Denise Harrington: What Fish Do I Eat? October 3, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Denise Harrington

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

September 16-30, 2016

Mission: Longline Survey

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Monday, October 3, 2016

I asked Kevin Rademacher, Research Fisheries Biologist at the Pascagoula, Mississippi Lab, what fish I could eat and still support sustainable fisheries.  He answered with a question, “Have you read the book Four Fish?” When I finished reading the book by Paul Greenberg, I spoke to Kevin again. “What do you think now?” He asked.

I said “There is something about wild fish that makes me want to catch and eat them, but I worry about whether we are eating wild fish out of existence.”

Yellowedge grouper (Epinephelus itajara). Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

“Have you talked with Adam?  He’s the numbers guy,” Kevin said.  It seems like the good teachers are always sending students away in search of their own answers.

Adam Pollack is a contract Fisheries Biologist with Riverside Technology, Inc., and works on the night crew.  We sometimes cross paths at midnight or noon.  Catching him wouldn’t be easy.

Here, Adam measures a shark too large to bring on deck.  Photo: NOAA Fisheries

During one of these transition times, we had a moment to talk.  I asked Adam about his earliest fish memory.  He smiled.  “At about five, I went fishing with my dad.  We had a house in the mountains surrounded by a bunch of lakes.”  Adam and his dad would sit by the lake with their lines in the water “watching the bobber disappear.”  He smiles again.  These little largemouth bass changed his life.

Adam takes a selfie with a red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus).

At first, he was set on becoming a professional bass fisherman but made a practical switch to marine biology.  He took all the science electives and the hardest math classes he could.  He went on to Southampton College on Long Island, New York, where he got lots of hands-on experiences beginning in his freshman year.  He believes a good education should include lots of opportunities, as early as possible, for interactive learning in a real world environment.

Once he graduated, Adam got his dream job: working in the Gulf of Mexico during the field season and then crunching numbers the rest of the year.  He takes the data scientists collect to the SouthEast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR).  SEDAR is a cooperative process through which scientists, fishermen, and policy makers look at the life history, abundance trends, and other data to determine how many fish we can catch sustainably.

Adam, and many others, also look at how catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill affect marine species in the Gulf of Mexico.  After Hurricane Katrina, he said, shrimping efforts died down by about 40%.  The effects of the oil spill are still a little murky.  Many of the biologists on board initially predicted dire and immediate effects.  Yet unlike the spill in Alaska, the warm Gulf of Mexico water is host to bacteria, plants, and other living things that might be eating up the oil.  Many questions, such as whether these living things will mitigate the effects of a spill, are still being asked. “Deepwater Horizon is always on our minds,” Adam says.  There are also naturally occurring events like harmful algal blooms and long term issues like climate change that affect fish populations.

Oil rigs dot the horizon as Tim Martin, Chief Boatswain, gets ready to retrieve the longline. Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries


Here, Paul Felts, Fisheries Biologist, weighs a yellowedge grouper (Hyporthodus flavolimbatus). Photo Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

“Can you tell me about snapper?” I asked Adam.  Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), assessed every other year, is a hot button topic for commercial and recreational fishermen alike in the Gulf. The species was in decline. Recreational fishermen went from a 180 day season to catch fish to an 8 day season and from 10 to 2 fish a day per person.  Commercial fishermen weren’t happy either: they could only take 49% of the year’s quota for red snapper, while the recreational fishermen get to catch 51% of the quota.  Fairness is not just a second grade concern, it is a major sticking point in regulating fisheries world wide.

Snapper is as tasty as it is beautiful.  Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries

Red snapper is a vulnerable species.  Snapper settle to the bottom of the water column from larvae.  They are at high risk of mortality from ages 0-5, the same time when they are close to human activity such as oil rigs, shrimping grounds and easy to access fishing areas.  Those who manage the fisheries are trying to get the snapper through that vulnerable stage.  Like money in the bank accruing interest, a 10 year old snapper can produce more eggs than a five year old.  Before we take snapper from the sea, we must make sure a healthy older population remains to reproduce.

TAS Denise Harrington holds up two red snapper. Photo: Matt Ellis/NOAA Fisheries.

Once an assessment is complete, scientists determine a maximum sustainable yield:  how many fish can be taken from the population and still keep enough around to make more fish for the future.  Take a look at a shark assessment and a snapper assessment. Looking at these long and complicated assessments, I am glad we have people like Adam who is willing to patiently work with the numbers.

Gathering the best data and making it available to people who collaborate to make informed decisions is an important part of Adam’s job. We all want fish and NOAA fisheries biologists are doing their best to make that happen for us, and for generations to come.

Personal Log

My time aboard the Oregon II has come to an end.  Bundled up in my winter clothes,  I look out over a rainy Oregon landscape filled with fishermen hoping to catch a fall Chinook salmon. Two places with different weather and many different fish species.  Yet many of our challenges are the same.

Back at school, students and teachers welcome me enthusiastically.  Instead of measuring desks and books as part of our Engage NY curriculum, we measured sharks and their jaws.  Many of these students have never been out of Oregon, many have not been to the beach, even though it is only 4 miles away.  With NOAA, South Prairie Elementary students were able to learn about faraway places and careers that inspire them.

Soon these seven year old children will be in charge. I am thankful to the NOAA crews and the Teacher at Sea program staff, as they’ve prepared generations of students of all ages to collaborate and creatively face the task that lies ahead.



Jill Carpenter, September 8, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jill Carpenter
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
September 5 – 15, 2006

Mission: Herring Hydroacoustic Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: September 8, 2006

Weather Data from Bridge
Docked in Woods Hole for calibration and Advanced Fisheries Towed Vehicle testing—no weather data.

Navigation Officer Mark Frydrych charting the route the ship will take.
Navigation Officer Mark Frydrych charting the route the ship will take.

Science and Technology Log 

Today was spent on last minute performance testing to verify that the ship’s instrumentation is working properly.  Crewmembers finished tying down equipment, the Advanced Fisheries Towed Vehicle was tested and adjusted with minor protective modifications, and the Scientific Computer System was finished being set up.  The DELAWARE II is scheduled to depart tomorrow at noon. I was also able to interview several of the crewmembers on board the ship.  Each person has such an interesting story and so much knowledge to share. The first person that I had a chance to interview was Navigation Officer Mark Frydrych.  He has many duties on board the ship.  As a navigation officer, he is responsible for all the charts used to navigate the ship. He starts the navigation process by creating a route on the computer, then transfers and double checks the route on the paper charts. Mark is on his first sea tour which has mostly been in the northern Atlantic Ocean.  His favorite part about his job is that he gets to draw on big pieces of paper and that he has the opportunity to see some wonderful sunsets. Navigation Officer Frydrych has additional duties on board the DELAWARE II as well. Another title he holds is Junior Officer where he inventories and periodically checks the safety equipment like the fire extinguishers and escape hatches.

TAS Jill Carpenter and Fisheries Biologist Karen Bolles with a subsample of herring collected from a midwater trawl.
TAS Jill Carpenter and Fisheries Biologist Karen Bolles with a subsample of herring collected from a midwater trawl.

For anyone interested in becoming an officer aboard a NOAA ship, Mark recommends pursuing a scientific or engineering degree.  He says that computer experience and math classes would also be helpful.  Mark would eventually like to be trained as a NOAA Corps pilot. The other person that I was able to speak with was fisheries biologist Karen Bolles.  Her research involves using morphometrics (analysis of shape) to examine body shape differences among Atlantic herring spawning groups in the northwest Atlantic Ocean (stock discrimination).  This will help improve the accuracy of our herring stock assessments and harvesting strategies. Using computer programs, Karen analyzes differences among groups of herring, using characteristics such as mouth length. Because herring spawning groups mix during non-spawning time, these findings can be used to determine proportions of different spawning stock herring that may constitute research and commercial catches.

Karen’s research has taken her from mid-Atlantic waters north to the Bay of Fundy in Canada. She has also been a scientific member on research vessels operating off Iceland and in the Great Barrier Reef region of Australia. Karen has survived some challenging voyages at sea, including a two-week cod survey trip around the island of Iceland that took place during extremely rough winter weather where nobody on board spoke English!

TAS Jill Carpenter working hard aboard NOAA ship DELAWARE II.
TAS Jill Carpenter working hard aboard NOAA ship DELAWARE II.

When talking with Ms. Bolles, it is very evident that she is passionate about her job. She says that she loves the feeling of helping to improve fisheries management and stock assessments.  She especially enjoys using digital image analysis systems to measure morphometric characteristics, but her main passion is working with fishermen to gain knowledge and to fine-tune her fish sampling designs.  One thing about the field of marine biology that was surprising to her in the beginning was the amount of math and statistics that is used to analyze biological data.  Karen’s advice for individuals pursuing experience in the marine science field is to get involved with volunteer opportunities, independent studies, and internships that come your way.  She stresses the importance of hands-on experience, understanding how to work with large data sets and spreadsheets, and good writing skills.

Personal Log

I am very excited to get out on the open water and begin to use the equipment to conduct surveys and take measurements.  I am also a little anxious to put to use all that I have been learning; I hope I can remember how to enter all the information accurately.  See, even teachers get worried before a test! I am enjoying talking with each of the crewmembers.  I feel fortunate to be on a cruise with such a good group of people!

Question of the Day

The fish that the DELAWARE II will be studying are classified as pelagic fish, which means that they live in the top layer of the ocean away from the seashores or ocean floor.  1. Why do you think that most of the oceans creatures live in the top layer of the ocean?  2. Research to find what percentage of sea life lives in this zone.