NOAA Ship Pisces will conduct a survey of reef fish located on the U.S. continental shelf and shelf-edge of the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) from April 19 through June 22, 2022 (we are doing the last leg of the survey). 536 sites have been selected to be sampled with Spherical/Satellite array, bandit reels, and CTD during daylight hours and mapping at night.
CTD casts will be conducted twice a day. CTD stands for conductivity (ability to pass an electrical current), temperature, and depth and it is an instrument that measures just that. The CTD is the key to understanding the physics, chemistry, and biology of the water column. The CTD will also collect water for eDNA (Environmental DNA) sampling. Organisms leave traces of their DNA in their environment (e.g. hair, skin, feces) and from that, scientists can run genetic tests to determine what species are present in a given area.
Camera operations will utilize three Spherical/Satellite camera arrays. The cameras are baited and sit on the seafloor for 30 minutes. During the soak, the cameras capture footage of the biodiversity. Scientists use the footage to complete a stock assessment analysis. That data combined with other research helps scientists estimate the abundance of fish populations.
Bandit reels (basically industrial fishing poles) are deployed after cameras are retrieved. The bandit reels are set up like longlines. The line sits vertically in the water column. When the weighed end of the line reaches the bottom, a surface float is attached to the line. Ten baited hooks are evenly spaced on the bottom 20-30 ft. of the line. All fish captured on the bandit reels are identified, measured, weighed, and have the sex and maturity determined. Select species will have otoliths (ear bones) and gonads collected for age and reproductive research.
Bathymetric mapping (basically 3D mapping of the seafloor) will be conducted in and around selected sites at night with the EM 2040 sonar. Sonar emits sound pulses and detects their return after being reflected. Science is cool. A CTD cast will be conducted to obtain speed-of-sound for proper processing of data.
I was dropped off at my hotel at around 8 PM on Tuesday and could see the ship from the road. It sinks in. (NOT THE SHIP! – This had me laughing out loud.) This is actually happening. Suddenly there’s no time for checking in; I headed straight to the wharf, luggage in tow. Completely awestruck, like a giddy school girl, I proceed to walk up and down the length of the boat numerous times taking an embarrassing number of photos. The crew is just staring at me, I’m sure getting a kick out of this crazy tourist. A lovely gentleman (also geeked about the boat) leaned in, “cool boat, huh?”… I’M GOING ON THAT BOAT THURSDAY. Good lord, Jordan, be cool. I basically screamed in his face. He was the sweetest, and a teacher himself. “I know the trip is going to be everything you wanted.” I melt. Gee thanks, Pat.
Our departure was delayed a few hours, which gave me some time settle in and awkwardly roam the ship. This thing is massive (compared to what I know). I believe it has seven levels. My attempts to open and close doors quickly became a comedy act for any spectators. I was introduced to my roommates at 6 AM. Ain’t nobody trying to chit-chat at 6 AM. I share a stateroom with Amanda Ravas, NOAA Fisheries Biologist, and Caroline Hornfeck, graduate student at the University of West Florida. Caroline is collecting water for eDNA sampling. They are around my age (or at least I’d like to think so), and have been so kind and helpful. It is their first time on Pisces as well, but each are experienced and very knowledgeable. They’ve made me feel right at home, and I feel are going to be a major part of my experience out at sea. Women in science – go team!
Operations Officer (NOAA Corps), LT Christopher Duffy, was so kind as to take me under his wing and invite me to the bridge (control room) to observe departure. This was so cool. Navigation is quite the operation. I guess now that I’ve seen it, duh, this boat is massive and the port was so busy with vessels of all sizes. Seven NOAA officers worked together to get us underway safely. Lots of standing on watch and communication involved. They were constantly shouting commands and numbers, and repeating. All confirmed communication was acknowledged with a “very well.” I found this amusing. One of my favorite lines heard while observing was, “There’s a pleasure boat on the port quarter.” “Very well.”
I will now start saying “very well” in my everyday life.
Last mention for now – I haven’t been seasick (so far)! Those that know me well know that is a major accomplishment for me. (As if I had say in the matter).
I am so happy to be here and to have the opportunity to learn from all of the crew (in every department). I am already so impressed by each of them.
Did You Know?
Well most of us do know that water and electricity make a dangerous pair; but, did you know that it’s not water itself that conducts the electricity? It’s the minerals and such dissolved in it. The saltier the water, the more electricity it conducts. Pure water is actually an excellent insulator and does not conduct electricity, but you will never find pure water in nature. Whoa. I went down a rabbit hole with conductivity.
Also random, but kind of fun, the NOAA Teacher at Sea Program started in 1990, the year I was born. NOAA Ship Pisces was commissioned in 2009, the year I graduated high school.
Mission: Leg III of SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 11, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge: Latitude: 28.29° N Longitude: 83.18° W Wave Height: 1-2 feet Wind Speed: 11 knots Wind Direction: 190 Visibility: 10 nm Air Temperature: 29.8°C Barometric Pressure: 1013.6 mb Sky: Few clouds
As I mentioned in my introductory post, the purpose of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey is to collect data for managing commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the science involved is much more complex than counting and measuring fish varieties.
The research crew gathers data in three ways. The first way involves trawling for fish. The bulk of the work on-board focuses on trawling or dragging a 42-foot net along the bottom of the Gulf floor for 30 minutes. Then cranes haul the net and its catch, and the research team and other personnel weigh the catch. The shift team sorts 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 the team counts each species in the sample and record weights and measurements in a database called FSCS (Fisheries Scientific Computer System).
SEAMAP can be used by various government, educational, and private entities. For example, in the Gulf data is used to protect the shrimp and red snapper populations. For several years, Gulf states have been closing the shrimp fishery and putting limits on the snapper catches seasonally to allow the population to reproduce and grow. The SEAMAP data helps determine the length of the season and size limits for each species.
Another method of data collection is conductivity, temperature, and depth measurements (CTD). The process involves taking readings on the surface, the bottom of Gulf floor, and at least two other points between in order to create a CTD profile of the water sampled at each trawling locations. The data becomes important in order to assess the extent of hypoxia or “dead zones” in the Gulf (see how compounded data is used to build maps of hypoxic areas of the Gulf: https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/noaa-forecasts-very-large-dead-zone-for-gulf-of-mexico). Plotting and measuring characteristics of hypoxia have become a major part of fishery research especially in the Gulf, which has the second largest area of seasonal hypoxia in the world around the Mississippi Delta area. SEAMAP data collected since the early 1980s show that the zone of hypoxia in the Gulf has been spreading, unfortunately. One recent research sample taken near Corpus Christi, TX indicated that hypoxia was occurring further south than in the past. This summer, during surveys two CTD devices are being used. The first is a large cylinder-shaped machine that travels the depth of the water for its readings. It provides a single snapshot. The second CTD is called a “Manta,” which is a multi-parameter water quality sonde (or probe). While it can be used for many kinds of water quality tests, NOAA is using it to test for hypoxia across a swath of sea while pulling the trawling net. This help determine the rate of oxygenation at a different depth in the water and across a wider field than the other CTD can provide.
Did You Know?
Algae is a major problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia is often associated with the overgrowth of certain species of algae, which can lead to oxygen depletion when they die, sink to the bottom, and decompose. Two major outbreaks of algae contamination have occurred in the past three years. From 2017-2018, red algae, which is common in the Gulf, began washing ashore in Florida. “Red Tide” is the common name for these algae blooms, which are large concentrations of aquatic microorganisms, such as protozoans and unicellular algae. The upwelling of nutrients from the sea floor, often following massive storms, provides for the algae and triggers bloom events. The wave of hurricanes (including Irma and during this period caused the bloom. The second is more recent. Currently, beaches nearest the Mississippi Delta have been closed due to an abundance of green algae. This toxic algae bloom resulted from large amounts of nutrients, pesticides, fertilizers being released into the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Louisiana because of the record-high Mississippi River levels near Lake Pontchartrain. The spillway opening is being blamed for high mortality rates of dolphins, oysters and other aquatic life, as well as the algae blooms plaguing Louisiana and Mississippi waters.
