Into the Gulf of Maine

June 2, 2018
Shortly before midnight, the Henry Bigelow completed sampling on Georges Bank and is now heading into the Gulf of Maine for the last part of this Ecosystem Monitoring Survey.  We have completed 91 stations spread across the Middle Atlantic area from Delaware Bay north, all of Southern New England’s waters and now all of Georges Bank as well.  We’ve been fortunate in that excellent weather has permitted us to make rapid progress across this large area while conducting all of our monitoring and collaborative projects.  We are especially  pleased to have been able to deploy all of our sampling gear in the Northeast Channel to gather more data about the warm water anomalies currently being detected in the Gulf of Maine.
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Deployment of a Canadian Ring Net by crewman John Harvey from the side sampling station on the Henry Bigelow. Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

This included bongo plankton nets, ring nets, radiometers for satellite overpass water measurements, and rosette casts for DIC (dissolved inorganic carbon), nutrients, chlorophyll levels, and temperature and salinity profiles. Our teacher, Susan Dee, even launched a NOAA drifter buoy which she has been tracking through the NOAA Drifter Buoy Program to monitor its movements and water temperatures.
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Launching of a NOAA Drifter Buoy by our Teacher at Sea, Susan Dee, from the side sampling station on the Henry Bigelow. Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

We’ve been amazed at the amount and variety of life we’ve seen on Georges Bank. Our observers John Loch and Nick Metheny have documented large numbers of mola mola sunfish, pods of common dolphins, pilot whales and even sperm whales. Another interesting sighting was of a south polar skua, an antarctic seabird migrating to northern latitudes at this time of year to feed after mating and nesting down south. Large numbers of Wilson storm petrels and and sooty shearwaters have dominated the numbers of total seabirds spotted, with each species accounting for about a third of total bird sightings.
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John Loch, one of our two seabird and marine mammal observers, at his observation post on the flying bridge of the Henry Bigelow.  Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC.

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South Polar Skua, sighted on Georges Bank. Photo by Nick Metheney, Integrated Statistics.

With safety being a paramount concern aboard NOAA vessels, a man overboard drill was conducted yesterday.  These drills familiarize the scientific staff with what their role is in reporting and sighting anyone that goes over the side, and keeps the crews’ skills sharp on retrieving them as quickly as possible.  The drill went smoothly,with scientists gathered on the rail, their arms pointing to Oscar, a stuffed survival suit wearing a flotation work vest, while the rescue boat was launched to to go out and retrieve him.
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Survey Tech Mark Bradley and Ops Officer Justin Ellis prepare “Oscar” to be thrown overboard for man-overboard drill. Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

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The science team points toward “Oscar” in the water. Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

Our major concern for the remainder of the cruise will now be the weather, which is forecast to change shortly, as low pressure moves in and winds and seas pick up.  We are planning to prioritize sampling at the Gulf of Maine basin stations, including Georges, Jordan and Wilkinson basins, and nearby plankton stations then head into the western Gulf of Maine closer to shore to continue working as conditions deteriorate.  However bad it gets we can’t complain about the weather we’ve had for this trip except maybe for the fog which has enveloped us again!
Jerry Prezioso
Chief Scientist
HB1803 Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey

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Warm Waters in the Gulf of Maine

May 30, 2018

I was surprised to wake up to a quiet morning today, without hearing the constant bleating of the Bigelow‘s foghorn which is what lulled me to sleep. Since first approaching and then crossing the Great South Channel yesterday we’ve been enveloped in thick fog, which is pretty typical for Georges Bank during the warmer months of the year.

Today however looks fairly clear, which bodes well for Charles Kovach, our man from NESDIS (National Environmental Satellite Data Information Services). His mission, to provide ground-truth in-situ light measurements by lowering hand-deployed radiometers into the water during satellite overpasses, has been a difficult one, with all the cloud and now fog cover that we’ve had during this survey limiting his measurements.

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Top: Charles Kovach holding his submersible radiometer. Bottom: Kovach hand-deploying the device. Photos by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fishieries/NEFSC

Another collaborative researcher, Andrew Cogswell, from the Canadian DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans), has been patiently waiting for us to reach his study area on the northeast peak of Georges Bank and the entire Gulf of Maine.

