A Day in the Life of Darius Sanford

by Dan Teano, SHIP intern

darius-1

Darius Sanford (Class of 2018) is a Marine Science major at Savannah State University located in Savannah, Georgia. After graduating next spring, Sanford plans to pursue a Master’s degree in Environmental Law or Environmental Policy. In his spare time, Darius reads and listens to current events worldwide and also writes science fiction novels.

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Sanford is a summer intern with the Sandy Hook Internship Program (SHIP) at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s (NEFSC) Howard Laboratory in New Jersey. Under the mentorship of NEFSC chemist Ashok Deshpande, Sanford is studying how microplastics end up in marine and estuarine ecosystems, specifically fish stomachs. Microplastics can have serious environmental, economic and health implications, understanding the sources and fates of it is important for cultivating healthy and productive ecosystems. To begin, Sanford must first collect an array of plastics from everyday household items and clothing fabrics, like this yellow plastic mesh.

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Next, Sanford needs to create a source library – a series of known plastics that when analyzed carries a uniquely identifiable chemical fingerprint. He uses an instrument called a Pyrolysis Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (Pyr-GC-MS) to create those chemical fingerprints. So far, Sanford has created 15 different chemical fingerprints for his source library.

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Once the source library is created, Sanford can process fish stomachs for evidence of microscopic pieces of plastic, called microplastics, that he’ll analyze for its chemical fingerprints to compare against his library. Standing a few steps back, Sanford watches as the fish stomach is processed by an ultrasonic probe which sounds like the pulsing of an electric drill boring through metal. The sonicator emulsifies and disintegrates the fish stomach tissue cells into a slurry. When the slurry reaches a Slushee-like consistency, Sanford will pour the slurry over a membrane filter and drain off the liquid. Using a microscope, he then collects items off the filter that at first glance look like small bits of microplastic.

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Darius then places each bit of microplastic in separate quartz tubes to be analyzed in the GC-MS. Here Sanford analyzes the microplastic sample by heating it to 650 degrees Celsius (1202 degrees Fahrenheit). At this temperature, the solid plastic polymer is pyrolyzed and transformed into a smaller gaseous fragment molecules, revealing its chemical fingerprint.

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As the sample runs, Sanford can see in real time the chemical fingerprint of his sample. He shows a fellow intern, Rory Kelly, three characteristic chemical peaks. This he says is a classic signature for polyethylene, a commonly used plastic for wrapping and containing food. With the accumulation of microplastics in estuarine and marine ecosystems an ever increasing scientific and societal concern, Sanford’s intern project helps fill our knowledge gaps surrounding the identification of polymer type and perhaps the source of products that turn into microplastics in the environment.

 

 

Too hot? Too cold? Or just right?

Man in waders adjusting a small instrument in the middle of a stream in Maine

NOAA Fisheries biologist Graham Goulette retrieves and downloads a temperature logger from the Narraguagus River in Downeast Maine. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC

Hi – I’m Graham Goulette.  As a member of the Atlantic Salmon Ecosystem and Research Team out of the NOAA Fisheries Maine Field Station in Orono, I maintain a series of temperature loggers deployed in juvenile Atlantic salmon rearing habitat as part of a statewide effort in Maine to monitor stream temperature. Collecting stream temperature may seem mundane, but sometimes it’s little tasks like this that provide significant contributions to much larger projects further down the road.

Temperature is important for all livings things, especially fish. They are ectothermic — which means they rely on their environment to manage their body temperature.  Different species tolerate different temperatures, however, Atlantic salmon and other cold-water species require cooler temperatures in order to survive. We focus on the endangered population of Atlantic salmon found in the Gulf of Maine and the watersheds where they can live.

Juvenile salmon underwater, resting on rocky, sunlit bottom of a stream in Maine

Juvenile Atlantic salmon resting in a gravel patch on the bottom of a cold- water stream near a logger site. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC

We place temperature loggers in streams so we can monitor temperatures in these important habitats throughout the time juveniles are developing. The loggers are collecting data that form a record of temperatures over time, one that has multiple purposes.