Pulling away from Pascagoula yesterday, I knew we were headed into open waters for the next day and half as we traveled east down the coast to the Tampa Bay, FL area. I stood on the fore deck and watched Oregon II cruise past the shipyard, the old naval station, the refinery, navigation buoys, barrier islands, and returning vessels. The Gulf is a busy place. While the two major oceans that flank either side of the U.S. seem so dominant, the Gulf as the ninth largest body of water in the world and has just as much importance. As a basin linked to the Atlantic Ocean, the tidal ranges in the Gulf are extremely small due to the narrow connection with the ocean. This means that outside of major weather, the Gulf is relatively calm, which is not the case with our trip.
As we cruise into open waters, along the horizon we can see drilling platforms jutting out of the Gulf like skyscrapers or resorts lining the distant shore. Oil and gas extraction are huge in this region. Steaming alongside us are oil tankers coming up from the south and cargo ships with towering containers moving back and forth between Latin America and the US Coast. What’s in the Gulf (marine wildlife and natural resources) has geographic importance, but what comes across the Gulf has strategic value too.
The further we cruised away from Mississippi, the water became choppy. The storm clouds that delayed our departure the day before were now overhead. In the distances, rain connected the sky to sea. While the storm is predicted to move northwest, the hope is that we can avoid its intensification over the Gulf Stream as we move southeasterly.
I learned that water in the Gulf this July is much warmer than normal. As a result, locally produced tropical storms have formed over the Gulf. Typically, tropical storms (the prelude to a hurricane) form over the Atlantic closer to the Equator and move North. Sometimes they can form in isolated areas like the Gulf. Near us, an isolated tropical storm (named Barry) is pushing us toward research stations closer to the coast in order to avoid more turbulent and windy working conditions. While the research we are conducting is important, safety and security aboard the ship comes first.
NOAA Teacher at Sea Geoff Carlisle Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II June 7 – June 20, 2018
Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey Geographic Area of Cruise:Gulf of Mexico Date: June 10, 2018
Having spent a few days on the ship now, I’ve come to realize that NOAA Ship Oregon II is a lot like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Han describes the Falcon by saying, “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.” Every crew member and scientist that I’ve talked to talks about Oregon II like Han does about the Falcon. The typical conversation starts with them saying that she “may not look like much,” being the oldest and one of the smallest research vessels in the NOAA fleet. But without fail, they immediately begin talking about how versatile the boat is, thanks to the many modifications that have been made over the years (some even joke about how the boat itself may be 50 years old, but none of its parts are). The boat is covered with its many awards and achievements, and has the lowest crew turnover in the NOAA fleet (many of the crew members have worked on the ship for over 20 years!).
On Thursday, we began our two-day “steam” from the NOAA Ship Oregon II’s home port in Pascagoula, Mississippi, to Brownsville, Texas (near the border between the US and Mexico). Upon reaching Brownsville we’ll drop our first trawling nets at various stations, which are randomized locations where we’ll make our measurements.
The data we collect is part of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey, which the Gulf states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida depend on to assess the health and vitality of groundfish in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD), the commercial shrimp season for both the state and federal waters “is based on an evaluation of the biological, social and economic impact to maximize the benefits to the industry and the public.” Knowing that I helped with the “biological evaluation” they refer to makes the work feel important.
Casting off from Pascagoula felt like getting a “best of” tour of the Mississippi Gulf. The first hour of sailing was filled with incredible views of wildlife: groups of pelicans buzzing the ship, terns hovering above the deck, and flocks of seabirds chasing after fishing ships hoping to catch a meal. Every few hours we also see pods of bottlenose dolphins playing in the boat’s wake, and schools of flying fish gliding alongside the boat. The diversity and abundance of life reminded me that the Gulf of Mexico is a fertile ecosystem, with so much to explore.
Dolphins chasing our boat!
Without stations to take measurements, I don’t have many responsibilities yet on the ship, so I spend most of my time getting to know the crew, reading, watching the ocean, and working out. I was worried about what two weeks at sea would do to my triathlon training (it’s the middle of racing season!), but luckily I found a stationary bike with an incredible view. The term “stationary” bike feels almost tongue-in-cheek though, as the boat’s rocking and rolling have caused me to tip over more than once. On the bright side, I’m getting more of an ab workout?
Space is very limited on the boat, so there are a number of pieces of etiquette you learn quickly:
If someone is coming down the stairs or a hallway, pull over – you can’t fit two people in any passageways
With 30 people on board, but only 12 seats in the galley, make your meals short so others can get in and sit down
Don’t sit up too quickly in bed (the pic below is my bed!)
The boat is also constantly moving and humming. You learn quickly that you can’t move too quickly because of the large waves rocking the boat. While the gentle rocking of the ship can help lull you to sleep, every hour or so the waves get so rough that things start falling off of tables, which makes dinner time… fun?
One thing is for sure: the sunsets on the Gulf are unparalleled.
Did You Know?
British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams set text about the sea from American Poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in his Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony,” for chorus and orchestra. In the piece, Vaughan Williams paints a symphonic picture of the sea that transports the listener, making you feel as if you were at sea. Since setting sail a few days ago, I can’t get this piece out of my head. Have a listen!
Behold, the sea itself,
And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships;
See, where their white sails, bellying in the wind, speckle the
green and blue,
See, the steamers coming and going, steaming in or out of port,
See, dusky and undulating, the long pennants of smoke.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book XIII: Song of Exposition
Hello! My name is Geoff Carlisle, and I’m joining the NOAA Ship Oregon II this summer as part of the NOAA Teacher At Sea program. Every few days I’ll be posting updates here about my experiences on the ship, so keep checking in for updates from the Gulf (and to see if I’ve fallen overboard)!
I’m so excited to fly to Pascagoula, Mississippi tomorrow to begin my trip. When I heard that I was selected to join this program, I felt like a kid again. For anyone who knows me, I wear my love of nature documentaries and the natural world on my sleeves, so the chance to live at sea and interact with sea creatures is a dream come true. My biggest hope for this trip is that I get to hold a shark (crossing my fingers)!
Weather Data from the Bridge (Well… Austin)
Latitude: 30.336 N
Longitude: 97.687 W
Water Temperature: —
Wind Speed: 5.2 knots
Wind Direction: S
Visibility: 8.67 nm
Air Temperature: 37.2 oC (99 oF)
Barometric Pressure: 1009.6 mbar
I have to admit, the idea of sailing in the Gulf of Mexico gives me as much trepidation as it does excitement. As a science teacher, the Gulf is synonymous with hurricanes. However, I was pleased to see that NOAA’s National Hurricane Center tweeted today, “no new tropical cyclones are expected during the next five days.” So I’ll be fine for at least that long.
Here in Austin, the heat is oppressive, with temperatures already reaching over 100 oF, and daily reminders from NPR that we are flirting with record highs. Daily life is consumed by heat-related questions: “Did I put the sun reflector up in my car so can actually sit in my car? Did I bring another shirt with me for when I inevitably sweat through the one I have on? Are people like me with Norwegian heritage even supposed to live this far south?” As a triathlete, I spend a lot of time training in conditions that mimic what I’ll see in a race. Since the direct sunlight and heat will be similarly intense at sea, I’m just treating each triple-digit day like a training session. A very sweaty training session.
