Lesley Urasky: Fish, fish, where are all the fish? June 18, 2012

 NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lesley Urasky
Aboard the NOAA ship Pisces
June 16 – June 29, 2012

 

Mission:  SEAMAP Caribbean Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Date: June 18, 2012

Location:
Latitude: 17.6568
Longitude: -64.9281

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Temperature: 28.5°C (83.3°F)
Wind Speed:  17.1 knots (19.7 mph), Beaufort scale: 5
Wind Direction: from SE
Relative Humidity: 75%
Barometric Pressure:   1,014.80 mb
Surface Water Temperature:28.97 °C (84.1°F)

Science and Technology Log

Alright, so I’ve promised to talk about the fish.  Throughout the science portions of the cruise, the scientists have not been catching the anticipated quantities of fish.  There are several lines of thought as to why: maybe the region has experienced overfishing; possibly the sampling sites are too shallow and deeper water fish may be more likely to bite; or they might not like the bait (North Atlantic mackerel) since it is not an endemic species/prey they would normally eat.

So far, the night shift has caught more fish than the day shift that I’m on.  Today, we have caught five and a half fish. The half fish was exactly that – we retrieved only the head and it looked like the rest of the body had been consumed by a barracuda!  These fish were in the grouper family and the snapper family.

Coney (Cephalopholis fulvus)

Blackfin snapper (Lutjanus buccanella). This little guy was wily enough to sneak into the camera array and steal some squid out of the bait bag! The contents of his stomach – cut up squid – can be seen to the left between the forceps and his head.

Once the fish have been caught, there are several measurements that must be made.  To begin, the fish is weighed to the nearest thousandth (three decimal places) of a kilogram. In order to make sure the weight of the fish is accurate, the scale must be periodically calibrated.

Then there are several length measurements that are made: standard length (SL), total length (TL) and depending on the type of fish, fork length (FL).  To make these measurements, the fish is laid so that it facing toward the left and placed on a fish board.  The board is simply a long plank with a tape measure running down the center.  It insures that the fish is laid out flat and allows for consistent measurement.

Standard length does not measure the caudal fin, or tail.  It is measured from the tip of the fish’s head and stops at the end of the last vertebra; in other words, if the fish is laying on its side, and you were to lift the tail up slightly, a crease will form at the base of the backbone.  This is where the standard length measurement would end.  Total length is just as it sounds – it is a measurement of the entire length (straight line)  of the fish.  Fork length is only measured if the type of fish caught has a forked tail.  If it does, the measurement begins at the fish’s snout and ends at the v-notch in the tail.

How to measure the three types of lengths: standard, fork, and total. (Source: Australian Government: Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities)

Red hind (Epinephelus guttatus) on the fish board being measured for standard length. Ariane’s thumb is on the crease marking the end of its backbone.

Once the physical measurements are made, the otoliths must be extracted and the fish sexed.  You’re probably anxious to learn if you selected the right answer on the previous post’s poll – “What do you think an otolith is?”  An otolith can be thought of as a fish’s “ear bone”.  It is actually a structure composed of calcium carbonate and located within the inner ear.  All vertebrates (organisms with backbones) have similar structures.  They function as gravity, balance, movement, and directional indicators.  Their presence helps a fish sense changes in horizontal motion and acceleration.

In order to extract the otoliths, the fish must be killed.  Once the fish has been killed, the brain case is exposed and peeled back.  The otoliths are in little slits located in the underside of the brain.  It takes a delicate touch to remove them with a pair of forceps (tweezers) because they can easily break or slip beyond the “point of no return” (drop into the brain cavity where they cannot be extracted).

Otoliths are important scientifically because they can tell many important things about a fish’s life.  Their age and growth throughout the first year of life can be determined.  Otoliths record this information just like tree ring record summer/winter cycles. More complex measurements can be used to determine the date of hatch, once there are a collected series of measurements, spawning times can be calculated.

A cross-section of an otolith under a microscope. The rings are used to determine age and other life events. Source: Otolith Research Laboratory, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Because they are composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), the oxygen component of the chemical compound can be used to measure stable oxygen isotopes; this is useful for reconstructing temperatures of the waters the fish has lived in.  Scientists are also able to look at other trace elements and isotopes to determine various environmental factors.

Extracted otoliths. Often they are around 1 cm long, although the larger the fish, the slightly larger the otolith.

The final step we take in measurement/data collection is determining the sex and maturity of the fish.  To do this, the fish is slit open just as if you were going to clean the fish to filet and eat it.  The air bladder must be deflated if it isn’t already and the intestines moved out of the way.  Then we begin to search for the gonads (ovaries and testes).  Once the gonads are found, we know if it is female or male and the next step is to determine its stage or maturity.  This is quite a process, especially since groupers can be hermaphroditic.  The maturity can be classified with a series of codes:

  • U = undetermined
  •  1  = immature virgin (gonads are barely visible)
  •  2  = resting (empty gonads – in between reproductive events)
  •  3 = enlarging/developing (eggs/sperm are beginning to be produced)
  •  4 = running ripe (gonads are full of eggs/sperm and are ready to spawn)
  •  5 = spent (spawning has already occurred)

Ovaries of a coney (grouper family). These are the pair of flesh colored tubular structures running down the center of the fish.

Personal Log

Today is my birthday, and I can’t think of a better place to spend it!  What a treat to be having such an adventure in the Caribbean!  This morning, we were on our first bandit reel survey of the day, and the captain came on over the radio system, announced my birthday and sang Happy Birthday to me.  Unbeknownst to me, my husband, Dave, had emailed the CO of the Pisces asking him to wish me a happy birthday.

We’ve had a very successful day (compared to the past two days) and have caught many more fish – 5 1/2 to be exact.  The most exciting part was that I caught two fish on my bandit reel!  They were a red hind and blackfin snapper (see the photos above).  What a great birthday present!

Father’s Day surf and turf dinner

My birthday fish! The blackfin snapper is on the left and the red hind on the right.

I even got a birthday kiss from the red hind!

Last night (6/17) for Father’s Day, we had an amazing dinner: filet mignon, lobster, asparagus, sweet plantains, and sweet potato pie for dessert!  Since it was my birthday the following day (6/18), and one of the scientists doesn’t like lobster, I had two tails!  What a treat!

Our best catch of the day came on the last bandit reel cast.  Joey Salisbury (one of the scientists) caught 5 fish: 4 blackfin snapper and 1 almaco jack; while Ariane Frappier (another scientist) caught 3 – 2 blackfin and 1 almaco jack.  This happened right before dinner, so we developed a pretty good assembly line system to work them up in time to eat.

Dinner was a nice Chinese meal, but between the ship beginning to travel to the South coast of St. Thomas and working on the computer, I began to feel a touch seasick (not the best feeling after a large meal!).  I took a couple of meclazine (motion sickness medication) and still felt unwell (most likely because you’re supposed to take it before the motion begins). My roommate, Kelly Schill, the Operations Officer, made me go to bed (I’m in the top bunk – yikes!), gave me a plastic bag (just in case!), and some saltine crackers. After 10 hours of sleep, I felt much, much better!

I had some time in between running bandit reels, baiting the hooks, and entering data into the computers,to interview a member of the science team that joined us at the  last-minute from St. Croix.  Roy Pemberton, Jr. is the Director of Fish and Wildlife for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The following is a snippet of our conversation:

LU: What are your job duties as the Director of Fish and Wildlife?

RP: I manage fisheries/wildlife resources and try to educate the population on how to better manage these resources to preserve them for future generations of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

LU: When did you first become interested in oceanography?

RP: I’m not really an oceanographer, but more of a marine scientist and wildlife biologist.  I got interested in this around 5-6 years old when I learned to swim and then snorkel for the first time.  I really enjoyed observing the marine environment and my interest prompted me to want to see and learn more about it.

LU: It’s such a broad field, how did you narrow your focus down to what you’re currently doing?

RP: I took a marine science class in high school and I enjoyed it tremendously.  It made me seek it out as a career by pursuing a degree in Marine Science at Hampton University.

LU:  If you were to go into another area of ocean research, what would it be?

RP: Oceanography – Marine Spatial Planning

Roy Pemberton holding a recently caught coney.

LU: What is the biggest challenge in your job?

RP: It is a challenge to manage fisheries and wildlife resources with respect to the socioeconomic and cultural nuances of the people.

LU: What do you think is the biggest issue of contention in your field, and how do you imagine it will resolve?

RP: Fisheries and coral reef management.  We need to have enough time to see if the federal management efforts work to ensure healthier ecosystems for future generations.

LU: What are some effects of climate change that you’ve witnessed in the reef systems of the U.S. Virgin Islands?

RP: Temperatures have become warmer and the prevalence of disease among corals has increased.

LU: In what areas of Marine Science do you foresee a lot of a career paths and job opportunities?

RP: Fisheries management, ecosystem management, coral reef diseases, and the study of coral reef restoration.

LU: Is there an area of Marine Science that you think is currently being overlooked, and why?

RP: Marine Science management that takes into account cultural and economic issues.

LU: What are some ideas a layperson could take from your work?

RP: One tries to balance resource protection and management with the cultural and heritage needs of the population in the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

LU: If a high school student wanted to go into the fish/wildlife division of planning and natural resources, what kinds of courses would you recommend they take?

RP: Biology, Marine Science, History, Botany, and Math

LU: Do you recommend students interested in your field pursue original research as high school students or undergraduate students?  If so, what kind?

