This portal tracks the 2017 groundfish survey conducted on chartered West Coast fishing vessels by the Fisheries Research Survey (FRS) Team from NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. During the first half of the survey (May - July) we will conduct sampling from onboard the F/V Excalibur and the F/V Last Straw. The vessels are relatively small (65 - 76 ft in length) and usually host three scientists: a chief scientist from FRS and two back deck biologists. Many of the back deck biologists are volunteers without whose assistance we could not conduct the survey. The vessel personnel includes the Captain, two crewmembers and sometimes a night watch person. Follow us as we use trawling and oceanographic sampling to learn about the California Current ecosystem and the health of many West Coast fish populations. The survey traverses the entire area from U.S.-Canada to U.S.-Mexico at depths from 55 m to 1280 m twice during the sampling season (May - October). The survey is the primary source of fisheries independent information used in the management of 40+ groundfish along the U.S. West Coast. Although communications are often spotty while the team is at sea, chief scientists will post updates during periodic port calls as the vessels sample throughout the survey season.
The second leg of the the 2017 WCGBTS, the autumn portion, got underway when the fishing vessels Noah's Ark and Ms. Julie crossed the Columbia River Bar on the evening of Aug. 31 and slipped out to sea. The science parties consisted of survey biologists Victor Simon, John Buchanan and Aaron Chappell on the Ms. Julie, and me, fellow survey biologist Peter Frey, and Michelle Joseph, a volunteer from Western Washington University, on Noah's Ark. The forecast called for some NW winds and choppy seas for the first few days of the leg, but we awoke to relatively calm seas on Day 1 and had mostly great weather throughout the rest of the leg. This leg sampled stations from approximately the Columbia River down to Cape Blanco.
Forest fires were raging across parts of Oregon, and some of the effects were noticeable even far from land. Sunrises and sunsets were particularly vibrant from all the particulates up in the atmosphere, and the sun looked like a dark red orb shining through pale gray skies on many of the days. One day there was a band of what looked like high-level clouds directly overhead running east-west, but it was actually smoke from the fires; there were only clear blue skies in every other direction we looked. Finally, and perhaps most bizarrely of all, there were times when we could smell the unmistakable scent of forest-fire smoke with no land in sight.
After working our way south along the Oregon Coast for several days, our first two stations on Day 4 were between Newport and Florence at depths of around 180-220 ft. At both locations the net contained very few fish along with a handful of dying or dead Dungeness crabs, which is usually a telltale sign of low dissolved oxygen levels in the water nearest the bottom. This low-oxygen condition, known as hypoxia, has been a subject of great interest to scientists over the past decade or more, as well as the focus of much research off Oregon specifically. At our third station that day, just a little farther offshore and deeper than the first two tows, we knew immediately that something was wrong when one of the two deckhands gagged at the smell as the net came up the stern ramp. In the cod end were several hundred pounds of dying, dead or decaying Dungeness crabs, and it was one of the worst things I have ever smelled in my 18 years on this survey. We sorted through the mess and collected data from the tow, including the weight of all of those dead crabs, but it was all we could do to get through it. Interestingly, there were several partial baskets of various flatfishes in the tow, so we guessed that the low oxygen levels might have already started to subside and the fish were moving back into the area. However, it's hard to know for certain. The next day we had another cell to sample that was just barely 2 miles southeast of the scene of the dead crabs. Given the close proximity, we guessed that this cell might also contain a pile of dead crabs, and if it had, we would have dumped the catch overboard without sampling. Although we rarely do that, we are forced to at times, usually when the net contains marine debris that might be too toxic for us to handle safely. But the ocean is always full of surprises, and this time the net contained no dead crabs, but rather several hundred pounds of young, healthy sablefish (a.k.a. black cod). These are the kinds of things that make you stop and wonder.
