Spring 2019 Longline Survey Off to a Good Start

F/V Tenacious II and F/V Mary Elizabeth returned to port on May 2 and May 3, respectively, from their second trips of the Cooperative Research Branch’s spring bottom longline survey in the Gulf of Maine. The vessels have been staffed by Dave McElroy, Giovanni Gianesin, Dominique St. Amand, Elizabeth Marchetti, and Calvin Alexander for the first two trips.

Collectively, both vessels have sampled 19 stations, with 11 of the stations located in
the Western Gulf of Maine and the other 8 stations in the Eastern Gulf of Maine.
Eighteen of the sampled stations have been rough bottom (rocky bottomed) and
the other smooth bottom (sand/mud bottom).

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Cusk in a holding tank at the Marine Biological Laboratory. Photo credit:  NOAA Fisheries/Alison Brodet

Live fish were retained by both vessels from their first trips for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Woods Hole Science Aquarium. Atlantic cod, cusk, haddock, pollock, wrymouth, longhorn sculpin and thorny skate were collected and handed over to Alison Brodet from the aquarium.


Pollock, haddock, longhorn sculpin and thorny skate in holding tank at the Marine Biological
Laboratory, Wood Hole. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Alison Brodet

The catch in the Western Gulf of Maine consisted of haddock, cusk, Atlantic wolffish, Atlantic halibut, red hake, thorny skates and spiny dogfish. Eastern Gulf of Maine stations produced catches of Atlantic halibut, haddock, Blackbelly rosefish, cusk, pollock, Atlantic cod, white hake and spiny dogfish. A 200 lb. Porbeagle shark was also caught, tagged and released at one the eastern stations. What could possibly be the largest cusk ever encountered in the history of the longline survey was caught on F/V Mary Elizabeth. It measured 99 cm (about 39 inches) long!

record cusk

The record-breaking cusk was measured at 99 centimeters or about 39 inches long. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Dominique St. Amand

The teams are headed back out at sea for the weekend. Stay tuned to see what they catch next!

Calvin Alexander
Northeast Cooperative Research Program




The Science of Whale Protection

large whale photographed from above while swiming near the ocean surface

Free-swimming North Atlantic right whale photographed during 2016 NOAA Fisheries aerial survey. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC/Allison Henry

On a Mission

Part of the NOAA Fisheries mission is to conserve and recover protected species while supporting responsible fishing and resource development. But what happens when forging ahead on one part of this mission seems to mean falling behind on another?

Case in point: endangered North Atlantic right whales and the Northeast’s American lobster fishery. These rare whales are losing ground after two decades of slow recovery; a major cause of death among adults in the population is entanglement in trap/pot gear, most of which is set in the American lobster fishery.

The stakes are high and humble me. The law requires us to recover North Atlantic right whales and to support sustainable trap and pot fisheries. My job – and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s job – is to provide the science to support both of these requirements.

It Takes a Team

If protecting whales and supporting fishing were easy, it would not need an intense effort to find solutions. Fortunately, a large team of people with a shared concern for the well-being of whales and fisheries is hard at work on the problem.

This team – called a Take Reduction Team – is required under federal law (the Marine Mammal Protection Act) in situations just like this one: when a commercial fishery poses a high risk to a marine mammal. It’s a way to bring people with fishing, fisheries, and marine mammal knowledge and skills together to find solutions.

whale disentanglement

NEFSC aerial survey team photograph of a large whale disentanglement response. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

The Science of Risk Reduction

In October 2018, the team asked for better decision-making tools.  Responding to this request, scientists at our science center got to work.  Across our research divisions, people applied our expertise, data, modeling skills, and capacity for visualizing data to get insights about the interplay of whales and fishing in ways that were out of reach just a few years ago.

The result of that work, I am pleased to report, is an important new tool that supported the team as they developed a set of proposed actions for pot and trap fisheries to substantially reduce the risk they pose to right whales.

Last week, the take reduction team came together in Providence, Rhode Island, in an intensive four-day meeting to craft ways of reducing risks posed to right whales by lobster gear across the region.  This new tool helped team members evaluate just how much risk reduction was likely under various scenarios, based on the likely presence of gear and whales in an area, and how seriously the gear could injure a whale.

Take reduction team members took that information, asked for more, and worked through numerous options specific to each lobster fishing area. Center scientists were on hand during the meeting to add more information and to use the tool in real-time as team members refined their plans.