RP: I would suggest they study a variety of life sciences so they can see what they want to pursue.  Then they can do an internship in a particular life science they find interesting to determine if they would like to pursue it as a career.

Too many interesting people on the ship and so little time!  I’m going to interview scientists as we continue on to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Once they leave, I’m continuing on to Mayport, Florida with the ship.  During this time, I’ll explore other careers with NOAA.

Lesley Urasky: Setting Sail from St. Croix, June 16, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lesley Urasky
Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces
June 16 – June 29, 2012

 

Mission:  Caribbean Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Date: Saturday, June 16, 2012

Location:
Latitude: 17.6395
Longitude: -64.8277

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 29°C (84°F)
Wind Speed: 15.76 knots (18.1 mph)
Relative Humidity: 79%
Barometric Pressure: 1,012.7 mb
Surface Water Temperature: 29°C (84°F)

Personal Log

My trip to meet the Pisces and become a Teacher at Sea was a two-day process.  I traveled from my home in Sinclair, Wyoming to Denver, Colorado to catch the first of three flights.  The first flight was from Denver to Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport; after a two-hour layover, I then flew to Miami.  Originally, I was to travel the entire way in one day.  However, I didn’t want to arrive in St. Croix at 10:00 p.m. and have to make my way to the pier, pass through security, board the ship, find my stateroom, and hopefully meet some of the crew and scientists late at night.  Instead, I spent the night in Miami and flew to St. Croix the next morning.

Trip to St. Croix from Sinclair, Wyoming

Google Earth view of my trip to St. Croix.

Once I landed at the Frederiksted Airport on St. Croix, I took a taxi to the cruise ship pier.  The taxi driver was very concerned about taking me there, because no cruise ships were docked; he was doubtful that any ship was there.  After convincing him that a NOAA ship was indeed docked, he moved aside the sugar cane in the back, loaded my bags, and took me to the pier.  Breaking my trip into two pieces turned out to be the best plan because once I got to the security gate, there was no approved members list at security and they wouldn’t accept my travel document.  They called the ship and the Commanding Officer (CO) came down the pier to meet me at the gate and escort me to the ship.  After a quick tour of the ship, I took some time to settle into the stateroom I’m sharing with the Operations Officer, Kelly Shill.  The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring Frederiksted.

The Pisces viewed from Frederiksted, St. Croix

On Friday, June 15th, I went to Christiansted with some of the ship’s crew members.  Kelly Schill, Operations Officer; Chris Zacharias, Junior Engineer; Peter Langlois, 3rd Mate; and I went shopping for souvenirs, had lunch, and fed the resident school of tarpon outside of Fort Christian Brew Pub.  Later that evening, we went to a beachside restaurant and watched a performance by some modern dance fire dancers.

Hungry tarpon waiting for tidbits.

Modern fire dancers

Fire dancers

Today we left port and embarked on the third Leg of the Caribbean Reef Fish Survey.  The first leg was when the Pisces traveled from Pascagoula, Mississippi to San Juan, Puerto Rico; here the ship picked up the scientific crew.  The second leg was from San Juan, Puerto Rico to St. Croix; during this time period, they collected data about the ocean and the fish along the reef system.  I joined the scientists and crew of the Pisces at Frederiksted, St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The Pisces was in port at St. Croix for three days for personnel change, resupply of the galley, and to give the crew a rest. During this leg, we will be traveling back to San Juan, Puerto Rico taking samples around St. Croix and St Thomas islands.  In addition to the reef fish survey, the Pisces will be deploying the base (anchor and chain) for another buoy to collect oceanographic data 3 nautical miles (nm) south of Saba, which is located between St. Croix and St. Thomas.  The University of Virgin Islands is working in conjunction with NOAA to accomplish this goal.  Once back in San Juan, the scientists will leave the ship, returning home with the data.  On the fourth leg, the Pisces will return to Mayport, Florida, retrieving a buoy that is adrift along the way.  Commander Fischel is kindly allowing me to remain aboard during the cruise back to port!

Science and Technology Log

Here is a quick overview of all equipment the survey will use to collect data. There is an array of four video cameras that is baited with frozen squid.  The array is lowered over the side of the ship at each sampling site, and allowed to rest on the bottom for 40 minutes.  The cameras cannot be deployed during the night because there are no lights on the array. Therefore, viewing is dependent upon the availability of sunlight penetrating the water column.  Because of the need for natural light, the cameras are only used during daylight hours; the array cannot be deployed earlier than one hour after sunrise and must be retrieved from the bottom of the continental shelf or shelf edge one hour before sunset.