Near the end of the leg, on Sept. 6, we ducked into Winchester Bay in the evening to pick up a reporter and a cameraman from Oregon Public Broadcasting to take out with us the next morning. Cassandra Profita, the reporter from OPB, had expressed an interest in producing a story for the Oregon Field Guide series on the recovery of several rockfishes from overfishing. The high-quality data produced by our trawl survey over the past 20 years is an important part of this success story. Cassandra wanted to check it out and interview some of us to give OPB's viewers a peek at the small but not insignificant part we play in the strange world of fisheries management. The trawl locations where we set our net each time are selected randomly, so we didn't wind up with a large catch of rockfish that day. The journalists were somewhat disappointed because that was something they were keenly interested in capturing on video, but they spent a lot of time taping the various parts of the survey process and interviewed both Peter and me. Peter was especially thrilled by the whole experience because he grew up watching countless episodes of Oregon Field Guide. It was interesting for all of us to see them work their process, especially the cameraman, Michael Bendixen. I have to give a special shout-out to Capt. Curt Meng for being willing to go into and out of Winchester Bay (including one bar crossing on a rather steep ebb chop and another in thick fog with dozens of salmon fishermen cluttering up the channel) to retrieve the journalists and then drop them back off at the end of the day. We'll have to wait and see what comes of it all.
The leg ended on Sept. 10 in sunny Charleston, Oregon, where we offloaded more than 10,000 lbs. of survey fish at the processing plant. The money that is paid to the fishermen from the sale of survey fish reduces the cost to the government of chartering their boats. Uncle Sam saves money, and the fish don't go to waste by being tossed overboard after the data is collected.
The Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) began monitoring benthic marine debris (anthropogenic waste found on the ocean floor) encountered in sample tows conducted by the West Coast groundfish bottom trawl survey (WCGBTS) in 2007. Since then we continue to record, catalogue, and weigh all debris related objects encountered, and categorize them into broad groups such as plastic, metal, rubber, fabric/fiber, glass, Styrofoam, and unsorted debris. In addition, to these groups we also record if objects are related to fishing or military activities. We determine this by markings on objects (Fig. 1), or by easily distinguishing some items as derelict fishing gear, such as crab pots and fishing line. We previously recorded data on debris on paper while at sea and transferred information manually to a database after the field season. In 2016, we updated our back deck software to include marine debris entries. This streamlined at sea data collection, and reduced time spent on data transfer during the off-season.
The impact of benthic debris has been sparsely studied, simply because it is easier to study debris that floats at the surface layer or washes ashore. The WCGBT survey is unique in this research venture with ongoing debris collections since 2007 (Keller et al. 2010). We now have a time series from 2007 through 2017 that covers the entire U.S. West Coast region. This allows us to observe frequency and distribution patterns of marine debris settlement, as well as remove debris from the ocean. From 2007 - 2011, benthic marine debris was present in 1315 of 3776 tows and weighed a total of 11,507 kg (Head et al. 2016). One of the more obvious patterns of debris distribution, that survey scientists recognized before we conducted analysis of data, was the high occurrences of military related debris off Southern California (Fig 2.). Survey scientists and the chartered commercial fishermen often dread the final leg of the trawl survey where we are sampling off S. California, simply because of the high amounts of garbage we end up sorting. In fact, we found that 92% of all military related benthic debris occurred South of Pt. Conception, CA (Head et al. 2016). Since we are primarily interested in marine life and not debris, these tows can be demoralizing at times (Fig. 3). That being said, all of us recognize the importance of collecting data on trash encountered in the ocean. We also realize that we are lucky to be a part of the groundfish survey team since we also get the opportunity to see some beautiful coastline, observe many marine mammals, and see some amazing fish (Fig. 4)!
In addition, to the military related debris we encounter off S. California, we also found that 16% of all tows analyzed from 2007 - 2010 contained derelict fishing gear (Head et al. 2016) (Fig. 5). While this does not seem like a huge number of tows, it is much higher than the number with military related items along the coast (6%). While plastic objects are more frequently encountered (31% of total count), metal debris items are close behind and contributed to the majority of the total debris by weight (35 %). Derelict fishing gear can range from large metal crab pots to small 5-gallon slime eel buckets. Pots can be lost at sea due to lost or damaged buoys, which are attached by line to the pots. These fishing pots inevitably sit on the ocean floor and continue to fish, often referred to as "ghost fishing."
The importance of monitoring and understanding the impact of marine debris is apparent, and we hope to continue to collect these additional data on the survey along with oceanographic and fisheries related information. All data recorded are crucial to our mission of promoting sustainable and productive fisheries, communities, and ecosystems. Streamlining our at sea efforts and collecting as much information from every aspect of our field sampling, allows us to effectively manage our marine resources.
Below are more interesting debris related photos taken over the years of trawl survey sampling: