There is No HAB-cyst Cruise without the CREW: Reflections

Team

NOAA’s HAB-cyst sampling cruise science team on the Okeanos from left to right: Dennis Apeti (NOAA), Kali Horn (WHOI), Blaine West (NOAA), Lindsay Peter (WHOI), Steve Kibler (NOAA), Jennifer Maucher (NOAA), Terry McTigue (NOAA), Leslie Irwin (NOAA), John Wickham (NOAA), Chris Alex (NOAA), Andrew Meredith (NOAA), and Bruce Keafer (WHOI). Credit, NOAA.

After nine days at sea in the Gulf of Maine, our team of NOAA and WHOI scientists successfully completed our Alexandrium cyst collection cruise. We took sediment core samples from over 80 sites and processed them for future counts of cyst abundance, to support next season’s harmful algal bloom (HAB) forecast. The twelve scientists gave plenty of ‘mud, sweat, and tears’ to make sure science was happening around the clock.

IMG_7224 Kelson and John guide corer back on deck - Oct 17 2014 - Chris' photo

The NOAA Okeanos Explorer crew operate the crane to guide the corer back on deck. Credit, NOAA.

But we can’t take all the credit. Not even close.

The crew of NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer was exceptional–welcoming, helpful, knowledgeable, friendly, and constantly going beyond the call of duty to support our research.

IMG_2012

Junior Officer Sean Luis navigates the Okeanos’ course from the bridge. Credit, NOAA.

IMG_7112 Bruce, C.O. Ramos, Emily consult on route - Oct 14 2014 -ris' photo

WHOI’s Bruce Keafer (left) discusses navigation strategy with Okeanos Captain Ricardo Ramos and Operations Officer Emily Rose. Credit, NOAA.

The crew is constantly making sure the ship and its equipment are functioning safely and effectively. They were also working around the clock, operating the crane that lifts our Craib Corer over the side and lowers it to the sea floor. The crew ensures other instruments and monitoring equipment reported data accurately, like wind speed and sea depth, that we needed to include with observations. The crew navigates and guides the ship to each of our requested sites.

IMG_7187 Tyler waits to operate crane during a 30 min (15 to bridge) repositioning manuveur- Oct 16 2014  - Chris' photo

Okeanos’ Chief Boatswain Tyler Scheff oversees operations on deck.

Joao Alves waits cheerfully on deck for the Craib corer to surface. Credit, NOAA.

Joao Alves waits cheerfully on deck for the Craib corer to surface. Credit, NOAA.

The crew makes sure we are well fed and entertained. We enjoyed three home-cooked meals, and were even treated to a night of ice cream and a night-time viewing of Jurassic Park if you weren’t in the middle of a shift. We toured the ship’s (very loud) engine room.

IMG_7305 fancy garnishes Rainier made - Oct 19 2014 - Chris' photo

The cooks on the Okeanos knew how to get creative at meal time. Credit, NOAA.

As a special treat, when we returned to dock in Rhode Island, we got to visit the NOAA hangar with the underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that are often deployed to support exploratory and biogeography expeditions of deep sea habitats.

For nine days we lived and worked beside the crew like a well-oiled machine, but as we leave them behind, they will move on to their next supporting research adventure. We can hardly begin to thank them enough for everything.

There are so many facets to the research, the equipment, and the people necessary for a successful research cruise, and hopefully that reality was captured in the earlier three posts featuring what it takes to prepare, what science is conducted, and what the science supports from this HAB-cyst sampling cruise.

A pod of pilot whales investigated the Okeanos while we were stopped at a sampling site. Credit, NOAA.

A pod of pilot whales investigated the Okeanos while we were stopped at a sampling site. Credit, NOAA.

Now the scientists will continue sample analysis back in their labs on lab and develop the 2015 HAB forecast for the Gulf of Maine, and start planning next year’s sampling cruise!

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‘What’s Cyst’ All About? Days 5-6 of HAB-Cyst Sampling

So there’s been a lot of talk about collecting sediment from the sea floor for processing and future analyses, but we haven’t explained the full importance of what NOAA’s scientists are actually after–the cysts!

cyst to bloom

The lifecycle of the HAB species Alexandrium fundyense, from cyst to blooming vegetative cells. Credit WHOI.

We’ve mentioned that they come from the harmful algal bloom (HAB) species Alexandrium fundyense, and that they are important for developing the next year’s HAB forecast, but not how we get there.

Alexandrium has two life stages. During a red tide HAB event, Alexandrium is found near the water’s surface in its vegetative state, which produces saxitoxin. This is the culprit with the potential to affect economically important shellfish fisheries and cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) when people consume the contaminated shellfish. 

IMG_7120 Dennis and Andrew process top 1 cm core slice into syringes - Oct 15 2014 - Chris' photo

NOAA’s Dennis Apeti (left) and Andrew Meredith (right) take samples from sediment core slices. Credit NOAA.

IMG_7121 Chris and Andrew processes 1 - 3 cm core slice into syringes - Oct 15 2014 - Chris' photo

NOAA’s Chris Alex (foreground) and Andrew Meredith wash sediment samples. Credit NOAA.

IMG_7173 Jen sieves cysts into 20 ml sieve - Oct 16 2014 - Chris' photo

NOAA’s Jennifer Maucher and Blaine West filter the samples to isolate Alexandrium cysts. Credit NOAA.

In the Gulf of Maine, HAB events begin in the spring and continue throughout the summer. As the bloom dies off, Alexandrium leaves behind seed-like cysts that fall through the water column and remain dormant on the sea floor until they germinate into the following spring bloom. By conducting NOAA’s cyst-sampling cruise in October, we’ve ensured that all of the cysts from the previous spring and summer blooms have settled, and will primarily be concentrated in the first three centimeters of the sediment surface.

Due to environmental factors like winds, ocean currents, and storms, the cysts won’t settle directly below the bloom that formed them, which explains why NOAA samples the entire Gulf of Maine and not just where we detected the blooms.

PA150004 Jen and Steve at the microscope doing live count - Oct 15 2014 - Terry's photo

NOAA’s Steve Kibler searches for Alexandrium cysts under the microscope from one of this cruise’s site samples. Credit NOAA.

ST54 cyst scope pic

An Alexandrium cyst (center) found in a sample from this years’ cruise during microscope counts on board the Okeanos. Credit NOAA.

At the completion of the cruise, the processed sediment samples from each site are prepared for viewing on a slide under a microscope, to count observed cysts. Once the cyst counts are completed for every station, the numbers are incorporated into NOAA’s HAB forecasting model. This model relies on nutrient, salinity, temperature, and the extent of the most recent HAB event along with other environmental factors to predict the concentration, severity, and movements of the future HAB season. NOAA will also deploy a suite of environmental sensors during the actual HAB events to determine the accuracy of the forecast and identify where improvements can be made in the model.

GoM forecast

A map of Alexandrium cyst counts based on the 2011 sampling cruise. Credit WHOI.

These forecasts provide critical insight into the potential threat of saxitoxin in the region, and informs decisions for shellfish fishery closures to prevent PSP. In the past year, NOAA’s HAB forecast and monitoring in the Gulf of Maine has allowed the reopening of some fisheries, including the lucrative clambeds of Georges Bank, which were closed for several decades before.

The forecast for the Gulf of Maine is in development, and is part of NOAA’s role in supporting ecological forecasting services       throughout the nation. NOAA’s HAB forecasts are found in either the developmental or operational stages for Florida, Texas, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chespeake Bay, the Delaware Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific Northwest.

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Playing in the Mud – Days 3-4 of HAB-Cyst Sampling

corer launch above

The Okeanos’ crew and NOAA scientists prepare to lauch the Craib corer for sediment sampling. Credit NOAA.

With our training complete and three days of sampling under our belts, the science team has settled into a routine, tackling an average of two sites in each four-hour shift, depending on the length of transit between them. This puts us on track to complete the 80+ site goal by the end of the trip on October 22.

That may sound like a lot of sites, but what it really means is a lot of MUD.

At each site, we load a core tube into the sediment coring rig (called a Craib corer) on the deck of the Okeanos, which the crew hooks onto a crane and guides it over the ocean surface before lowering it to the sea floor (anywhere from 40-300m). At the bottom, the tube is injected into the sediment which is captured and secured, then lifted to the surface.

Once the crew has secured the rig and given the science team clearance to approach, the are plenty of opportunities to get our hands dirty.

First we have to get the tube, now filled with sediment, out of the corer. We have to be quick to move the ball stopper out of the bottom and slide in a rubber puck-like plug to keep the core from falling to the deck. Some of the mud will generally ooze out the sides regardless. Once plugged, the tube is released from the rig and carried into the wet lab just inside from the deck.

The core is removed and ready for processing. Credit NOAA.

The core is removed and ready for processing. Credit NOAA.

core stand

A successful sediment core is secured on a stand, ready for slicing off the first centimeter, followed by a slice of the following two centimeters. Credit NOAA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The core is fastened in a stand and then pushed upwards to the top of the tube, so that the first centimeter, and then next two centimeters, can be sliced off into beakers. This can also be a tricky and messy process, and you have to move fast. Then members of the team are stirring up the slices so they are evenly mixed, and we allocate portions of each for different samples that will be sonified, washed, filtered down, and processed for cyst counts and qPCR analysis.

core slice

A slice of the sediment core is transfered to a beaker for further processing. Credit NOAA.

kibler

NOAA’s Steve Kibler sonifies a sample to evenly mix and break apart larger pieces of sediment. Credit NOAA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The goal is to remove all sand, sediment, and particulate matter, leaving only Alexandrium cysts (though there will always be some residual matter). After 30-45 minutes, the samples are ready for the freezer, and we have to clean everything.

filter1

The sonified  sediment sample is filtered through a 100 micron screen to remove larger particles, allowing for a cleaner and easier count of the cysts later on. Credit NOAA.

filter2

After the larger sediment components are filtered out, the remainder is filtered with a 20 micron screen, this time to trap the cysts (25-45 microns in diameter) and allow the finer particulates to fall through. Credit NOAA.

We may go through a lot of mud for just a few tiny cysts, but those cyst counts are necessary for developing accurate forecasts of the Alexandrium blooms in 2015. Plus, it’s nice to get out of the office and get into some dirt once in a while.

mudslayers

A sampling team of NOAA’s Leslie Irwin and WHOI interns Kali Horn and Lindsey Peter show they aren’t afraid to get dirty in the name of science! Credit NOAA.

You can track the Okeanos’ progress during our cruise here, and follow NCCOS on twitter @NOAAcoastalsci.

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Preparing for Science at Sea – Days 1-2 of HAB-Cyst Sampling

On Tuesday, twelve NOAA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists left the dock in Rhode Island, made our way through the Cape Cod Canal, and finally found open water in the Gulf of Maine by 2pm. We were ready for a series of round-the-clock shifts, sampling for cysts of the harmful algae Alexandrium, the results of which will inform next year’s harmful algal bloom (HAB) forecast.

Our gateway onto the Okeanos. Credit NOAA.

It was no small feat to reach this point, and so much more lies ahead over the next eight days. We are sampling from the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer, now transformed into a working laboratory for our use. All of our equipment, including but not limited to sediment corers, a flow cytometer, microscopes, pipettes, sieves, test tubes, and a sonifier, ws carried, secured, and stored onboard.

WHOI's Bruce Keafer demonstrating how to position the core for sediment sampling.

WHOI’s Bruce Keafer demonstrating how to position the core for sediment sampling. Credit NOAA.

The first night, Bruce Keafer, the lead researcher from WHOI, gathered us in the dry lab to explain the sampling and processing methods. We would be split into three groups of four, each group responsible for covering two four-hour shifts every 24-hours. I’ve been placed on the 8-12 shift, meaning I help with sampling from 8am to noon and 8pm to midnight. The other shifts are 12-4 and 4-8. When we aren’t on duty, you can find us eating, sleeping, and observing at a variety of odd hours.

After only two days, the primary lesson of this cruise can be nothing else but ‘always be prepared.’ This could relate to preparing for actual emergencies on the ship, having a backup strategy to a planned method, or having backup supplies if originals are lost or broken.

NCCOS' Terry McTigue wearing the 'gumby' survival suit during a safety drill.

NCCOS’ Terry McTigue wearing the ‘gumby’ survival suit during a safety drill. Credit NOAA.

The crew of the Okeanos runs us through a set of safety drills, recognizing alarm signals, locating muster points, and putting on survival equipment. During one drill, we hear six or more short blasts followed by a drawn out alarm signals to ‘abandon ship!’ and we scramble to grab our life vest and neoprene survival suits and put them on in under a minute (no easy task), after which we all look like red mutations of Gumby.

Our sampling sites, scattered throughout the Gulf of Maine, can be sampled in any order depending on where the weather and waves are safest for us to work. We have two back-up sediment corers in case something breaks on the primary. We have duplicate core tubes and test tubes and beakers and stirrers. We even save excess sample product just in case.

This concept of preparedness was put in action before even the first shift when a malfunction called for us to swap out the sediment corer for the alternate. So far, it seems we will let nothing stand in the way of our mission.

A beautiful sunset on day 2 of the HAB cyst sampling cruise from the upper deck of the Okeanos Explorer.

A beautiful sunset on day 2 of the HAB cyst sampling cruise from the upper deck of the Okeanos Explorer. Credit NOAA.

Posted in Harmful Algal Blooms, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ocean Research, seafood safety | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Tide Rules This Place

Some of the crew on deck.

Some of the crew on deck.

By Ian Hartwell, NCCOS Oceanographer

This project was designed to provide baseline data on the ecological health  and condition of the bottom dwelling communities in the Nushagak and Kvichak Bays in Alaska. Almost no information exists for this area despite the fact that the most important salmon spawning run in the world passes through these waters every year on the way to the watersheds of the Nushagak , Kvichak  and other rivers, Lake Illiamna, and the chain of lakes in the Wood-Tikchik State Park. It is also an important feeding ground for marine mammals and tens of thousands of migrating seabirds.  The landscape is magnificent,  featuring everything from vast stretches of wetlands to smoldering volcanoes covered by glaciers. We started this effort last fall, but bad weather forced us to abort the field work until 2014.  We’re hoping for better weather earlier in the summer.  The plan was to start in Kvichak Bay at Naknek and work our way around to Dillingham at the head of Nushagak Bay to the west.

Researcher Tony Pait itemizing the samples.

Researcher Tony Pait itemizing the samples.

6:00AM flights to Alaska are rough.  We were in transit all day and finally arrived in King Salmon mid-afternoon local time, 13 hours after we left home.  Since the sun doesn’t set until 11:00 at night, we still had plenty of time to get oriented.  Most of our gear was in storage at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Becharof Wildlife Refuge headquarters in King Salmon, Alaska. The Refuge  provided housing and a vehicle for the project, which was a tremendous help, and cost savings for the project.  We will utilize the bunkhouse for as long as possible.

Researcher Dennis Apeti with the bottom grab used to take sediment samples.

Researcher Dennis Apeti with the bottom grab used to take sediment samples.

On Friday,  we unpacked all the gear and got it organized into things we need on the boat for sampling and things we need to keep at the Refuge until we leave for open water some days ahead.  We’ll have to ship all the samples and gear out of Dillingham, so organizing now is important.  We drove 20 miles to Naknek to locate the landmarks we’ll need to coordinate with the charter boat.  We haven’t actually met with the boat crew yet, and they were out collecting salmon from the gill net boats for transfer to the processing plant.  At the end of the peninsula, people were catching fish in gill nets set perpendicular to the beach and fished at low tide.   Looks like backbreaking work in cold rough water.   Twenty miles in the other direction (there’s only one road) is the boundary of Katmai National Park at the base of Naknek Lake, where we catch our first glimpse of  the many local grizzly bears hunting salmon on the other side of the Naknek River.  There are plenty of  fresh bear tracks on our side of the river as well.  The weather is deteriorating into rain and cold wind.