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Andrew Cogswell from DFO Canada, with his ring net to be deployed in the Gulf of Maine.  Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/ NEFSC

We are getting close now, having completed 61 stations and are now working our way across the southern flank of Georges Bank, just a dozen stations and one hundred sixty one nautical miles from the Northeast Channel. This year, with warm water anomalies having been discovered in the Gulf of Maine, this area has become the focus of increased interest as a gateway for the influx of this warm water.

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A graphic view of warm water temperature anomalies (purple) in continental shelf slope waters outside of Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine on May 30 2018.   From the Windy.com website

We have both bongo tows and CTD rosette casts scheduled to be taken there, so we are hoping to gather some valuable data!

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Susan Dee decorating a NOAA drifter buoy with her school’s name and logo. Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

Susan Dee, our NOAA Teacher at Sea from May River High School in South Carolina, has, in addition to helping us with our plankton tows, been busy decorating a NOAA drifter buoy with her school’s name and logo, the Sharks. She is planning to launch it close to the northeast peak of Georges Bank, so perhaps it will also be able to contribute to our understanding of water movements and temperatures in this dynamic area. It will also offer her students a satellite connection via the internet to their teacher’s activities out here with us, as they monitor the buoy’s movements on the drifter website.

Looking ahead, we still have a couple more days of good weather which is helping to ensure our coverage of Georges Bank, but as the high pressure system over us slips off to the east we are facing more marginal conditions this weekend.

Together with the vessel command we’ve come up with a track that will take us across the Gulf of Maine closer to Nova Scotia, where we may get some lee shelter from the forecast northeast winds and be able to continue working, even if at a somewhat slower pace, depending on the seas.

Jerry Prezioso
Chief Scientist
HB18-03 Spring Ecosystems Monitoring Survey

Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey off to a Good Start

The Henry Bigelow left from Pier 2 at the Newport Naval Station on Wednesday, May 23, under sunny skies to start the Spring Ecosystem Monitoring (EcoMon) Survey.  With good weather forecast for the remainder of the week we are heading offshore to survey at the stations along the outer edge of the continental shelf as we head south for the first part of this cruise.

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The Henry B. Bigelow at its berth on Pier 2 at the Newport Naval Station prior to departure. Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

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Joseph Deltorto, our Chief Engineer, stands next to one of the two massive electric motors (blue box) that quietly propel the Henry Bigelow at better than 12 knots.  Photo courtesy of Joseph Deltorto

Cruising smoothly at 12 knots with its newly refurbished electric propulsion motors, the vessel is making excellent progress.  The time spent approaching our first station is completely taken up by a whirlwind of activities: setting up and testing gear, attending a welcome aboard orientation meeting, and having fire and abandon-ship drills.

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Justin Ellis, our Operations Officer, shows Susan Dee the correct way to don a survival suit.   Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

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Crew members test fire hose output during fire drill after leaving port.   Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

As is typical for these ecosystem monitoring surveys, we have a variety of researchers on board: a satellite specialist doing in-situ light measurements during satellite overpasses, a Canadian biologist from the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans in Halifax, NS, a Maine Maritime Academy student volunteer, a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea from South Carolina, two seabird and marine mammal observers, and three scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

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Susan Dee (left), our NOAA Teacher-at-Sea, learning how to run the ImagingFlowCytoBot, with Emily Peacock of WHOI.   Photo by Jerry Prezioso, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

Together we will gather as much data as we can on this voyage which will take us from southern New England to Delaware Bay, to Georges Bank and into the Gulf of Maine.

Stay tuned!

Jerry Prezioso
Chief Scientist
HB18-03 Spring Ecosystem Monitoring (EcoMon) Survey

Lobster Shell Disease

While out here on the Bigelow at the southern edge of the Northeast Channel, we’ve caught some lobsters, and just in time. Sailing with us is Joe Kunkel, a former professor and now professor emeritus at UMass Amherst, who is investigating a shell disease found on some lobsters.