Laptop connected to downloaded temperature data displays results.

Temperature data retrieved from the logger is uploaded to a laptop from a waterproof shuttle. The data are displayed to ensure proper collection and re-deployment of the logger before leaving the site. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC

For instance, in drought years like the summer of 2016, we can see how warm the water was in certain rearing areas for juvenile salmon, an indicator of whether conditions were good, or not so good, for juvenile salmon survival.  We know that at 22.5 oC, juvenile salmon stop growing.  If they are in 27.8 oC water for seven days, none survive. On the lower temperature end, at 3.8 oC they stop eating.  So stream temperature data from these rearing habitats are important for running growth rate models and can also provide an early glimpse into likely survival rates for juveniles in a given year.

Our temperature data are also contributed to a much broader stream temperature database. Data from federal and state agencies as well as universities and non-governmental organizations across the Northeastern U.S. from multiple collection efforts are shared, reducing duplication of effort.  This collaboration allows for a much larger geographical distribution of temperature collection than a single entity could tackle.

The entire database supports SHEDS — Spatial Hydro-Ecological Decision System – a data visualization and decision-support tool.  Among other things, SHEDS feeds a model that predicts daily mean water temperatures.  Forecasting stream temperatures is important for identifying where salmonids will find cool water refugia in the future. Have a look at the SHEDS public data viewer – search on NOAA as the agency and you’ll see what I have been up to this summer!

Natural light, fangs, and the g value

Sundown at sea viewed from stern of the Henry Bigelow

“Nothing beats the views from the boat1” Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

Hello from the ocean! I’m Cassie Fries, a recent graduate from Stony Brook University. I’m part of the oceanography crew aboard the Bigelow, and this is my first time out on a research vessel. It took a few days to adjust, but I can finally say I have my sea legs.

This has been an incredible opportunity for me, since I’m learning real world applications for different areas of marine research. Being on this cruise has taught me so much in just two weeks; and nothing beats the views from the boat!

Oceanography is on the night shift, which means we find all types of creatures in our nets. For me, a lot of these creatures are foreign, or it’s my first time seeing them not in a photo! Sometimes, we even find things that we cannot identify at first. It changes with stations, but we get larval fish in our nets.

Shiny silver and blue fish with sparkling light organs

Lanternfish. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

We have gotten Myctophids, which are commonly known as Lanternfish for their bioluminescence. At night, you can see their photophores along their body, which shimmer in the net. We have caught them at all sizes since they are one of the most common fish in the deeper layers of the sea.

Big jawed fish with fangs

Dragonfish. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

We have also caught crazy looking fish, like the Dragonfish! He is another deep-sea fish and he has a barbel that acts as a lure for him to attract prey.

As part of the oceanography team, it’s my job to titrate and find the g value of these animals, which is the ratio of density of the animal relative to the density of seawater. We do this by mixing seawater and a denser solution to find when the animal is neutrally buoyant . This is an important value to get, as bioacousticians need to model how much sound these animals scatter, which depends on how dense they are relative to the ocean.

We don’t just see fish in our nets, we also see small pteropods, salps, heteropods, amphipods, jellys, and larval crustaceans. There’s a whole lot going on in the water, especially on the zooplankton level. There is never a dull night with the oceanography crew!

Cassie Fries, Oceanography Team

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow

 

Animal surveillance

In our quest for turtles, we have traveled far and wide in the past 13 days. From Nova Scotia to New Jersey, we have kept almost constant watch during daylight hours in order to spot turtles basking in the sun, and in the process, we have seen many different marine creatures.

On July 8th, we awoke to pilot whales curious about the ship and they accompanied us for the entire morning.  A couple of days later, we crossed the Hague Line on the shelf of George’s Bank. Very soon after, we started seeing sperm whales,  some of them breaching – a behavior where they launch themselves  entirely out of the water landing in a large splash that we can see miles away! Sperm whales can dive to very deep depths and tend to inhabit waters around canyons. This habitat also attracts beaked whales, including Cuvier’s beaked whales which we also spotted. We saw more pilot whales and small groups of bottlenose dolphins, many of them jumping out of the water as well. Meanwhile, above the surface, we have encountered many pelagic seabirds that are expected in this area, including the shearwater, storm petrel, and gull species. This day we also had south polar skuas flying around the ship.

 

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We turned south on July 12th toward the mid-Atlantic and started to encounter larger numbers of common dolphins characterized by the hourglass pattern on the sides of their bodies. We have seen pods numbering in the hundreds out here so far, and they have given us great looks when they come in close to the ship.

Of course, the focus of this cruise is to find loggerhead turtles and we did encounter quite a few on July 13th. We spent a few days in the warmer waters off New Jersey working these animals where we also spotted a few leatherback turtles.

On July 16th, we turned to work our way north again and started our day with flat calm waters, the best sighting conditions so far. We saw many common dolphins, including a group of around 500, bottlenose dolphins, and many groups of Risso’s dolphins. The Risso’s are darker when they are younger, and lighten up (and gain some impressive scars) as they age.

In addition to the reptiles, mammals, and seabirds that we tend to see at the surface, there are of course, many fish species in the ocean. We have seen a lot of ocean sunfish along our entire track, a glance at a couple of rays, and also a few shark species including hammerheads, basking sharks, and three whale sharks on July 16th! This was a new species for almost everyone on board, and it took us a second to understand what we were seeing! Whale sharks are the largest fish, reaching lengths of over 40 feet, and feed on zooplankton by filter-feeding. They are characterized by their size, but also by the spots on their dorsal body which helped us identify the species.

Only a few days left out here, but many chances yet to spot additional animals.

Leah Crowe and Lisa Conger
NEFSC Protected Species Branch, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow

More Tales from the Night Shift

Predator worms, spines with eyeballs, and a mystery

I’m Hannah Blair, a graduate student at Stony Brook University, aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow for the 2017 sea turtle and cetacean cruise.  This trip is my first foray into the world of zooplankton identification. Each night, we sift through the contents of targeted zooplankton trawls, pull individual plankton out of each sample collected by the nets, and measure and photograph what we find. I’ve slowly been learning to recognize the categories these tiny animals belong to. For example, we pull up lots and lots of chaetognaths, or arrow worms, a group of predatory worms!

Tiny transparent marine worms

Carnivorous, predatory arrow worms that prey on other plankton. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

We find many kinds of gelatinous animals, such as jellyfish, as well as a number of crustaceans, like these adorable bug-eyed megalops, an early crab life stage.

Tiny bright red-orange early life-stage crab

Megalops, early life stage crab. Who doesn’t love those googly eyes? Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/ Cassie Fries

We also find fish larvae of various sizes and shapes, from the wide and flat larvae of flounder to fish so small they look like spines with eyeballs. After going through a few hauls, you start to recognize what animal belongs with what category.

And then, this guy appeared:

Sea slug,

There’s no zooplankton too odd for Betsy Broughton’s mad identification skills. Mystery solved and sea slug unmasked. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Joe Warren

The first time we saw it, we dismissed it as an unidentifiable piece of another animal. But then we got another, and another. When, on the third night, we got six in one haul, we had to stop and take a closer look.

As someone who’s spent many an hour identifying species, whether for classes or for surveys (or for fun), I am familiar with the frustration of not being able to figure out what species an animal or plant is, and the satisfaction of finally pinning it down. However, at first we couldn’t even determine what group of animals we should start narrowing down from! Was it a flatworm? Some type of echinoderm (starfish and relatives) larva?

After spending hours searching through identification keys and checking our trusty friend Google Images, our resident marine zooplankton expert Betsy Broughton was able to track it down. Meet Phylliroe bucephala, a free-swimming nudibranch!

Nudibranchs are a type of sea slug, and are a highly varied group. Searching the term (which I highly recommend, I love these guys) will bring up many photos of brightly-colored tropical sea slugs, crawling around on the ocean floor. But Phylliroe is pelagic, which means it lives up in the water column, swimming much like a fish as it searches for tasty jellyfish prey. Check out this link to see images and even a video of them swimming through the water!

We’ve found a lot of cool animals in our trawls, but this one is definitely my favorite so far.

Cheers,

Hannah Blair

Oceanography Team, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow

 

Pop Goes the HARP

Deep ocean sound recorders on the deck of a research dhip

Eric Matzen among the HARPS. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Henry Milliken

This cruise aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow is dedicated to sea turtle ecology and oceanography, but we have also been successful replacing passive acoustic recording instruments called HARPs (High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages), made by the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  These instruments have to be replaced annually, and we are entering our third year of data collection using them.

The HARPS sit on the edge of shelf-break canyons at about 1000 m deep. We have to be exact in our drop points or the units could descend to crushing depths in the canyons or land in shallow water near fishing activity.

We position the ship over the instrument, contact the acoustic release, and give the release command, which jettisons the ballast weights on the unit. It takes about 15 minutes for the HARP to float to the surface, so this is an exciting time waiting and watching. Everyone wants to be the first to spot the surfaced unit, but on the first recovery, Mate Dana Mancinelli spotted the HARP while it was still under water on its way up.  That is good spotting!

yellow recording device and orange floats bobbing on the surface ot he water

HARP floating at the surface having successfully jettisoned the ballast that’s kept it on the ocean bottom for the past year. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Leah Crowe

Large yellow recording being pulled onto resarch vessel

HARP coming aboard during last stage of retrieval operation. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Heather Haas

The three recorders we are replacing are part of an  array of eight such instruments covering waters from Northeast Georges Bank to Florida. This network is a combined effort of NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast and Southeast Fisheries Science Centers to understand biological activity along the U.S. continental shelf break before the planned seismic exploration starts off the United States’ Eastern Seaboard.  They are part of the US NorthEast Passive Acoustic Sensing Network. While deployed, the HARPS record sounds made by many species including baleen whales, sperm whales, beaked whales, and dolphins.

Eric Matzen, NEFSC Protected Species Branch

Annamaria Izzi, Integrated Statistics

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow

Delicate Jellies, Video Stars

Hi! I’m Liese Siemann, and I am primarily a computational biologist. I spend my time running statistical and fluid dynamics models and writing programs to analyze images. So when I was invited to participate in this research cruise to develop a new camera system to survey jellyfish and other gelatinous animals, I jumped at the chance. Getting to work with sea turtles again and spend time watching whales all over the North Atlantic made the opportunity even more enticing.

The scientists at Coonamessett Farm Foundation have been attaching cameras and lights to scallop dredges for years, so I had a wide array of cameras, lights, and attachment hardware to choose from when designing the camera system.

As a first step, I spent many hours kayaking in ponds and coastal waters near home, testing camera settings with GoPro cameras attached to long poles. Preliminary testing of the whole set-up on a mock PVC frame was conducted at night in coastal waters off of docks in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Even if the jellyfish survey tows were conducted only during the day, it would still be dark at many of the depths we were likely to survey with the video system.

I did as much prep work as possible because the first time the camera system would be attached to a net frame and towed behind a big vessel is now, during this cruise. I had no idea if the system would work as planned. Luckily, the project has been successful beyond my expectations.

Small transluscent jellies form a chain

A pair of salp chains. Salps are gelatinous planktonic tunicates that often link together to form long chains. When collected in survey nets, these chains break apart, but the camera system records the salps as they enter the net with their chains intact. Photo by Liese Siemann

Transparent jellyfish and it's shadow

Ctenophores, or comb jellies, have rows of cilia along their transparent bodies for locomotion. These combs are particularly visible in the ctenophore shadow. Photo by Liese Siemann

We have collected imagery of small gelatinous animals that are normally damaged during typical survey trawls. By analyzing the videos with behavioral observation software and coupling the results with tow data collected by NOAA scientists, we will be able to estimate the abundance of these smaller, delicate organisms in a new way.

Liese Siemann, Coonamessett Farm Foundation

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow