By Doreen Leggett
A 44-foot wide bottom trawl net went into the water time and again, bringing up a narrow slice of ocean life in hundreds of spots across the North Atlantic, much as it has done for close to 60 years.
Jon Hare, science and research director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, went up to the bow of the research vessel Henry B. Bigelow and saw nothing but vast ocean and an enormous blood-red moon.
“Looking out you feel the expanse,” Hare said.
Hare, a PhD in oceanography, is moved by the breadth of the ocean, but he knows it is not limitless. The work he and his team do is designed to better understand those limits.
“We can’t say exactly how many fish there are in the sea,” Hare said, but they try to get the best information possible to feed into a regulatory framework to manage an historic industry and guide countless business plans, small and large.
“Strong science leads to effective management,” he wrote in a blog about his trip. “The Northeast U.S. ecosystem is one of the best studied ecosystems in the world and at our center, we intend to keep it this way.”
In this most recent survey, among thousands of samples collected from more than 180 species, they took approximately:
- 9,000 age samples
• 6,000 stomach samples
• 10,000 sex and maturity determinations
• 900 energy content samples
Hare was on the third and last survey trip the Henry B. Bigelow takes each spring (except for last year on account of the pandemic). The spring bottom trawl survey is one of many research initiatives (including marine mammal and habitat surveys, and ecosystem monitoring) the 209 -foot research vessel undertakes. The ship, commissioned in 2007, also has a multibeam echo sounder, one of three of its type in the world, to study fish and plankton biomass.
As director, Hare typically doesn’t go on research trips anymore, but he wanted to reinforce to his staff and others the work’s importance.
“I’d get up at 6 a.m. to do director-type work until 11:30, and then work the watch noon to midnight,” he said.
Each time the trawl gear rises to the deck, the fish are sorted into species and a subset are weighed.
“We had a fair number of dogfish, which shouldn’t be a surprise,” Hare said.
Haddock were common, red and spotted hake also brought up, and (likely a testament to climate change) butterfish were seen farther north than in the past.
“The strength of these tows is that they are standard across the region and over time,” Hare said, creating a scientific common denominator.
Ilex, or short-finned squid, were seen in the Gulf of Maine, also unusual.
John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, wondered what the presence of the voracious predatory squid, which in turn is prey to many larger fish, may mean to the productive ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine. Information from the survey feeds into larger discussions.
“It’s a critical survey for the management of our natural resources,” said Papplardo, who serves on the federal New England Fishery Management Council.
The research vessel, and others of its kind, is not without controversy. There have been concerns about the predictive reliability of data from the Bigelow, as well as data fishermen submit or that’s taken by observers. A new rule that strengthens accountability in the industry has recently gone into effect which should improve that data stream.
Pappalardo said adding more industry-based surveys, similar to what occurs in Alaska, may help as well.
Over the past several years NOAA has modernized and improved its research vessels and practices, but more is needed, he added.
In the past, information such as the sex, weight, length and stomach contents were recorded by hand, thousands of entries that took months to process and make available to researchers.
That has changed. Now fish are sorted into barcoded baskets, buckets and pails, recorded into one enormous database. As samples move down conveyor belts to the crew for workup, they are pulled off the belt and passed over barcode scanners. The software then displays the species for confirmation and sampling begins. As physical samples are prepared a barcode printer at each sampling location prints a waterproof label for the bag or envelope. These samples are placed in a walk-in freezer or bins on the wall of a wet lab.
The technology reduces human error.
“That is really important in fisheries science,” said Pappalardo.
Researchers also collect specimens to aid in research done across the globe. For instance, on Hare’s trip sand lance was frozen to do genetic work and to compare the energy content of different forage species.
“It really serves as a resource for investigations across the country,” Hare said of the survey.
Two teams on the boat, about six people each, go through what the trawl brought up.
The teams were further split into two and the more experienced would dissect the fish, including removing otoliths, a bone in the ear used to age fish.
That wasn’t Hare.
“They did let me cut some fish,” Hare said with a smile. “It had been awhile.”
The excitement of learning about the ocean hasn’t gotten old.
“For me, every time the trawl comes up it’s like Christmas,” Hare said. “I loved it. I have always loved going to sea.”
He added they also came across the rare slender snipe eel, a skinny creature that feeds in the dark of the ocean. The specimen may be shared with the Smithsonian Institution.
Spencer Fullerton Baird founded the laboratory at Woods Hole 150 years ago, the first federal fisheries laboratory and the nation’s first marine research station. He also was the first curator of the Smithsonian.
“Baird really understood the importance of working with the fishing industry. He knew the place to start was to talk to people who work on the water,” Hare said, who 150 years later works out of the same place. “He took great interest in what they had to say, and that continues today.”