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NOAA Teachers at Sea Spread the Word about Fisheries Science

June 27, 2013 

Each year, NOAA Fisheries researchers set sail to collect valuable fisheries data along all our coasts, and since 1990, they have invited teachers, college professors, and informal educators to join them. Teachers at Sea are a unique component to at-sea research—they participate in the long shifts and odd hours of data collection and bring an educator’s perspective to the endeavor. Through their at-sea blogs and lesson plans, they give their students and communities a personalized window into the requirements, challenges, and necessity of science at sea.

"Science is a method, not a subject, and the scientific method is one wherein we all simply do our best with what we have," says NOAA Teacher at Sea Liz Nyman. "Science has been so profoundly influential because of the simple power of this process, testing over and over what we think to be true, so that we can learn if we are wrong. It’s true if you study fish, if you study policy, or if you study anything in between."

So in that spirit, take a look at other lessons learned by these teachers about fisheries science at sea.  




It Takes Planning and Practice

NOAA Teachers At Sea witness first-hand the preparation and practice involved in using state-of-the-art instruments to collect fisheries data in sometimes unpredictable conditions. High school teacher Rita Salisbury from Seaford, Delaware, noted this while sailing with the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette in April on a study to compare and calibrate various acoustic and camera-based methods for sampling deepwater bottomfish off the Hawaiian Islands

Rita helped the science crew deploy different types of robotic underwater cameras: remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), and “BotCams.” In her blog, she was impressed at how many fail-safes were built into testing the scientific equipment. “If the AUV doesn’t return to the ship, it’s a very big deal,” Rita explained. “It’s expensive and difficult to replace. The scientists designed it with that thought in mind.” Fortunately, each time the bright yellow AUV descended out of sight, it returned successfully with hours of video footage. 

Science at Sea Benefits Everyone

Teacher at Sea Emmi Saunders is an educator at Spring Nature Preserve in Las Vegas, Nevada—a community far removed from the ocean. Emmi works with kids of all ages who visit the Preserve and participate in the Nature Exchange, a program for trading natural items with other kids around the world. In May, she joined the NOAA Ship Oregon II for NOAA’s spring plankton survey and used the experience as a way to bring ocean issues to life for her desert-dwelling students. 

The Oregon II set sail from Pascagoula, Mississippi, to survey plankton in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly to collect ichthyoplankton—tiny, juvenile fish—to inform fish population assessments. Emmi was involved in each component of plankton collection: deploying different kinds of nets, preserving plankton samples in jars, sorting out the sea creatures hiding in the sargassum. 

On her blog she described each step of the process in accessible language with lots of photos. She also challenged the kids following her blog from Nevada to answer questions and encouraged them to bring their answers to the Nature Exchange for points.“My experience will help me show the kids at the Springs Nature Preserve all about how healthy oceans keep our desert healthy” Emmi says, "and how they can grow up to be the scientists or ship crew members who protect our oceans.”

Needed: Flexibility and Attention to Detail

Gifted middle school teacher Patty McGinnis, from Norristown, Pennsylvania, joined NOAA researchers on the R/V Ocean  Starr to conduct a survey of juvenile rockfish and other species off the California coast. Trawling for juvenile rockfish is conducted at night, when it’s harder for the fish to see and avoid the trawl nets, so Patty worked through the night and slept in the daytime to help sort through the trawl catches. 

Some rough weather required modifying the trawling schedule, and in each new location, scientists conducted a test trawl to check for jellyfish—which quickly clog trawl nets. During the trawls, the science crew found so much krill and plankton that they had to focus on sorting subsamples, but they always weighed, recorded, and cross-checked the catches to ensure data accuracy. 

In her blog, Patty posted about the fascinating array of creatures they pulled up on the trawls. “I’ve come to realize that each trawl is a whole new adventure,” Patty reflected. “Although Chief Scientist Keith Sakuma has the historical data 
to predict what be found at each station, he is occasionally surprised at the treasures that are yielded by the ocean’s pelagic zone.”

Science at Sea Doesn’t Always Go As Planned

Though NOAA Teachers At Sea—and researchers—set out with high expectations for their mission, science cruises, like other voyages, can be beholden to the sea’s moods. This became apparent to Dr. Liz Nyman, a professor of political science at University of Louisiana Lafayette, who sailed on the NOAA Ship Pisces on a Florida reef fish survey toward the end of May.

At sea, Liz aided scientists in deploying fishing gear and cameras to collect data on reef fish populations. She learned quickly that “every possible moment of time is devoted to getting as much data as possible.” Because it’s expensive to send a ship out to sea, each member of the crew and science party works hard to make the best use of time and resources.

Science at sea—especially data collection—is vulnerable to changes in the weather. As Tropical Storm Andrea approached the Florida peninsula with very strong winds, the Pisces’ reef fish data collection was scaled back, slowed down, and finally, halted altogether. The ship had to come to in to port early to avoid the storm; a disappointment, but a lesson worth conveying. “I have a greater appreciation that, with science as in all things,” Liz wrote in her  blog, “sometimes life does not go quite to plan.” 

No matter what kind of science these Teachers at Sea study, they can agree on one thing, science at sea is invaluable.