi)

Helen, who is part of the night shift, attends University of Southern Mississippi and is part of the Gulf Coast Research Lab. She is part of a team that is looking at migration patterns and reproductive behavior of female Blue Crabs (Callinectes sapidus). She tags female crabs and if fishermen find them they call in to report the location. Female Blue Crabs mate after their terminal molt and collect sperm in sac-like receptacles to use later to fertilize their eggs. When ready to spawn, the females move lower in the estuary into saltier waters. Blue Crabs are the most common edible crab so it is important to continue to monitor the health of the population in the Gulf.

Sharpnose Shark ready to be measured

David is an undergrad at University of Miami, who has earned a scholarship through NOAA Office of Education school scholarship program. As part of this program, he is funded to do summer research. He is working as part of larger study looking at the distribution and diet of the sharpnose shark (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae), one of the most common species of shark in the Gulf. Sharpnose sharks are generalists and the research study is looking to see if they are also potentially opportunistic eaters. He is also comparing diets from East and West Gulf sharks and may also be able to compare diets of sharks in low vs high oxygen areas. David’s data collection involves sorting through partially digested stomach remains to try to figure out what the shark ate; he gets to play detective in the lab.

Tyler holding a Croker

Tyler is a graduate student at Texas A&M at Corpus Christi and works with Atlantic Croaker (Micropogonias undulatus). He researches whether exposure to low oxygen affects what Croaker eat. Croaker are widely abundant in the Gulf–they often make up more than half of our trawl samples–thus they make a good study species. Croaker often feed at the bottom, in the benthic zone. Tyler is trying to determine if Croaker are changing their feeding patterns in hypoxic areas by feeding higher up in the water column in the pelagic zone to find more food. He uses Croaker tissue samples to examine diet using isotopes. The general idea with isotopes is that what you eat or process will become part of you. Different prey species will have different isotope signatures and looking at Croaker tissue can determine what organisms the fish have been eating.

As you can see the data and samples from this survey support a lot of science and sustainable fisheries management. Check out some of the interesting organisms we have found in our trawls in the last few days.

 

 

Personal Log

 As we crank through trawl after trawl of species, I have to stop and remind myself of where I am. As a land lover, it can be a little disconcerting that there is no land anywhere in sight. This fact is helping me appreciate the vastness of the ocean. It is said that we have only explored five percent of the ocean. Before I was on the Oregon II, this was hard to believe, but now I am starting to comprehend just how large the ocean really is.

Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico

Andre and the Cobia

We had some rough seas due to a storm cell a couple days ago which got the boat rocking and rolling again. The movement made it hard to sleep or move around. Luckily, we are through that area and back to our normal motion. With each trawl, I anticipate the possibility of interesting new species that might come up in our net. We caught an 18.8 kg Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) in our net yesterday, which is a fish I had never heard of, but is apparently prized as a food and game fish. Andre filleted it up and we ate it for lunch. It was so of the best fish I’ve ever tasted. Living in Colorado, I don’t eat much seafood, but I’ve decided to try what we catch out here and I’m glad I have. We’ve also had fresh caught shrimp and snapper that were delicious thanks to Valerie and Arlene, the stewards who are keeping us well fed.

I’m enjoying getting to know some of the folks who work on the ship. Many of these people have worked on the Oregon II for several years. When you live and work with each other in a confined space for 24 hours a day, you become close pretty quickly. The family feel among the crew and officers is evident.

I am getting more efficient with my measuring and weighing techniques and even remembering a few scientific names. During each twelve-hour shift, the time spent on our feet depends on the number of stations we cover. Some days we are back to back, just finishing up one sample while they are already trawling for the next. A monitor screen tells us the distance to the next station, so we can anticipate what is coming next. We are getting closer to the Mississippi delta where we are anticipating a decrease in oxygen at some of our stations.

Did You Know?

The Natural Marine Sanctuary System is a network of underwater parks that protects more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for the parks and brings together a diverse group of stakeholders to promote responsible and sustainable ocean use and protect the health of our most valuable ocean resources. Healthy oceans can provide recreation and tourism opportunities for coastal communities. (Source: sanctuaries.noaa.gov)

Marine Sanctuary map copy

(Photo credit: sanctuaries.noaa.gov)

In the Gulf of Mexico there is a marine sanctuary called Flower Garden Banks which includes three different areas, East Flower Banks, West Flower Banks and Stetson Bank, which are all salt dome formations where coral reef communities have formed. You can learn more about our National Marine Sanctuary System here.

Dawson Sixth Grade Queries

Why do you need to take the temperature and amount of salt in the water? (Bella)

Temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and florescence measurements give us more information about the water where we are sampling. Salinity helps tell us if we are in a freshwater, estuary or fully marine environment. The salinity will decrease as we near the Mississippi river delta. Salinity and temperature affect fish physiology or body functions. Each species has normal tolerance levels that it can live within. Organisms that find themselves outside of their salinity and temperature limits might not be able to survive.

The image of the CTD data below gives you an idea of typical values for temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and florescence and how they change as depth increases.

CTD key: pink=fluorescence, green=oxygen. blue=temperature, red=salinity

Does the temperature of the ocean get colder as it gets deeper? (Allison)

Generally temperature does decrease with depth, but in our shallow sampling locations there can be less than a 2 degree C temperature change. As you can see on the CTD data above, the temperature changed 6 degrees C at this sampling location.

