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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Oyster Aquaculture Proposed to Combat Potomac River Pollution

A recent report published by Aquatic Geochemisty and co-authored by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science researcher Dr. Suzanne Bricker, showed that cultivating shellfish on 40 percent of the Potomac’s bottom would “remove all of the nitrogen now polluting the river.”

“The most expedient way to reduce eutrophication in the Potomac River estuary would be to continue reducing land-based nutrients complemented by a combination of aquaculture and restored oyster reefs,” said scientist and lead study author Suzanne Bricker in a media release. “The resulting combination could provide significant removal of nutrients… and offer innovative solutions to long-term persistent water quality problems.”

To read more, click here. For more information contact Suzanne Bricker (

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Marine Life in Gulf of Mexico Faces Multiple Challenges

By Maggie Broadwater, Guest Blogger from NOAA’s Harmful Algal Bloom Analytical Response Team.

Editor’s Note: This is a revised posting by Maggie Broadwater of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science that has corrected some factual misstatements in the original post.bottlenose_calf_swfsc

A bottlenose dolphin calf in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

Animals living in coastal waters can face a number of environmental stressors—both from nature and from humans—which, in turn, may have compounding effects. This may be the case for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico which experiences both oil spills and the presence of toxic algae blooms.

On the Lookout

Marine sentinels, like bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, share this coastal environment with humans and consume food from many of the same sources. As marine sentinels, these marine mammals are similar to the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.” Studying bottlenose dolphins may alert us humans to the presence of chemical pollutants, pathogens, and toxins from algae (simple ocean plants) that may be in Gulf waters.

Texas Gulf waters, for an example, are a haven for a diverse array of harmful algae. Additional environmental threats for this area include oil spills, stormwater and agricultural runoff, and industrial pollution.

Recently, we have been learning about the potential effects of oil on bottlenose dolphin populations in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of theDeepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010. Dolphins with exposure to oil may develop lung disease and adrenal impacts, and be less able to deal with stress.

Certain types of algae produce toxins that can harm fish, mammals, and birds and cause illness in humans. During harmful algal blooms,which occur when colonies of algae “bloom” or grow out of control, the high toxin levels observed often result in illness or death for some marine life, and low-level exposure may compromise their health and increase their susceptibility to other stressors.

However, we know very little about the combined effects from both oil and harmful algal blooms.Joint response underway for ship, barge collision in Houston Ship Channel

A barge loaded with marine fuel oil sits partially submerged in the Houston Ship Channel, March 22, 2014. The bulk carrier Summer Wind, reported a collision between the Summer Wind and a barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil, towed by the motor vessel Miss Susan. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Familiar Waters

Prior to the Galveston Bay oil spill, Texas officials closed Galveston Bay to the harvesting of oysters, clams, and mussels on March 14, 2014 after detecting elevated levels of Dinophysis. These harmful algae can produce toxins that result in diarrhetic shellfish poisoning when people eat contaminated shellfish. Four days later, on March 18, trained volunteers from NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Networkdetected Pseudo-nitzschia in Galveston Bay. NOAA Harmful Algal Bloom scientist Steve Morton, Ph.D., confirmed the presence of Pseudo-nitzchia multiseries, a type of algae known as a diatom that produces a potent neurotoxin affecting humans, birds, and marine mammals. NOAA’s Harmful Algal Bloom Analytical Response Team confirmed the toxin was present and notified Texas officials.

When Oil and Algae Mix

Studying marine mammal strandings and deaths helps NOAA scientists and coastal managers understand the effects of harmful algal blooms across seasons, years, and geographical regions. We know that acute exposure to algal toxins through diet can cause death in marine mammals, and that even exposures to these toxins that don’t kill the animal may result in serious long-term effects, including chronic epilepsy, heart disease, and reproductive failure.

But in many cases, we are still working to figure out which level of exposure to these toxins makes an animal ill and which leads to death. We also don’t yet know the effects of long-term low-level toxin exposure, exposure to multiple toxins at the same time, or repeated exposure to the same or multiple toxins. Current NOAA research is addressing many of these questions.

