NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 4 – 22, 2014
Mission: Annual Walleye Pollock Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Bering Sea North of Dutch Harbor
Date: Friday, July 11, 2014
Weather Data fro the Bridge:
Wind Speed: 17.02 kt
Air Temperature: 8.9 degrees Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1004.3
Latitude: 5903.6745 N
Longitude: 17220..4880 W
I participated in my first live trawl, catch, sort and data collection survey. In my last blog, I talked about how we located and caught the pollock. This blog will talk about what happens when the fish are unloaded into the wet lab and processed. A wet lab is a science lab that is capable of handling excess water and houses the equipment need to to process the catch.
Once the crew off loads the fish, from the net to the short conveyor belt, into the wet lab or sometimes called the slime lab, (it really lives up to its name), I help the scientists sort the pollock from the other species caught in the net. A small sample of marine life, that is not a pollock, gets sorted, weighed and measured for data collection purposes. They are not the main target of our survey, however, they are interesting to see. Large quantities of jellyfish usually make the mix, but I have seen a variety of other animals, such as crabs, starfishes, clams, salmon, flatfishes, Pacific herring, Atka mackerel, and Yellow Irish Lord. The main character, the pollock, are weighed in batches and then placed on a small table to be sexed. In order to sex the fish, I had to cut across the side of the fish with a small scalpel. Next, I inserted my fingers into their guts and pulled out either the gonads (male) or ovaries (female). The gonads look like stringy romaine noodles and the ovaries look like whitish-pinkish oval sacs. Female pollock are placed in a bin labeled sheila’s and the male pollocks are placed in a bin labeled blokes. Sheila’s and blokes are Australian terms for female and male. Cute.
Once sexed and sorted, the fish are measured for their length. Two very ingenious scientists (one who is working on my trip, Kresimir Williams, and Rick Towler), invented an electronic measuring device. The device allows us to measure quickly and accurately while at the same time automatically recording the measurement on the computer. It looks like a cutting board with a ruler embedded in the center. Of course, all measurements used are metric, the primary form of measurement for scientists across the world. I to place the fish’s mouth at the beginning of the board and line the back tail of the fish along the ruler. Next, a special tool (a stylus) embedded with a magnet (it’s small, white,and the front looks like a plastic arrowhead) is placed arrow side forward on the end of the tail fin. Once the tool touches the board (it makes a noise which sounds similar to “ta-da” to let you know it captured its measurement), it automatically records the length in the data program, on the computer. I wish I had one for my classroom. Oh, the fun my students could have measuring! The device streamlines the data collecting process allowing scientists more precise data collection and more time for other research.
That was a lot to absorb, but there is more. If you tend to get squeamish, you might want to scroll past the next paragraph.
Although, I did not work hands on with the next data collection, I closely observed and took pictures. I will try it before my trip ends. The next step is the aging process. Aging a pollock is a vital part of determining the health and welfare of the species. Aging a pollock is similar to the method of aging a tree. The Russian scientist, Dr. Mikhail Stepanenko, who has been surveying pollock for over twenty years and is part of the NOAA science team, has it down to a science. First, he cuts the pollock’s head off exposing the ear bones called Otoliths (Oto–means ear; liths–means stone). He removes the tiny ear bones (about the size and shape of a piece of a navy bean), rinses them, and places them in a small vial labeled with a serial-numbered bar code. The bar code gets scanned and the code is assigned to the specific fish in the computer data base, which also includes their sex, weight and length. Once back at the lab, located in Seattle, Washington, the otoliths can be observed under a microscope and aged based on the number of rings they have: pollock otoliths have one ring for every year of age. Only twenty fish from each trawl have their otoliths extracted.
Once all data are collected, there is still more work to be completed. All of the fish that we sampled, were thrown back into the ocean for the sea birds and other carnivores (meat-eaters) to enjoy. Who wouldn’t enjoy a free meal? Then the equipment and work space must be sprayed down to get rid of all the fish particles (slime). It’s important to clean up after yourself to ensure a safe and healthy environment for everyone. Besides, the smell would be horrible. I also had to spray myself down, it gets very messy. I had fish guts and jellyfish slime all over my lab gear (orange outer wear provided by NOAA). Unfortunately, the guts occasionally get splattered on my face and hair! Yuck, talking about fish face. Thankfully, a bathroom is nearby, where I can get cleaned up.
When all is clean, the scientists can upload and analyze the data. They will compare the data to past and current surveys. The data is a vital step to determining the health and abundance of pollock in our ecosystem. I am amazed at all the science, math, engineering, and technology that goes on during a fish survey. It takes many people and numerous skills to make the survey successful.