How deep is it where you have sample? (David, Shane, Alix)

We sample at depths of 5-60 fathoms. One fathom equals 6 feet.

 

 

Chris Murdock: Let The Adventure Begin! June 5, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Murdock
Aboard NOAA ship Oregon II
June 7th – June 20th, 2017

Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: May 30, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather in Iowa can be crazy! Just last week we went from 90 degrees and sunny all the way down to 50 degrees and rainy in the course of three days. We have been lucky this week to have sunny skies and a very comfortable temperature of 75. Perfect running weather!

Science and Technology Log

I will be joining the crew of the Oregon II on leg one of the SEAMAP (Southeast Area Monitoring & Assessment Program) Summer Groundfish Survey in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the objectives of this survey are to monitor the size and distribution of shrimp and other groundfish (fish that live near the sea bottom), as well as to provide information on shrimp and groundfish populations within the Gulf of Mexico. In order to accomplish these objectives, large quantities of groundfish are collected using a long net called a trawl net. All shrimp species will be sorted from the catch in order to be weighed and sexed. A total of 200 shrimp from each catch will be documented, and this information will be extrapolated out to determine estimated total numbers from each area studied. This process will be repeated for other selected species of groundfish through the course of the study. Research like this is vital to the long-term sustainability of these fish populations.

 

Oregon II

NOAA Ship Oregon II. Photo Courtesy of NOAA

Personal Log and Introduction

My name is Chris Murdock and I teach Biology, AP Biology, and Biomedical Science at Regina High School in Iowa City, Iowa. I have been lucky to call Regina home for the past 4 years. Regina is such a unique place for so many different reasons, and I could probably spend this entire post explaining what Regina means to me and how it has made me into the teacher/person I am today. I will forever be grateful to Regina for allowing me opportunities like this one to better myself both personally and professionally.

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Backpacking through Canyonlands National Park, March, 2017

Throughout my entire life, I have always considered myself a very curious person. Even at an early age, I would constantly ask questions about how this and that worked, or why certain phenomena happen the way that they do. As a result, I have always been fascinated by the wonderful world of science. That hunger for knowledge led me to Mrs. Mazucca’s honors biology class my sophomore year of high school. Never before have I had a teacher more passionate, more engaging, and one that genuinely got you excited for a topic you knew nothing about. I loved every second of that class, and I can honestly say that without having Mrs. Mazucca I would not be in the position I am today. It was in that moment I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. From that day on, everything I did was to better prepare myself to be the best educator I could be.

I have always been fascinated by the oceans and the life within them. Growing up in the Midwest, I was confined to exploring local rivers and lakes. While I loved exploring the bodies of water around me, there was always something about the ocean that drew me in. From the vastness of the oceans, to the diversity of life within them, I was awestruck. After all, life has been evolving in the oceans for hundreds of millions of years! Every vacation I took near an ocean, I would spend as much time as possible in and around the water. It is amazing to me that something so prominent in all of our lives can go unchecked for such a long period. During my time at the University of Iowa, I took every marine science class I could. There was even a period where I contemplated leaving the college of education to pursue a career in marine biology. The more I learned, the more I fell in love with the ocean. Unfortunately, one thing became increasingly clear to me throughout college: the oceans and the life within them are in danger like never before. While I could do plenty to educate the masses as a marine biologist, I knew that teaching was where I could make the greatest impact. I decided that as a teacher, I was going to do everything I could to foster an environment to make my students more environmentally and globally aware. In order for this to be successful, I myself needed to embark on a journey to do the same.

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Snorkeling in Belize, August 2016

Fast forward to December of 2015 when my girlfriend notified me of the NOAA Teacher At Sea Experience. “This is absolutely perfect for you!” she said, “You have to sign up for this”. The more I researched, the more I thought this was too good to be true. I spent nearly the entire next year thinking about the potential of this trip until the time finally came to fill out my application. At the end of November, after all the forms were turned in, I received the email “you will receive notification of your application status via the email address listed on your application by February 2017”. It was going to be a long wait.
Then came February 1st, and as I was walking out of the door to go to school I got an email from NOAA. I nearly spilled my coffee all over me as I fumbled over my phone to open the document as fast as I could. Ever since last December, I had prepared myself for a rejection letter. While I was very confident in my application, I just didn’t believe it would work out. It was too perfect of an experience for me to actually happen. With my heart pounding out of my chest, I began to read the document. To my utter amazement I was accepted! Me. Accepted into the experience of a lifetime. Words cannot describe the pure joy I felt as I drove to work that day. I was going to get the chance to live out my childhood dream, without sacrificing my true passion of teaching. To say I am lucky is an understatement.

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My students and I on the senior class trip to Washington, DC. April, 2016

From that day on, my life revolved around NOAA Teacher At Sea. I read dozens of blog posts, I read about every ship in the fleet, and I filled out all the required paperwork as fast as my printer would spit it out. While any cruise would have been an unbelievable experience, I could not be happier with being selected for the SEAMAP survey in the Gulf. Living in Iowa and the heart of farmland, USA, my actions and the actions of my neighbors have a direct impact on the health of the Gulf ecosystem. It is my hope that once I return from my cruise, I will be able to get my community to be more conscious of the oceans and how we positively (or negatively) affect them. Writing this blog, I am still in a state a shock that this is really happening. June 7th cannot get here fast enough! I am so excited to be able to spend two amazing weeks on board the Oregon II learning from some of the best scientists in the world.

