Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The End of the Journey

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Channa Comer
Ship: Coastal Research Vessel Hugh R. Sharp
Mission: Sea Scallop Survey Leg 1
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic
Date: Saturday, May 21, 2011

Final Log
This will be my final log of the cruise. Unlike previous posts, it will not be separated into a science and a personal log. For my final post, I’ve integrated the two because what I’ve gained from the trip is both scientific and personal. In addition to all that I’ve learned about what happens on a Sea Scallop Survey, the FSCS, scallops in general, and many of the other creatures that live on the North Atlantic Ocean floor, I will be taking home new questions to answer and new avenues to explore.

This was my first experience with marine biology and I couldn’t have had a better one. Rather than reading about the ocean in a textbook, I was able to experience it, in all its grandeur, wonder, beauty, diversity, and unpleasantness (sea sickness, green sand dollar slime, sea squirts, sea mouse). I also couldn’t have asked for better hosts that all the people at NOAA who helped to make this trip possible --everyone in the Teacher at Sea program who helped before the trip and everyone here on the boat.

With the many, many, many tows and baskets and baskets of sand dollars, I’ve developed a fascination with them and many questions to answer when I get home. While I’ve learned a bit about them here on the ship, there is still so much to learn about them. Why are they in such abundance in certain areas? How can you tell the difference between a male and a female? How exactly do they reproduce? What is there function in the deep sea food web? What is their life span? Why the green slime? If their anus and mouth is in the same place, how what mechanism exists to turn one function off when the other is active? If any of you know the answers to these questions, feel free to share.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to Vic, the chief scientist who was always willing to share whatever he knows (and he knows a lot), answer all of my many questions, always went out of his way that I had everything that I needed to fulfill my Teacher at Sea obligations, and made me feel like part of the “family.” I am also extremely thankful to all the other members of my watch (and Chief Jakub) for being such an amazing group to work with. We worked together for 12 hours each day for 11 days and NEVER HAD A FIGHT! Everyone always made a conscious effort to be kind, courteous and helpful. Definitely a great lesson to take back with me. One of the most special things about this experience has been the opportunity to get to know the people on board, to learn about their varied backgrounds and how they ended up where they are.
Through my participation in the Teacher at Sea program, I’ve also learned a greater appreciation for the food that I eat. There is so much that happens before food gets to my plate that I usually take for granted. In the case of scallops, the Sea Scallop Survey is just one part of a very complex picture that includes fishermen who make a living for themselves and provide jobs and opportunities for others, all of the organisms who share the ocean with scallops that are affected by scallop fishing, the ocean ecosystem, and the consumers who buy and eat scallops. In reflecting on this, I’m reminded of a series of articles that I read recently about integrating Native American science (viewing science from a holistic perspective with consideration of how our choices affect ecological balance) with western science. While our immediate needs and wants cannot be minimized, as a society, we could definitely benefit a broader, more long-term view of how our choices affect us over the long term, especially as we are faced with diminishing resources and an ever-expanding population.

Thanks to all of you who followed my adventure by reading the blog. And thank you for your comments, both on the blog and via email.

Until the next adventure…………

If Sand Dollars Were Real Dollars

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Channa Comer
Ship: Coastal Research Vessel Hugh R. Sharp
Mission: Sea Scallop Survey Leg 1
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic
Date: Thursday, May 19, 2011

Science and Technology Log
Day 9 – Thursday, May 19, 2011

I started this post at just before my shift started and from the portholes (windows) in the conference room it looks like a beautiful, sunny day. I’ve learned to enjoy the sun while its out since the weather can change very rapidly. We’ve had some rough weather over the last few days. It was rough enough on Tuesday that dredging was suspended from 11:30 in the evening until 5am Wednesday morning. Since then, the tows have been proceeding as scheduled and we are on track to complete the 155 scheduled tows by Saturday.