Science and Technology Log
This summer, I will be joining the science team aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II on leg one of the SEAMAP (Southeast Area Monitoring & Assessment Program) Summer Groundfish Survey in the Gulf of Mexico. This research is vital to the long-term sustainability of groundfish and shrimp populations in the Gulf. The three primary research objectives are:
Provide near-real-time data on the size of shrimp in the gulf
Aide in the evaluation of when to close the Texas shrimping season
Measure the groundfish and shrimp stock across the northern Gulf of Mexico
Four ships across the Gulf, including the Oregon II (see below), conduct this research in June and July every year by casting long nets called trawl nets at different locations around the Gulf. These nets are reeled onto the ship’s deck, and the contents of the catch are brought inside to be sorted by species, sexed, measured, weighed, and the data recorded. Some particular species will be stored and brought back to labs on the mainland for research.
Last week I completed my 8th year teaching middle school science. I began my teaching career as a Teach For America corps member in the Mississippi Delta, and have spent the past six years at KIPP Austin College Prep. KIPP is a national network of public charter schools that primarily serve students from underserved communities, and put them on the path to college. Every day when I enter school, the first thing I see when I come in the door is a sign that says “Home of the hardest working students in Austin,” and this couldn’t be more true. I came to KIPP because I wanted to be a part of a community of exceptional educators who are committed to educational equity. Being part of a mission-oriented organization makes every day feel urgent and purposeful, and I’m proud to call myself a KIPP teacher.
Watch the video to learn more about KIPP Austin!
As a science teacher, I know how important it is that my students have learning experiences outside of the classroom. Partnering with my immensely talented colleague Colleen Henegan, we secured a Bright Green Futures grant from the City of Austin to build the largest school-based aquaponics greenhouse in Central Texas. Our school is located in a federally-recognized food desert (an area where access to healthy foods is severely limited). The system was built largely by our own students, along with Google employees who volunteered their time. Aquaponics is a method of cultivating fish and plants together in a closed system that is vastly more energy-efficient and requires 90% less water than traditional agricultural methods. Our students are learning how to grow plants in an environmentally-conscious way that allows them to see how science can be used to solve real-world problems.
Outside of teaching, I enjoy playing in an orchestra and training for triathlons (I’m training for my first Ironman 70.3 in October!).
Did You Know?
As a native of Oregon, being a crew member on Oregon II feels quite special. In my research about the ship, I was fascinated to learn that it has also achieved some major accomplishments:
Built in 1967, Oregon II is the longest-serving ship in the NOAA fleet. It has logged over 10,000 days at sea and traveled over 1,000,000 nautical miles, sailing as far south as the Amazon River Delta in Brazil, and as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (Source)
In 1998, Oregon II was the first United States Government ship to call at Havana, Cuba since 1959 when Fidel Castro took control of the country. The ship partnered with NOAA’s Cuban counterparts to research shark migration patterns. (Source)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Three Spot Flounder
Big Eye Searobin
Calico Scallop (Argopecten gibbus)
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.
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)
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.
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.
NOAA Teacher at Sea
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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!
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.
Look down at the side of the fish containing both of the eyes.
Orient the fish such that the eye that migrated from the opposite side is on top.
If the head faces left, the flatfish is defined as left-eyed.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
NOAA Teacher at Sea
LASA High School
Time 1700; clouds 100%, stratus; wind 325° (NNW), 9 knots; air temperature 22°C, sea temperature 25°C
Science and Technology Log
Here’s what we have covered as of Sunday evening, 3/22. I’m getting quite the tour of the Gulf! Notice we are going back and forth across the shelf break (the edge of the continental shelf), as that is our area of interest.
Again, thanks to all of you who are reading and asking questions. One recent question had to do with whether we are bringing specimens back. So let me explain what we do with them. Most plankton are so small that you see them best through a microscope. So the “specimens” that we are bringing back are all in jars – thousands of organisms per jar! Every time we collect samples, we get at least three jars – two from the bongo nets and one (or more) from the neuston net. That’s not including the CUFES samples described earlier, which are only big enough for a tiny bottle. Here are some pictures:
These samples get brought back to shore for analysis in the NOAA lab. Oddly, many of the samples get sent to Poland to be analyzed! Why Poland, you ask? Well, for a few decades we have had a cooperative agreement with the Polish sorting and identification center. They remove the fish and eggs from all samples, as well as select invertebrates. These specimens and the data get sent back to US for analysis. We double check some of the IDs, and plug the data into models. (If you are a biology student, this is an example of how models get used!) The information then goes to fisheries managers to use to help form fishing regulations. This division of NOAA is called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which manages stocks of fish populations.
NOAA has been doing spring and fall plankton sampling for 30 years now. Winter sampling is newer; it started in 2007. SEAMAP (SouthEast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) is cooperative agreement between the Gulf states, federal (NOAA), and university programs. The samples from the states and universities get sent to Poland with our samples. The the timing of the surveys is to target specific species when they are spawning. This winter survey is targeting grouper, tilefish, and other winter spawning species. The other surveys target bluefin tuna, red drum, red snapper, and mackerels, which spawn at other times of the year. The invertebrate data is used to build an understanding of invertebrate community structure throughout the Gulf.
In science, research is cumulative. We know, from past research, what the mortality rate of some fish species is. So if we get a fish larva or fry that is a certain size, we can estimate the percentage of that size larvae that will reach adulthood, and back calculate to see how much mortality has already happened to get fish of that size. All this allows us to get a peek into the size of adult population.
The first piece of equipment that we use when we get to each station is the bongo nets. You can see how they got their name!
Here are the bongos ready to be deployed:
The flow meter is inside each bongo net, near the top. We read the numbers on it before the net goes out, and after it comes back. Using this information – the rate of flow, together with the area of the opening, we can calculate the volume of water filtered. The SeaCAT is a nifty unit that measures conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth. Since we have a much fancier unit to measure these factors, we use this primarily for depth, so we know when we are getting to 200 meters (or the bottom, whichever comes first). We go to 200 meters because that is the lowest effective light penetration. Phytoplankton need light, and zooplankton need phytoplankton! What’s more, larval fish have not yet developed their lateral line (the organ that many fish use to sense vibrations in the water around them), so they feed visually. Even if they want to eat something below the photic zone, they wouldn’t be able to “see” it yet.
I, of course, am full of questions, and knowing that I’m supposed to identify every acronym I write, I asked what SeaCAT stands for. The unit is made by a company called SBE (Sea Bird Enterprises), so is the CAT just a fun name that they came up with? Nobody knew the answer! But everyone was curious, and Tony and Steve (both electronics technicians) did some emailing and got the answer straight from SBE. CAT stands for “Conductivity And Temperature” (seems we could have figured that out). And the Sea? Could be for Seabird, Seattle, or just the plain ol’ sea!
Once we get the nets in the water, the crane operator monitors the speed that it is lowered. Our job is to communicate the “wire angle” constantly to the bridge and the lab. Here’s how this is done:
The angle of the cable is important because it allows the nets to sweep the desired amount of water as they are pulled up. If the wire angle is too high (above 55°), the crew on the bridge slows the ship down just a bit. The perfect angle is 45°. Many other factors can mess this up, most notably current. The ship has to be facing the right direction, for example, so the current isn’t coming toward the ship (have you ever been fishing and had your line swept under the boat?). It’s tricky business, requiring constant communication between bridge, lab, and deck! Oh, and by the way, the cable is a “smart wire,” meaning it has electrical flow through it, which is how the depth gets communicated to the computers. Fascinating technology, both on the micro and macro scale!