Did You Know?

The Gulf of Mexico is the ninth largest body of water on the planet, covering an area of 600,000 mi2! (Source-Encyclopedia Britannica)

Fact of the Day

In my classroom, we start class every day with a “Fact of the Day” where I share new and upcoming research from the scientific community. Today’s fact comes from NOAA Research Vessel Okeanos Explorer.

This NOAA team has been exploring the depths of the Central Pacific Basin to explore deep water ecosystems before they become impacted too greatly by climate change. On this expedition, the NOAA team captured some truly amazing footage, some of which had previously not been seen except for in the fossil record! Some examples include Sea snails basically eating the poop of crinoids (sea lilies), and usually inactive brittle stars attacking swimming squids! Several videos from this expedition are posted below.

All of this amazing research sheds light on a largely unexplored region of the oceans, and the data collected from this expedition will help create a baseline to measure the effects of climate change moving forward. (Source-Ocean Explorer.noaa.gov) (Videos of these interactions can be found here!- http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/explorations/ex1705/logs/photolog/welcome.html)

Kimberly Scantlebury: Beneath the Waves, May 4, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kimberly Scantlebury

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

May 1-May 12, 2017

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date:  May 4, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 10:25

Latitude: 2823.2302 N, Longitude: 9314.2797 W

Wind Speed: 12 knots, Barometric Pressure: 1009 hPa

Air Temperature: 19.3 C, Water Temperature: 24.13  C

Salinity: 35.79  PSU, Conditions: Cloudy, 6-8 foot waves

Science and Technology Log

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The cameras are sent down 15-150 meters. It takes several crew, plus Joey “driving” inside the dry lab, to make each launch happen.

Long line fishing is one way to gather fish population data. Another is remote sensing with camera arrays. The benefit of this is it is less invasive. The downside is it is more expensive and you can not collect fish samples. The goal has been to do ten-twelve camera array deployments a day.

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Hi, OSCAR.

There are two camera arrays set up: Orthogonal Stereo Camera Array (OSCAR) and an array containing a 360 degree spherical view camera pod and a single stereo camera (Frank). OSCAR runs technology that has been used since 2008. There have been many incarnations of camera technology used for the SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey since 1991. The OSCAR setup uses four stereo cameras that capture single video and stereo pair still images. Frank uses six cameras that can be stitched together to give a full 360 viewing area. This work is used to determine trends in abundance of species, although there are a few years of holes in the data as the transition from catch to camera took place. OSCAR setup and the Frank setup (affectionately called that due to its pieced together parts like Frankenstein’s Monster) both run to provide comparisons between the different technology. One of the other devices on Frank is an Abyss by GoPro.

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NOAA scientist, Kevin works on making sure the Abyss is reading to attach to Frank.

GoPros’ Abyss device may be a cheaper, off the rack option, but they do not do as well in low light conditions. Choosing gear is always a balance between cost and wants. For that you need to spend more for custom scientific equipment. 

Researchers are always working to stay current to gather the best data. This requires frequent upgrades to hardware and software. It also means modern scientific researchers must possess the skills and fortitude to adapt to ever changing technology. The ability to continually learn, troubleshoot, and engineer on the fly when something breaks are skills to learn. This is something all current students can take to heart.   

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The team troubleshooting technology.

Together, camera arrays, vertical long lines, and fish trap methods give a more accurate view of beneath the waves.

Quote of the day regarding launching the camera arrays: “You gotta remember, I’m gonna make that lady fly.”-James

Personal Log

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There are three different sized hooks used that rotate through the three Bandit reels.

Another important science lesson is that zero is a number. There have been camera problems to work through and we have not been catching fish. Sometimes that zero is from equipment that stopped running. Those zeros are errors that can be removed from the data set.

With fishing, we record if the bait is still attached or not, even if we do not catch any. It is always fun to put thirty hooks down and not know what is going to appear until we reel them up. It is also disappointing not to catch anything. Data is data. It is important for determining species abundance.

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Baiting the hooks.

I have enjoyed learning how to record on the data sheets, bait the hooks, de-bait the hooks (so there is always fresh bait), and a lot of little parts that are a part of the overall experience.

When we are working, the ship goes to a predetermined location and stops. The CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) Water Column Profiler is dropped in first (to be featured in a future post) then raised after data collection is done. Next either OSCAR or Frank goes down. Every few stops we also do the vertical long line fishing. The ship then goes on to the next stop, which takes about twenty minutes. That time is spent breaking down fish (when they are caught) and troubleshooting equipment.

Did You Know?

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When on deck, hard hats and PDF are required when the cranes are running.

Kimberly Scantlebury: Sharks, Snappers, and Sealegs, May 2, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kimberly Scantlebury

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

May 1-May 12, 2017

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey

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My beautiful home for two weeks.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: May 2, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 11:25

Latitude: 2808.4978 N, Longitude: 09329.9347 W

Wind Speed: 18.69 knots, Barometric Pressure: 1015.6 hPa

Air Temperature: 27.4 C, Water Temperature: 24.4 C

Salinity: 35.9301 PSU,  Conditions: sunny, no clouds, small waves

Science and Technology Log

There are several ways data is collected for the SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey in order to have a more complete understanding of the reef system. One of them is fishing with vertical long lines with Bandit reels. We are fishing for snapper species (Lutjanus sp.), grouper species (Serranidae sp.), and certain species of amberjack (Seriola sp.). There are three reels mounted on the vessel’s starboard side. The fishing works by dropping a weighted line with ten mackerel-baited hooks per reel, which then ends with an orange float. The boat is kept as still as possible and we wait a designated period of time before reeling up the lines.

