Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Newportal Blog

A gateway to oceanographic adventures from the Newport Line and beyond

Blog on ocean conditions along the Newport Line and the northern CA Current.

The Thrill of Discovery!

By Thomas Murphy
February 23, 2017

Like the famous naturalists of the past, we set sail aboard the NOAA Bell M. Shimada seeking the unknown. Only this time, the unknown isn’t a dark continent or the edge to a flat world, but the unknown effects on ecological systems that are undergoing global change.

Sunrise from the bridge of the NOAA Bell M. Shimada, 21 Feb 2017.

For me, ocean surveys are a chance to reach back to the roots of this field of science – the naturalist. Just like immersion in a culture can rapidly advance one’s grasp of a foreign language, escaping the barrage of phone calls and daily emails allows for reconnecting with the real creatures and systems that many scientists now try to understand through models and complex calculations. Our sampling stations, sometimes located 200 miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, involve various types of nets and sensors, but ultimately, they all involve a mystery. Each tow of a net is an opportunity to see species that humans rarely would encounter, bringing a sense of reality to the myriad creatures seen on shows like Planet Earth or read about in books. At night, animals like lanternfish rise to the surface in their daily migration, having left the light of the sun as juveniles to live a life enshrouded in the murky darkness of the deep. They each represent a piece to the puzzle that drives an ever-changing ecosystem.

Neuston (surface) sample collected off Newport Hydrographic Line.

                                               As a scientist that began my career in the warm waters of the Caribbean, these are all aliens to me. Some might even be new to science. That possibility is what inspired me as a child to pursue a career in marine biology. When the famous mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his response was, “Because it’s there.” For him, it was something seen that needed to be conquered through sheer will. For me, exploring the depths of the unseen world below the surface instilled a similar sentiment – to shine a light through the darkness and make the unknown known. With every copepod and fish, alga and gelatinous creature, a story unfolds about the effects of our warming oceans.

Some species, like the colonial pelagic tunicates (pyrosomes, see or the Pacific pompano represent a clear sign of change in the communities of the Pacific Northwest. As their ranges expand North with warming waters, native species are experiencing new interactions and competition that has untold effects. As a salmon ecologist, both predators and prey are changing a multi-million dollar fishery. We look for answers through studying the smallest of creatures in hopes of understanding how to protect and preserve these iconic species. From changes in copepod communities, we can determine how these fish (salmon) might fare in the ocean before they make their long journeys back upriver to spawn new generations. With every net cast into the deep, we are hoping to find a way to better understand their complex lives in order to ensure future generations will be able to enjoy the bounty of the ocean we marine biologists love and treasure.

Unidentified squid species from a neuston (surface) sample.
A kelp crab from the beam trawl and a lanternfish with photophores (small silver spots along the belly) for producing light collected from a nighttime bongo net tow.

Tagged: NCC

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