A dolphin mortality event may have many contributing factors; harmful algae may only be one piece in the puzzle. Thus, we do not yet know what effects recent Dinophysis and Pseudo-nitzchia blooms may have on the current marine mammal populations living in Texas coastal waters. Coastal managers and researchers are on alert for marine mammal strandings that may be associated with exposure to harmful algae, but the story is unfolding, and is very complex.

galveston-pmn-volunteer-examining-phytoplankton-sample_noaaGalveston volunteer with NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network helps identify toxic algae. (NOAA)

On March 22, 2014, four days after harmful algae were found in Galveston Bay, the M/V Summer Wind collided with oil tank-barge Kirby 27706 in Galveston Bay near Texas City, releasing approximately 168,000 gallons of thick, sticky fuel oil. The Port of Houston was closed until March 27. State and federal agencies are responding via the Unified Command. NOAA is providing scientific support and Natural Resource Damage Assessment personnel are working to identify injured natural resources and restoration needs. Much of the oil has come ashore and survey teams are evaluating the shorelines to make cleanup recommendations.

Time will tell if the harmful algal toxins and oil in Galveston Bay have a major negative effect on the marine mammals, fish, and sea turtles that live in surrounding waters. Fortunately, NOAA scientists with a range of expertise—from dolphins to harmful algae to oil spills—are on the job.

maggie-broadwaterMaggie Broadwater is a Research Chemist and serves as coordinator for NOAA’s Harmful Algal Bloom Analytical Response Team at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in Charleston, S.C.  Dr. Broadwater earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Medical University of South Carolina in 2012 and has a M.S. in Biomedical Sciences and a B.S. in Biochemistry.

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NCCOS to Use Acoustics to Better Understand Grouper and Snapper Breeding Patterns

Groupers and snappers, two highly commercially valuable types of marine fish, form large schools during their breeding season, which typically runs from January to April in the tropics. Fisherman in areas such as St. Croix, USVI, know this and use this FY14 1-pager map_lowresknowledge to their advantage. As a result, however, over-fishing of these valuable fishes is common place. Precise scientific knowledge of the location, extent, and composition of these breeding schools is poor. National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) researchers hope to exploit a distinct vocalization pattern emitted by these fishes during this time to gain insight into their behavior.

The "G2 Slocum" glider  used by the researchers being lowered into the water.

The “G2 Slocum” glider used by the researchers being lowered into the water.

By using what is known as a “glider”, a finned sampling tool that is towed behind a ship, they hope to greatly refine their knowledge of these breeding fishes. The glider has many desirable abilities; most importantly it can detect and geospatially record when, where, and what kinds of sounds the fish are producing. This will help to distinguish the size and composition of the breeding schools. The unit can also record seawater temperatures, salinity, and ocean depths. Since these breeding schools typically form over shelf edges in the ocean, the researchers plan to use the glider during a three week mission in St. Croix, USVI, beginning March 13. The unit will be continuously deployed behind the NOAA ship Nancy Foster while the ship cruises a predetermined route crisscrossing the shelf, allowing the scientists on board to conduct other research while the glider is autonomously collecting data. For more information, contact Tim Battista (

A red hind, a type of grouper, and one of the species the researchers are studying.

A red hind, a type of grouper, and one of the species the researchers are studying.

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A New Ridge-to-Reef Study of the St. Croix East End Marine Park Supports Local Watershed Management Actions

By Alicia Clarke, CSS-Dynamac contractor to NCCOS

National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) researchers and managers from the St. Croix East End Marine Park recently teamed to characterize and assess the status of the park’s marine environment, as well as identify areas where land-based threats–like pollution and runoff–may impact coral reef ecosystems in the park. The results are now available in a newly released document called, Land-Sea Characterization of the St. Croix East End Marine Park.

An aerial view of the St. Croix East End Marine Park. Photo: Friends of the St. Croix East End Marine Park.

An aerial view of the St. Croix East End Marine Park. Photo: Friends of the St. Croix East End Marine Park.