I fished with deckhand James and Texas A&M graduate student, Jillian. The other lines were fished by NOAA scientists Joey, Kevin, John, and other deckhands. Our first try we caught two large spinner (Carcharhinus brevipinna) sharks that escaped back to sea. The other lines caught smaller sharks and a couple red snappers. We ended up catching and returning six sharks.

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Even though we were not aiming to catch sharks, they are part of the ecosystem and the data is collected. The data is written down on paper first and then transferred to computer databases. Some of the sharks required wrangling and less data was collected before releasing them live to prevent harm to shark and people.

The red snappers were weighed, measured in different ways, sexed, the sexual development was determined, and then retained, meaning we kept the fish. The otoliths (ear bones) and gonads (reproductive parts) were also weighed, labeled with an unique bar code, and stored for later analysis down at the Panama City Lab.

Determining variability of fish ages is possible due to this important work. Otoliths work similar to aging tree rings. Under a microscope you can clearly read each year. By comparing fish size to gonads, it has been determined a thirty-year-old red snapper can produce more eggs than 30 one year old red snappers. It is easy to see the research conducted on NOAA Ship Pisces is vital to managing and protecting our nation’s seafood supply.

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Personal Log

The movement aboard a ship this size is different than smaller vessels I’ve been on such as a ferry, lobster boat, and other research vessels. Right now we are expecting to not work Thursday due to high seas and wind. The NOAA Ship Pisces’s 208 feet sways in every direction-up, down, all around. The adjustment period for acclimating to this unpredictable movement is referred to as, “getting your sealegs.” This is also an apt metaphor for my time adapting to life on board.

Other than research protocols, Teachers at Sea need to learn what to do in case of emergencies. The science staff, including myself, received a safety briefing before leaving port.  Each person is assigned a muster station where they are to report if there is a Fire or Man Overboard. A separate location is assigned for Abandon Ship. Each emergency has a designated series of short or long horn blasts from the ship so it is clear to all what is happening.

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It’s Gumby suit time!

Later, the whole ship drilled Abandon Ship. As fast as possible, we each carried our personal flotation device (PFD) and survival suit (referred to as a Gumby suit) to our life raft station. I then practiced how to get the suit on in less than a minute.

Did You Know?

As a New Englander, I talk faster than most people on NOAA Ship Pisces, whose home port is Pascagoula, Mississippi.

There are a lot of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. We have not seen any other vessels out here, but can often see a half dozen rigs at a time. In fact, NOAA Ship Pisces was recognized for, “outstanding and successful emergency mobilization by providing acoustic monitoring survey operations under hazardous and arduous navigation conditions in support of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill recovery efforts.” 

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Oil rigs in sight as equipment is brought back aboard.

David Walker: Crossing the Mississippi River Delta (Days 10-12), July 5, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 5, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 7/5/15

NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 7/5/15

This has been some of the smoothest water I’ve seen yet on the ocean.  At times, you can’t even see wave motion on the surface of the ocean, and it looks more like a lake.  On July 5, 2015, waves were estimated to be 1 ft. in height, at most (see above weather log from the bridge).  Sky condition on July 5 began as scattered (SCT, 3-4 oktas), moved to broken (BKN, 5-7 oktas) and overcast (OVC, 8 oktas) by the afternoon and evening, and then returned to FEW (1-2 oktas) by 11 PM.  There was rain observed in the vicinity (VC/RA) at 4 PM, and some lightning (LTG) was observed in the late evening.

Science and Technology Log

The survey is still progressing smoothly.  We have just crossed the Mississippi River delta, and I have observed a much greater human presence in the water — many ships, mostly commercial shrimping vessels, and even more oil rigs than usual.

Of particular interest to me, we have caught many new species over the past couple of days.  One notable new catch on Day 11 was a giant hermit crab (Petrochirus diogenes), the largest species in the Gulf of Mexico.  In most cases, hermit crabs need to be removed from their shells in order to be successfully identified.  This process was much more difficult than I had imagined, and I ended up having to use a hammer to crack the shell.  The crab contained within was indeed large – it amazed me that such a large species could occupy such a moderately-sized shell.  After analyzing the crab in the laboratory, we quickly returned it to the ocean, in the hope that it would find another shell in which to occupy and survive.

Another interesting catch on Day 11 was a seabiscuit (Brissopsis alta).  This organism was caught at a station overlying a sandy/muddy bottom, this type of seafloor environment providing a habitat for these unique creatures.  We were able to prep the seabiscuit with bleach in the same manner in which we prepped the sand dollars a couple of days ago.  The product was a purely white – a very delicate, yet quite beautiful specimen for my classroom.  Much thanks to fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher for his help in preparing these organisms.