Dock showing the extreme tidal conditions.

Dock showing the extreme tidal conditions.

By Saturday morning the weather had cleared and it was cool but calm.  We met the boat at the fuel dock and got underway just at slack high tide.  After unpacking the sampling gear and getting set up on the deck we started out to our first station. It took quite a while to locate a spot where we could find fine-grained sediments.  The boat was also doing double duty  as several fishermen  arrived  to offload their catch into the hold.  By the afternoon, we needed to offload our samples and process them for storage and shipment.  But, by now the tide had dropped over 25 feet.  The boat could not get to the north side of the river without getting  stuck.   There was barely enough water to bring the skiff up to the wharfs.  What had been the waterfront was now two stories above our heads!  The only way in or out was going up and down steel ladders and hauling up the samples on ropes or in backpacks.

Every day required planning and timing to be able to come and go with the tide.   Every day started an hour later and ended an hour later.  As we worked our way further down Kvichak Bay, timing became more and more important.  Eventually we  had to wait out the low tide at the mouth of the river and didn’t get back to King Salmon till dark, which was midnight  there.  Running aground on uncharted sandbars was a recurring problem as the tidal currents reworked the bottom  every 6 hours.

Sockeye salmon heading upstream to spawn.

Sockeye salmon heading upstream to spawn.

By Wednesday the weather again became a factor.  We had finished the upper Kvichak and were all packed up to head west and work our way around Etolin Point into Nushagak Bay. But at the mouth of Kvichak Bay the wind had come around from the west at 20 knots.  Riding at anchor with the wind pushing us one way and the tide pushing another,  we were in the trough all the time and the deck was rolling more than 30 degrees. With 4-5 foot seas,  sampling became too dangerous with the 100 lb sampler swinging in all directions  above the deck. So after only getting two samples that day we turned north and rode the tide back to Naknek where we sat for the next two days and waited for the wind to die down.  We quickly realized that getting small craft weather advisory information twice daily should be an integral part of our planning.  That did allow time to visit Katmai National Park  and the famous Brooks Falls, where grizzly bears gather to feast on salmon and ignore the people gawking at them from shore.

Friday night we stayed on the boat and left with the tide at 4:00 AM.  The weather was calm, and bottom sampling and trawling went smoothly.  We finished the lower Kvichak and started working our way into the Nushagak.  The bottom was rocky, and progress was slow at first. But, since the sun doesn’t go down until late,  we worked until 9:00 at night.  We picked up most of the sites we needed but sieving the samples was time consuming because the sediment was so sandy.  Saturday night I slept on the galley bench. The middle bunk up under the bow was so cramped it was like trying to sleep in a coffin.  There wasn’t even room to roll over.

Taking a quick nap between sampling stations.

Taking a quick nap between sampling stations.

Sunday morning was calm and sunny.  We finished the lower stratum  on our first station! A good sign. The rest of the day was spent compositing samples, sieving coarse sand and trawling.  The trawls were a little frustrating  because all we caught were smelt and a few big flounder, and thousands of little brown shrimp, plus the occasional cod and sculpin.  The smelt and flounders were what we were after,  to send to the chemistry and the histology labs.  But last year we caught little flounder.  So to be able to compare last years’ catch with this year, and to look at body burdens between  old vs young fish we need to find little ones as well.  Perhaps the juveniles stay out of  open waters.  We finally caught some that were a little smaller and they had to do because, once again, we were ruled by the tide and needed to make our way to Dillingham  by high tide so the boat could get into the harbor and dock before the piers went dry as the tide fell.  Our University collaborators  gave us a lift to town, where we had a quick sandwich for dinner and then set off to the campus to sort the samples  and divide them into frozen, cooled or  preserved lots.  Another long evening, but we had collected everything we had set out to do.

Brown bear catching salmon.

Brown bear catching salmon.

Monday was spent unloading the boat and packing up to leave. Packing gear. Packing samples. Packing belongings. Packing more gear. Everything had to be packed and flown out of Dillingham.  Some shipments were going to the NOAA lab at Oxford, some to our office at Silver Spring, some to the freezers at our collaborators at the Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in Anchorage, some to the taxonomy lab in Seattle.  The next day we delivered a huge volume of  boxes and coolers to the little air freight desk.  It took two trips in a Suburban to get it all there. Once again the Fish and Wildlife Service had helped us out with the loan of a vehicle from the Togiak Wildlife Refuge.  All they wanted in return was a public seminar on the project.  We had arranged this previously so I had a presentation prepared. One of the slides showed the differences in the distribution of DDT and PCBs around coastal areas from the NS&T Bioeffects data base.  I was flabbergasted  when a high school student asked what DDT was.  I guess it’s a good sign that one of our mistakes is so far behind us that school kids don’t even know what it is but sadly, I fear, so too is Rachel Carson.  That evening we

The harrowing descent to the boat during low tide.

The harrowing descent to the boat during low tide.

followed the samples to Anchorage.  The last day was spent doing, what else, packing samples.  The DEC had put our samples and ice packs in freezers and refrigerators so we could repack them for the overnight shipment to the labs.  Overnight transport to the lower 48 isn’t possible from Dillingham.  So, some were packed frozen, others refrigerated, others preserved. Taking proper care of the samples and getting them to where they need to go can be as complicated and require as much planning as collecting them in the first place, but we didn’t have to worry much about the high tide.

For more information contact Ian Hartwell (Ian.Hartwell@noaa.gov)

Dr. Ian Hartwell, guest blogger, on deck.

Dr. Ian Hartwell, guest blogger, on deck.

Dr. Ian Hartwell is a Marine Biologist with a Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is currently Chief Scientist for NS&T Bioassessment Projects to manage monitoring and assessment programs in estuarine and coastal systems at various locations around the US, including response and damage assessment projects for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.   Experienced in operation and management of field and laboratory research programs on ecological fate and effects of pure compounds, mixtures, effluents, spills and runoff using acute and sublethal toxicity, physiological, behavioral, and chemical assessments. 

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Scientists Complete a Comprehensive Biological Study of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

By Randy Clark, NCCOS Marine Biologist

An Ocean Oasis

On the northern continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico there are many banks that rise out of the depths. Many of these act as an oasis in a relatively deep and dark ocean. One particular oasis is so magnificent that it has been included as one of NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries.

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary consists of three banks, which rise to approximately 60 feet from depths of 400 feet. The shallow depths combined with the warm and clear water have allowed spectacular coral communities–similar or even better than those in the Caribbean–to thrive on two of those banks.map

A Need for Answers

The coral communities here are the most northern in the continental United States and are a truly unique resource enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. In fact, the sanctuary is open to visitors for recreational fishing and scuba diving. Currently these activities are unmonitored. Scientists also have a limited understanding of the animals that live in the sanctuary, specifically how many there are and what their role is in the ecosystem.

A manta ray.

A manta ray.

These unknowns are a concern to fishermen, divers and scientists, like me, who want a better understanding of the marine life and underwater habitats in the sanctuary. In response, we assembled many different people and organizations with specific areas of expertise to collect data in all parts of the sanctuary.

Building a Research Team

We gathered divers from all parts of NOAA, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute,

A remotely operated vehicle (ROV), courtesy of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

A remotely operated vehicle (ROV), courtesy of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Texas A&M, Oregon State, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to collect data on the shallow (to 110’) and deep (to 150’) coral reefs of the sanctuary.

We used the expertise of the Undersea Vehicles Program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to use a remotely operated vehicle to collect data in the deeper habitats of the sanctuary.

And we used high-tech sonar to detect fish on the bottom!

Sonar showing schooling fish above the coral reef.

Sonar showing schooling fish above the coral reef.

What We Discovered

Overall we spent three years collecting data in the sanctuary. Data from our missions contributed to establishing a baseline: a measure of what the status of fish and habitats are now. This information will be used to inform future management decisions, including a research area that will be used as a control area for conducting future experiments.

Some key findings you should know about are below. They are also outlined in a new report called, Fish and Benthic Communities of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary: Science to Support Sanctuary Management.

A diver conducting a transect survey.

A diver conducting a transect survey.

  • We determined the communities of coral reefs we observed are stable and relatively healthy. The sanctuary’s coral reefs are possibly the least impacted in the region.
  • The sonar used to detect fish revealed that the number of large fish (greater than 12 inches) on West Flower Garden Bank was three to 10 times greater than other coral reef ecosystems in the U.S. Caribbean and Florida.
  • We observed that non-native lionfish were beginning to invade the sanctuary during this three-year study period.
  • Our data on fish communities indicate that economically valuable fish species (groupers and snappers) and top predators (sharks) were larger and more abundant in waters deeper than 108 feet.
  • We improved maps of sea floor habitats for East and West Flower Garden Banks to more accurately identify habitats throughout the sanctuary.
  • We were also able to make a number of management recommendations, including expanding the frequency of monitoring activities and including deeper reefs in monitoring efforts.

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is a very special place, one that NCCOS is proud to support. On a personal level, the sanctuary’s beauty is captivating and I will always have fond underwater memories from my work there.

A trio of amberjacks.

Four jacks glide past a s diver.

To learn more about our work visit: http://coastalscience.noaa.gov/projects/detail?key=44. To download a copy of the report, click here. Special thanks to the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the National Centers for Coastal Oceans Science for their support.

Randy Clark is a marine biologist with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. capture-randy-clark1Over the past three years, he has led a diverse team of scientists in their efforts to study the fish, corals and sea floor habitats of Flower Garden Banks National Marine
Sanctuary. 

 

 

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Trying To Sample After the Equinox

By Dr. Ian Hartwell, Marine Biologist
National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS)

This project was designed to provide baseline data on the ecological health  and condition of the bottom dwelling communities in the Nushagak and Kvichak Bays in southwestern Alaska. Almost no information exists for this area despite the fact that the most important salmon spawning run in the world passes through these waters every year on the way to the watersheds of the Nushagak , Kvichak  and other rivers, Lake Illiamna, and the chain of lakes in the Wood-Tikchik State Park. It is also an important feeding ground for marine mammals and tens of thousands of migrating seabirds.  The landscape is magnificent,  featuring everything from vast stretches of wetlands to smoldering volcanoes covered by glaciers.

Drs. Tony Pait and Dennis Apeti on deck.

Drs. Tony Pait and Dennis Apeti on deck.

It takes a long time to get to Alaska from the east coast.  Flights leave very early in the morning and with only one stop, it still takes 12 hrs to get to Anchorage.  So to get through security and on the flight means being at the airport at dawn.  As we were waiting for the flight to get called for boarding, instead came an announcement that the flight had been canceled! Not delayed, not rerouted, canceled. They discovered a hole in the plane. Seems like that would be something they’d notice before they pulled it out of the hangar.  So, everybody had to leave and go up to the service desk to try to get booked on another flight.  This is a long drawn out process Our travel agent did get us on a different flight, but we’ll miss our connection to Dillingham.  Meanwhile, Dennis is flying out of Baltimore and has no idea we’re not going to meet him in Anchorage.  Then to top it off, in the crush of people trying to change plans, a very elderly lady was overcome and collapsed on Tony.  I flagged down a passing security officer who radioed for aid.  Anything out of the ordinary attracts  a lot of police at an airport. The amount of firepower they carry these days is impressive.  We should have seen the start as an omen.

The boat used for sampling docked at high tide.

The boat used for sampling docked at high tide.

We had hoped to be here much earlier in the season but due to circumstances beyond our control as a result of the budget impasse in Congress, our schedule was delayed. Rather than being in the field in July as we had planned, it is now the latter half of September, 2013, and the weather is closing in on us. This is a major setback that will prove to be a hindrance to the entire effort.

Same boat a few hours later. Notice the dramatic tidal range, the eighth highest in the world.

Same boat a few hours later. Notice the dramatic tidal range.

We shipped our gear to Dillingham weeks ago to get it there by plane and slow barge. Most people in the contiguous US do not realize that most of Alaska in inaccessible by road. You have to ship things by air or by boat. Most places don’t have a street address, they have post office boxes, and Fed Ex and UPS don’t deliver to a post office box number. They simply turn things over to local delivery services. Living and working in Alaska requires a great deal of independence.

Our colleagues at University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) have been most helpful in collecting all of our gear as it came in to Dillingham in bits and pieces and storing it all in the Bristol Bay Environmental Science lab on the local campus. Also, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS) Togiak National Wildlife Reserve has provided us with access to their bunkhouse and a vehicle. This project would be very expensive without all the help from the local UAF and F&WS folks. The local hardware store where we picked up the odds and ends of needed equipment (coolers, gloves, etc.)  is run by Todd Palin’s family, but politics does not seem to be on anybody’s mind here. How refreshing.

By Wednesday afternoon, September 17,  we were able to start a shakedown sampling effort in the harbor in Dillingham. We collected sediment samples for chemical analyses, microbial analyses, bottom dwelling organisms, toxicity scans, and trawled for resident fish. By dusk, the tide had gone out, and  the few boats still in the harbor were all sitting  in mud. The extreme tides (~25 ft) are treacherous and would prove to be a strong influence on everything we tried to do here.  Even the local fishermen sometimes get trapped in the shallows.

Stranded on the mud flats.

Stranded on the mud flats.

After figuring out the best way to rig the sampler on the boat’s boom , we set off with the tide flowing behind us. Normally we use a Van Veen grab, which is basically a clam shell dredge that bites into the bottom as the jaws close. Here we were using a Smith-McIntyre grab that has spring loaded jaws because we knew it would be difficult to sample in these currents. Sitting at anchor, the Smith-McIntyre grab, which weighed over 100lb, was dragged behind the boat at a 45o angle in the current.  It was very difficult to land it on the bottom  so it could grab sediment the way it was designed to do.

The Van Veen bottom grab with an acceptable sample.

The Smith-McIntyre bottom grab with an acceptable sample.

We spent the next two days running up and down the bay with the tides trying to sample. Also, most places we tried had rocky bottoms.  Because of the strong currents, sediment never has a chance to accumulate during slack tide. A better approach may be to drift with the current, as they do in large rivers like the Mississippi, but then it is difficult to sample for multiple analyses from the same approximate spot. After trying to sample over a dozen locations, we were able to only collect two acceptable samples.

Aerial view of the mountains.

Aerial view of Mount Illiamna in the Alaska Range. Notice the steam.

By Saturday, the weather had turned ugly, with 45 knot winds out of the northwest, and 10-20 ft seas predicted for the next week. Not a good place to be on an open deck in a 32 ft boat. The work in the protected harbor was done, and the boat captain and crew had other tasks to finish before winter set in, so rather than sit in Dillingham for another week (at least) we decided to ship our samples to the analytical labs and take the lessons learned into the field next  year, when we can start earlier in the summer when the weather is likely to be calmer.  The North Pacific Research Board is providing major funding to support the project.

 

Dr. Ian Hartwell is a Marine Biologist with a Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is currently Chief Scientist for NS&T Bioassessment Projects to manage monitoring and

Dr. Ian Hartwell, guest blogger, on deck.

Dr. Ian Hartwell, guest blogger, on deck.

assessment programs in estuarine and coastal systems at various locations around the US, including response and damage assessment projects for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.   Experienced in operation and management of field and laboratory research programs on ecological fate and effects of pure compounds, mixtures, effluents, spills and runoff using acute and sublethal toxicity, physiological, behavioral, and chemical assessments. 

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