Margaret Stephens, May 28, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Margaret Stephens
NOAA Ship: Pisces
Mission: Fisheries, bathymetric data collection for habitat mapping
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States continental shelf waters from Cape Hatteras, NC to St. Lucie Inlet, FL
Date:  May 28, 2011 (Last day!)

NOAA Ship Pisces. Photo credit: Richard Hall

NOAA Ship Pisces. Photo credit: Richard Hall

Weather Data from the Bridge
As of 06:43, 28 May
Latitude 30.15
Longitude 80.87
Speed 7.60 knots
Course 285.00
Wind Speed 10.77 knots
Wind Direction 143.91 º
Surface Water Temperature 25.53 ºC
Surface Water Salinity 36.38 PSU
Air Temperature 24.70 ºC
Relative Humidity 92.00 %
Barometric Pressure 1011.10 millibars
Water Depth 30.17 m
Skies: clear

r at Sea Margaret Stephens and Scientist David Hoke in Pisces attire.

NOAA Teacher at Sea Margaret Stephens and Scientist David Hoke in Pisces attire.

Science and Technology Log

These scientists are not only smart, but they are neat and clean, too! After completing final mapping and fish sampling on the second-to-last day, we spent the remainder of the time cleaning the wet (fish) lab, packing all the instruments and equipment, and carefully labeling each item for transport. We hosed down all surfaces and used non-toxic cleaners to leave the stainless steel lab tables and instruments gleaming, ready for the next research project. The Pisces, like other NOAA fisheries ships, is designed as a mobile lab platform that each research team adapts to conform to its particular needs. The lab facilities, major instruments and heavy equipment are permanent, but since research teams have different objectives and protocols, they bring aboard their own science personnel, specialized equipment, and consumable supplies. The primary mission of NOAA’s fisheries survey vessels, like Pisces, is to conduct scientific studies, so the ship’s officers and crew adjust and coordinate their operations to meet the requirements of each research project. The ship’s Operations Officer and the Chief Scientist communicate regularly, well before the project begins and throughout the time at sea, to facilitate planning and smooth conduct of the mission.

Gag grouper (top, Mycteroperca microlepis) and red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) specimens, labeled for further study Photo credit: David Berrane

Gag grouper (top, Mycteroperca microlepis) and red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) specimens, labeled for further study Photo credit: David Berrane

“Wet” (fish) lab aboard Pisces, cleaned and ready for next research team

“Wet” (fish) lab aboard Pisces, cleaned and ready for next research team

We made up for the two days’ delay in our initial departure (caused by mechanical troubles and re-routing to stay clear of the Endeavor space shuttle launch, described in the May 18 log), thanks to nearly ideal sea conditions and the sheer hard work of the ship’s and science crews. The painstaking work enabled the science team to fine tune their seafloor mapping equipment and protocols, set traps, and accumulate data on fish populations in this important commercial fishing area off the southeastern coast of the United States. The acoustics team toiled every night to conduct survey mapping and produce three dimensional images of the sea floor. They met before sunrise each morning with Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler to plan the daytime fish survey routes, and the fish lab team collected two to three sets of six traps every day. The videographers worked long hours, backing up data and adjusting the camera arrays so that excellent footage was obtained.  In all, we obtained ten days’ worth of samples, brought in a substantial number of target species, red snapper and grouper, recorded hours of underwater video, and collected tissue and otolith samples for follow-up analysis back at the labs on land.

Models

Scientists and engineers often use models to help visualize, represent, or test phenomena they are studying. Models are especially helpful when it is too risky, logistically difficult, or expensive to conduct extensive work under “live” or real-time conditions.

Divers exploring hardbottom habitat Photo Credit: Douglas E. Kesling, UNCWilmington, CIOERT

Divers exploring hardbottom habitat Photo Credit: Douglas E. Kesling, UNCWilmington, CIOERT

As described in previous logs, this fisheries work aboard Pisces involves surveying and trapping fish to analyze population changes among commercially valuable species, principally red snapper and grouper, which tend to aggregate in particular types of hardbottom habitats.  Hardbottom, in contrast to sandy, flat areas, consists of rocky ledges, coral, or artificial reef structures, all hard substrates. By locating hardbottom areas on the sea floor, scientists can focus their trapping efforts in places most likely to yield samples of the target fish species, thus conserving valuable time and resources. So, part of the challenge is finding efficient ways to locate hardbottom. That’s where models can be helpful.

The scientific models rely on information known about the relationships between marine biodiversity and habitat types, because the varieties and distribution of marine life found in an area are related to the type of physical features present. Not surprisingly, this kind of connection often holds true in terrestrial (land) environments, too. For example, since water-conserving succulents and cacti are generally found in dry, desert areas, aerial or satellite images of land masses showing dry environments can serve as proxies to identify areas where those types of plants would be prevalent. In contrast, one would expect to find very different types of plant and animal life in wetter areas with richer soils.

Recovering ROV aboard Pisces Photo source: http://www.moc.noaa.gov/pc/visitor/photos‐a.html

Recovering ROV aboard Pisces Photo source: http://www.moc.noaa.gov/pc/visitor/photos‐a.html

Traditional methods used to map hardbottom and identify fish habitat include direct sampling by towing underwater video cameras, sonar, aerial photography, satellite imaging, using remotely operating vehicles (ROV’s), or even setting many traps in extensive areas. While they have some advantages, all those methods are labor and time-intensive and expensive, and are therefore impractical for mapping extensive areas.

This Pisces team has made use of a computer and statistical model developed by other scientists that incorporates information from previous mapping (bathymetry) work to predict where hardbottom habitat is likely to be found. The Pisces scientists have employed the “Dunn” model to predict potential hardbottom areas likely to attract fish populations, and then they have conducted more detailed mapping of the areas highlighted by the model. (That has been the principal job of the overnight acoustics team.) Using those more refined maps, the day work has involved trapping and recording video to determine if fish are, indeed, found in the locations predicted. By testing the model repeatedly, scientists can refine it further. To the extent that the model proves accurate, it can guide future work, making use of known physical characteristics of the sea floor to identify more areas where fish aggregate, and helping scientists study large areas and develop improved methods for conservation and management of marine resources.

Deploying CTD. Photo credit: David Hoke

Deploying CTD. Photo credit: David Hoke

Deploying CTD. Photo credit: David Hoke

Deploying CTD. Photo credit: David Hoke

Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) Measurements

Another aspect of the data collection aboard Pisces involves measuring key physical properties of seawater, including temperature and salinity (saltiness, or concentration of salts) at various depths using a Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD)  device.

Salinity and temperature affect how sound travels in water; therefore, CTD data can be used to help calibrate the sonar equipment used to map the sea floor. In other instances, the data are used to help scientists study changes in sea conditions that may affect climate. Increases in sea surface temperatures, for example, can speed evaporation, moisture and heat transfer to the atmosphere, feeding or intensifying storm systems such as hurricanes and cyclones.

Pisces shipboard CTD, containing a set of probes attached to a cylindrical housing, is lowered from the side deck to a specified depth. A remote controller closes the water collection bottles at the desired place in the water column to extract samples, and the CTD takes the physical measurements in real time.

Fresh Catch

Of all the many species collected, only the red snapper and grouper specimens were kept for further study; most of the other fish were released after they were weighed and measured. A small quantity was set aside for Chief Steward Jesse Stiggens to prepare for the all the ship’s occupants to enjoy, but the bulk of the catch was saved for charitable purposes. The fish (“wet” lab) team worked well into overtime hours each night to fillet the catch and package it for donation. They cut, wrapped, labeled and fresh froze each fillet as carefully as any gourmet fish vendor would. Once we disembarked on the last day, Scientist Warren Mitchell, who had made all the arrangements, delivered over one hundred pounds of fresh frozen fish to a local food bank, Second Harvest of Northern Florida. It was heartening to know that local people would benefit from this high-quality, tasty protein.

Careers at Sea

Crewmen Joe Flora and Vic Pinones

Crewmen Joe Flora and Vic Pinones

Many crew members gave generously of their time to share with me their experiences as mariners and how they embarked upon and developed their careers. I found out about many, many career paths for women and men who are drawn to the special life at sea. Ship’s officers, deck crew, mechanics, electricians, computer systems specialists, chefs and scientists are among the many possibilities.