On Days 11 and 12, we caught some particularly large individuals, which made for great photo opportunities.  On Day 11, we caught the largest roundel skate (Raja texana) that we’ve seen yet, and on Day 12, we netted a large gulf smoothhound (Mustelus sinusmexicanus), a shark species that interestingly has no teeth.  The rest of the night shift was encouraging me to take a photo with my hand down the shark’s mouth, but I settled for the typical catch photo.  This shark was swiftly returned to the water (head first) after laboratory analysis was conducted, and it survived the catch.

As we have to open up fish in order to sex them, it is a natural investigative temptation to look at the other anatomy inside the fish.  A usual focal point is the stomach, as many times, fish stomachs are very disproportionately bloated.  Many times, enlargement of organisms such as the air bladder, stomach, and eyes of caught fish is due to barotrauma.  When a fish is quickly taken from deep waters to the surface, the pressure rapidly decreases, causing internal gases to expand.  In certain cases, we have discovered very recently eaten fish inside organisms’ stomachs.  One particularly interesting example was the stomach of a threadtail conger (Uroconger syringinus), in which we found a yellow conger (Rhynchoconger flavus) of equal size!

Uroconger Ate Rhyncoconger

We found the yellow conger on the right inside the stomach of the threadtail conger on the left! Photo credit to Kevin Rademacher.

I have started to realize the very subtle differences between some species.  One great example of such subtle variance is found in two similar sole species – the fringed sole (Gymnachirus texae) and the naked sole (Gymnachirus melas).  The naked sole contains a faint secondary stripe in between each of the bold stripes on its back; the fringed sole does not have this stripe.  During our initial sorting of species, I unwittingly threw both of these species into the same basket.  Fortunately, fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher noticed what I was doing and identified the distinguishing phenotypic difference.  I have adjusted the brightness, contrast, and shadowing of the below photos to make the difference in striping more apparent.

Flatfish, such as the soles above, have a very interesting developmental pattern from juvenile to adult.  Fisheries biologists Kevin Rademacher and Alonzo Hamilton were able to nicely summarize it for me.  As juveniles, they start off with eyes on both sides of their heads and swim in the same manner as normal fish.  However, once they get large enough to swim out of the current, they “settle out” onto the seafloor.  At this time, a very interesting series of morphological changes takes place.  Notably, the eyes of the fish migrate such that they are both on one side of the fish’s body.  This morphological change has clearly been evolutionary favored over generations, as it allows the fish to see with both of its eyes while slithering along the seafloor.  The side of the fish on which the eyes end up depends on the particular species of fish.  Flatfish are accordingly categorically defined as “right-eyed” or “left-eyed,” based on the side of the fish containing the eyes.  The procedure is fairly simple to define a flatfish a right-eyed or left-eyed.

  1. Look down at the side of the fish containing both of the eyes.
  2. Orient the fish such that the eye that migrated from the opposite side is on top.
  3. If the head faces left, the flatfish is defined as left-eyed.
  4. Otherwise, it is defined as right-eyed.

On many occasions, we have been able to keep some of our catch to later eat.  I have had fresh white shrimp, brown shrimp, red snapper, lane snapper, vermillion snapper, hogfish, and even paper scallops.  I have obtained lots of practice heading shrimp and fileting fish, as well as shucking scallops.  It has been very interesting to visualize the entire process, from catch to table.  It is true what they say, incredibly fresh seafood tastes much better.  Most of the credit here goes to Chief Steward (CS) Mike Sapien and Second Cook (2C) Lydell Reed, the chefs on the ship.

Also after my shift, I was able to visit the ship’s bridge for the first time during the day.  The environment at night is quite different on the bridge, as the NOAA Corps Officers driving the ship need to keep their eyes adjusted to the dark.  Accordingly, the only lights used in the bridge at night are red, reminding me of the lights used by the scientists I observed on a recent night trip to the UT McDonald Observatory.  My trip to the bridge during the day allowed me to observe the operation of the ship and many instruments clearly for the first time.  It was honestly quite intimidating — so many instruments, controls, and dials, and I had no clue what any of them did.  I was very scared to touch anything – the only instrument with which I braved to interact was a very nice pair of binoculars.  The ship is always driven by NOAA Corps Commissioned Officers.  During the time of my observation, Ensign (ENS) Laura Dwyer, a Junior Officer, and Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTRG) Larry Thomas, the ship’s Operations Officer, were on the bridge.  The Captain (Commanding Officer) of the ship, Master David Nelson, entered and exited periodically.  ENS Dwyer was very kind to point out to me different instruments on the bridge and discuss the operating of the ship.  Interestingly, the NOAA Ship Oregon II operates on a system similar to that of a car with a manual transmission – while the ship has two engines instead of one, each engine has a clutch.  There is also a controllable pitch system that allows the operator of the ship to change the angle of the propeller.  There are two RADAR devices, as well multiple GPS navigational systems, on which the stations of the survey are plotted.  The are multiples of each of these important ship systems as a safety measure.  Despite the GPS systems, the ship still has a chart table on the bridge, and even a chart room, where routes are plotted out in more detail.  The helm, which controls the rudder, is still a large, prominent wheel, just as it was in the pirate stories I read as a child.  ENS Dwyer told me, however, that helms are much more abbreviated in appearance in more modern ships.  She indicated that many members of the NOAA Corps appreciate the “vintage” feel of the bridge of the NOAA Ship Oregon II — the ship will be 50 years old in 2017!