Once we pull in the bongos, we hose them off very thoroughly, to get any of the little plankton that are stuck to the net. They are all funneled into the codend, which is a PVC cylinder. From there, we dump the sample into a sieve, and transfer it into a jar, and get read to do it again in 3 hours or so.
Did I tell you that sampling goes on 24/7? Perhaps you figured that out when you heard the shift times. It costs a lot to run a ship; operations continue whether it’s night or day.
Now, to keep people happy when they are living in close quarters, far from home, and working strange shifts, what’s the most important thing of all? FOOD! The Gunter is well known among NOAA circles for having fantastic food for people of all diet types and adding ethnic flavor to her meals. The person responsible for our good and abundant food is Margaret, our Chief Steward. She has worked for NOAA for ten years, and says it’s the best job she has ever had. Her husband is now retired from the Coast Guard, so they moved around a lot. Margaret worked for the Coast Guard for four years, then went back to cooking school, and had various other jobs before signing on with NOAA. She has a few years left before she retires, and when she does, what will she do? She wants to do subsistence farming! This is right up my alley – Margaret and I have a lot to talk about! Not to mention the fact that Margaret makes her own juices, some amazing homemade hummus, AND dries her own fruit (dried cherries -yum!).
Margaret also has a helper, Mike, who was reluctant to have his picture taken. He’s not the usual assistant steward, but sure seems highly capable! It always sounds like a lot of fun is being had in the galley.
That’s it for this post – I’m getting hungry. Time to eat!
What executive branch of the U.S. government does NOAA belong to? Is it the same branch that oversees our national parks? How about our national forests?
Did You Know?
There are nearly 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (NOAA), and more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells (Assoc. Press, 2010)
Hello from the frozen north! From the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, and from almost as cold southern Vermont, I welcome you to this blog of my new adventure. My name is Julia West, and in just a few short days I will be embarking on a new journey, leaving this place where the average temperature last month was a cozy 5°F (-15°C) and joining the crew and scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in the Gulf of Mexico, where it will be more like 60°F (15°C).
The Gordon Gunter
First of all, if you’re the type who asks as many questions as I do (and I hope you are – questions are good!), you might be wondering why am I saying hello from two places, both NY and VT. Well, Oak Meadow School, “where” I teach, is in Brattleboro, VT. I live in NY, 3 hours away. And the students? They are everywhere! But of course if you are an Oak Meadow student, you already know all this. So I will say I am from both places, and I represent homeschooled students throughout the world, who will hopefully be tuning into this blog and adding comments. I invite everyone reading this to ask questions and share comments – I don’t need to know who you are, but hope you will introduce yourself.
I teach high school science, mostly biology and environmental science, and health, to homeschooled students through our distance learning program. I have been working for Oak Meadow for 22 years now. I am always looking for ways to bring our students together in our global community, and what better way to do that but to go out into the one “world ocean” that we all share. I’m passionate about science and scientific research, and very excited to share with you all that I learn. And believe me, I have much to learn. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any real field work, and the technology has changed so much that I am getting into student mode!
More About Me
I would have to say I’m a landlubber who loves oceans. I’m more comfortable in the mountains where I can range far and wide, yet the unknown has a strong pull on me – I love new challenges. Living in a small floating space will be my first entry into a whole new world, which I hope will lead to more sailing experiences in the future. I don’t even know yet if I get seasick! I grew up with small boats on the many lakes we have here; I’ve taken plenty of ferries in various oceans, but I’ve never spent real time at sea. I love the outdoors – I am an avid cross-country skier, biker, hiker, and whitewater raft guide.
I don’t know the Gulf of Mexico; I have spent very little time in the south. We all hear about the Gulf in the news, and often not in a good way: hurricanes, BP oil spill, the dead zone…. I teach about these topics. I’m excited to get a firsthand perspective on the important research being done there. More on that soon, but first, I have to share this picture of some of the cool NOAA goodies that came in the mail last week! I have to admit – I really like the NOAA logo.
What I Know about NOAA
When most people think about NOAA, they are probably thinking about the National Weather Service forecast. NOAA is so much more! I have used the website as an incredible resource on meteorology, anything related to the oceans or atmosphere, fisheries, and climate science. As a science geek, I just have fun clicking around the NOAA website, checking it all out. It is NOAA scientists who map the ocean floor, providing safe passage for shipping. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service takes the lead in stewardship of the marine ecosystems in the U.S. And if you want the latest in climate monitoring and predictions, look to NOAA.
I also have learned a little bit about NOAA through my daughter, Joy. She was a Hollings scholar in college, which opened the door to employment with NOAA in Woods Hole, MA. Now a PhD candidate in marine biology, she still does some research on NOAA ships. Here is a picture of Joy on the R/V Auk a few years ago. The yellow creature is called a marine autonomous recording unit (MARU), otherwise known as a pop-up. It is deployed into waters of the continental shelf to record the sounds of marine mammals. These units are anchored to the bottom, and in six months, when it is time to retrieve them, an acoustic signal triggers the cable to release, and the unit “pops up” to the surface, where it is found and picked up.
It was partly through Joy that I heard about the Teacher at Sea program, and I also have to credit her for reviving my interest in field science. So here I am!
What I Will Be Doing
What is a winter plankton survey anyway? I will be sharing lots of details about that in the next few weeks, as I learn. The fish resources in the Gulf (or anywhere) are important to humans, and it is through constant monitoring that we keep up on the status and health of fish populations. This data informs fishing regulations. The status of non-fishery species (those not used by humans) is equally important, as you know, because all species are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.
We will be sampling fish eggs, larvae, and juveniles, as well as their zooplankton predators and prey, to determine their abundance and distribution. We will be measuring physical properties of their habitat, as well as primary productivity. That’s about as far as I will go right now, at the risk of giving you incorrect information! I’ll be sharing details about the tools and methods used in upcoming blog posts.
Meanwhile, this map below shows the sampling locations – if you need me, you can look for me in one of these spots!
If you can’t remember what plankton is, it’s time to look it up! How about primary productivity? Feel free to share your definitions by leaving a comment.
Today’s Question (leave a reply in the comment section with your answer!)
Who was Gordon Gunter?
I love maps, and couldn’t help adding one. First stop Pascagoula, MS NOAA lab, where the ship will be waiting. Next “stop,” Gulf of Mexico!
The title of this post should actually be, “when science doesn’t go exactly as planned,” but that doesn’t sound quite as dramatic.
If you have ever written a lab report, you know that there is a section for procedures (what you did). The procedures need to be explicit so that they can be replicated by another individual who will obtain the same results. If your experiment cannot be replicated, your experiment is not valid and is useless. While it is okay for your hypothesis to be different than your expected outcomes, you always have to follow your procedure.
But . . . what if you’re in the middle of the ocean potentially hundreds of miles away from shore and on a deadline? You can’t go back to shore. There are at least thirty people on your boat and a lot of money invested in this data collection. Yet you still have to come up with a way to complete your survey. The events that follow are incidents that occurred on the Oregon II from July 26-July 6 and how the scientists coped with these situations.
In August, NOAA conducts a Longline Survey surveying sharks. Sharks are captured, identified and many are tagged with tracking devices to monitor the location and population density of sharks. Other sharks are sampled to determine age, analyze growth, sexual maturity and study stomach contents.
When sharks are captured in the trawl net on the Groundfish Survey, Robin (the intern) has been releasing them back into the Gulf after collecting data. However, not all of the sharks survive being pulled up in the net. The picture to the left is of a juvenile Hammerhead that did not survive. While this saddens me, he has been frozen and will be used to educate students in the outreach programs that NOAA participates in.
