None of us had ever been to sea before. We met when we boarded the Bell M. Shimada in San Francisco on the 4th of July, to begin the 2nd leg of the 2017 Joint US-Canada Integrated Ecosystem and Pacific Hake Acoustic-Trawl Survey. Before long, we’d be working as a team to efficiently collect and record catch data, even in rough seas, and learning through experience what it takes to conduct an international fishery population survey.
NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada is our hotel, restaurant, transportation, fishing vessel, and laboratory. After ten days at sea, we’d surveyed seventeen of the predefined east-west transects numbered 17-40, each around 35 nautical miles long. These cover an area offshore from roughly 300 miles of Northern California coastline from south of San Francisco almost to Eureka.
In the acoustics lab, NOAA scientists monitor multiple sonar frequencies for signs of hake. NOAA officers, deck crew, scientists and volunteers all stand by, ready to begin fishing operations anytime during daylight hours. At night, survey technicians measure conductivity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll fluorescence to depths of 500 meters. On this cruise, we’re also collecting zooplankton in a vertical net at predetermined locations, and assessing the composition of phytoplankton populations which can lead to harmful algal blooms.
While we’re at sea, there is always someone working (and there’s always someone sleeping), but the ship truly comes to life when we’re fishing. After a ten-minute marine mammal watch, the net goes in the water, together with multiple instruments and an underwater camera to record the catch. It takes longer than you might expect to send the net to the 200-400 meter depths where we typically find huge schools of hake which sometimes stretch for miles. In the lab, we wait. Often, sea birds like gulls, shearwaters, and black-footed albatross gather at the surface, also waiting for our catch. The acoustics are so accurate that it’s almost entirely hake.
As first-time volunteer marine biologists, we’ve had to learn a lot in a short period of time. Hake anatomy to identify gender and collect tissue samples. Instruments to collect and record length and weight data. And how to stay on our feet, maneuver with sharp tools, and work with sometimes temperamental instruments in a laboratory that’s always moving with the wind and waves. Two weeks ago, it took us a long time to manage even a small sample in the lab. Now we can process a typical sample of around 400 fish in just a couple of hours.
Each of us approached this experience with some preconceived notions about what working at sea would be. We worried about seasickness, homesickness, long hours, or other challenges. Thankfully, we haven’t suffered any of these! And in exchange for our willingness to try something new, we’ve been rewarded with an unforgettable experience and a deeper understanding of how demanding and rewarding it is to study our oceans. Pacific hake are a significant part of the marine food web and an important commercial fishery for the US and Canada, and this research is just a small part of a much larger body of knowledge. I am deeply grateful for this experience, and for the mariners, oceanographers, and marine scientists who devote their careers to advancing our collective understanding of the oceans, the largest and most productive ecosystems on Earth.
This is Monica Baze,Ph.D. and I am along on the second leg of the Bell M. Shimada Summer 2017 Hake Cruise as the “HABs” scientist. In addition to surveying for hake, our small team is dedicated to surveying the phytoplankton off our coast and monitoring for Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). Specifically, we are paying close attention Pseudo-nitzschia spp., Alexandrium spp., and Dinophysis spp., all of which produce toxins that are harmful to humans and other vertebrates via shellfish and seafood. The team consists of our fearless leader and HABs expert Anthony Odell; stellar student volunteers Alexander Islas, Tracie Barry and Lynn Scamman; and myself, the tag along professor.
While I have a Ph.D. in Ecological/ Evolutionary Biology, the ocean and phytoplankton are not at all my specialty. (My specialty is high altitude physiology in mammals – you couldn’t find a more opposite specialty to marine phytoplankton!) My real job is a biology professor at Grays Harbor College, where I love teaching Introductory Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, and Ecology courses. So why is a mammal-ecologist-now-teacher playing so far outside of her scientific/ professional sandbox? While doing some educational outreach to our college, I met Anthony Odell. Anthony is the coastal HAB monitoring coordinator for the Olympic Region Harmful Algal Bloom (ORHAB) consortium. His presentations about phytoplankton biology, taxonomy and harmful algal blooms captured the interest of both me and my students. We soon set up a collaboration between ORHAB and Grays Harbor College to make Anthony a permanent presence on our campus. After learning about phytoplankton biology and taxonomy alongside my students for the past two years, I jumped at the opportunity to spend a couple weeks of my summer doing some real science again aboard the Bell M. Shimada.
I am now fascinated with phytoplankton and the role they play in our ocean ecosystem. I love the learning about the role phytoplankton play as the primary producers for the entire ocean, as the producers of 50% of the worlds oxygen, and about their incredibly diversity in form and function. These minute but mighty organisms are so important and fascinating! And as our world changes in climate and temperature, it is important to keep track of the ecological critical species and monitor their populations along our coast. But of even more critical importance is the recent increased frequency of Harmful Algal Blooms. Toxins produced by some phytoplankton bioaccumulate in shellfish and planktivorous fish and have devastating effects on shellfish fisheries and local coastal economies. While recent years has seen an increase in the blooms of these toxic species with warmer water, exactly what makes these species bloom, what makes them produce toxin, and how they spread along the coast is not entirely clear.