We have more or less finished the intended stations for Leg 2 of this survey, but as we still have time left before we are due back in port, we have received orders to proceed through to Leg 3 stations.  These stations are entirely across the Gulf of Mexico, along the western coast of Florida.  The traveling time there is over 14 hours by boat, and we will be traveling more or less as the crow flies.  I am really looking forward to these new stations, as I have heard the biodiversity is vastly different.

Survey Locations

Sections of the 2015 SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey

Personal Log

Ever since my shift on Day 11, in which I felt particularly fatigued and engorged, I have been completing cardio workouts daily.  There is quite a bit of workout equipment stored in various places throughout the ship, and I have finally found an enjoyable cardio workout.  I am using a rowing machine that I found on the top deck of the ship, and I set it up to face the direction of the ship’s movement.  In this way, when I row, I feel as though I am actually pushing the boat through the water.  The wave motion and periodic jostling of the ship makes the rowing machine feel even more like the real thing, and I am forced to recall my days rowing at the crack of dawn on Lake Dunmore near Middlebury, Vermont while in college.

Workout Setup

My workout setup on the top deck of the ship

The Fourth of July on the boat was free of any special pomp and circumstance.  It was, more than anything, just another work day.  Fortunately, all of the employees on the boat get paid overtime for working this day, as well as weekend days.  I definitely missed the Zilker fireworks celebration in Austin (TX), but it was meaningful to be on a boat with members of the NOAA Corps, a Commissioned Service of the United States, on this important day for America.

I have made significant progress in Tender is the Night and am almost finished.  I have also spent free time watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Wimbledon Championships on the satellite television upstairs.

Regarding my sleep, I have finally stopped taking Dramamine®.  Lo and behold, I have had no more nightmares, this lending further support to my theory that Dramamine® was the cause.

The days are still very exciting, and I have yet to encounter a day without a great deal of fresh learning.  On to Florida!

Did You Know?

The Navy Motion Picture Service provides encrypted DVDs for use on deployed ships.  In the upstairs lounge, there are well over 700 DVDs, from classics to quite new releases, organized for anyone to watch in their free time.

DVD Binder

On of the many DVD binders on the ship, courtesy of the Navy Motion Picture Service

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Equilibrium at Sea (Days 6-9), July 3, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 3, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 7/2/15

NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 7/2/15

Weather has fortunately continued to be calm.  The only main deviation from clear skies has been haziness (symbolized “HZ” on the above weather log from 7/2/15).  On 7/2/15, sky condition varied from FEW (3-4 octas) in the very early morning, to SCT (3-4 octas) and BKN (5-7 octas) at midday and afternoon, to SCT (3-4 octas) in the evening and night.  Swell waves have varied throughout the past couple of days, from less that 1 meter to around 3 meters in height.

Science and Technology Log

The past few days honestly blend completely together in my mind.  I feel as though I have reached an equilibrium of sorts on the boat.  The night shift has proceeded normally – station to station, trawl to trawl, CTD data collection at each station, plankton collected periodically throughout the shift.  Certain trawl catches have been exceptionally muddy, which poses a further task, as the organisms must first be separated from all of the mud and cleaned, before they can be identified.

In addition, on Day 6, the trawl net was damaged on a couple of occasions.  I’ve realized that a trawl rig is quite the complicated setup.  The trawling we are doing is formally called “otter trawling”.  Two boards are attached at the top of the rig to aid in spreading out the net underwater.  To allow the net to open underwater, one of the two lead lines of the net contains floats to elevate it in the water column.  A “tickler chain” precedes the lead lines to stir fish from the sea floor and into the net.  The fish collected by the net are funneled into the terminating portion of the net, called the “cod end”.  FMES Warren Brown is an expert when it comes to this entire rig, and he is in charge of fixing problems when they arise.  On Day 6, Warren had to fix breaks in the net twice.  With help from Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols and Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin, new brummel hooks were attached to the head rope for one of the door lifting lines, and a new tickler chain was installed.

I also learned a lot more of the specifics involved in the workup of the plankton catch.  The dual bongo contains two collection nets in parallel.  Plankton is removed from the cod ends of these nets, but not combined.  The plankton from the left bongo is transferred to a mixture of formaldehyde (10% v/v) and sea water for preservation.  The plankton from the right bongo is transferred to 95% ethanol.  The reason for this is that different solvent mixtures are needed to best preserve different parts of the plankton in the sample.  The formaldehyde solution is best for fixing tissue, yet it tends to dissolve hard parts (for example, otoliths, discussed below).  The ethanol solution is better for preserving hard parts (bones, cartilage, etc.).  This explains the need for two bongos.  Workup of collected plankton from the Neuston net is similar, except many non-plankton species are often collected, which have to be removed from the sample.  Highlight non-plankton species from the past couple days have been sailfin flyingfish (Parexocoetus brachypterus) and a juvenile billfish (Istiophoridae).  Neuston-collected plankton is transferred to 95% ethanol.  This solvent is the only one needed here, as only DNA analysis and stock assessment are conducted on Neuston-collected plankton.  All plankton is shipped to Poland, where a lab working in collaboration with NOAA will analyze it.  Samples are broken down according to a priority species list sent by NOAA.

The CTD survey is coming along nicely.  Progress through July 1 is shown on the below bottom dissolved oxygen contour.  Similar trends to those commented on in my last blog post continue to be observed, as a further area of hypoxia has been exposed near the coastline.  You can see that our survey is progressing east toward Mississippi (we will finish this leg in Pascagoula, MI, though the survey will continue on to the Florida coast during Leg 3).