This is one of many experiences, I have had trawling and collecting data at sea aboard the Oscar Dyson. The process will repeat several times over my three week trip. As part of the science crew, I am responsible to help with all trawls during my shift. I could have multiple experiences in one day. I cannot wait!
What’s it like to be on a NOAA ship out at sea?
The deck hands, NOAA Corps, and the people I work closest with, the science team, are wonderful and welcoming. I’m super excited and I have to restrain myself from overdoing my questions. They have a job to do!
The weather is not what I expected. It is usually foggy, overcast, and in the high 40’s and low 50’s. Once in a while the sun tries to peek out through the clouds. The Bering Sea has been relatively calm. The heaviest article of clothing I wear is a sweatshirt. It is still early, anything can happen.
On my first day at sea, we had a fire drill and an evacuation drill. Thankfully, I passed. With help from Carwyn, I practiced donning (putting on) my survival suit. I displayed a picture of me wearing it in my last blog. It makes for a hilarious picture! All kidding aside, NOAA takes safety seriously. The survival suit will keep me alive for several days in case of an evacuation in the middle of sea until someone can rescue me. It will protect me from the elements like water temperature, heat from sun, and it has a flashlight attached. Hopefully, I will not have to go through the experience of needing the suit; but I feel safer knowing it is available.
Besides the people, the best amenity aboard the Oscar Dyson is the food. Food is available around the clock. That is important because we work 12 hour shifts from 4:00 to 4:00. That means I work the morning 12-hour shift and my roommate, Emily Collins, works the night 12-hour shift. Hungry workers are grumpy workers. For breakfast, you can get your eggs cooked to order and choose from a variety of traditional breakfast food: French toast, grits, cereal, bacon, sausage, fresh fruit, etc…Hot meal options are served for lunch and dinner including a delicious dessert . Of course, ice cream is available always! I hope I can at least maintain my weight while aboard.
If I get the urge, there is workout equipment including cardio machines and weights available to use. Other entertainment includes movies and playing games with the other crew members. The Oscar Dyson also has a store where I can purchase sweatshirts, sweatpants, t-shirts, hats, and other miscellaneous souvenirs advertising the name of the ship. Who would have thought you could shop aboard a NOAA fishing vessel? I am definitely going shopping. One of my favorite things to do aboard the ship is to watch for marine life on the bridge, it is peaceful and relaxing. For anyone that does not know, the bridge is where the Chief Commanding Officer, Chief Executive Officer, and crew navigate the ship. It is the highest point in which to stand and watch safely out at sea and in my opinion, it has the best view on board.
Did you know?
Did you know when a marine animal such as a seal is close by during a trawl, the trawl process stops and is rerouted?
The crew is very respectful of sea life and endeavors to complete their mission with the least negative impact on wildlife. Also, while the ship is on its regular course, the officers on the bridge, sometimes with a deck hand who is available, keep an eye out for seals, sea lions, whales, and sharks, in order to maneuver around them and keep them safe.
Did you know you can track the Oscar Dyson and its current location?
Check out this link: http://shiptracker.noaa.gov/
Make sure you find the Bering Sea and click on the yellow dot; it will tell you our coordinates!
Meet the Scientist: Emily Collins
Title: Fisheries Observer (4 years)
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Biology, Marine Science, Boston University
Job Responsibilities: As an observer, Emily works aboard numerous fishing vessels, including the Oscar Dyson. She collects data to find out what is being caught so that we can send the information to NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Services), a division of NOAA. They use the data she collects to complete a stock assessment about what type of fish are caught and how much. She is helping, as part of the science team, survey the pollock for all three legs of the survey. When I get back to port, she has a couple of days to rest up in Dutch Harbor and then she will complete the last leg of the trip.
Living Quarters: As a full-time observer, her home is wherever the next assignment is located, mostly on the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. She is from Dundee, New York, where her family currently resides.
What is cool about her work?
She loves working at sea and working with the marine life. She especially loves it when the nets catch a species of fish she has not seen before. Getting to know new people and traveling is also a plus.
The weirdest and definitely not her favorite experience, while working on a smaller fisheries boats, was having to use a bucket for the toilet.
Emily had a wonderful opportunity her senior year in high school, the chance to go on a National Geographic Expedition with her mom and then later while in college while taking classes abroad. She went to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador to study marine biology. These experiences and the fact that her mother is a veterinarian exposed Emily to the love of animals the ocean, and her career choice.