Nature vs Science
Sometimes mother nature interferes with the survey and things don’t go exactly as planned. For the first week of my trip we ran into some bad weather. There was a series of storms that came off the coast bringing rain, thunder, lightning and waves that were five to seven feet high. The weather conditions were so bad that the day shift couldn’t immediately collect data at a number of stations. They spent a lot of time waiting for the squalls to pass until it was safe to collect data. In fact, the weather in the Fall Groundfish Survey is so bad that there are a few extra days built in to run from hurricanes.
This morning we were trawling off the mouth of the Mississippi River and brought up a net full of sargassum (seaweed). The entire net, all 42 feet of it, was completely full of sargassum and very little marine life. No one on the boat had seen this much sargassum in the net before. This catch had to be thrown back overboard because the data is not usable. Basically, with that much sargassum in the net, the scientists are not sure if the trawl was fished properly. There is the possibility that because the net was so heavy, it was bogged down, uneven or not scraping the bottom of the ocean floor evenly.
The beginning of a squall courtesy of Andre DeBose
Squall moving the doors on the trawl net courtesy of Andre DeBose
Trawl Net filled with Sargassum
Warren and Mike checking to see if we are keeping the trawl
Mike and Eloy checking out the Sargassum
On the Oregon II, plankton samples are preserved in Formalin (40% Formaldehyde). Formalin is a clear substance that stops cells from breaking down. A few days ago we noticed that the Formalin was no longer clear, it was in fact opaque. You can see this in the picture on the left. My night shift crew was worried that it was no longer useful and that we could not bring planktons samples back to the lab in Pascagoula. However, our chief scientist assured us that we could still use the Formalin and that it would be effective. The color change indicated that the base in the mixture was breaking down but since we only have a couple more days of plankton sampling, that it will be fine.
I arrived back home last night and let me tell you it is strange to be back on land. I was never seasick on the Oregon II, but I am 100% landsick now. I find myself swaying from side to side anytime I’m standing still (Dock Rock is the official term). And when I woke up last night to get a glass of water, I fell over because I was swaying so much. It’s actually pretty funny but I will be glad once this goes away.
I’m still taking in my experience from the last two weeks but I am so grateful for the people I met and was able to work with. Everyone on the Oregon II was helpful, accommodating, friendly and made me feel at home. They took time out of their day to answer my questions, give me tours, tell me stories about their history and adventures on board, go over their research and they were genuinely interested in what I do in my classroom. XO (Executive Officer) LCDR Eric Johnson spent a good chunk of his time telling me about the NOAA Corps and made me want to sign up. Although I’m not too old to apply, (I have too many attachments at home to do so) if I could do the last ten years over I would apply to their program. I will definitely make sure my students know that the NOAA Corps is an option for them and am hoping to make a trip down to San Diego to take them on one of the boats next year.
I’m particularly grateful to the Chief Scientist Andre DeBose and Watch Leader Taniya Wallace who made sure I knew I was not going to die at sea. As the boat was leaving Galveston I could not stop crying because I was 100% certain I was never coming back ( I may have watched The Perfect Storm too many times). Andre and Taniya were so reassuring and comforting and I can never thank them enough for that.
I’m looking forward to using the knowledge, pictures and data from this trip in my classroom next year. I’m also excited because I heard that I can apply to be a volunteer on a NOAA cruise and am looking forward to this in the future.
Weather: Clear and sunny with isolated showers and thunderstorms
Winds: 5-10 knots
Waves: 2-3 feet
Science and Technology Log:
Shortly after boarding the Oregon II, the science crew had orientation with the Operations Officer LTJG Thomas reviewing basic procedures for emergencies on board. But what stuck out for me the most, was when Operations Officer LTJG Thomas said we were on a S.A.D. boat. It turns out that S.A.D. means no sex, alcohol or drugs are allowed on the Oregon II. This ensures that the boat is safe and reduces the number of accidents on board. This is the opposite of SAD and makes me feel much safer on board. But luckily for KISS fans, rock and roll is still allowed and is on consistently. Sometimes there’s so much rocking and rolling that I fall on the floor, but that’s happening less frequently as I’ve found my sea legs.
In the Groundfish Survey, after the organisms are separated by species, they are sexed. Overall, this gives the scientists an idea of what future generations will look like. Although all the organisms vary in the way you differentiate their gender, the following are some of the most common organisms found in the groundfish survey.
As shown in the pictures on the left, male shrimp have a set of claspers (they look like an extra set of legs) called the petasma that is the equivalent of a penis. Females do not have a petasma.
In young (juvenile) shrimp, it can be difficult to identify the males from females as the petasma is very small and not easily visible. At this age they can easily be confused for females. When this is suspected, they are input into the computer as unknown so as not to generate inaccurate data.
When you pick up a crab you have to be very careful to stay away their claws (cheliped). I have found that they like to grab onto you as soon as you pick them up. My roommate had a large blue crab grab her finger that would not let go and she still has bruises from it.
Mature female crabs are called a “Sook” and have a dome or bell shaped abdomen. This is shown in the top row and looks like the U.S. Capitol Building.
Male crabs are called a “Jimmy” and have a T-shaped abdomen that looks like the shape of the Washington Monument.
To mate, the male crab will carry the female until her shell softens and she is able to mate. During mating, the female stores the males sperm to fertilize her eggs later. Once her shell hardens, the male releases her and she will fertilize her eggs later.
After fertilization, the eggs are stored outside the female’s abdominal area and look like a sponge. They’re very squishy when you touch them. Although this shows orange eggs, they can also be a gray or black color. I have been told that the darker the egg color, the closer to hatching the offspring are. I am not sure that this is scientifically valid and am still trying to verify this.
Flatfish include fish such as flounder, halibut and turbot. These fish begin their life swimming vertically in the water. However, as they get older they sink to the bottom and their eyes move to one side of their body. They then spend the rest of their life on the bottom of the ocean floor. Luckily their top half matches the ocean floor and they are easily camouflaged from predators. The bottom half of the flounder on the ocean floor is clear or white.
The easiest way to sex a flatfish is to hold them up to a bright light. When doing this you will see that the female has a long curved gonad while the male does not.
This Flounder is very confused. He should be a clear or light white on the bottom but as you can see his bottom half matches his top half. This could be due to a mutation but no one on the boat is exactly sure why he looks this way. This is one of the most interesting things I have seen so far. In fact, no one on the boat had seen this before.
Sea Jellies differ from most of the other marine organisms discussed so far. Sea jellies reproduce both sexually and asexually depending on what stage of life they are in. In an early stage of life sea jellies are called a polyp and they attach to a rock. The polyps reproduce asexually by cloning themselves and breaking off (budding). Imagine 300 people that came from you and look exactly like you. It’s actually pretty creepy. But back to the sea jellies. Eventually the sea jelly will develop into an adult (medusa) that reproduces sexually with sperm and egg.
I have a three day backpacking trip to Mt. Silliman scheduled almost immediately after my NOAA trip is over. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t worry, but after spending two weeks not hiking or training, I’m a little concerned. Luckily there are weights and a rowing and elliptical machine on board, so I have been able to do a bit of training. Being on a ship that’s moving has made working out even more intense. I have to stabilize every time the boat moves, so I don’t fall over. But even if I did, or have, how could I complain with this view.
Rowing on the bow
Pelican watching me workout
Boat Personnel of the Day
Holland is my roommate on the Oregon II and is a member of the scientific party. She was contracted by Riverside in response to the Deep Water Horizon (BP) blowout in 2010. She attended the University of Mississippi and majored in marine biology. During college, Holland had an internship in Florida where she led students (from 4th grade to college) in marine science activities. This included snorkeling, visiting coral reefs and other hands on activities.