Chief Steward Jesse Stiggens worked as a cook in the U.S. Navy and as a chef in private restaurants before starting work with NOAA. He truly loves cooking, managing all the inventory, storage and food preparation in order to meet the needs and preferences of nearly forty people, three meals a day, every day. He even cooks for family and friends during his “off” time!

First Engineer Brett Jones

First Engineer Brett Jones

Electronics specialist Bob Carter, also a Navy veteran, is responsible for the operations and security of all the computer-based equipment on board. He designed and set up the ship’s network and continually expands his skills and certifications by taking online courses. He relishes the challenges, responsibilities and autonomy that come along with protecting the integrity of the computer systems aboard ship.

First Engineer Brent Jones has worked for many years in the commercial and government sectors, maintaining engines, refrigeration, water and waste management, and environmental control systems. He gave me a guided tour of the innards of Pisces, including four huge engines, heating and air conditioning units, thrusters and rudders, hoists and lifts, fresh water condenser and ionizers, trash incinerator, and fire and safety equipment. The engineering department is responsible for making sure everything operates safely, all day and night, every day. Brent and the other engineers are constantly learning, updating and sharpening their skills by taking specialized courses throughout their careers.

Chief Boatswain James Walker

Chief Boatswain James Walker

Chief Boatswain James Walker is responsible for safe, efficient operations on deck, including training and supervising all members of the deck crew. He entered NOAA after a career in the U.S. Navy.  The Chief Boatswain must be diplomatic, gentle but firm, and a good communicator and people manager. He coordinates safe deck operations with the ship’s officers, crew, and scientific party and guests.

NOAA officers are a special breed. To enter the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, applicants must have completed a bachelor’s degree with extensive coursework in mathematics or sciences. They need not have experience at sea, although many do. They undergo an intensive officers’ training program at a marine academy before beginning shipboard work as junior officers, where they train under more experienced officers to learn ship’s systems and operations, protocols, navigation, safety, personnel management, budgeting and administrative details. After years of hard work and satisfactory performance, NOAA officers may advance through the ranks and eventually take command of a ship.

Operations Officer, Lt. Tracy Hamburger

Operations Officer, Lt. Tracy Hamburger

Junior Officer Michael Doig

Junior Officer Michael Doig

All the officers and crew aboard Pisces seem to truly enjoy the challenges, variety of experiences and camaraderie of life at sea. They are dedicated to NOAA’s mission and take pride in the scientific and ship operations work. To be successful and satisfied with this life, one needs an understanding family and friends, as crew can be away at sea up to 260 days a year, for two to four weeks at a time. There are few personal expenses while at sea, since room and board are provided, so prudent mariners can accumulate savings. There are sacrifices, as long periods away can mean missing important events at home. But there are some benefits: As one crewman told me, every visit home is like another honeymoon!

Personal Log

One size fits all?

One size fits all?

Navy Showers

I had expected that life aboard Pisces would include marine toilets and salt water showers with limited fresh water just for rinsing off.  I was surprised to find regular water-conserving flush toilets and fresh water showers. Still, the supply of fresh water is limited, as all of it is produced from a condensation system using heat from the engines. During our ship orientation and safety session on the first day, Operations Officer Tracy Hamburger and Officer Mike Doig cautioned us to conserve water.  They explained (but did not demonstrate!) a “Navy” shower, which involves turning the water on just long enough to get wet, off while soaping up, and on again for a quick rinse. It is quite efficient – more of us should adopt the practice on land. Who really needs twenty minute showers with fully potable water, especially when more than one billion people on our “water planet” lack safe drinking water and basic sanitation?

One size fits all?

One size fits all?

“Abandon Ship!”

One size fits all?

One size fits all?

The drill I had anticipated since the first pre-departure NOAA Teacher at Sea instructions arrived in my inbox finally happened. I had just emerged from a refreshing “Navy” shower at the end of a fishy day when the ship’s horn blasted, signaling “Abandon ship!” We’d have to don survival suits immediately to be ready to float on our own in the sea for an indefinite time. Fortunately, I had finished dressing seconds before the alarm sounded. I grabbed the survival suit, strategically positioned for ready access near my bunk, and walked briskly (never run aboard ship!) to the muster station on the side deck. There, all the ship’s occupants jostled for space enough on deck to flatten out the stiff, rubbery garment and attempt to put it on.  That’s much easier said than done; it was not a graceful picture. “One size fits all”, I learned, is a figment of some manufacturer’s imagination. My petite five foot four frame was engulfed, lost in the suit, while the burly six- foot-five crewman alongside me struggled to squeeze himself into the same sized suit. The outfit, affectionately known as a Gumby, is truly designed for survival, though, as neoprene gaskets seal wrists, leaving body parts covered, with only a small part of one’s face exposed. The suit serves as a flotation device, and features a flashing light, sound alarm, and other warning instruments to facilitate locating those unfortunate enough to be floating at sea.

Thankfully, this was only a test run on deck. We were spared the indignity of going overboard to test our true survival skills. I took advantage of the opportunity to try a few jumping jacks and pushups while encased in my Gumby.

Fish bet ‐‐ Rigged results? Photo credit: Jen Weaver

Fish bet ‐‐ Rigged results? Photo credit: Jen Weaver

Bets Are On!

These scientists are fun-loving and slightly superstitious, if not downright mischievous. On the last day, Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler announced a contest: whoever came closest to predicting the number of fish caught in the last set of traps would win a Pisces t-shirt that Nate promised to purchase with his personal funds. In true scientific fashion, the predictions were carefully noted and posted for all to see.  As each trap was hauled in, Nate recorded the tallies on the white board in the dry lab. Ever the optimist, basing my estimate on previous days’ tallies, I predicted a whopping number: 239.

I should have been more astute and paid more attention to the fact that the day’s survey was planned for a region that featured less desirable habitats for fish than previous days. Nate, of course, having set the route, knew much more about the conditions than the rest of us did. His prediction: a measly 47 fish. Sure enough, the total tally was 38, and the winner was………Nate!   Our loud protests that the contest was fixed were to no avail. He declared himself the winner. Next time, we’ll know enough to demand that the Chief Scientist remove himself from the contest.

 

Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler and red snapper, Lutjanus campechanus Photo credit: David Hoke

Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler and red snapper, Lutjanus campechanus Photo credit: David Hoke

 

Crewman Kirk Perry with Mahi‐mahi

Crewman Kirk Perry with Mahi‐mahi

Catching Mahi-mahi

Once the day’s deck work was over, a fish call came over the ship’s public address system. Kirk Perry, one of the avid fishermen among the crew, attached a line baited with squid from the stern guard rail and let it troll along unattended, since a fishing pole was unnecessary. Before long, someone else noticed that the line had hooked a fish. It turned out to be a beautiful mahi-mahi, with sleek, streamlined, iridescent scales in an array of rainbow colors, and quite a fighter. I learned that the mahi quickly lose their color once they are removed from the water, and turn to a pale gray-white once lifeless. If only I were a painter, I would have stopped everything to try to capture the lovely colors on canvas.

Goodbyes

We entered Mayport under early morning light. An official port pilot is required to come aboard to guide all ships into port, so the port pilot joined Commander Jeremy Adams and the rest of the officer on the bridge as we made our way through busy Mayport, home of a United States Naval base. Unfortunately, the pier space reserved for Pisces was occupied by a British naval vessel that had encountered mechanical problems and was held up for repairs, so she could not be moved. That created a logistical challenge for us, as it meant that Pisces had to tie up alongside a larger United States naval ship whose deck was higher than ours.  Once again, the crew and scientists showed their true colors, as they braved the hot Florida sun, trekking most of the gear and luggage by hand over two gangplanks, across the Navy ship, onto the pier, and loading it into the waiting vehicles.

The delay gave me a chance to say farewell and thank the crew and science team for their patience and kindness during my entire time at sea.

These eleven days sailed by. The Pisces crew had only a short breather of a day and a half before heading out with a new group of scientists for another research project. To sea again….NOAA’s work continues.

All aboard!

A big “Thank you!” to all the scientists and crew who made my time aboard Pisces so educational and memorable!