So, while everyone else on this vessel is looking for fish with sonar, fishing, and sampling fish along regular transect lines up the coast, the HAB scientist is quietly collecting water samples at predetermined intervals. It can be repetitive work. Every hour we are on transect we take our water samples. The water is filtered for DNA, domoic acid, and chlorophyll; it's frozen for chemical analysis, and of course, we use a phase contrast microscope to determine what species are present. From sun up to sun down, sample, sample, sample, with an occasional break to catch fish. It is a long and busy day - every day - on this boat, but so interesting and a lot of fun. And if I’m lucky, I get to mammal watch with the wet lab folks and even help dissect a few fish. We’ve seen some amazing creatures of the deep come up in the nets, such as a fish they call “King of the Salmon”, Trachipterus altivelis , (an odd looking ribbon fish that is definitely NOT a salmon ), and the huge Robust Clubhook Squid, Onykia robusta. The whale sightings have been amazing, the birding too exceptional, and the occasional sea lion visit to the boat delightful. I am so happy to be a part of this important work. It has been an incredible adventure with some incredible people.
There is only one HAB scientist aboard the Shimada on each leg of this journey. I will soon be replaced by 3 of my most talented former students. And this is what I am most excited about. Nothing gives me greater joy than to see my students find their passion and pursue it with the determination and joy as these three students. Watching them develop in to amazing young scientists has been the greatest adventure. Watch for their stories and the continued adventures of HABs on the Bell M. Shimada! Our group may be minute, but we are mighty!
“We’re fishing!” In the beginning of this journey I thought I would dread hearing those words. Cutting open fish was not exactly my forte, and I assumed I would be overwhelmed by the large number of fish that come on board. Now when I hear them, I understand the value and sense of success when the net comes in and it has the perfect amount of fish. Not too many to be wasteful, not too little to feel discouraged. The fish are necessary for the survey to produce enough information for further research and it did not take me long to understand that. After many trawls and figuring out how to work in the wet lab, I would say myself and the other lab scientists have a much clearer understanding of hake. If you had asked me 12 days ago how to determine the sex of a hake I would have guessed a random organ in the body, but now in a matter of seconds I can identify the sex. I would consider myself a blossoming expert at sex identification in hake fish. The beginning was not quite as smooth. On the first trawl we only collected 2 fish. The two fish took the wet lab around two hours to work on. The next trawl collected 19 fish and this took us five hours to complete the necessary procedures. After the five hours of work time I was feeling discouraged. I realized that 19 is an extremely low catch of fish and that if those took us five hours that 700 fish would take all of eternity. Luckily, I was extremely wrong. We were in the stages of learning. Jason, Heather, Garima, and I had never worked in this exact lab before. It took a few days to get into a groove and then we were efficient and my spirits were raised. I never knew how much I could learn in such a short period time.
Some of the major benefits of living on a ship are the sightings of whales and other marine life, getting to watch the sun set over the ocean, the incredible recliners in the lounge, and ice cream accessible at all hours. The fly bridge is one of my favorite places on this ship. It is the highest point on the where there is a picnic table and tall chairs where you can sit looking at the bow. It is a place I avoid in times of high seas and wind because it becomes a splash zone, you do not want to fly off the fly bridge. The fly bridge can be one of the most relaxing locations on the ship, yet it is never crowded. It never gets old watching the sun set over the horizon waiting to see if you can finally see the green flash. One of the most exciting moments on board the ship was going outside to find out there were marine mammals in the area. It became a guessing game of what animal is splashing around in the water until it came closer and closer and low and behold we had two sea lions playing around in the water. It was an amazing experience to see them play and swim around the ship. Marine mammals are always exciting except for when the net is out. When leaving San Francisco we saw countless whales and had not spotted much of anything until the sea lions had arrived. This made it even more exciting. Another great thing onboard is the lounge. It has great recliners that you can sit back and choose from an option of roughly 700 movies. I recommend watching Moana while the waves are rough, it creates a much more exciting experience as you move with the movie. Perhaps the best thing on board is the ability to get ice cream at any hour of the day. Of course there are other snacks and a salad bar available, but ice cream is much more important.
This has been a transformative experience. I have found a new version of myself that I did not know existed. I had spent limited time being at sea before and had never worked on a ship. The days leading up to July 5th caused me a bit of nervousness. I did not know what to expect and diving into an unfamiliar situation is always a bit nerve wracking. Little did I know I was going to have an amazing, eye-opening experience. Being an undergraduate in college, I am not entirely sure what my future holds. I can tell people my major and the classes I have been taking but I do not know where I will be in five years from now. I have hopes and aspirations and plan on more schooling, but this experience has given me a new outlook. I have found that I love the sea in calm or rough waters. Rough waves create some excitement and surprises. When you go back to your stateroom you get to find all of your belongings in new locations. But standing at the bow of the ship in calm waters and watching the sunset made me extremely thankful to be where I am. All I can hope is that this will not be my last time on a ship.