Next steps for us are to review this work and to make the tool better.

The team’s work last week is a great example of true collaboration, both within our science center and among the people working toward solutions to a tough problem, and one of which we can be proud.

Jon Hare

NEFSC Science and Research Director


Easter on Georges Bank and Northeast Channel

During Easter weekend, we were sampling along the northeastern part of Georges Bank and even made it into Canadian waters.  We’ve been seeing a lot of large winter skate, Leucoraja ocellata.

pic 1-winter skate

A winter skate on the measuring board. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

This species may be confused with little skate, but at these sizes, there’s no dispute.  It’s not uncommon to see a winter skate measure in at over a meter long!  At that size, some caution is needed when handling this bottom dweller because it has very sharp dermal denticles on its wing.  Dermal denticles are tough, and in this case, extremely pointy, scales that help with protection.  As I was sorting fish, my Grundens (waterproof outerwear) got snagged onto some of these denticles and nearly caused a tear!

The fish tend to get bigger the further north we go.  We caught some sizable fourspot flounder, Paralichthys oblongus, that were over 40cm.

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Fourspot flounder. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

This one was the largest one I remember seeing at 50 cm!  Their characteristic four spots are easy to see and with their large mouths, it’s not uncommon to find fish, shrimp and crabs in their stomach.

A yellowfin bass, Anthias nicholsi, was caught during the day shift. Its neon yellow and pink colors definitely catch your eye among the more brown and muted colors commonly found in the area.

yellowfin bass

Yellowfin bass. Photo credit NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

And just for fun, we had an egg decorating contest. After the eggs were decorated, we were able to cast our votes. It wasn’t easy because there were so many fun and creative eggs, but there were some that stood out.
pic 4-egg contest

Congratulations to Katelyn Depot for ‘Best Overall Egg’ (#14), Joseph Warren for ‘Most Traditional Egg’ (#15), and Jakub Kircun for ‘Most Creative Egg’ (#1)!

Christine Kircun
Aboard the FSV Henry B. Bigelow
Spring 2019 Bottom Trawl Survey Leg 3

Habitat in a Bucket

April 15, 2019

Did you know most animals in the ocean don’t have backbones?

We’re half a week into leg 3 of the NEFSC spring bottom trawl survey and into the full swing of survey life.  Our first tow this morning, around 1:30 am, was a little southeast of Chatham harbor, Massachusetts.  Even though the catch was fairly small, it was full of really interesting benthic invertebrates.  These are the animals that live on the ocean floor and lack vertebrae, the small bones that form a backbone.

This morning we had a small bucket of very diverse specimens.  At first, it may seem difficult to get a grasp of what you’re looking, but it becomes much easier to comprehend after taking some time to separate everything into groups.

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Habitat in a bucket. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

Here are some highlights from what I found: a diverse range of animals!

pic 2-habitat highlights SBTS2019

A mussel, some sea stars, sponges, a sea mouse, comb jelly, sand dollar, sea urchin, and fish eggs. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

pic 3-egg close up SBTS 2019

The eggs in one of the clusters were really large, and the larval fish could be seen inside. Note the empty egg in the lower right hand corner of the picture.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

Another neat find (pictured below) was a large  orange-footed sea cucumber, Cucumaria frondosa.

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Sea cucumber. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

I quickly placed this animal in a bucket of fresh salt water, and after some time, it relaxed enough to expose its tentacles.  It was surprising to see!  In my experience, they are mostly seen closed up after coming up in the net.

It’s always fun to see tows like these.  Even though it may be harder to pick through on the sorting belt, it’s a great opportunity to see the diversity of life that lives on the ocean floor.

Christine Kircun
Aboard the FSV Henry B. Bigelow
Spring 2019 Bottom Trawl Survey Leg 3


NEFSC Science Update: At Work, Looking Toward Spring

February 20, 2019

NEFSC Science and Research Director Jon Hare is stepping into the blogging business for a while. He’ll be updating readers as we restart our research year in the run-up to our 2019 field season. Go, Jon!

Starting our new year in February has been an adventure for the NEFSC. Stakeholders from across the region have been in touch with me and others on our staff asking about our plans for the rest of the year.

Almost everyone has heard about “the machinery of government” and I have had a chance recently to see the upside of it: the ability of our staff to quickly assess priorities and get on with delivering quality science to marine researchers, resource managers, and business operators.

