My first day on the longline seems so long ago now that I’ve got three days under my belt. The night before my first shift, just like when school starts, I couldn’t sleep. Trying to prepare was futile. I was lost, lost in the wet lab, lost in my stateroom, lost in the mess. I needed to get some gloves on and get to work, learning the best way I know how: by doing.
At noon, I stepped out the fantail, life vest, gloves, hard hat, and sunscreen on, nervous, but ready to work. The Gulf of Mexico horizon was dotted with oil rigs, like a prairie full of farmhouses. Heat waves rose from the black steel deck.
Scientist Paul Felts and Field Party Chief and shark research biologist, Dr. Trey Driggers, began to prepare for their next station by baiting the hooks with mackerel (Scomber scombrus).
Once all hooks were baited, skilled fisherman Chris Rawley and Dr. Trey Driggers, Field Party Chief, released the high flyer, a large pole with a buoy at the bottom and a reflective metal flag on the top.
The high flyer bobbed off toward the horizon.
Chris dropped three weights, one at the beginning of the line, one in the middle, and one at the end, to anchor the line to the sea floor.
As the longline stretched across the sea, Kevin Rademacher reef fish research biologist, attached a numbered tag to the baited hook held by field biologist Paul Felts.
Paul passed the baited, tagged hook to Tim Martin, Chief Boatswain, who attached 100 hooks, evenly spaced, to the longline. Setting the longline is rather predictable, so with Rush and Van Halen salting the air, we talked about our kids, dogs, cars, and science. The tags attached to each baited hook would help us track the fish we caught. After the fish is released the data is entered in the computer and shared with the scientific community. Maybe one of these tagged fish would end up in one of the many scientific papers Dr. Trey Driggers, field party chief, publishes on sharks each year. As Paul says “organization is key.”
The line soaked for an hour, bait resting on the ocean floor, waiting for snapper, tile fish, eels, sharks, and other species to bite. While the line soaked, I lowered the CTD, a piece of equipment that measures conductivity, temperature, and depth, into the water.
The bridge crew circled the mile long line, back to Tag #1, to give each hook equal time in the water.
After an hour, we all walked up to the well deck, toward the bow or front of the ship. Its a hum of excitement, whether it be the first longline of our lives, season or month. As we pull in the hooks, some have bait, some bait missing, until hook #83: FISH ON!
It was a blacknose (Carcharhinus acronotus), “pound for pound, the meanest shark in the water,” says Trey. He would know, he’s the shark expert. It came up fighting, but was no match for Kevin who carefully managed to get length, weight, and sex data before releasing it back into sea. With one shark to process, the three scientists are able to analyze the blacknose together, as I watch. As a field biologist, Paul works with experts in each unit, sharing what he learns in each subsequent survey. He appreciates research biologists like Kevin and Trey who also spend time in the field. From the discussions in the lab, on the deck, and in the mess, the passion and knowledge all three men share is impressive.
Fortunately, the transition from inexperienced to novice was an easier than it might have been. On the second line, we only brought in two fish, one shark and one red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus).
For the red snapper, a bony fish with a skeleton made of bones, we had to remove the otoliths, which people often call ear bones to determine age, and gonads to determine reproductive status. Why? To ensure that commercially viable fisheries do not become depleted, and to ensure that those less known species are studied and conserved for future generations. Kevin will provide the data that allows other research biologists in the Pascagoula Lab to determine population trends for snapper and other reef fish so that policy makers can manage fisheries in a sustainable manner.
We set the longline a third time. The highflyer bobs toward the orange sun, low on the horizon. As we head to the well deck at the front of the ship to bring it in, the sky is dark and the stars are out. We are slammed! Twenty-eight Atlantic sharpnose sharks and one snapper. Taking down all the data, I feel like an integral member of the team.