Yesterday was sand dollar day. We completed 12 tows during the day shift and each tow seemed to have more sand dollars than the last. In our final tow of the shift, there were 48 46-liter baskets of sand dollars and one basket of scallops. If only they were real dollars, everyone on the boat would be able to retire.
All the data that we collect is entered into the Fisheries Scientific Computer System (FSCS). The FSCS is the system that is used on the Sea Scallop survey to collect station and biological data for each tow. The SCS collects data during each tow via vessel sensors and manual data entry. At a random location the operator starts a program that logs the station location data into a series of files during the 15 minute tow. Examples of the data collected are, latitude, longitude, ocean depth, vessel speed, time, and various meteorological measures. The data is then compiled and additional values are calculated from the 1 second interval files, tow length, tow duration, average speed, etc. The additional data is important for monitoring and standardizing each tow to a set of default parameters. With a tow duration of 15 minutes, at a speed of 3.8 knots the dredge should cover about 1 nautical mile of distance on the bottom of the ocean. The raw files from the SCS are sent to the mobile sampling van and made available to users there.

After the dredge is brought up and the catch has been sorted, we break up into three teams of two and head to the van. Each work station has an electronic fish measuring board to measure each species, a touch sensitive monitor used to pick the species to work on, and a motion compensating digital scale to weigh individual fish. The main workstation has an additional large scale. The large scale is use to measure each species as a whole rather than an individual within one species. The three computers are interconnected and each workstation can observe the entire list of species being processed.

There are additional FSCS computers in a second, “dry” lab. The computers in the dry lab log data during the measuring process. Each workstation in the dry lab is wired through the ship to the van. All data is backed up immediately to the main FSCS server. Once all data is collected after a tow, the Watch Chief loads the data into a database and audits the data for accuracy. While it is a complex system, we are generally able to process a catch within 30 to 40 minutes.

New Animals Seen
Winter Skate Fluke Witch Flounder
Conger Eel Small Mouth Flounder Winter Flounder
Snail Fish Windowpane Flounder Spotted Hake
Spider Crab Yellow Tail Flounder Silver Hake
Sea Grape Sea Squirt

Personal Log
Day 9 – Thursday, May 19, 2011
Today Vic gave us a lesson in putting together the iron rings that are used in the construction of the scallop dredge. Two inch diameter iron rings are connected with small iron compression links. The rings are put together with a tool called a link squeezer which looks like a giant bolt cutter. I felt very strong after putting a few together and I may use them to make a nautical themed belt. We brought in the largest eel of the trip today, a 64 cm long Conger Eel. Steve who held the fish so that I could photograph it had a hard time since it was pretty strong, slippery and wiggling furiously.

As the cruise draws to a close, while I’ve had a great time, I am anxious to return to NY. I can’t wait to share my photos, experience and the samples that I’ve collected with my students and friends. I also can’t wait to sleep in my own bed, have a long shower in my own bathroom, and have a big bowl of broccoli -- seriously. I’m sure that I’ve gained at least 10 lbs on this trip.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Crabs and Stars

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Channa Comer
Ship: Coastal Research Vessel Hugh R. Sharp
Mission: Sea Scallop Survey Leg 1
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic
Date: Monday, May 15, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Today’s weather:
Air Temperature: 16.2C, Mostly Cloudy
Wind Speed: 11.6 knots
Water Temperature: 13.4C
Swell Height: 1.0 meters

Science and Technology Log
Day 6 – Monday, May 15, 2011

Question of the Day (See the answer at the end of the post)
How do you count a basket of crabs?

It’s hard to believe that we’re already at the halfway mark of the cruise. Since my last log, we’ve covered a total of 966 nautical miles. Today, we’ve traveled from Hudson Canyon which is 60 nautical miles east of Atlantic City to about 50 nautical miles from the coast of Point Pleasant, NJ.
Each day, the boat stops at predetermined points along the route. At each stop, the scallop dredge is lowered to the ocean floor at depths ranging from 15 to 60 fathoms. The dredge is then towed for 15 minutes at a speed of 3.8 knots. When 15 minutes has passed, the dredge is brought up and the catch is dumped onto a platform were we all wait anxiously to see what comes up. Once the empty dredge is secure, we get to work sorting the catch. Scallops and fish get separated, with everything else collected into baskets, cataloged as “trash” and returned to the ocean. The scallops are measured, and the fish are sorted by species, then counted, weighed and in some cases saved for further scientific study back at NOAA labs. Once everything has been counted, weighed and measured, it’s time for my favorite activity – shucking! Scallops are shucked and if there’s time, washed bagged and placed in the deep freezer for Paul to use in the galley for meals. To date, we’ve completed 90 tows and dredged 23,212 scallops.
What comes up at each catch depends on the location of the tow. The southernmost, areas that have been open, or those areas that have recently been closed will usually yield fewer scallops. Scallop yields increase as we head northward and in areas that are closed to fishing. In addition to scallops, our tows have included a variety of deep sea fish, starfish, lots of live sand dollars (with their accompanying green slime), and very often, mud.
At select tows, representative samples of scallops are processed beyond the usual length measurements. The shells are scrubbed clean and weights are recorded for the meat and gonad (reproductive organ). The shells are then labeled and bagged for transport to the lab where they will be aged. The age of scallops are determined by counting the number of growth rings on the shell – similar to counting rings on a tree.
Every three tows is my favorite – Crabs and Stars!! In this tow, in addition to the usual sorting and measuring, all Cancer crabs are collected, counted and weighed and a representative sample of starfish are sorted by species, then counted and weighed. Astropecten, a small starfish is a predator of scallops and the most abundant species of starfish that we’ve counted. Usually, a tow that has large numbers of Astropecten has very few scallops. Being a stickler for detail, having the job of counting starfish has been perfect for me.
Did you know?
Starfish eat a scallop by attaching themselves to the scallop in numbers, forcing the shell open, then extruding their stomachs into the shell and digesting the meat.