 

Science team. Photo credit: NOAA Officer Michael Doig

Science team. Photo credit: NOAA Officer Michael Doig

Links & Resources

http://www.marinecareers.net/links_degrees.php

Literature cited:

Dunn, D, Halpin, P (2009) Rugosity-based regional modeling of hard-bottom habitat. Marine Ecology Progress Series 377:1-11

Safety! I hope I never have to use that fire axe!

Safety! I hope I never have to use that fire axe!

Sky view from Pisces. Photo credit: David Hoke

Sky view from Pisces. Photo credit: David Hoke

View from Pisces: United States Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship

View from Pisces: United States Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship

Engineers Abe Goldberg and Bob Carroll

Engineers Abe Goldberg and Bob Carroll

Loading gear with crane & hoist

Loading gear with crane & hoist

Loading gear with crane & hoist

Loading gear with crane & hoist

Commander Jeremy Adams looks out from Pisces’ bridge Photo credit: Richard Hall

Commander Jeremy Adams looks out from Pisces’ bridge Photo credit: Richard Hall

Margaret Stephens, May 25-27

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Margaret Stephens
NOAA Ship:
Pisces 
Mission: Fisheries, bathymetric data collection for habitat mapping
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States continental shelf waters from Cape Hatteras, NC to St. Lucie Inlet, FL
Dates: May 25-27, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge 

View from the Pisces bridge: calm seas

View from the Pisces bridge: calm seas

As of 11:43 May 27, 2011
Latitude 29.94
Longitude 80.29
Wind Speed 0.60 knots; calm
Wind Direction 167.50 º
Surface Water Temperature 26.60 ºC
Air Temperature 25.70 ºC
Relative Humidity 81.00 %
Barometric Pressure 1013.70 millibars (mb)
Water Depth 54.59 m
Skies: clear to partly cloudy

Science and Technology Log 

I struggle to measure a squirmy black sea bass, Centropristis striata.

I struggle to measure a squirmy black sea bass, Centropristis striata.

Previous logs describe in some detail the three principal components of this research work aboard Pisces: overnight mapping using acoustics (SONAR) technology; daytime fish trapping; and underwater videography. The nighttime mapping is used to identify the hardbottom habitats favored by red snapper and grouper species and helps the science team determine where to set traps the next day. The videography provides additional visual clues to the contours and composition of the sea floor, water clarity, and marine life in the area.

Scientific research at sea is far from neat, clean and predictable. Messy, hot, smelly, sometimes frustratingly unpredictable – and not for the weak-stomached– are better descriptors. The work goes on as long as it takes, well past the scheduled twelve hour shifts. The “wet” lab could just as well be called the “fishy” lab. For good reason, the seasoned researchers wear special waterproof bibs and boots and clothing they don’t mind getting dirty. A distinctly fish-infused aroma fills the air and embeds skin, hair and garb. The best laid plans go awry. Equipment and instruments are checked, double- and triple-checked; nevertheless, they don’t always function properly or yield the expected results. Despite using high-tech SONAR to locate what appear to be promising locations, and baiting traps with the most appetizing bait imaginable (dead menhaden), the fish move around and are not always lured into the traps we set so carefully. While this project has been graced so far with unusually calm seas, the currents, other boat traffic, threatening weather and other factors can cause the ship to deviate from its appointed path.

These scientists seem to thrive as they meet the challenges of the ever-changing seascape, solving problems and continuing the hard work day and night.

Todd Kellison (l) and Warren Mitchell (r) confer at sunrise as their long night’s acoustics lab work continues past dawn. Photo credit: David Berrane

Todd Kellison (l) and Warren Mitchell (r) confer at sunrise as their long night’s acoustics lab work continues past dawn. Photo credit: David Berrane

After spending the first few days south of Cape Canaveral, mapping and trap sampling, calibrating and making adjustments to the instruments and deployment procedures, we headed north, because strong currents and turbid (cloudy) waters were limiting the team’s ability to deploy traps and capture useful underwater video images. When the currents are too strong (>2.5 – 3 knots, or nautical miles per hour), the moving water tends to drag the traps, making it very difficult to position them in the desired locations on the sea floor. In addition, the currents swirl sediments around, reducing visibility and yielding video images that are less than revealing. Since moving north of Cape Canaveral, the currents have been less of a problem, and the water clarity has improved.

The mapping, trapping, and video procedures all went more smoothly after the team made adjustments guided by the first days’ experiences. The acoustics team leaders, Warren Mitchell and Todd Kellison, have worked assiduously throughout the taxing, tiring overnight shifts to produce useful bathymetry maps with the ship’s state-of-the-art ME70 multibeam sonar unit. Investigator Jen Weaver has applied her expertise with GIS and mapping software to help Warren and Todd translate the sonar data into three dimensional maps most useful for Nate Bacheler, the Chief Scientist, to plan the trapping routes.

Sonar image shows ledges and outcrops. Photo credit: Christina Schobernd

Sonar image shows ledges and outcrops. Photo credit: Christina Schobernd

By the second and third nights on the acoustics team, I was getting better at recognizing the features on the sonar screen displays, such as ledges and rocky outcroppings, that are indicative the hardbottom habitats we were seeking. Chief Scientist Nate has perfected the timing and communications with the deck crew so that the traps are released off the stern deck at just the right time, sinking to the bottom in the desired locations. Radio transmitter in hand, Nate studies an array of monitors displaying the sonar images of the sea bottom mapped the night before, the navigation system with the ship’s position and path, and a live video feed showing the crew awaiting instructions on the deck. The helmsman alerts Nate that the ship is approaching the next drop point and slows the ship.

Nate issues a series of commands to the deck crew by radio:

Crew deploys baited trap above guard rail on

Crew deploys baited trap above guard rail on

Ready the cameras. Ready the cameras.” – A few minutes before the ship approaches each trap point, a team member activates the two video cameras attached to the trap.

Crew deploys baited trap above guard rail on

Go on standby; stand by to deploy trap.”- The deck crew positions the trap at the edge of the stern (back) deck and makes sure all the lines are clear.

Deploy trap; deploy trap.” The deck crew pushes the trap over the edge of the stern and lets the line attaching it to the ship run free. Once the line goes slack, indicating the trap has reached the bottom, the crew releases the bright orange buoys to float on the surface, marking the trap locations to warn other ships to steer clear and facilitate retrieval.

The deck crew then positions the next trap, and the helmsman, Nate and crew repeat the choreographed sequence until all six traps in each set are in place. Soon after, the helmsman maneuvers the ship for the deck crew to retrieve the traps and their contents one by one using a pothauler, a special hoist.

Technical/Logistical Challenges 

We ran into some initial difficulties with the video cameras attached to the traps when they turned off and failed to record. As good scientists, the team observed the procedures closely and determined that the force of the cameras hitting the water upon release was probably causing them to shut off. At first, the traps with cameras attached were being pushed off the stern above a fixed guard rail, which sits about 1.5 meters above the deck, with three removable guard wires below the rail. A simple adjustment seems to have fixed that problem – instead of releasing the traps above the guard rail, the crew lowered the traps to the deck floor and pushed them off more gently from there. This modified procedure seems to have done the trick, as the cameras have not shut off since.

Science team adjusts camera-trap arrays on stern deck

Science team adjusts camera-trap arrays on stern deck

We are constantly reminded of the ship’s mantra, “Safety first!”, as anyone working on deck while machinery is in operation is required to wear a hardhat and personal flotation device (PFD). He or she who forgets to do so is quickly alerted by others. Because the change in the trap release procedure necessitated removing the three safety wires below the stationary guard rail, leaving a gap large enough for a person to slip overboard, the crew members tied themselves to tethers attached to the deck. Falling off the stern of the ship is dangerous, not least because the propellers turn rapidly and create a backwash effect that could draw a person underwater, even one wearing a PFD.

After each set of six traps is collected, the crew and wet lab team prepare them for redeployment. They empty any fish caught from the traps into bins, separate them into species, then weigh, measure, and release or preserve them for further study. With the help of the deck crew, two or three members of the science team stay on the side deck, dressed in waterproof bibs, boots, life vests and helmets. They detach and dry the cameras and hand them to the dry lab video coordinator, Christina Schobernd, who immediately removes the memory cards, sets up the video to view, and readies the cameras for the next trapping sequence. Occasionally, a camera tilts out of alignment, possibly in the jolt of travel or by hitting something underwater or on the bottom. Each time that happens, Christina meticulously assesses the situation and adjusts the cameras’ attachments.