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Map showing location of the Northeast Channel

Shell disease is an epizootic, or temporarily prevalent and widespread, disease found on lobsters.  Unofficially, it’s suggested to be caused by a bacterium called Aquamarina.  It’s denoted by circular lesions on the top part of the carapace.  The lesions start out microscopic, but once visible, hundreds of organisms, such as other bacteria, protozoans and nematodes, can be found living in the infected area.  During the 1980s, about 1 in 10,000 lobsters may have been seen with shell disease.  By the late 1990s, hot spots with up to 70% of the population showing signs of lesions were seen in the Narragansett and Buzzards Bay areas.

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Healthy lobster shell – no shell disease. Photo by Christine Kircun, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

Joe suggests that the prevalence of the disease increases as the lobsters’ vulnerability to it increases.  This means the shell’s protective ability plays an important role.  Minerals composing the shell include calcium, phosphate and magnesium.  The chemical reactions between these minerals dissolving in the surrounding sea water create a basic (high pH), ‘unstirred layer’.  Think of it as a barrier between the lobster and seawater where a lot of mineral mixing is happening.  Have you ever noticed that a lobster feels a little slippery?  The slippery feeling is that protective barrier.

In order to grow, lobsters molt their hard, exterior shell.  Leading up to molting, a reserve of calcium carbonate and minerals in the endocuticle, or inner shell layer, are resorbed through the epidermal cell layer.  A new, soft shell matrix is formed underneath the old shell.  Once molted, they eat their old shell, bringing all the rest of the minerals back into their body.  They use the resorbed and eaten minerals to establish their new shell.  It takes about seven days for the shell to feel hard, and it’ll be several more weeks until the shell reaches its maximum hardness.  But their new shell has to be bigger so they also need to consume more minerals from their diet.  This time of shell establishment is the vulnerable phase when shell disease may sneak in.

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Lobster with extensive shell disease on its carapace. Photo by Christine Kircun, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

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Lobster tail showing extensive shell disease. Photo by Christine Kircun, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

If a lobster isn’t able to consume enough added minerals, the new shell could be thinner or weaker in some areas.  As global warming changes the temperature and chemistry of the ocean, lobsters may find it increasingly difficult to obtain the necessary amount of minerals, added to what they already have stored, and regrow a shell to its maximum thickness and hardness as well as building reserves for its yet bigger shell next year.  Possibly, those areas of mineral thinness, or shell weakness, are spots of vulnerability to shell disease.  If the protective barrier isn’t as effective, the lobsters are rendered more vulnerable, giving the bacteria a chance to establish a lesion.

The mineralization is a process that spans multiple years, and the lobsters need an adequate mineral supply to achieve a healthy cuticle that is not vulnerable to infection.  We are making it harder for the lobsters by feeding them low-calcium bait.  We could possibly have a healthier lobster population in the face of ocean acidification if we feed them a higher calcium carbonate bait.  – Joe Kunkel

But if a lobster has shell disease, not all is lost!  If they are able to shed their shell, the disease goes with it, and they are safe.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  First, younger lobsters benefit from multiple molts a year as they are growing very fast.  They are rarely killed because shell disease does not have the time to develop to advanced stages.  For older lobsters, molting is reduced to once a year in the summer.  This means that if the lobster is vulnerable to shell disease due to a compromised shell, it may develop lesions at some point during the year.  As a result, the most severe cases are expected right before molting.  As long as the infection hasn’t made its way through the epidermal cell layer, the lobster has a chance to molt the shell and have a new beginning, disease free with a new shell.  Otherwise, the infection enters the blood stream and kills the lobster.

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Minor shell disease is visible on this lobster shell. Photo by Christine Kircun, NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC

Females have an added hurdle to overcome because they don’t molt while carrying eggs.  Molting for these females may be delayed for up to six months!  This means any lesions on the shell have six more months to reach the blood stream.  Large, healthy and reproductively successful females are extremely important for sustaining a population, so it’s disconcerting to see this condition having an exaggerated effect on females.

But where there are problems, there are people seeking solutions.  One idea is to supplement their diets by feeding lobsters in their traps with bait that contains more minerals needed for shell growth.  Another idea is to harvest them sooner after they molt.  This may decrease the amount of lobsters caught with shell disease as it hasn’t had time to establish itself.  Lobsters with shell disease are usually either discarded or if abundant they are sent to the cannery.  Since the lesions are only on the cuticle, the meat is perfectly fine.   Lobsters with shell disease are not desirable for boiling in the shell because the lovely cherry red color is replaced with a rusted-metal look.