Animals Seen
Dolphins Red Hake Sea Mouse
Chain Dogfish Little Skate Four Spot Flounder
Red Sea Robin Sea Urchin Snake Eel
Ocean Pout Sand Dollar Sand Lance
Goosefish Starfish Gulf Stream Flounder
Black Sea Bass Hermit Crab Sea Raven

Personal Log
Day 3 – Thursday, May 12, 2011
With my sea sickness over after the first day and having adjusted to my new sleep schedule -- I actually get to sleep a full 8 hours! -- the days are starting to take on a nice flow. It’s been great being part of a team. We’re like a well-oiled machine. Everyone in my crew continues to be generous, sharing the best shucking techniques and giving me a little extra time to take photos and collect samples. We’ve jokingly renamed the “crabs and stars” tow to “crabs, stars and mud”. It’s really hard to count starfish when they’re covered in mud. Dinner was especially delicious today with salmon in pesto sauce with potatoes and broccoli.

Day 4 – Friday, May 13, 2011
The day started out cloudy and overcast, but the sun made an appearance late in the afternoon. The first tow of the day was my favorite -- Crabs and Stars!! -- with accompanying mud. As part of the Teacher at Sea program, in addition to my logs, I am required to write a lesson plan. I’ve started to draft what I think will be a great unit using the sea scallop as a springboard to explore issues in ecology and the nature of ecological science. Highlights will be an Iron Chef style cooking competition using scallops and a design challenge where students will have to build a working model of a scallop dredge. Vic has been great with providing whatever data, materials and background information that I need for my lessons. Lunch today was chicken burritos with fresh, spicy guacamole.

Day 6 – Sunday, May 15, 2011
Since its Sunday, I decided to take it easy and instead of trying to get a lot done before my shift and during the breaks, I took it easy and watched a little TV. With satellite TV and a large selection of DVDs, there are always lots of options. Although the guys tend to prefer sports or reality TV. The first few tows were back to back which meant little time for breaks, or snacks, or naps. Just enough time to clean up, shuck and be ready for the next tow.

Day 7 – Monday, May 16, 2011
The trip is half over. It’s hard to believe. The tows were once again, back to back with a fair amount of scallops, but I think after today, we won’t need to shuck anymore. Yay! Today was the day that the animals fought back. I was chomped by a scallop and a crab! The scallop was more of a surprise than a pain, but the crab clawed right through my glove. After days with no restrictions, we received the warning from the engineers today that we have to be careful with the faucets. Dripping faucets waste water and it takes time for the water to be converted through condensation in the condenser to usable water. If we’re not more careful, we’ll be faced with restrictions on how much water we can use……… I hope that doesn’t happen since I think we all officially smell like fish. Lunch today was cream of asparagus soup, yummy and reminiscent of my recent trip to Peru. The only thing missing was Quiona. And finally, today was the day that I’ve been waiting for. I found my favorite ice cream. I’ve been rationing myself to one per day, but after I found my favorite – butter pecan ice cream sandwiches – I could not resist a second.