After college, Holland met an individual from the NOAA Corps at a job fair. They put her in touch with NOAA FIsheries MSLabs Groundfish Unit, where she began volunteering as a participant on surveys. This hands on experience led to her current job. Holland currently spends most of her time in the NOAA South East Fishery Science Center (SEFSC) Pascagoula lab where she works with plankton. Her current project is updating decapod (crustacean) taxonomy.
Did You Know?
A female sunfish can lay 300 million eggs each year. Each egg is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
The Oregon II is a participant and contributor to SEAMAP (The Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) which monitors the biodiversity of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. The primary way the Oregon II assists SEAMAP is by conducting bottom trawls with a 42 foot semi-balloon shrimp trawl net.The net is slowly lowered into the ocean until it reaches the bottom and is then dragged along the ocean floor for thirty minutes. The net has a tickler chain between the doors which scrapes the bottom of the ocean floor and flicks objects into the net. The net is then brought to the surface and all of the organisms inside are put into baskets (see video above). The total weight of the catch is massed on scales on the deck. If the catch is large (over 20 kilos), it is dumped onto a conveyor belt and a random sub-sample (smaller) is kept, along with any unique species while the rest of the catch is dumped overboard.
Once the sample has been selected, the marine organisms are sorted by species and put into baskets. Each species is then massed and counted while the data is recorded into a system called FSCS (Fisheries Scientific Computer System). To obtain a random sampling, every fifth individual of the species (up to twenty) is measured, massed and sexed (more on this later). Once the data has been verified by the watch manager, the marine organisms are put back into the ocean. The following are pictures of a sample on the conveyor belt and the organisms divided into a few species.
The sorting process for shrimp (white, brown and pink) differs slightly from that of the other marine organisms. Every shrimp (up to 200 of each species), is massed, measured and sexed.This data is then used by various government agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils, etc… to determine the length of the shrimping season and to set quotas on the amount that can be caught by each issued license. States will not open the shrimping season until SEAMAP reports back with their findings from NOAA’s shrimp survey.
The shrimp trawl net used on the Oregon II differs from a shrimp net used on a commercial boat in two main ways. Commercial shrimping boats have BRD’s (Bycatch Reduction Devices) and TED’s (Turtle Excluder Devices). BRD’s and TED’s are federally required in the U.S. to reduce the amount of bycatch (unintentionally caught organisms) and sea turtles. Shrimping boats typically trawl for hours and turtles cannot survive that long without air. TED’s provide turtles and other large marine organisms an escape hatch so that they do not drown (see the video below). Unfortunately, larger turtles such as Loggerheads are too big to fit through the bars in a TED. Additionally, TED’s may become ineffective if they are clogged with sea debris, kelp or are purposefully altered.
Boat Personnel of the Week:
Warren is a gear specialist who is working as a member of the scientific party. He is contracted by Riverside for NOAA. While aboard the Oregon II, Warren designs, builds and repairs gear that is needed on the boat. Unfortunately, on this leg of the trip either sharks or dolphins have been chewing holes in the nets to eat the fish inside. This means Warren has spent a large chunk of his time repairing nets.
Warren is not a crew member of the Oregon II and actually works at the Netshed in Pascagoula where he spends his time working with TED’s. He has law enforcement training and will go out with government agencies (such as the Coast Guard or Fish and Wildlife Service) to monitor TED’s on shrimping boats. He also participates in outreach programs educating fishermen in measuring their nets for TED’s, installing them. Warren will bring TED’s and nets to make sure that every everyone at the training has a hands on experience installing them. While he regularly does outreach in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, his work has also taken him as far as Brazil.
Robin will be a junior at Lewis & Clark College in the Fall. He is currently an intern aboard the Oregon II. Robin received a diversity internship through the Northern Gulf Institute and is one of eight interns for NOAA. For the first two weeks Robin worked at the NOAA lab participating in outreach at elementary school science fairs. He brought sea turtle shells and a shrimp net with a TED installed. The students were very excited to pretend to be sea turtle and run through the TED. They proclaimed, “we love sea turtles.” After leaving the Oregon II, Robin will return to the NOAA lab to study the DNA of sharks.
Overall I have had a hard time processing and accepting the groundfish survey portion of the trip. I am a vegetarian that does not eat meat, including fish, for ethical and environmental reasons. Yet here I find myself on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico surveying groundfish so that others can eat shrimp. A large part of me feels that I should be protesting the survey rather than assisting. Because of this I spent a lot of time talking to the other scientists on my watch and Chief Scientist Andre Debose. After many discussions (some still ongoing) I do realize how important the groundfish survey is. Without it, there would be no limits placed on the fishing industry and it is likely that many populations of marine organisms would be hunted to extinction more rapidly than they are now. This survey actually gives the shrimp species a chance at survival.
Did You Know?
Countries that do not use TED’s are banned from selling their shrimp to the U.S.
The Oregon II carries an instrument called a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) that is lowered into the ocean by a crane. On the bottom of the CTD are sensors that detect and relay information back to a computer onboard the Oregon II. On top of the sensors are Niskin (gray) bottles that are manually opened before the CTD is lowered into the water, and are tripped by the Watchleader (closing and trapping water inside) when it reaches the desired depth. Data from the CTD is sent to the ship where it is recorded and stored. After the CTD is back on board, the water from the Niskin bottles is used to check the amount of dissolved oxygen. This data is then combined with numerous stations/stops and used to create a real time map of the dissolved oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the missions of the SEAMAP cruise is to measure the amount of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the Gulf of Mexico. Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen that is present in the water and is available for marine life. When the dissolved oxygen content drops below 2mg/L, the water is considered to be hypoxic and the area may be called a dead zone. Basically, what this means is that marine life cannot survive because they do not have enough oxygen.
If you can imagine living at the top of Mt. Everest without an oxygen tank, that is what living in hypoxia would be like to a fish. While the majority of organisms cannot survive in a dead zone, those organisms that do survive have been found to have permanent changes in their reproductive systems, such as smaller ovaries and fewer eggs in female fish. Dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico are due to runoff from Nitrates and Phosphates that come from fertilizers, detergents and human/animal waste. Because of hypoxia, phosphate detergents have been banned in the Great Lakes and you may even notice that some of your household detergents say “phosphate free”.
Overall I’m pretty exhausted both mentally and physically. While I have taught my Environmental Students about some of the things I am doing, it’s my first time putting these into practice myself. Although I am grateful for the experience, it is a bit much to take it all in and I feel slightly overwhelmed. Luckily, I will have the chance to perform these tasks over and over before the Oregon II returns to shore. And more importantly, I am working with an amazing team of scientists who are happy to answer all of my questions and walk me through procedures multiple times.
I’m slowly adjusting to being in a different time zone, but am definitely feeling the time change. I am on the night shift which means I start work at midnight and finish at noon. This is unusual for me since I like to be in bed by ten every night. On the bright side, my night shift means I get to beat the heat during the middle of the day when the temperatures are in the eighties.
Yesterday we had an emergency abandon ship drill where we had to don survival suits. You put them on as though you were getting into a sleeping bag. This meant a lot of rolling around on the floor for me, but I like to think I entertained the crew while I was doing it. My dad thinks I look like Sebastian from the Little Mermaid in my suit, but I’m confident that I will be a warm lobster until rescue arrives in the unlikely event I have to abandon ship.
Did You Know?
Male seahorses, not female seahorses, carry fertilized eggs and give birth to their young. They will also eat any of their offspring that don’t swim away quickly enough. It pays to be a female seahorse!
Well, by the title you probably guessed that we will be discussing the reason we are on this ship. The NOAA Ship Oregon II is involved with SEAMAP (Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) which is a state/federal program to collect, manage, and disseminate fishery independent data. This program has been around for a very long time and the commercial fishermen depend on the information to plan where they will sail.
NOAA Fisheries does surveys of sharks, groundfish, plankton, and reeffish in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA uses the data collected on the ship and it is sent to the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission. This information is sent out to everyone that would like to see it. To see the first preliminary data for the 2014 SEAMAP summer shrimp go to this site:
The real-time plots on the website show the station locations and total catches for the pink, white, and brown shrimp . The number of shrimp found and the size of the shrimp is important data that goes out to the public. The stations that are tested are randomly selected by the depth strata (<20 fathoms, and >20 fathoms) and by statistical zone (aka:area).
There are many species of shrimp. The three species of Penaeid shrimp that NOAA collects data for are the white, pink, and brown shrimp. Shrimp is one of the most valuable products, with 97% of brown shrimp harvested in the Gulf.
All of the shrimpers are waiting to hear when the shrimp season will begin. The date will be determined based on the data collected here on the NOAA Ship Oregon II and from the State vessels.
Scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II:
There are five scientists aboard the ship, two are NOAA scientists and three are contractors. They work 12 hour shifts, either noon to midnight or midnight to noon, seven days a week
Kim Johnson is the Chief Scientist, which means she is the one in charge of the other scientists. She is a residential fishery biologist for NOAA. Chief Scientist Johnson graduated with a degree in Marine Fishery, which focuses on fish, and has her Master’s Degree in Marine Biology, which focuses on everything in the water.
She started as a contractor for NOAA in 2001 and was hired by NOAA in 2003. At the beginning of her career she would spend up to 200 days out at sea, but now goes out for groundfish survey only.
As the Chief Scientist, she is responsible for all the data that is being collected. She needs to know what is happening at each station and sometimes she needs to “clean” up the data. That means Kim looks for any errors in entering the data and checks to see what it should be. Her job requires her to have a vast knowledge of computer programs to enter the information and be able to work with people under all types of situations. (She was my main nurse while I was seasick!)
Kim said the important parts of her job are checking the health of the environment and the fish, and the population of many different species. The best part of her job is the fishing time and the worst part is leaving her husband and wonderful four small children. (I had the pleasure of meeting Kim’s family before we sailed and her children are ADORABLE!)
Taniya Wallace is the NIght Shift. She works for Riverside and is a contractor worker for NOAA. She has been doing this for four years. Taniya graduated with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry. She enjoys the adventure of this job and likes to try new things. In the future she hopes to advance in this field. Taniya is great at identifying fish, crabs, and shrimp. She uses her computer skills to enter information and must be able to read a map to know where the stations are located. During her watch she is in constant communication with the Bridge and the Lead Fisherman on duty.
Andre DeBose is a NOAA employee. He graduated with honors with a Major in Biology. Right after college he worked for a company called Sea Chick for six months in the aquaculture business before being hired as a contractor for NOAA. After four years as a contractor, Andre was hired full-time by NOAA. He came on to the reef fish team and worked with them for three years. He then moved to the trawl team and is happy where he is now.
Andre said the best part of the job is working with people, and the worst part is being away from home. Andre said for his job you need science, math, English and good writing skills in order to communicate with others. He feels that in his job he is using every aspect of his biology degree.
Andre is a great singer and has entertained us with songs when the night gets long.
I only see the day team for a few minutes at noon or midnight as we switch jobs, but they all seem to work well together.
Each day on the ship I am learning more and more. Taniya and Andre are very encouraging and patient with me asking a million times, “What is this again?”
The deck crew all have been very helpful explaining how and why everything is done the way it is. You really can not believe how much team work there is on this ship!
It is hard to believe that in just a few days I will be leaving the ship. I am already missing the people that I have met and the wonderful learning experience that NOAA Teacher at Sea has allowed me to experience. What a great learning adventure this has been….from learning to identify fish, crabs, shrimp…to measuring species….to doing transfers… I have learned so much!
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Date: June 4, 2014
Latitude: 27˚ 51.464 N
Longitude: 93˚ 17.745 W
Air Temp: 27.1˚C (80.8˚F)
Water Temp: 24.5˚C (76.1˚F)
Ocean Depth: 141.5 m (464 ft.)
Relative Humidity: 81%
Wind Speed: 14.8 kts (17.0 mph)
Barometer: 1,012.3 hPa (1,012.3 mbar)
Science and Technology Log:
The degree to which the Gulf of Mexico is rich in sea life is truly stunning. The Gulf produces more fish, shrimp, and shellfish than the waters of New England, the Chesapeake, mid- and south-Atlantic combined; consequently, the SEAMAP survey area includes a wide variety of sea life with great abundance. A lot is riding on our ability to understand and manage the Gulf of Mexico. According to a 2010 National Marine Fisheries Service report, the five U.S. Gulf states harvested 1.3 billion pounds of commercial shellfish and fish. In that same year, the Gulf produced 82% of the U.S. shrimp harvest, and 59% of the U.S. oyster harvest, and over a billion pounds of fish. Maintaining the Gulf as a productive fishery for years into the future is essential to the U.S. economy and its food production. So, what is going on with reef fish in the Gulf? In general, many commercially valuable species in the Gulf are showing signs of strain due to over harvesting and various environmental factors. However, compared to waters in some parts of the neighboring Caribbean that have had commercially valuable reef fish devastated by lax regulation and enforcement, some parts of the Gulf appear relatively pristine.
One area of concern is our red snapper stocks. It can be a difficult population to maintain since major swings in reproduction occur from year to year. This can give both recreational and commercial fishermen a false sense that a population is doing well; however, with red snappers one thirty-year-old female lays more eggs than 30 one-year-old females. Therefore, it is in our best interests to ensure some older fish survive for reproduction. This same trend can be applied to other commercial fish in the Gulf further complicating management efforts.
The populations of both red snapper and vermillion snapper are showing signs of recovery since setting harvesting restrictions. Red snapper still has a ways to go to get to the targeted sustainable population. Currently, the red snapper population is only 13% of the target population level while the vermillion snapper is now at 92% of its target population. Both populations are well below levels documented early in the 20th century. We see a similar problem with some of the grouper in the Gulf.
Species such as the gag grouper and red grouper have faced similar declines due to overfishing, and both have shown signs of recovery while the gag grouper is still under a population rebuilding plan. While the bandit reels are targeting fish stocks that often have commercial or recreational value, the camera array reveals the context to the rest of the story about the habitat that is up to several hundred feet below our feet.
Just as freshwater fish back home are often attracted to some sort of structure, reef fish exhibit the same tendencies. Survey areas where we catch few, if any, fish using the bandit reels often appear as barren, flat muddy or sandy bottoms. This stands in stark contrast with the rich communities that congregate around structure.
Areas in the Gulf that have structure often have a remarkable array of fish and an even wider ranging variety in invertebrates. So far on this cruise, we have viewed dozens of species of fish representing groups as diverse as snapper, grouper, sharks, eels, triggerfish, pufferfish, anglefish, damselfish, jacks, porgies, and tilefish.
The invertebrate diversity at these sites spans many phyla including sea fans, sea sponges, crabs, brittle stars, sea lilies, shrimp, tunicates, and various types of algae. One may wonder why structure is found in these places. In many cases these communities thrive on ancient coral reefs. These reefs are no longer living themselves since the 150 to 300 feet we often find them in is too deep for the colonial animals that make up coral to have symbiotic algae living with them. There is simply not enough light at that depth for the types of algae normally associated with coral to carry out photosynthesis. Then how did corals get to such depths in the first place? Twelve thousand years ago large ice sheets existed across much of the northern hemisphere. These continental glaciers locked up approximately 100 feet of ocean sea level into ice at the peak of glaciation. Therefore, many of our survey sections are directly over where the Gulf coast once was in very recent geological time. Once the global climate warmed, the glacial ice sheets collapsed and filled the ocean basins to their present day sea levels leaving the existing coral reefs in near darkness.
In addition to all of the sea life that I have seen directly relating to the survey, I have seen numerous species as a result of incidental catches or just from casual observations from the ship. The Gulf is home to more than a dozen shark species. A hammerhead and possibly a bull shark were spotted from the Pisces during the cruise. Several unidentified sharks were attracted to the mackerel that we were using for bait on our bandit reels and the fish that we were reeling in on our lines. Trying to reel in your catch and pull off ten hooks from your line before the sharks get a hold of it really adds a whole new element of excitement to fishing that I had never had to deal with before. Other sea life that I have seen include barracuda, a wahoo, a bottlenose dolphin, Atlantic spotted dolphins, large mats of brown algae called Sargassum, and the many living things that live among the Sargassum, which I will talk more about in future posts.
Did You Know?
Fish stocks throughout the ocean are threatened by over-harvesting and environmental issues. You can learn more about the status of key marine species and issues relating to our seafood supply at the NOAA FishWatch.gov site.
NOAA Teacher at Sea Chris Peters Onboard NOAA Ship Oregon II July 10 – 19, 2013
Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico, leaving from Pascagoula, MS Date: July 13, 2013
Weather and Location: Time: 23:24 Greenwich Mean Time (7:24 p.m. in Rockville, MD)
Speed (knots): 9.30
Water temperature: 28.90 degrees Celsius
Salinity (PSU = Practical Salinity Units): 35.38
Air temperature: 31.20 degrees Celsius
Relative Humidity: 65%
Wind Speed (knots): 8.92
Barometric Pressure (mb): 1013.34
Depth (m) = 19.20
Science and Technology Log
In my introduction I explained that SEAMAP is a state, federal, and university program. In fact, there is a managing unit called the SEAMAP– Gulf Subcommittee of the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Technical Coordinating Committee who manages the activities and operations, including collecting samples and interpreting data, of the Gulf participants, including the Mississippi Laboratory of NOAA and the states of Louisiana, Mississippi,Texas, Alabama, and Florida, as well as certain universities. Parts of the program include bottom trawls, CTD deployment, and Bongo and Neuston tows. The bottom trawls involve towing nets at randomly selected spots for ten to thirty minutes. The sea life caught in the nets, normally shrimp and other animals that live at the bottom of the Gulf, are sorted, identified and measured. All of the data is recorded and helps to determine where the fish and shrimp are, and how much exists in the Gulf. Because the NOAA Laboratory and the states have worked so well together on this project, most of the trawls were completed on earlier legs of the trip and on the state boats. We have had opportunities, though, to observe and identify some of the fish from an earlier leg that had been put on ice. We’ll come back to that process a bit later.
The first twenty-four hours underway were spent heading to our first station, off the southwest coast of Florida. We have spent much of our time on this leg of the trip completing plankton collections. My students should remember that plankton includes small and microscopic (too small to see with only your eyes) organisms. The organisms may be animals, plants and plant-like organisms, or bacteria. The plankton found in the water can tell what the animal population looks like, or will look like if the conditions of the water do not change too much. Plankton is also a source of food for certain animals, so looking at plankton can give us information about whether enough of a food source is present for those animals. The purpose of the Bongo and Neuston tows is to collect plankton. Before we do those tows at each station, however, we deploy the CTD to collect some important information.
CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth. The machine collects data in those areas, as well as other data. The conductivity data tells how much salt (salinity) is in the water because the amount of salt affects how well the water will conduct (allow to pass through) electricity. The CTD also measures the oxygen content of the water. Remember learning about algae bloom in the Chesapeake Bay, and how the algae sucks up all of the oxygen, leaving the plants and animals in the area to die? When a body of water has an unhealthy level of oxygen, it is called hypoxic. Scientists are worried about the same kind of thing happening in the Gulf of Mexico, so determining the oxygen content in the water provides important information. In the stations we have tested so far, the oxygen content has been healthy. However, we have been far from land and much closer to where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Gulf. To learn more about hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, visit NOAA’s hypoxia page. Don’t forget to click on the links at the bottom that will take you to descriptions of the problems and causes of hypoxia in the Gulf.
After bringing the CTD back onto the deck, it is time to start a Neuston tow. The Neuston net is very fine, and attaches to a one meter by two meter frame at the top. The net gets narrower, and attaches to a “cod end”, a plastic cylinder with screened openings, at the bottom. This is hoisted out of the boat and into the water by a crane. It takes several people to launch the Neuston, as the frame is heavy, and it can be hard to manage in the wind.
The Neuston is pulled through the water, with about a foot above the surface, and the rest below. The purpose is to collect plankton on or near the surface of the water. Since sargassum, or seaweed, often floats on the surface of the water, sometimes the Neuston collects a lot of that. We continue to tow the net for ten minutes, and then retrieve it into the boat, again using the crane. While we did not do trawls and pull in large fish, we did see different kinds of baby fish at almost every station.
The Bongo contains two 61 centimeter, circular, sturdy plastic frames, to which fine nets are attached. These nets also narrow to a small area, to which cod ends are attached. The Bongos are lowered off the port side by using the J frame. The bongos are towed from the surface to the bottom, but no deeper than 200 meters. The bongo also has the flowmeters on it to calculate how much water passes through the net. The sample is used to estimate the populations, number, and location of animals in parts of the Gulf. The Bongo also has instruments attached to it that measure temperature, salinity (salt), and depth. In addition, the bongos have flowmeters attached to calculate how much water passes through the nets.
These are complicated tools, and some of the instruments are electronic. If the instruments are not working correctly, the scientists and engineers must have a back-up plan. In fact, at one station, the Bongo instruments were not giving accurate readings when the head of the watch (the scientist in charge) looked at the readings from inside. The back-up plan was for the deckhands to use less accurate depth finding instruments when lowering the Bongo. This can sometimes present a problem because if the instruments are off, and the Bongo drags on the bottom, a lot of mud can end up in the sample. Fortunately, a little troubleshooting, in the form of tightening some connections, solved the problem. Sometimes it’s easy to forget to check the obvious!
Once the Neuston and Bongo are up, we can detach the cod ends, and get to work preserving the plankton samples. The plankton from the Neuston, and from each of the Bongo cod ends, are preserved and stored separately. The Neuston and right Bongo plankton are rinsed through a very fine sieve with a chemical solution that is mostly ethanol, and then poured through a funnel into a jar, which is finally filled with the ethanol solution. The left Bongo plankton is handled similarly, but instead of being stored in ethanol, it is stored in salt water from the Gulf, and a small amount of formalin. Formalin contains a small amount of formaldehyde, and is used to preserve tissues. It is a toxic chemical that is harmful to humans, and must be handled very carefully, always using gloves. The samples are later sent to various laboratories to be sorted and counted. In addition to providing information about amount and location of different species, scientists can also use the preserved plankton to determine the age, as specific as the number of days old, and genetics of the baby sea animal. The formalin helps preserve the otoliths a LOT better, where the ethanol helps preserve the tissue and/or DNA better. The otolith is part of the inner ear of the animal and is the part that is used to determine age.
With stations normally being about three hours apart, it would seem like we should have a lot of down time. However, when there is a lot of sargassum in the Neuston, it must be rinsed to try to get the plankton out of it. This can take quite a long time. In addition, sometimes we do get small fish or other animals that need to be sorted, counted, measured and weighed.