After the camera array is deployed, a cluster of instruments called a CTD is lowered to collect data on the ocean environment.  CTD is an acronym for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth. Conductivity is used to determine the salinity (the amount of salts dissolved in the water).  Water conducts electricity (this is why you shouldn’t use electrical appliances while in or around water, and why the lifeguard tells you to get out of the pool during a thunderstorm).  As the salinity increases, conductivity increases.  Temperature is a very straight forward measurement.  I’m sure you’ve measured the temperature of several different things ranging from air temperature (to see how hot it is outside) to the internal temperature of a roasting chicken.  These measurements are related to specific depths within the water column. The depth the instrument is at in the ocean is calculated from measuring the hydrostatic pressure (how much pressure the overlying water exerts on the instrument).  The CTD instrumentation cluster collects huge amounts of data – 8 measurements per second!  These are averaged and compressed into “bins” covering 1 meter segments.

The CTD and camera array waiting deployment.

In addition, the instrument cluster also measures the amount of oxygen dissolved (DO) in the water column.  As you probably already know, most organisms require oxygen to live (carry out cellular respiration).  The amount of oxygen dissolved in the water is directly correlated to how much life the water can support.  More oxygen = more life.  When water is warmer, it loses its ability to “hold onto” oxygen; cold water will contain more dissolved oxygen.  This is one reason why climate change and warming aquatic environments are of great concern.

Victor, Joey, and Joe deploying the camera array

After both the camera array and CTD have been deployed and retrieved, the final step at each site is to collect fish through the use of bandit reels located at three sites on the ship.  All three are located on the starboard (right hand) side of the ship.  Reel #1 is starboard (S), Reel #2 is starboard aft (SA), and Reel #3 is starboard stern (SS) at the back of the ship.  Reel #3 is where I helped the attempts to collect fish.  Each bandit reel has ten hooks of the same size (8/0, 11/0, and 15/0) attached to a 300-lb test monofilament.  Each of the hook sizes are rotated around the stations throughout the day.  These hooks are baited with slices of frozen Atlantic mackerel.  A 10 pound weight is attached to the end of the line, the baited hooks attached, and the line let out until it hits bottom.  Then, a float is attached and the line is left for five minutes before being reeled back in.

Any fish that are caught are identified and have their length and mass measured.  Afterwards, the fish’s otoliths are removed and it is opened to determine its gender and have its reproductive stage assessed.  More on the fish specifics to come!

Lesley Urasky: Tropical Waters and New Discoveries!

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lesley Urasky
NOAA Ship Pisces
June 14 – June 26, 2012

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: U.S. Virgin Islands
Date: April 30, 2012

Personal Log

Hello, everyone!  Greetings from Sinclair, Wyoming!  My name is Lesley Urasky, and I am a science teacher at Rawlins High School in Rawlins, Wyoming.  I’m currently teaching Geology/Astronomy, Principles of Biomedical Sciences, and Physical Science.  This upcoming year will be my eighth  at RHS, and my fifteenth year as a science teacher.  I began my teaching career at the Science Academy of South Texas in Mercedes, Texas;  SciTech is a science and engineering magnet school.

My love of exploring Earth’s natural wonders began at a very early age.  My parents took me to the mountains when I was only a few weeks old and were very instrumental in making sure I was able to explore through amazing family trips all over the United States.  I attribute my travel bug to my mother, who just “wants to go!”

A few years ago, I realized that there was an entirely amazing opportunity for teachers to travel to the far reaches of the world and bring these experiences back to their students. Teacher Research Experiences (TREs)  are designed to allow teachers to accompany research teams and share the amazing science being conducted to help understand how the Earth and its processes work.  TREs have been demonstrated to be highly effective programs (Silverstein, S.C., Dubner, J., Miller, J., Glied, S., & Loike, J.D. (2009). Teachers’ Participation in Research Programs Improves Their Students’ Achievement in Science. Science, 440-442.)

I first discovered these opportunities through a program called PolarTREC.  As a PolarTREC teacher I accompanied a team of scientists to Antarctica where we spent five weeks camped in the Central Transantarctic Mountains along the Beardmore Glacier.

Tasting Ancient Ice

Here I am tasting ice from the Last Glacial Maximum (last ice age). The ice is about 15,000-18,000 years old.

Now, I have the unique opportunity to bring a completely different region and type of science to students — I’ll be participating in another chance of a lifetime — sailing on the NOAA Ship Pisces!  I’ll be aboard the ship for Leg 2 of the Caribbean Reef Fish Survey.   Having been to the polar regions and seen first hand the changes occurring there, I feel it is extremely important to show how our changing climate is having an impact on the world’s oceans.  I’m excited to be able to participate in the reef fish survey (this is similar to what we’ll be doing, but in a different region) to learn about the health of reefs and their associated fauna.  I’m hoping to be able to make connections between the science I learn on the cruise with global changes.

NOAA Ship Pisces

NOAA Ship Pisces

To see a short video of what I may be doing on my cruise, see  the following video by NOAA’s Ocean Today.