A couple of other distinct memories stand out in my mind from the past couple of days:

  • Sexing “ripe” fish. Sometimes, certain species of fish are so fertile over the summer that certain individuals are deemed “ripe”.  Instead of cutting into these fish, they can be more easily sexed by applying pressure toward that anus and looking for the expression of semen or eggs.  One of the species for which this technique is most often applied this time of year is the Atlantic cutlassfish (Trichiurus lepturus).  One must be careful, however, for as I found out, the gametes sometimes emit from the anus with much force, shooting across the room.  It only takes wiping fish semen off of your face once to remember this forever.
  • Flying fish. I saw my first flyingfish (Exocoetidae) during a plankton collection with the neuston net.  The net would scatter the fish, and they would fly for cover, sometimes 10-15 meters in distance.  Amazing.
  • Preparing sand dollars. Interestingly, the sand dollars we caught (Clypeaster ravenelii) looked brown/green when they came out of the ocean.  Sand dollars are naturally brownish, and in the ocean, they are most often covered in algae.  We kept a couple of these organisms to prepare.  To prepare, we first placed the sand dollars in a dilute bleach solution for awhile.  We then removed them and shook out the sand and internal organs.  We then placed them back in the bleach for a little longer, until they looked white, with no blemishes.  The contrast between the sand dollar, as removed from the ocean, and this pure white is quite remarkable.
  • Otoliths.  Fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher showed me a nifty way to remove the otoliths from fish.  Otoliths, “commonly known as ‘earstones,’ are hard calcium carbonate structures located behind the brain of bony fishes,” which “aid fish in balance and hearing” (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).  When viewed under microscope and refracted light, otoliths show a pattern of dark translucent zones (representing period of quick growth) and white opaque zone (representing periods of slower growth).  By counting the white opaque zones (called “annuli”), fisheries biologists can estimate the age of the fish.  Granted, this process differs for different fish, as different fish species have different otolith size.  Accordingly, a species standard is always prepared (usually a fish raised from spawn, from which the otoliths are taken at a known age) to estimate the growth time associated with one whole annulus for the particular species.  Sample otoliths are compared to the standard to estimate age.  Otolith analysis also allows scientists to estimate “growth rates,…age at maturity, and trends of future generations” (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).  On this survey, we only take otoliths from fish that are wanted for further laboratory analysis, but are too large to store in the freezer.  On some surveys, however, otoliths are removed from all fish caught.  I got to remove the otoliths from a large red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus).  The first step is to make an incision to separate the tongue and throat from the lower jaw.  The hand is then inserted into the hole created, and using a fair bit of force, the throat and gills are ripped away from the head to expose the vertebrae.  The gills are then cut from the base of the vertebrae, to expose the bony bulb containing the sagittal otoliths.  Diagonal cutters are then used to crack open the boney bulb containing the sagittal otoliths, and the otoliths are removed using forceps.

Personal Log

I am still feeling great on the boat.  The work is quite tiring, and I usually go straight to the shower and the bed after my shift ends.  Interestingly, I think I’m actually gaining quite a bit of weight.  The work is hard and the food is excellent, so I’ve been eating a bunch. I’ve been getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, which is more than I normally get when I am at home, especially during the school year.  One thing I have been noticing ever since the trip started is that I have been having quite nightmarish dreams every night.  This is rare for me, as I usually either don’t have dreams or can’t remember the ones that occur.  I initially thought that this might be due to the rocking of the boat, or maybe to the slight change in my diet, but I think I’ve finally found the culprit – Dramamine®.  Research has indicated that this anti-motion sickness drug can cause “disturbing dreams” (Wood, et al., 1966), and I have been taking this medication since the trip started.  This hypothesis is consistent with the observation that my nightmares lessened when I reduced my daily Dramamine® dose from 2 pills to one. I finished Everything is Illuminated and have begun a new novel (Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald). I am now well into the second week of my trip!

Did You Know?

Earrings can be made from fish otoliths (ear stones).  These seem to be quite popular in many port cities.  Check out this article from the Juneau (Alaska) Empire Newspaper.

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Introduction, June 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Anticipating Departure on NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 22, 2015

Introduction

Greetings from Austin, Texas.  My name is David Walker, and I will be posting here over the next couple of weeks to chronicle my participation in the second leg of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) SEAMAP Summer Bottomfish Survey in the Gulf of Mexico.  I leave for Galveston tomorrow and could not be more excited.

Backpacking Big Bend

On a recent backpacking trip to Big Bend National Park

About Me: I am about to begin my sixth year as a high school teacher at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) in Austin, Texas.  LASA is a public magnet school which draws students from the entirety of Austin Independent School District.  Currently, I teach three courses — Planet Earth, Organic Chemistry, and Advanced Organic Chemistry.  Planet Earth is a project-based geobiology course with a major field work component, which consists of the students completing field surveys of organisms in local Austin-area parks and preserves.  Organic Chemistry is an elective course which covers the lecture and laboratory content of the first undergraduate course in organic chemistry.  Advanced Organic Chemistry is an elective course framed as an independent study, in which students address the content of the second undergraduate course in organic chemistry.  I also sponsor our school’s Science Olympiad team, and we compete around the nation in this science and engineering competition.  This year, LASA Science Olympiad placed third in the nation, this representing the best any team from Texas has ever performed!  Outside of teaching, my interests include backpacking, fly fishing, ice hockey, birding, record collecting, photography, dancing, and karaoke, in no particular order.