Under these conditions, working with expensive equipment, it is crucial to anticipate possible problems and build redundancy into the operations as much as possible. This year, the team added a second, high-definition camera to the video array, and each camera is attached to the trap frames with at least six heavy-duty plastic ties and a tether wire and clip. That tether has been a camera-saver, as in one instance the cameras somehow broke free and would have been lost without it.

Fish measuring “assembly line” in the wet lab

Fish measuring “assembly line” in the wet lab

Thanks to good planning, enhanced by a measure of good luck, so far we have not lost any traps or equipment. It is not unheard of to have a trap break free from impact, from a boat propeller running over and cutting the line, or for some other reason. If a trap breaks loose in a place that’s too deep for human divers to search, or if the ship is not equipped with diving capability or a ROV (remote operating vehicle), the trap must be given up for lost.

Once the traps’ fishy contents are brought in and separated by species, three to four people in the wet lab process the fish in assembly-line fashion, as described in the previous log. With traps containing one hundred fifty (150) fish or more, we have to work fast and furiously to weigh, measure and release them before the next haul is aboard. The fish flop and squirm and squirt, and as I learned the first time I handled them, the black sea bass have some mighty sharp spines that can penetrate even the heavy, protective gloves we wear.

To ready the array for the next trap set, the team then

  •  “freshens” the bait by taking out any fully or partially eaten bait and replacing it with the same number of whole menhaden fish;
  •  reattaches the cameras;
  • lines up the numbered traps on deck, ready to go again.

Sometimes, the interim between trap sets coincides with the ship’s lunch time: 11 a.m. If so, the science team takes a short break to refuel with Steward Jesse Stiggens’ tasty culinary creations. If not, the stewards leave the lunch buffet available for whenever the team can get away for a few minutes. While the traps are “soaking” (sitting on the sea floor for the required ninety minute intervals), the science team keeps busy viewing video from the previous haul, processing fish specimens, tidying the deck and lab area, speculating about what the next trap might yield, and telling fish stories from past field work. As anyone who has spent time around fishers (the gender-neutral form of fishermen) knows, fishing stories always get better with time!

Processing and Collection of Biological Samples 

Otolith showing age rings Photo source: dnr.state.oh.us

Otolith showing age rings Photo source: dnr.state.oh.us

To assess fish stock and population trends, scientists must do more than identify species and catch, weigh and measure fish. They also determine the sex, size and ages of fish and genetic diversity within the populations studied. Connecting size and age can help determine the fishes’ growth rates, where they are in their reproductive cycles, and how likely they are to spawn, or reproduce.

Why is it important to determine the age of fish? By knowing the age of fish, fisheries managers can better understand and monitor how fish populations change over time, and how they are affected by environmental stresses or disturbances, including environmental changes, storms, pollution, commercial and recreational fishing, natural mortality, predation, and changes in the availability of food. The age information helps inform policies promoting fishing practices that protect the fish resources for sustainable, long-term benefit.

David Berrane removes otoliths from red snapper, Lutjanus campechanus Photo credit: Christina Schobernd

David Berrane removes otoliths from red snapper, Lutjanus campechanus Photo credit: Christina Schobernd

To determine fish age most accurately, the scientists remove otoliths, two bones located on either side of fish’s skull that are analogous to the human ear bone. The otoliths show annual growth rings, so the technique used is similar to counting tree rings. You may clickhere to try aging a sample fish.

On board Pisces, the experienced scientists remove the otoliths from dead fish with a sharp knife and scalpel, then place the otoliths in small envelopes, labeled with the date and location caught, ready to be analyzed back in laboratories on land. At the same time, they preserve tissue samples used for DNA/genetic analysis. They may also remove the gonads, or egg sacs, of female fish, if they are needed for further study. They can approximate how close the fish are to spawning based on the condition of the egg sac. The closer they are to spawning, the fuller and larger the sacs become.

Removing egg sacs from female black sea bass, Centropristis striata

Removing egg sacs from female black sea bass, Centropristis striata

Through laboratory analysis using DNA from tissue samples, scientists can evaluate the genetic diversity within each species and other population dynamics. Genetic diversity among fish populations, as in other animal and plant species, is desired because more genetically diverse populations are generally more resilient, more resistant to disease and more able to withstand changes in environmental conditions, availability of food, and other stresses.

Personal Log 

We’ve been fortunate to have had a stretch of unusually fine weather and calm seas. Thank goodness, not a single person has shown a hint of sea sickness. It may be bad luck to say this while we are still out on the water, but I have never been seasick, and I certainly would not want this to be the first time. I’ve seen people who literally turned green and felt absolutely miserable while traveling on rough seas. Some of the crew members who served in the United States Navy or on commercial vessels told me that they had been violently sick every day for weeks when they first went to work at sea. Most eventually get over that. I cannot imagine how debilitating and horrible it must be to feel so wretched. There’s no place to go once you are on a ship — you cannot just jump overboard and swim home through long distances and possibly shark-infested waters, although if you are sick enough, that prospect might seem a welcome relief!

Significant events 

Late one afternoon, I noticed that we had changed direction. We had been heading south, and then turned back north. Since this was not the planned route, I thought perhaps I had missed or misunderstood something, so I went up to the bridge to investigate. Commander Jeremy Adams (the CO = Commanding Officer) informed me that he had turned the ship around in response to a radio call from the Coast Guard, the branch of the armed services of the United States in charge of monitoring the coasts for navigation, safety and law enforcement. The radio call was a Pan-pan alert, one step short of the emergency Mayday call that mandates immediate action. A Pan-pan is urgent but not imminent, and ships in the area are not required to respond. In this case, the Coast Guard announced that they had received a report of a partially submerged small boat with possible man overboard/missing. Since Pisces was the closest vessel to the reported location, CO Adams made the decision to deviate from the planned course and redirect her at nearly full speed, approximately fourteen knots (nautical miles per hour), to search and assist if necessary. As Captain Jerry put it, even though he was not obligated to respond, he would not have been able to rest knowing there was a possibility the ship under his command could have helped. While en route there, another radio relay from the Coast Guard canceled the Pan-pan, because the initial report was apparently a false alarm. The CO informed me that false alarms of this kind occur all too often. Sometimes disgruntled or troublemaking recreational boaters, perhaps annoyed with the Coast Guard’s vigilance or just pulling a prank, call in alarms. These are akin to and at least as dangerous as intentionally false bomb scares or fire alarms on land. Such maliciously false reports take emergency personnel and resources away from true emergencies, cause tremendous waste of public funds, and can put emergency responders and others at risk. At sea, if the perpetrators are caught, they can be fined heavily and held responsible for all the costs incurred.

Devastation in Joplin, Mississippi 

On Sunday, May 22, news of the catastrophic tornado in Joplin, Mississippi reached Pisces. One of the crew members watched the news feed in horror, as the images of an elementary school that had been completed flattened played over and over again on the large screen in the mess. His friend lived just two blocks from that same school and had probably been at home when the powerful twister hit. The crew member tried in vain to call her cell phone or reach anyone who might have heard from her.

In the next hours, we learned that this NOAA ship’s crew is like family. The CO authorized the crew member to take personal leave and arranged for Pisces to meet a Coast Guard vessel the next morning to transport the young man to shore, so he could catch a flight and drive to Mississippi to search for his friend. Since he is also a certified medic, he would be allowed in to the town, despite any official restrictions.

We all felt for him and waited anxiously for word from Joplin. Thankfully, a day later, the ship received a message that his friend was alive and physically intact, although her home and entire neighborhood were destroyed, and so many other residents were critically injured, missing or dead.

It would be terrible to be isolated at sea in such circumstances and feel utterly helpless. I was reminded of the sacrifices so many service members make. As other crew members who had served in the U.S. Navy and other military branches know all too well, home leave, even in emergencies, is not always possible. Many of them had missed key personal events and tragedies while they were away from home on active duty.

Links & Resources

Margaret Stephens, May 22-24, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Margaret Stephens
NOAA Ship:
Pisces
Mission: Fisheries, bathymetric data collection for habitat mapping
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States continental shelf waters from Cape Hatteras, NC to St. Lucie Inlet, FL
Dates: May 22-24, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge as of 12:43 May 24, 2011
Wind Speed 9.67 knots
Wind Direction 147.00 º
Surface Water Temperature25.09 ºC
Air Temperature 24.20 ºC
Relative Humidity 83.00 %
Barometric Pressure 1016.30 mb
Water Depth 20.57 m
Skies: Clear

Acoustics team leader Warren Mitchell examines sonar display. Miami Dolphins “thinking cap”: optional.

Acoustics team leader Warren Mitchell examines sonar display. Miami Dolphins “thinking cap”: optional.

Science and Technology Log

The scientists’ work day never ends. Their scheduled twelve hour shifts routinely extend to fourteen, even eighteen hours, because they keep going until their tasks are completed, no matter how long they take. By night, beginning at 6 p.m., the acoustics team uses multibeam and split beam sonar to conduct mapping work needed to determine a course for the fish surveys the next day. Based on previous findings and the goals stated by Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler, the team sets up a mapping area and communicates it by ship’s radio to the bridge. The ship runs transect lines (similar to large grid lines, in a back and forth pattern) throughout the hours of darkness to gather information about the contours of the sea floor and translate it into three dimensional images to help visualize potential locations for setting fish traps.

Transect lines used for mapping sea floor.

Transect lines used for mapping sea floor.

Transect lines used for mapping sea floor.

Transect lines used for mapping sea floor.

Here’s where the “art” of science comes in. Because there are so many variables, Nate has to weigh what is known from previous surveys with the recent catches and video footage from the underwater cameras, the new data gathered, factor in wind and current conditions, distance between sites, and any other priorities, and use his best judgment to map a trapping route for the day that looks most promising to catch the target fish species. The entire operation is a delicate balance between science and art.

The videography team backs up all the footage recorded by the underwater cameras attached to the fish traps during the day. Christina spends four to six hours for each set of six traps to catalog and back up the video footage. Nate and Christina view some of the film immediately to look for signs of fish that may not have been trapped and clues to the type of bottom habitat.

Fish Survey

Fisheries scientists face an interesting challenge: their subjects of study—fish, of course—are mostly out of sight, underwater, mobile, often evasive, in scattered groupings, and sometimes smart or timid enough to avoid the enticement of baited traps. Yet to assess the health of fish populations and contribute information leading to sound stock management policies, scientists must first find the fish and then attempt to estimate their relative numbers from year to year. Sandy areas on the sea floor rarely harbor many fish of interest to this survey. Hardbottom provides a much more desirable habitat for fish to feed.

Historically, quantifying fish stocks has involved two principal methods:

Fishery dependent sampling – In this method, samples from commercial fish catches are used to estimate the population size of the species of interest. Because fishery dependent sampling relies on fish already caught by commercial fishers, it has the advantage of not requiring a large, expensive infrastructure of research ships and full

scientific teams. However, the data collected are affected by how fishers harvest their catch, including the areas fished, changing priorities of the market (i.e. if the market price for a particular species is up or down, the fishers are likely to go for more or fewer of them, accordingly), type of equipment used (nets, lines, traps, etc.), the experience and expertise of the fishermen, and seasonal or year-to-year changes in availability of the fish.

In fishery independent sampling, the method used on Pisces and other NOAA fish survey vessels, scientists use existing knowledge of species’ habitats along with statistical techniques to select areas to collect fish with traps, nets and other devices. The advantage is that the scientists can design the sampling area and method carefully, and the data collected are not directly affected by the kind of harvesting done by the fishing industry.

Baited chevron traps ready for deployment

Baited chevron traps ready for deployment

The survey work on Pisces involves positioning a set of six baited fish traps, known as chevron traps because of their shape, on the sea floor in an effort to capture red snapper and grouper for population assessment. The science team begins preparing the traps at 6 a.m. each day. They spear and cut whole menhaden, a plentiful fish common to the east coast and popular as bait fish, and suspend them from cords inside the traps. They attach two high-definition video cameras to the outside of each trap to capture images of the sea floor and fish communities that might not enter the traps, tag each trap with an identification number, and attach brightly colored buoys that float on the surface to mark the trap locations for easy spotting and to warn passing boats to avoid them.

The deck crew, directed by the Chief Scientist, releases each trap from the rear deck in the pre-selected position. Because the traps are weighted with heavy metal rods, they fall directly to the bottom and are left there to “soak” for ninety minutes. By the time the last trap in each set of six is in place, it is usually time for the ship to return to the first location to pick up the traps in sequence. The deck crew, guided by the operator of the “pot hauler” (a mechanized hoist and pulley system) sitting above, raises each trap and lifts it to the side deck, careful not to run over the trap lines or damage the cameras.

Then the real work begins. In some cases, the traps come up empty, save for the untouched bait. While a catch of “zero” may be disappointing, the zeroes provide important clues. The empty traps, together with the video images and sea floor mapping work, help the scientists assemble a better picture of the sea floor conditions and fish locations…or at least where they are not.

Crew member Kirk Perry observes as Investigators David Berrane and Dave Meyer empty catch of red snapper and black sea bass from chevron trap

Crew member Kirk Perry observes as Investigators David Berrane and Dave Meyer empty catch of red snapper and black sea bass from chevron trap

When the traps come up containing live fish, as they often do, the deck is abuzz with activity. The deck crew tips the traps open to slide a mass of jiggling, flopping, somewhat stunned sea life into awaiting large plastic containers. The science team begins sorting the catch by species, tossing each into separate bins. That is easier said than done, because the fish are slimy, slippery, and squirmy, and most have sharp spines. The fish handlers wear special high-grip gloves, waterproof fishing bibs and boots, but all protection that doesn’t prevent them from being decorated with fish scales on their hair and clothes and a decidedly fishy aroma by the end of the day. Water sprays about, and many a fish flops out of the containers and must be retrieved, over, under, or on top of lab tables and equipment. I learned the first day the danger of talking while this commotion was going on – unless one wants a mouthwash of fishy liquid, not too tasty at any time of day.

Non target species are released back into the water immediately. On this trip so far, the haul has included algae, octopus, sea stars, masses of sea jellies, and three moray eels. The sea creatures face some trauma from entrapment and being lifted up from the depths of thirty meters (approximately ninety-eight feet) or more, but the scientists make every effort to release the fish they don’t need for further study as soon as possible.

Many bony fish have swim bladders, balloon-like organs that help them control their position up and down in the water column by regulating buoyancy automatically, so they do not float or sink. The bladders allow gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out as the fish ascend or descend.

The gases in the swim bladder can over-expand when the fish are brought quickly from the bottom to the surface, as happens when they are reeled in on hooks and lines or captured in traps. When that occurs, the fish look like they are blowing bubble gum, as the pressure from the expanded swim bladders can push internal, sac-like tissue through their open mouths temporarily.

A team member places each container on a digital scale and calls out the weights loud enough for the data recorder to hear above the din of the equipment in the background. The team sets up in assembly line fashion to measure and record length of each fish. One or two people line up the still-lively fish while two stand at measuring boards, hold the fish flat to measure snout to tail, and then release them through a chute back into their ocean habitat. Only the individuals needed for further study are kept, frozen for later processing.

Measuring black sea bass in the wet lab

Measuring black sea bass in the wet lab

The NOAA team arranged to donate the fish catch to a local food bank program based in Jacksonville, part of the national Second Harvest initiative to assist families in need. The crew has gladly pitched in even after their long regular work shifts to fillet and package the fresh fish for donation. Since the market price for fillets of these species is $10 or more per pound, this represents a significant contribution of high-quality, protein-rich fresh fish.

Personal Log

After a few days working with the fish survey team, I began doing overnight shifts with the acoustics group. Much of their work is highly technical, requiring knowledge of fish habitats, geology, mapping, elements of ship’s navigation, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), sonar technology, and computer-based data management.

To the uninitiated (that would be me) the multiple computer screens displaying sonar, navigational information and models of the sea floor are overwhelming. Had I not been instructed otherwise, I might think I was in a high-tech hospital room, as the multibeam sonar projects an image akin to a medical ultrasound.

The acoustics team members, headed by Investigators Warren Mitchell and Todd Kellison, were unfailingly patient as they explained to me how all the elements of their complex system fit together and what I was to do.

My first assigned task was to mark points visible on the sonar screens representing changes in topography – ledges, mounds, and other contours that might be good potential habitat for our target species, red snapper and grouper. After the data are entered and processed, they are used to construct three dimensional images of the sea floor.

Challenge at Sea: Fatigue

Besides learning the basics needed to assist the team, a big challenge is staying awake and alert enough throughout the night to avoid making any costly errors. The other members of the team are better adjusted than I to sleeping during the day, although with all the work they do, they don’t get much rest. Try as I might, I haven’t managed to stay asleep for more than three or four hour stretches once the sun comes up, even after a couple of all-nighters and with the shades in the cabin fully drawn. I hate to miss all the activity on board, anyway, and I can catch up on sleep after returning to land.

Who said scientists don’t have fun? Although the acoustics work is mentally taxing, there is allowance for humorous banter and frequent foraging trips for midnight snacks. Warren labeled those mini-meals “re-dinners” and coined the verb form, “re-dinnering”. We each forage through the cupboards and refrigerators in the mess to assemble creative combinations. Among the highlights: English muffins with Nutella, monster salad with grouper and salmon, with and without wasabi, fruit and cake with ice cream, corn chowder and fresh baked bread. Somewhere between 2 and 4 a.m., it is usually time for a pre-breakfast bowl of cereal and a third or fourth cup of coffee for the night owls …. the ones who don’t have trouble sleeping during daylight hours!

Along with the eating and constant work, there are interludes for stretches, yoga and chin-ups from the well-placed overhead bars to keep oxygen flowing to our brains. I can certainly sympathize with people who work shifts, especially overnight, for long periods of time.

Fishy Humor?

Another custom on these research trips is to note any significant sayings or funny phrases that trip from anyone’s lips during the long days and nights.

Among the recent entries:

When the traps come up with no fish: “Zero is a number, too!”

When very few fish, or ones other than our subjects of study, are trapped: “Some is better than none.”

After the umpteenth trap haul containing nothing but black sea bass: “Black sea bass are fish, too.”

Every time someone expresses optimism about bringing in a big haul: “This is the one.”

To refer to just about anything that goes wrong: “It could be worse.”

Attention!

A few times each day, the officer on deck announces something of note over the ship’s public address system.

“Safety first!” Chief Engineer Garet Urban with First Engineer Brent Jones

“Safety first!” Chief Engineer Garet Urban with First Engineer Brent Jones

“Attention Pisces: Sea turtles off port bow…: I rushed out to the deck just in time to catch a glimpse of two turtles.

“Attention Pisces: “Fish call. Fish call on rear deck.” When we are in a quiet period between operations or in transit to one research location to another, anyone who wishes to can use a rod and reel off the rear deck. Many of the crew members enjoy this pastime. So far, I haven’t seen any big catches.

I’m still waiting for the “Abandon Ship” drill. My required hat, long sleeved shirt and survival suit are ready to go as soon as the alarm sounds. I hope it is not during the few hours when I’m fast asleep!

Engineering Tour

I asked the Operations Officer, Lieutenant Tracy Hamburger, if it would be possible to have a tour of the ship’s engine room and other mechanical operations. Before I knew it, First Engineer Brent Jones appeared to lead me on a tour of the very impressive essential inner workings of Pisces. The ship’s engineering department keeps Pisces nearly self-contained with all the systems that support its safe operations, the science work, and the lives and comfort of the people aboard. The engineers maintain and repair everything, including the four engines, the fresh water supply system, refrigeration and air conditioning, trash incineration, sewage treatment and disposal, and all the lifts, hoists and other equipment used for scientific and other work.

Crew member Ryan Harris trying his luck during evening fish call

Crew member Ryan Harris trying his luck during evening fish call

Brent informed me that the ship’s trash is combusted at temperatures of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Those high temperatures ensure a fairly complete combustion; nevertheless, there is a residue, or sludge, that must be cleared out regularly. The only materials prohibited from being placed in the incinerators are batteries and aerosol cans, which can explode at those temperatures and damage the system. Any hazardous materials such as paints, solvents, and other chemicals must be labeled and stored for disposal at specialized facilities once the ship returns to port.

Among the impressive other Pisces features and facts:

The ship, with a full complement of crew and scientists, generates about 1400 pounds of waste per day.

  • Special “quiet” controls make her four engines among the quietest in the NOAA fleet.
  • 360 degree thrusters provide force enough to make Pisces very maneuverable in all directions.
  • 1900 gallons or more of marine diesel fuel are consumed each day under normal operations.

Special Terminology

  • Fishery – In a resource management context, a fishery refers to a particular species of interest. For this Pisces research trip, the red snapper and grouper fisheries are of most interest.
  • Fisheries biologists – Scientists who study anatomy and physiology, life cycles, population dynamics, behavioral aspects, habitats, distribution and abundance of fish. They may be employed in academic research, government, education, or commercial sectors.
  • Menhaden – A bait fish commonly used for fisheries research. Menhaden are members of the clupeid family, which includes sardines and herrings. They are used here because they are abundant, relatively cheap, easy to catch and transport, the right size for the trap array and attractive to the target species in the snapper-grouper complex.
  • Hardbottom habitat – a sea floor type that allows for attachment of sponges, seaweed, and coral, which in turn support a diverse reef fish community. The target snapper-grouper complex fish species prefer hardbottom conditions, which are also known as “live bottom” or “live rock”.

Links & Resources

Margaret Stephens, May 19, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Margaret Stephens
NOAA Ship: Pisces
Mission: Fisheries, bathymetric data collection for habitat mapping
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States continental shelf waters from Cape Hatteras, NC to St. Lucie Inlet, FL
Dates of log: Thursday, 19 May through Saturday, 21 May, 2011

Here I am with the CTD equipment

Here I am with the CTD equipment

Weather Data from the Bridge
Position: Latitude 27.87, Longitude -80.16
Wind Speed 11.06 kts
Wind Direction. 131.46 º
Surface Water Temperature 26.88 ºC
Surface Water Temperature
Air Temperature 27.10 ºC
Relative Humidity 78.00 %
Barometric Pressure 1015.50 mb
Water Depth 28.05 m
Sky conditions: clear

Science and Technology Log

General Description of the Scientific Work Aboard Pisces
While at sea, the ship’s operations and scientific crews work in shifts 24/7 – yes, that’s twenty-four hours, every day, with ship operations, maintenance, data collection and gear deployment continuing day and night.
The scientific team, headed by Chief Scientist, Dr. Nate Bacheler, includes researchers who are mostly marine biologists specializing in fisheries. Each team member has complementary specialized skills such as acoustics (use of sonar for sea floor mapping), physical or chemical oceanography, underwater video camera operations, data management and analysis, and many aspects of fish biology.

The main mission of this research cruise is to study red snapper and related grouper species, fish that are of great importance economically and to the marine ecosystem in near shore areas off the southeastern coast of the United States. In particular, the team is studying where the fish are likely to be found (their spatial distribution patterns) and their numbers, or abundance, and population dynamics (how the populations change over time).

This work expands the knowledge needed to guide decisions about how to protect and manage fisheries in a sustainable manner. Healthy, sustainable fish populations are essential to the economy, to the function of healthy ecosystems, and as high-protein (and tasty) food sources. In the past, many fish species have been overfished, resulting in dangerous declines in their populations.
The scientific work on board Pisces for this project is divided into three main areas. This log entry gives an overview of each of the three main areas of work, with a more detailed account of the acoustics, or mapping portion. Upcoming logs will describe the other phases in more detail.

  1. Acoustics – Using the science of sound with advanced sonar and computer technology, the acoustics team maps the sea floor and identifies areas likely to be good fish habitat.
  2. Fish survey – The survey team sets baited traps to catch fish, then collects them, identifies the species, and records essential data about the species of most interest.
  3. Underwater videography – The video team attaches cameras to the traps to view the kinds and activities of fish in the water and assess the type of sea bottom, such as sandy or hard, flat or “bumpy”, regular or irregular.
  4. After all this information is collected in the field, much of the painstaking, detailed analysis takes place back in the home labs and offices of the researchers.

Acoustics Work
Since acoustics is the first step used to identify specific sites to set traps for the fish survey, we’ll start here.
Throughout a long night shift, from 6 p.m. until the work is complete, often 7 a.m. or later the following day, the acoustics team uses sonar (SOund NAvigation and Ranging) and computer analysis to map the sea floor and identify promising areas to set traps for the fish survey. See a detailed description of the sonar equipment and procedures below.

Investigator Jennifer Weaver showing GIS model of sea floor contours

Investigator Jennifer Weaver showing GIS model of sea floor contours

At 5 a.m., the acoustics team meets with Chief Scientist Nate to report any sites they identified overnight and select the stations to sample with fish traps and underwater cameras during the day. The team then converts their data into a kind of route map that the helmsman (the ship’s “driver”) uses to steer the ship along the designated survey route.

The acoustics team members possess extensive knowledge about fish habitats, geography and geology of the sea floor, and computer and sonar technology. They also need to be aware of the interactions among wind, weather and currents and understand charts (marine maps) and ship’s navigation. They constantly communicate with the ship’s bridge via the internal radio network.

Fish survey team prepares baited traps at dawn

Fish survey team prepares baited traps at dawn

The acoustics lab houses work space large enough for five to ten people, banks of computer screens, servers, and large-scale display monitors projecting images from the sonar devices, real time navigation, and views from cameras positioned in work areas on deck.

Once the now-very-sleepy acoustics lab team wraps up its nocturnal work, the team members turn in for a day’s (or night’s?) sleep, just as the other teams’ daylight tasks begin in earnest.

Fish Survey Work
By 6 a.m., in the predawn darkness, the rear deck becomes a hub of concentrated activity, with sounds muffled by the early ocean haze and drone of the engines and generators. The four or more members of the fish survey team, still rubbing sleep from their eyes, assemble on the stern deck (rear of ship or fantail) to prepare the traps to catch fish for the day. Before the sun rises, floodlights illuminate the work of cutting and hanging menhaden, whole fish bait, in the traps, securing the underwater cameras in place, tagging each piece of equipment carefully and checking that everything is ready for deployment.

Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler directs trap deployment from the dry lab

Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler directs trap deployment from the dry lab

Chief Scientist Nate directs the deployment of the traps from the dry lab, where he faces a bank of computer screens displaying maps of the identified sampling route, the ship’s course in real time, and camera shots showing the personnel and operations on deck. By radio, Nate directs the deck crew to lower the traps at each of the designated sites.

The ship is steered along the sampling route, dropping traps in each of six locations. Each trap is left in place for approximately ninety (90) minutes. Once the last trap is lowered, the ship returns to the first location and raises the traps, usually following the same order. The deck crew members, together with the fish survey team, empty any catch and ready the traps for redeployment.
Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler directs trap deployment from the dry lab

Then the fish survey team, coordinated by Investigator Dave Berrane, sets to work sorting, weighing and measuring any catch and immediately releasing any fish not needed for further study.

Investigator Christina Schobernd views underwater video with Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler

Investigator Christina Schobernd views underwater video with Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler

Videography Work
As soon as the traps are hauled aboard by the deck crew, the wet lab team detaches and dries the cameras and hands them to the dry lab, where the videography team, headed by Investigator Christina Schobernd, removes the memory cards and transfers and makes duplicates of the video files on computer drives. All the teams take extreme care to label, catalog and back up everything carefully. Data management and redundancy are essential in this business. The scientists view some of the footage immediately to see if the cameras are working properly and to make any adjustments necessary. They also look for anything unusual or unexpected, any fish captured on camera other than those that made it into the trap, and they assess how closely the sea floor type matched what was expected from the acoustic team’s mapping work.

Christina works well into the night to back up and catalog all the day’s video recordings.

Detailed Description of Fisheries Acoustics Surveys

Multibeam sonar mapping the seafloor. Image courtesy of Jill Heinerth, Bermuda: Search for Deep Water Caves 2009.

Multibeam sonar mapping the seafloor. Image courtesy of Jill Heinerth, Bermuda: Search for Deep Water Caves 2009.

Fisheries Acoustic Surveys: Acoustic surveys help determine the relative abundance of target species and provide information to determine catch rates and guidance for fisheries management.

The equipment aboard Pisces includes two types of sonar devices that use sound waves to measure the water depth, shape or contours of the sea floor, and to a limited extent, fish groupings, or aggregations. Sonar operates using established knowledge about how fast sound travels in water under different conditions to develop a three-dimensional image of the shape of the sea floor. The first type is known as split-beam sonar, which uses sound waves at different frequencies to provide a picture of the underwater environment. Pisces has a Simrad EK60 echosounder.

The second, more sophisticated and expensive system involves Multibeam sonar mapping. Aboard Pisces is a Simrad ME70 device. Multibeam devices emit sound beams that forms an inverted cone, covering a larger area and providing a more complete picture of the sea floor than the series of vertical or horizontal sound signals that the split beam sonar provides. As described above, the bathymetric mapping surveys are conducted primarily during the night, from sundown until dawn, when fish sampling and other ship operations are not taking place. Ideally, this allows the science team to map out a route of sampling sites for the next day’s fish trapping work. At the end of the overnight shift, the acoustics team presents its findings to the Chief Scientist, who then coordinates the day’s activities with the fish team, the ship’s bridge, and the deck crew headed by the chief boatswain.

It’s called “multibeam” because unlike the first single-beam sonars, which sent out one signal or ping, multibeam sonar sends out a whole group of pings at once. Multibeam sonar can cover a larger area than a single beam can. Here’s a Quicktime movie of multibeam sonar: http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/seafloor-mapping/movies/multi_240.mov

Personal Log

I cannot say enough about how friendly and helpful everyone on board has been to this neophyte. It takes a while to adjust to any new environment, but being on a ship at sea has its own learning curve. Pisces, at 209 feet long, operates like a small town. Because it is out at sea for weeks at a time, all supplies and systems must be operating 24/7 to keep the ship and crew focused on the appointed mission and keep everyone on board safe, comfortable, and able to do their jobs.

I spent the first two days getting acclimated to the layout of the ship, safety practices, meeting the members of the scientific crew, adjusting to the rigorous schedule, and doing my best not to commit any grave offenses or make big mistakes that would make the work of this very patient group of dedicated professionals any more difficult than it is already.

Sleep Time Because the ship’s work continues round the clock, sleep time varies, depending on the person’s position and duties. It is important for everyone aboard to be mindful that at any hour of the day or night, it’s likely that someone is sleeping. The mapping crew began a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift (or later, until the work is finished) on our second day at sea, and most of them will keep that difficult schedule for the entire cruise. Since I’m the lucky one to experience every aspect of the work, I’ll rotate through the various jobs and schedules. For the first few days, I’ll work with the fish survey team, from 6 a.m. until their work is completed, which may mean a break for supper at 5 p.m. followed by a few more hours of lab work to process all the day’s catch. My first day on the acoustics team, I’m scheduled to start at 4 a.m. assisting their nightly wrap up, as by the last few hours of their shift, they are quite tired.

Dining and Comforts Aboard Ship

Chief Steward/Chef Jesse Stiggens with a Pisces creation, a vegetable quiche.

Chief Steward/Chef Jesse Stiggens with a Pisces creation, a vegetable quiche.

Chief Steward Jesse Stiggens and Assistant Steward Michael Sapien create a terrific, appetizing menu for the three main meals and plenty of extras and snacks available at any hour.

The stewards are very accommodating, so anyone who will miss a main meal because of their work or sleep schedule can sign up in advance for the stewards to set aside a full plate of delicious food for them. The mess (dining room on a ship) is open all day and night, with coffee, cold beverages, an array of sandwich fixings, cereals and assorted leftovers kept chilled for anyone to microwave anytime they get a hankering for a nibble or a bigger bite. And…very important for morale … there’s a freezer stocked with ice cream, even Blue Bunny (a favorite in the South that I had not seen before) and Häagen-Dazs. There’s also a big screen television in the mess. The lounge area has computers, a conference or game table, a small library of books, a large screen television and several hundred movie titles, even new releases, for the crew to enjoy in their off time. Also available are wonderful reclining chairs, so comfortable, I wish I had time to use them. The one and only time I tried one out, the fire alarm went off for our first drill, and I haven’t had a free moment since.