Answer to Question of the Day: Very carefully!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Vogage Begins

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Channa Comer
Ship: Coastal Research Vessel Hugh R. Sharp
Mission: Sea Scallop Survey Leg 1
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic
Date: Friday, May 13, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Today’s weather:
Air Temperature: 13.7C, Partly Cloudy
Wind Speed: 5 knots
Water Temperature 13.1C
Swell Height: 0.1 meters

Science and Technology Log
Day 1 – Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The coastal Research Vessel Hugh R. Sharp set sail at around 2PM on Wednesday, May 11th from Lewes, DE. There are 13 members on the science team, six who are volunteers (including myself), and nine crew members. On the first day, we met for introductions, a briefing on the schedule of the day and safety instructions.

The Hugh R. Sharp is 146 ft research vessel, weighs approximately 490 tons and has a cruising speed of about 10 knots. The vessel is diesel electric with all the comforts of home (satellite television, heat, hot water, laundry facilities), and can be at sea for a maximum of 30 days. The vessel is configured with a pilothouse (at the top) and three decks. The “below decks” which is the bottom-most deck has the bulk of the ship’s machinery and crew cabins. The main deck is where most of the action happens. It houses the portable lab van where each catch is processed, a dry lab which houses the computers used for the survey, a wet lab, dredging equipment and the all important galley and mess area. There is also a small conference room where members of the crew can be intermittently found working, reading, listening to music, or eating ice cream.

Once we were out to sea, the team got to work preparing for a test tow of the scallop dredge. The dredge is 8ft wide and is made of a metal frame from which netting and a bag constructed of rings is attached aftward. It is lowered with a winch off the stern of the vessel and descends to depths that range from 30 meters to 150 meters. As the ship moves at a speed of 3.8 nautical miles per hour for 15 minutes, the dredge scrapes the sea floor. A test tow is conducted near the shore to make sure this important equipment is working properly.

The focus of this NOAA Fisheries cruise is to survey the population of Placopecten magellanicus, the deep-sea scallop that is commercially fished and sold to the public. Chief scientist Victor Nordahl (NOAA-Fisheries) is the head of the team of researchers and coordinates all aspects of the survey. The NOAA Fisheries Service monitors the populations of sea scallops in the federal waters on the Eastern continental shelf of the U.S. In 2007, scallops represented the most valuable commercial fishery, along with lobsters. It is critical to monitor their populations to avoid over-fishing of these waters. Fishing areas are either open or closed, meaning that fishing is either allowed or not. Closed areas allow time for repopulation of the area of the commercial species.

Temperature and depth are important for scallops. The species we are studying are found in waters cooler than 20C (68F) along the North Atlantic continental shelf area between Newfoundland and North Carolina. In the 12-day time period of this survey, we will conduct approximately 15 sampling stations per day, working 24hrs a day with two crews working in 12 hour shifts. I’ve been assigned to a six person day crew with Jakub Kircun serving as watch chief.

New Term/Phrase/Word
Head = bathroom
Stateroom = bedroom
Fathom = 6 feet

Personal Log
Day 1 – Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Being on board a vessel for the first time is like being in a foreign country with a new language and new customs to learn. Everyone on board has been very helpful and generous in sharing their knowledge, advice and experience. The crew, NOAA staff and other volunteers are an eclectic bunch from all over (Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Germany, Honduras, and France). Vic, chief scientist for the cruise, has been especially kind, taking the time to answer my many questions and make sure that I’m comfortable with all the new information and procedures. Sara, my bunkmate is a pleasure and we’ve gotten along great so far. After the first day, we only see each other in passing at meals since we’re on opposite shifts. I’m looking forward to a great adventure!

Day2 – Thursday, May 12, 2011
Today is day two and my first full 12-hour shift (from 12noon until midnight).The first day was rough since we spent most of the day getting ready to leave and then heading out to the site where we would bring up our first catch. I was a little sick the entire day, eating lots of crackers and ginger. I’m sleeping in a small cabin with a desk and two bunkbeds --- with NO LADDER. My bunkmate Sara, is a graduate student from Germany and since she got to the boat first, she got to choose the bunk. Guess which one she chose?! After a few bruises on my shins, I’ve pretty much figured out the best way to get in and out of my bunk without getting hurt. Today I learned how to identify a few different species of fish and how to shuck scallops, which is my least favorite activity so far since they’re still alive and sometimes fight back while your shucking them (Ugh!).

Did You Know?
A nautical mile is a measure of distance used at sea is derived by dividing the circumference of the earth by 360, then by 60 and actually represents minutes of latitude covered over the earth. One nautical mile is equivalent to approximately 1.2 statutory miles.