About NOAA:  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a scientific agency of the United States government whose mission focuses on monitoring the conditions of the ocean and the atmosphere.  More specifically, NOAA defines its mission as Science, Service, and Stewardship — 1) To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, 2) To share this knowledge and information with others, and 3) To conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.  NOAA’s vision of the future consists of healthy ecosystems, communities, and economies that are resilient in the face of change [Source — NOAA Official Website].

About TAS: The Teacher at Sea Program (TAS) is a NOAA program which provides teachers a “hands-on, real-world research experience working at sea with world-renowned NOAA scientists, thereby giving them unique insight into oceanic and atmospheric research crucial to the nation” [Source — NOAA TAS Official Website].  NOAA TAS participants return from their time at sea with increased knowledge regarding the world’s oceans and atmosphere, marine biology and biodiversity, and how real governmental field science is conducted.  This experience allows them to enhance their curriculum by incorporating their work at sea into project-based activities for their students.  They are also able to share their work with their local community to increase awareness and knowledge of the state of the world’s oceans and atmosphere, and current research in this field.

My Mission: I will be participating in the second leg of the 2015 SEAMAP (SouthEast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) Summer Bottomfish Survey in the Gulf of Mexico, aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II.  The survey will span two weeks, from June 24 – July 7, 2015, beginning in Galveston, Texas, and ending in Pascagoula, Mississippi

The Oregon II research vessel was built in 1967 and transferred to NOAA in 1970.  Its home port is Pascagoula, Mississippi, at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Mississippi Laboratories.  More information about the ship can be found here.

Oregon II

NOAA Ship Oregon II in 2007
[Source — NOAA Website]

The Chief Scientist for the survey is Kim Johnson (NOAA Biologist), and the Field Party Chief for my leg of the survey is Andre DeBose (NOAA Biologist).  According to Ms. Johnson, the survey has three main objectives — shrimp data collection, plankton data collection, and water column environmental profiling.

1) Shrimp data collection involves catching shrimp in a 40 foot shrimp net, towed at 2.5 knots.  Caught shrimp will all be weighed, measured, sexed, and taxonomically categorized.  This is completed for 200 individuals in each commercial shrimp category, and real-time data is distributed weekly (see SEAMAP Real-Time Plots).  This data is of incredible importance to the commercial fishing industry, especially considering that the season-opening is in late July.

SEAMAP

SEAMAP shrimp survey data from 2014
[Source — GSMFC Website]

2) Plankton are drifting animals, protists, archaea, algae, or bacteria that live in the ocean water column and cannot swim against the current [Source — Plankton].  Regarding plankton data collection, the Oregon II houses two types of collection nets — dual bongos and a neuston net.  As many plankton are microscopic in size, these nets contain a very fine mesh.  The dual bongos are used to sample the water column at an oblique angle, while the neuston net is used to collect surface organisms (“neuston” is a term used for organisms that float on top of the water or exist right under the water surface — see Neuston).  This data is used to “build a long term fishery-independent database on the resource species important to the economy of the Gulf of Mexico” [Source — NOAA Plankton Surveys].

3) The third mission of the survey is water column environmental profiling.  These profiles are completed using a CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) device, which is sent back and forth between the surface and the ocean floor (the entire water column) and allows for the collection of real-time data.  The main focus of this survey is the measuring of dissolved oxygen levels in the water to identify and monitor areas of hypoxia.  In aquatic ecosystems, hypoxia “refers to waters where the dissolved oxygen concentration is below 2 mg/L. Most organisms avoid, or become physiologically stressed, in waters with oxygen below this concentration. Also known as a dead zone, hypoxia can also kill marine organisms which cannot escape the low-oxygen water, affecting commercial harvests and the health of impacted ecosystems” [Source — Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Watch].  NOAA has partnered with the National Coastal Data Development Center (NCDDC) and other agencies to centralize this data, which has been collected and analyzed for 15 years.  This summer’s survey is quite important, as the large amount of rainfall over the past two months could have significantly affected levels of dissolved oxygen in the ocean, and accordingly, zones of hypoxia.

My Goals: Through this program, I hope to accomplish four main objectives —

1) Learn as much as I can about the biology I encounter, especially in terms of taxonomic classification and biodiversity.  This will be directly applicable to the biodiversity unit and project in my Planet Earth class.

2) Understand in detail the methods by which NOAA real-time data is collected, plotted, and presented to the public.  This will be directly applicable to updating the data analysis and presentation portions of the biodiversity project in my Planet Earth class.

3) Upon my return, create a project-based activity for my Planet Earth students, based on the research I conduct aboard the ship.  Students will use the real-time data from my leg of the survey (to be posted online) to come to conclusions regarding the biologic and environmental profile of the Gulf of Mexico.  This will become part of the Planet Earth course unit global biodiversity.

4) Present my research experience and resulting project-based curriculum to the science faculty of LASA High School, emphasizing the value of research-based activities and projects in high school science.

That’s it from me.  My next post will be from the Gulf of Mexico!

David Walker
NOAA Teacher at Sea
LASA High School
Austin, Texas