Doomsday Came and Went: Saturday, 21 May, 2001….and Pisces work continues
CNN reports: After months of warnings and fear, the Day of Rapture, as predicted by apocalyptic Christian broadcaster Harold Camping, passed without apparent calamity. Judgment Day was to have started at 6 p.m., but as darkness fell on many parts of the world, it appeared that heaven could wait. At this writing, there have been no reports of people soaring upward to the skies, but plenty of folks are talking about it.

That includes those of us on Pisces. The possibility that Doomsday was approaching generated some good-natured kidding and gallows humor. We had some debate about when the end would begin. Since most of the ship’s instruments use Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as a reference, we speculated that our end time might occur four hours later than east coast Daylight Savings Time (DST).

Everyone had their eyes on the clock and the horizon as first, the predicted doomsday hour of 6 p.m. DST came and went, and then, four hours later, 6 p.m. GMT passed without incident. Any apprehensions were put to rest, and now we have new fodder for discussion.

Special Challenges for Research at Sea
Many people have the idea that science is neat, pretty and conducted in sterile lab environments by other-worldly thinkers in clean white lab coats. That is decidedly not the case in fisheries work at sea. This section lists the special challenges (or, as, some optimists would say, “opportunities”) of conducting shipboard research. Each log will focus on or give examples of one or more challenges.

  • Limits of “shooting in the dark” – Imagine a vast, dark, deep, ever-changing, difficult-to-penetrate area, with living organisms moving about in and out, with all kinds of surface, bottom, and in-between conditions. That’s what underwater research involves. Examples: The mapping team thinks it has found great habitat for red snapper and grouper, so the survey team expects a bountiful trap. But up comes nothing but a trap still full of untouched bait. Or, the habitat conditions look promising, but the current is too strong to set the traps safely.
  • The Unexpected – It is often said that the only thing predictable in field research of this kind is unpredictability! You just never know….
  • Curiosity-seekers and just plain business – recreational and commercial boats – Not surprisingly, the areas of interest for NOAA fisheries research are often favorite fishing grounds for recreational fishermen, scuba divers, and active routes for commercial ships. Therefore, Pisces crew and helm (the person steering the ship) must always be on alert for other boat traffic. Example: On Saturday, a small recreational boat occupied by partiers pulled up nearly alongside Pisces. Despite polite cautions and requests from our bridge for the small boat to move away to a safer distance, the visitors just kept waving and cheering for a while.

Challenges to come in next logs:

  • Changing sea conditions, weather, waves and current
  • Fatigue
  • Limited daylight hours
  • Emergencies
  • More unpredictables

Links & Resources

Margaret Stephens, May 18, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Margaret Stephens NOAA Ship: Pisces
Mission: Fisheries survey, bathymetric data collection for habitat mapping
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States continental shelf waters from Mayport, Florida to South of St. Lucie Inlet, Florida Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
As of 15:05 (3:00 p.m. EDT 18 May)
Wind Speed 11.17 knots
Wind Direction 68.31
Clear, Visibility 10+ miles
Surface Water Temperature 26.33 ºC
Air Temperature 22.10 ºC
Relative Humidity 65.00 %
Barometric Pressure 1011.20 mb
Water Depth 38.09 m

Science and Technology Log

NOAA Ship Pisces, Commissioned on November 6, 2009

NOAA Ship Pisces, Commissioned on November 6, 2009

The principal work of the Pisces involves fish – their habitats, distribution (where they are found) and their population dynamics (how and why their numbers change over time). Teams of scientists come aboard Pisces for a few days to two weeks at a time to study, monitor, and collect data on many marine species and conditions in the waters of the United States from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and South Atlantic as far north as North Carolina. This region is among the world’s most productive marine areas, with many important commercial and recreational fisheries. Pisces is outfitted with sophisticated equipment and instruments that allow scientists to conduct surveys of many marine species, study ocean conditions and marine habitats, and map the sea floor using bathymetric (underwater mapping) analysis. Their work provides vital information to help establish practices and policies to manage marine ecosystems protect species and habitats facing stresses from overfishing, pollution, and climate change, and maintain sustainable fishing practices. Pisces also observes and collects data on weather, sea conditions, and other environmental factors important to the fishing and other commercial interests, scientists, and coastal residents.

During this research cruise, Pisces will collect data primarily about red snapper and grouper species (known as the snapper-grouper complex) to assess their distribution and abundance, or population numbers. At present, the red snapper fishery is closed, meaning that commercial and recreational fishing of that species is prohibited, because overfishing had led to a severe decline in its population. Groupers, a group (no pun intended) of species, are popular, tasty and economically important fish caught by recreational and commercial fishing boats.

The first step in the scientific work is for the team to identify areas where those species are likely to be found, so that they can have a better chance of catching them to study further. The scientists, like good detectives, gather information from prior studies about the kinds of habitats those species prefer, and then they use advanced sonar techniques to find the most promising areas to survey. There will be more about their techniques, equipment and methodologies in the upcoming log entries.

The scientific party aboard includes eleven professionals, led by Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler, Ph.D. Nate and several of the team work out of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, headquartered in Beaufort, North Carolina. All of them look forward to spending a few or more weeks at sea each year for about a week or two at a time. The ship’s operations crew, headed by Commander Jeremy Adams, includes officers who manage the ship around the clock, ship’s engineers, deck crew and, most importantly, the stewards that keep everyone well fed all day, every day.

Personal Log

I’m so fortunate to be among a terrific group of dedicated scientists and crew as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is like the NASA of the oceans. As a federal government agency funded by public dollars, its mission is to study and provide information to the public and decision-makers about the weather, climate, and management of marine resources vital to our survival and livelihoods. NOAA’s work affects everyone, as it helps us predict weather, track major storms, and alert people to potentially dangerous conditions.

Endeavor space shuttle launch 16 May, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. STS-134 Mission. Photo source: NASA

Endeavor space shuttle launch 16 May, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. STS-134 Mission. Photo source: NASA

The Teacher at Sea program provides educators the opportunity to share science with the public. It allows me and a lucky group of counterparts to work side by side with scientists, using cutting edge equipment and methods, to learn all about a research ship’s operations, and to alert students to career opportunities in scientific and marine-related fields.

Pisces ran into mechanical problems that kept her from leaving her home port of Pascagoula, Mississippi as scheduled. The superstitious among us might think that the date, Friday the 13th of May, had something to do with the delay. Then, as luck would have it, the space shuttle Endeavor’s new launch was set for just the time Pisces would have been approaching the area around Cape Canaveral, so Pisces and all other ship and air traffic were redirected to remain outside of the shuttle’s exclusion zone.
Endeavor space shuttle launch 16 May, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. STS-134 Mission. Photo source: NASA
Pisces finally arrived at the rendezvous point, the Mayport, Florida Naval Station late on Monday, May 16. I met the scientific team in town, and after clearing Navy security, we entered the base and set sights on the great-looking ship, our floating home for the next two weeks.

The scientists and crew have been warm and welcoming as I find my way around the decks and passageways, get my sea legs, and try to learn all I can about their research. They are so genuinely interested in sharing their knowledge and experience that it is impossible not to catch their enthusiasm.

NOAA Teacher at Sea, Margaret Stephens, aboard the Pisces

NOAA Teacher at Sea, Margaret Stephens, aboard the Pisces

NOAA Ship Pisces, Commissioned on November 6, 2009

NOAA Ship Pisces, Commissioned on November 6, 2009

We’ve had our first fire drill, where the ship’s alarm sounds for a deafening ten seconds, and we all scramble (walking briskly, never running) to our muster locations to make sure everyone is present and safe. Next up: an Abandon Ship drill that involves our donning an unwieldy one-size-supposedly-fits-all survival suit in under sixty seconds. The suit is otherwise known as a “Gumby” – you can figure out why!

Links & Resources