This blog is generally used to highlight field work. Since I don’t do too much of that anymore (the downside of the director’s chair!) I have decided to use the blog to give updates on the status of projects that our stakeholders have asked about the most in recent weeks. I will be writing more of these as we gear up for spring and summer.

So here goes:

2019 Science Status Update 1,  by Jon Hare

Our spring bottom trawl survey aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow is set to leave Newport, RI March 9. That’s a few days later than first planned, but we are also extending the cruise by a few days. We plan to complete a full survey. This fieldwork is always influenced by weather, as well as vessel and equipment performance, so our staff is trained to make adjustments while still obtaining the best possible data.

Small research trawler entering harbor

NEFSC R/V Gloria Michelle.  NOAA/NEFSC photo by Adam Poquette

Our Canadian colleagues are leaving this week for their regular bottom trawl survey which, as usual, includes some stations in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Maine.  The NEFSC research vessel Gloria Michelle is on track to complete the annual spring trawl survey of Massachusetts state waters.

Two whales, heads visible just above the ocean surface

One of seven rare newborn right whales spotted so far this year off Florida rubs its mother’s head. Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 20556-01

This time of year is also key for our work to recover endangered North Atlantic right whales.  In comparison with last year’s zero newborns, there’s good news from the calving grounds off the southeastern U.S.: 7 new right whale calves have been confirmed so far this year. Our aerial surveys in the Northeast were also busy this winter with a large number of whales sighted south of Cape Cod. These sightings triggered short-term protection areas for these animals.

We will be revising our stock assessment plans for the remainder of the year. We are working through timelines for biological sample and data processing, analyses, meetings, and other activities that underlie the many assessment products completed every year. We are in ongoing contact with fishery management partners in the region as we set priorities.

That’s it for my first blog.  Let me know what you want to hear about in my next one!

Jon Hare

NEFSC Science and Research Director

“The Little Ship That Could”

Nov. 12, 2018,

The Hugh R. Sharp left a sheltered anchorage behind Sandy Hook, New Jersey on Saturday night to continue sampling on the Fall Ecosystem Monitoring Survey for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. We were forced in there on Friday by increasing winds and seas coming from the south, offering no lee for working along the southern shore of Long Island where we had hoped to conduct sampling for the Southern New England area of this trip. When a window of good weather window opened on Sunday and Monday, we grabbed that opportunity to conduct as much sampling as possible before returning to Woods Hole.

The weather has been our biggest challenge. Earlier on, it forced us to duck into Norfolk, VA to shelter from unworkable weather. While there we obtained a part for our winch which arrived after we had left port to return to work.


Tim North using the Sharp‘s launch to pick up the winch part in Norfolk harbor. Photo by NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

By launching a small boat the captain enabled us to retrieve the part, which was literally handed off to us at the dock, saving us a great deal of time. Moderating weather allowed us to work our way northward towards Southern New England waters until we were once again forced to heave to, this time in the Sandy Hook anchorage. Now on Monday, we find ourselves making excellent progress as we move further east around Nantucket Shoals where we will complete our survey before coming in to Woods Hole early on Tuesday morning, November 13, ahead of the next big storm system.


Maura Thomas and Chris Taylor deploying the bongo plankton net array from the stern of the R/V Sharp. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/ Jerry Prezioso

As is typical for Ecosystem Monitoring Surveys, there are many lines of research being pursued while we are underway. Plankton tows and hydrographic-CTD water casts provide information on physical and biological aspects of the waters we are sailing through. The water column has been pretty well mixed in terms of temperatures and salinities, which is not surprising given the time of year and the numerous storms which have been roiling the waters almost incessantly.

We’ve seen flatfish larvae in many of the plankton samples taken in the Mid-Atlantic Bight area, despite often being buried in large numbers of salps. There have also been juvenile fish, possibly hake, in some of these samples, and in the Southern New England area we are seeing herring larvae at some stations.

More recently, a bloom of a reddish brown phytoplankton has been overwhelming everything else in our plankton samples.  It first appeared in the northern Mid-Atlantic Bight area and has persisted through most of our Southern New England stations,


Our plankton nets were covered with this slimy phytoplankton coating on many tows in the Mid-Atlantic Bight and Southern New England. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/ Jerry Prezioso


The phytoplankton formed clumps when washed into our collecting sieves.   Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

(although not south of Nantucket Shoals) coating the plankton nets with a slimy brown coating, and congealing into a dark brown, almost black mass in our plankton sampling jars.Scientists at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography have expressed an interest in looking at this organism when we return and hopefully they may provide identification for us.

At the other end of the biological spectrum we have two observers who take turns on the flying bridge of the vessel, documenting and photographing birds, marine mammals and turtles they observe as we are sailing along between stations. They have amassed an awesome collection of photographs and observations on this trip.


One of our two seabird observers, Nick Metheny, bundled up for observing from the flying bridge of the R/V Sharp.   Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso


A northern gannet taking off as photographed by one of our seabird observers, John Loch. Photo by John Loch, Integrated Statistics

A researcher from the University of Maine is freezing seawater samples from different depths collected by our rosette water sampler for nutrient analysis when she gets to shore. We also have a graduate student researcher from URI who is filtering seawater and collecting data on how the optical properties of seawater are affected by the phytoplankton within it. His work dovetails with that of a satellite oceanographer from NESDIS who has been taking subsurface radiometer measurements during satellite overpass times on clear days. His data, together with the URI data, will help to ground-truth and better interpret what the satellites are recording from the sea surface.


Charles Kovach deploying his submersible radiometer from the stern of the R/V Sharp.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

This being our last day of sampling, for all the scientists on board I would like to extend a thank you to the tiny crew (there are only six of them!) of the R/V Sharp for the work they have done to enable us to sample at sixty stations despite all the awful weather we’ve had. Working aboard the Sharp has presented challenges for us, such as working off the stern, and transiting at only eight knots, but the crew has made every effort to have the Sharp be “the little engine that could” in terms of being able to accomplish as much as possible despite weather and some vessel limitations. They have worked with us on every aspect of this trip, planning the best routes, keeping the ship working, going ashore to pick up winch parts, deploying our sampling gear, and certainly keeping us well fed and comfortable!

Likewise, my scientific colleagues have demonstrated an amazing amount of patience and diligence on this voyage. They drove for ten hours to Delaware to board the Sharp, loaded and set it up without the benefit of any prior experience on it and did this as quickly as possible to maximize the time we’d have for sampling at sea. After all that, they still remain cheerful and good-natured while working twelve-hour and sometimes longer watches.

Thank you all very much!  It has been my pleasure to sail with all of you.

Happy Veterans Day everyone!

Jerry Prezioso
Chief Scientist
Hugh R. Sharp 1802 Fall Ecosystem

Weather Challenges, 14 Stations to Go

The Gulf of Maine (GOM) bottom longline survey is ongoing even though we have been dealing with challenges presented by the unfavorable weather conditions. Both vessels have completed four trips each and have collectively sampled 31 stations in the western and central Gulf of Maine.

white hake being measured

White hake being measured. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Dave McElroy.

Catches have been very heavy in the central GOM consisting mainly of spiny dogfish, thorny skates, white hake, Atlantic cod, haddock, cusk, as well as some red hake and goosefish. Staff have been busy collecting otoliths, or earbones,  for ageing and sex and maturity data from larger sized Atlantic cod, haddock, white hake and cusk. This data supplements other NEFSC survey data.

white hake

White hake caught on the F/V Mary Elizabeth. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Calvin Alexander

Thorny skates are also tagged as part of our collaborative work with Dr. Jeff Kneebone of the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, and genetic samples were collected for genetics work being done at the University of Florida, led by Dr. Gavin Naylor. Dr. Gavin’s project is conducting a comprehensive analysis of thorny skate genetics across the species range in the Atlantic. They hope to better understand gene flow in the species, potential substructure in the population across their range, and the historical demography among regions.

GoPro camera in cage

GoPro camera in cage for bottom type verification. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Calvin Alexander

A newly designed prototype for horizontal viewing of the bottom was tested on F/V Mary Elizabeth. It is hoped that this design would be more stable and improve the quality and consistency of bottom videos.


Gulf of Maine sunrise with the moon just above the horizon at center. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Giovanni Gianesin

There are 14 stations left in the eastern Gulf of Maine, located at the outermost edge of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). If the weather cooperates we anticipate two more trips would be sufficient to complete the survey.

Calvin Alexander
Northeast Cooperative Research Program