The East End Marine Park encompasses nearly 39,000 acres of underwater habitats that are home to a variety of coral reefs, fish and invertebrates. The park is also a favorite destination for residents and tourists alike. Park managers and NCCOS scientists identified a number of information gaps in existing knowledge of the living marine resources within the park. They also recognized that data the park did have were inadequate for measuring the effectiveness of future management activities.

The St. Croix East End Marine Park is home to a variety of habitat types and marine life, like this red hind.

The St. Croix East End Marine Park is home to a variety of habitat types and marine life, like this red hind.

“The maps and graphics in the document are great. Having maps that delineate all the watersheds–especially the sensitive, more threatened ones—are great management tools,” St. Croix East End Marine Park ranger John Farchette, said. “These findings also let us know how to prioritize our very limited resources. In the future, we can use the baseline data presented here to find management solutions that work.”Scientists examined the park from a holistic, ridge-to-reef standpoint, investigating factors like: land cover; the presence of dirt roads; and the distribution of marine habitats, sea floor life and reef fish assemblages. They also scoured published literature and field survey data to identify and locate specific coral species that may be more sensitive to land-based sources of pollution.

The St. Croix East End Marine Park is home to a variety of habitat types like this bed of sea grass.

The St. Croix East End Marine Park is home to a variety of habitat types like this bed of sea grass.

“Our approach provides on-the-ground managers with information on the distribution, diversity and seascape condition of marine communities across the park,” Dan Dorfman, one of the NCCOS scientists on the project, said.  “Our findings not only indicate where important marine resources are distributed, but also ties the marine communities to the up-slope watersheds where human activities can impact the health of marine communities.”

Based on the findings from their analysis, NCCOS researchers were able to make several key recommendations to managers of the watershed, including:

  • Development of a prioritization strategy based on information in the report to identify direct threats that impacted watersheds pose to vulnerable corals;
  • Managing areas up-slope of the watershed impact zones that contain sensitive species to ensure conditions in these environments are sustainable; and
  • Using the survey data from this study as a baseline to assess future performance of the park as part of an adaptive management strategy.
This aerial view of the island shows the watersheds and the up-slope communities that impact the resources below.

This aerial view of the island shows the watersheds and the up-slope communities that impact the resources below.

NCCOS researchers expect that the methods applied in this characterization of the St. Croix East End Marine Park will help managers and scientists better understand land-sea connections and prioritize management actions during the upcoming revision of the park’s management plan.

Simon Pittman, a NCCOS landscape ecologist and lead investigator with this project, pointed out that, “The approach we developed here is now contributing to a reef resilience assessment in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but also has great potential for application to other regions of the world where rapid and cost-effective assessments of threats from land to the sea are required.”

A diver conducts a fish survey within an assemblage of juvenile grunts in the St. Croix East End Marine Park. Photo: NCCOS

A diver conducts a fish survey within an assemblage of juvenile grunts in the St. Croix East End Marine Park. Photo: NCCOS

This work was conducted as part of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP) Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystem Monitoring project; a partnership effort between NOAA’s National Ocean Service, NCCOS, U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources – Division of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service (NPS), the University of the Virgin Islands and the University of Hawaii. This project was funded by CRCP, NCCOS and the NPS.

For more information about this project and to download the report, visit the NCCOS home page:

Posted in Benthic Mapping, Caribbean, Caribbean Research, Coral, Coral Reef Conservation Program, General, NOAA's National Ocean Service, Ocean Field Work, Ocean Pollution, Tourism | Leave a comment

Scientists Look at 10 Years of Data to Describe Aspects of St. John’s Coral Reefs and Fish Populations


Aerial of view of St. John, USVI 1947.

Aerial of view of St. John, USVI 1947.