Christine Kircun
Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
SBTS HB18-02 Leg 4

Teacher Becomes Sea Student

A unique opportunity that’s offered for teachers to participate in the NOAA surveys is the Teacher At Sea (TAS) program.  It gives teachers from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa the opportunity to participate on our surveys.  This leg, we were fortunate to have Thomas Jenkins from Ohio sail with us on the Bigelow during the spring bottom trawl survey.

With his positive attitude, creativity and excitement to learn, he was the perfect fit!  Aside from teaching 8th grade engineering and general science, he is the science laureate at Teaching Channel, an online community for teachers made up of teachers who provide videos to improve teaching practices, share references and create relevant content to keep up with changes in science, technology and engineering.  As science and engineering standards are increasing, Tom stays ahead of the game by participating in opportunities that give him first hand experiences that he can bring back to his students.

With not knowing exactly what to expect on a bottom trawl survey, Tom was greatly appreciative of everyone’s openness and eagerness to show and teach him everything.  For the most part, he thought the survey would mostly be recording length, weight and sex of the fish.  It was a surprise to find out how in depth the sampling was and how much more work needed to be done after the survey ends.  Most of the information and samples collected undergo further processing and analysis back at the NEFSC labs while other samples were requested from people working on research projects at outside labs or universities.  His excitement to learn was matched by the excitement of the scientific crew to teach.  “If you see something, say something.”  That is always told to everyone sailing.  Either during work-ups or after, everyone was always willing to answer questions and give explanations to any questions.

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Tom works with age and growth technician Jillian Price in the ship’s fish processing lab. Data are entered using the touch screen at right for easy retrieval when the cruise is completed. Photo by Christine Kircun, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC.

Tom compared experiencing this survey to feeling like a 7-year-old and seeing everything for the first time.  It’s no picnic living in a marine environment, and to successfully thrive in this mysterious ecosystem, the adaptations marine organisms evolved are “so different and cool!”  “The diversity was amazing!”

In particular, he was fascinated with the monkfish.  It uses its illicium, a modified dorsal ray, to lore prey to its giant mouth and move it to its stomach using the many sharp teeth in the front and back of the mouth, like a conveyer belt.  Another animal that sparked Tom’s interest was the longhorn sculpin with its head covered with many sharp spines and the vibrating hum it makes when agitated.  Toward the end of the trip, we started catching lobster, and Tom was excited to hold a lobster whose one claw was the size of his hand!

His students are a clear passion!  In-between tows and after shifts, Tom could be found working on his blogs and collecting information and video capturing different phenomena, such as counter shading, eating habits, pressure changes, and defense mechanisms, to name a few.  He was constantly brainstorming ideas for interactive lesson plans that explain those phenomena.  For example, he mentioned a lesson that would have his students engineer different types of mouths and try to pick up various objects as a way to understand that examining a fish’s mouth is a great way to get an instant idea of their diet.

His students didn’t have to wait for Tom to be back in the classroom to be a part of this journey.  He used social media, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to communicate informally with his 120 following students!  As he posted daily pictures and updates, they asked him questions and received a quick reply.  And the fun will continue when he returns to his classroom.

After 3 weeks of being away from family and friends, Tom was ready to go back and share everything he learned!  And with all his video footage, he’ll have plenty of work to keep him busy for a while.

The Teacher At Sea program is a great way to establish networks and opportunities between Tom, his current and future students, the Teaching Channel community, and the crew and scientists on the ship.  It’s always important to encourage and empower a strong scientific community.

Overall, Tom would definitely come back if the opportunity presented itself!  “Meeting people who are excited about what they do and who they work with, and learning something new re-energizes me, and makes me want to share the information.”

Christine Kircun
Aboard the Henry B. Bigelow
SBTS HB18-02 Leg 3

More shark species seen on Leg 2 of coastal shark survey

The F/V Eagle Eye II set sail from Cape Canaveral on Monday, April 16, for the second leg of the coastal shark survey. The first leg of the survey saw mostly Atlantic sharpnose, tiger, blacktip, sandbar and hammerhead sharks coming up on the line. The start to the second leg brought more of the same but included a few more species.

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A dusky shark on the line before being brought aboard for tagging and later release.

A dusky shark in the range of 9’ fork length (FL) and two bull sharks in the range of 7’ FL were nice to see on the line. All three were tagged and released in excellent condition. In addition, this year’s first blacknose sharks were caught, tagged, injected with tetracycline and released.

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A bull shark is about to be brought aboard, measured and tagged.

We are looking to get one more station before seeing some potentially rougher weather put a damper on fishing efforts. Hopefully the forecast improves and the scientists and crew are able to continue working.

Joe Mello
Aboard the Eagle Eye II

Editor’s note: learn more about the coastal shark survey, last conducted in 2015.

Safety First!

Note: The NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow is currently at sea working along the Northeast U.S. shelf south of New England on the annual Spring Bottom Trawl Survey.

All images and text by Christine Kircun, NOAA/NEFSC

Safety is an issue that everyone on the ship takes very seriously.  Fire extinguishers, fire stations, emergency escape breathing devices (EEBDs), immersion suits, defibrillators, and personal flotation devices (PFD) can be found all throughout the ship.  Drills are designed by an officer who creates an emergency situation which could be a fire or chemical spill.  The emergency is always in a different area, and sometimes if it’s a fire drill, a smoke machine is used which definitely adds an element of reality!

Drills are practiced once a week, and every single person aboard ship has a job during the drill.  It could be investigating the emergency, directing communications/activities, or mustering to a safe place, to name a few.  Once the alarm for the fire drill is set off, one ten-second tone, everyone immediately stops what they’re doing and heads directly to their assigned muster.  The ship crew split into on-scene, damage control (DC) locker forward, DC locker aft, engine room, and bridge groups.  The on-scene group is first on the site to assess the emergency.  Depending on where, what, and severity of the emergency, people from the DC lockers will assist with any needed equipment or personnel.

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Emergency Escape Breathing Devices (EEBDs, orange boxes at left)) and defibrillators (black bag) are part of the ship’s safety equipment.

Meanwhile, the bridge is monitoring the events and guiding the responders.  The crew in the engine room have the ability to control the electric grid to either divert electricity from the hazardous area or make sure there is power for some other necessary task.

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When the fire is extinguished and area secured, a fire hose is cleaned out by shooting water over the side.  This tests the pump and keeps the inside of the hose clean.  After the crew remove their gear and clean up the tools, the abandon ship alarm sounds with six short and one long tone.  The crew grabs some Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and joins the scientific party on the bow.  We practice dressing into our immersion suits to make sure it fits, there are no holes, and there’s a light and whistle attached.  When everyone is finished, the captain announces “secure from drills and heed all further alarms,” and it’s back to regular ship life.

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Members of the science party practice dressing into immersion suits, sometimes called Gumby suits, to make sure it fits, there are no holes, and there’s a light and whistle attached.

Occasionally, we’ll practice a man overboard drill which is announced by three long tones.  For this drill, a dummy or some floating object is thrown overboard.  The science crew musters to the flying bridge as lookouts.  Some crew are stationed at the hospital room and others ride out in a Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) to retrieve the “man overboard”.  The cold water makes a fast retrieval paramount for the victim’s survival, so it’s best to avoid falling over!

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A Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat, or RHIB, on the Bigelow is used for science and ship operations, including drills for a “man overboard.”

There is a chemical hood onboard for preserving stomach and gonad samples.  Gloves are always worn when filling sample jars, but in case of an accident, there is a spill kit and body/eye wash station nearby.

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Chemical hood with safety equipment, including gloves and goggles (left) and the eye wash station (right).

PFDs (personal flotation devices, or life jackets), helmets and man over-board beacons (MOBs) are always worn while working on the back deck.  When wet, the MOB sends a signal to the bridge that someone is in the water.

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Man overboard beacons (MOBs)

Safety drills aside, we are also encouraged to be mindful of tripping hazards, heavy weather doors, wet stairs, hot electrical boxes, slippery floor surfaces, dryer lint traps and in general, keeping one hand free to help you move around the ship.  One rogue wave could easily throw you down a staircase!  Ultimately, a successful trip is one where everyone comes back uninjured and alive.

Christine Kircun, biologist
Onboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
HB 18-02 Leg 3