The coral reef ecosystems of St. John, U.S. Virgin islands play an important cultural and economic role for the region, so it was with great concern that both scientists and residents of St. John began noticing a decline in the health of the marine environment, beginning in the 1980’s. Stress, particularly on the coral reefs, including pollution, overfishing, hurricanes, and others, have combined to negatively impact these systems. According to a USGS scientist (Caroline Rogers), coral reefs in the USVI have changed dramatically in the last three decades; severe declines in live coral cover have occurred primarily because of  increased prevalence of coral diseases, and reef fish assemblages have changed because of habitat degradation and fishing pressure. In response to this decline, researchers from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) began collaborating with a host of partners to characterize and monitor the status of the marine environment around St. John.

Aerial view of St. John, USVI, 2007. Note the drastic change in development near the shoreline.

Aerial view of St. John, USVI, 2007. Note the drastic change in development near the shoreline.

In 2001, a 13-year effort, known as the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystem Monitoring Project (CREM), was begun.  The project documented the variety and abundance of coral reefs around St. John as well as describing non-coral sea floor habitats. This information was combined and then translated into easy to understand maps. Fish populations were also profiled. The researchers documented when, where, and what types of fish inhabited the marine environment around St. John. They also analyzed their data to see if they could discern any trends, good or bad, over time. Further, they also wanted to document the effects of natural events versus manmade, to get a clearer understanding of just how much of the problem is being caused by the local human population. This is the type of information regional resource managers can use when coming up with new strategies for managing these valuable resources.

According to Thomas Kelley, Natural Resource Manager for the Virgin Islands National Park and the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, the report titled “Coral reef ecosystems of St. John U.S. Virgin Islands: Spatial and temporal patterns in fish and benthic communities (2001 – 2009)” will help inform the development of the first ever General Management Plan for the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument.  The report also will provide valuable data for park managers and help them make informed decisions to protect these resources. 

Overfishing is a huge contributor to the decline in not only the numbers of fish, but the variety as well.

Overfishing is a huge contributor to the decline in not only the numbers of fish, but the variety as well.

The results of the first nine years of the study have been released in a new report, “Coral Reef Ecosystems of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands: Spatial and temporal patterns in fish and benthic communities (2001-1009).” The results of the study showed that coral and fish health continue to decline in the region. While there are many efforts currently underway in the confines of the Virgin Islands National Park to limit pollution and overfishing, in areas adjacent to the park, these problems persist. Awareness campaigns and continued enforcement of fishing and boating regulations continue, but new strategies need to be developed before it’s too late.

Funding was provided by the Coral Reef Conservation Program and NCCOS, NPS’ Natural Resource Preservation Program (NRPP) at VIIS, and NPS’ South Florida/Caribbean Network (SFCN) Inventory and Monitoring Program. Data collection partners include the National Park Service (NPS), the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (VI-DPNR), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), and University of Hawaii (UH).

For more information, contact

Posted in Benthic Mapping, Caribbean, Caribbean Research, Contaminants, Coral, Coral Reef Conservation Program, General | Leave a comment

Gulf of Maine Sampling Cruise Continues…..

Images and notes from the crew in the Gulf of Maine:


The group getting trained on the Craib Corer.

We completed our three training stations a little after 10 pm Wednesday. We arrived at our first station around 3:30 Thursday morning, November 7. Our first station was 22 nautical miles southeast of Portsmith Harbor.
To the right, Bruce Keifer setting up the Corer for deployment.
When we get to a station we deploy the Corer. Depending on the depth it takes about 10-15 minutes to reach the bottom, collect the core, and return to deck. Once we have confirmed a good sample we move on to the next station. While in transit we process the sample. Each watch is averaging about three stations per 4 hour shift.
Yesterday morning this seas were pretty calm but picked up throughout the day. In the evening we were experiencing 4-6 foot seas and winds around 20 knots. If the winds exceed 30-35 kts our sampling will have to be stopped.
IMG_5879 Boatswain Tyler, Dave Kidwell, and Jeff Paternoster set core sampler 110713
Boatswain Tyler, Dave Kidwell and  Jeff Paternoster set the Corer for deployment.
On the first station of the 8-12 watch Wednesday night the winds were just under 30 kts. When we first dropped the corer the winds were blowing the ship over the corer. It took the crew a while to position the boat so we could bring the Corer up without damaging in on the hull of the ship.
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