Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Kristen!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Kristen Ewen from the University of the Virgin Islands!

My name is Kristen Ewen, and I'm a first year Masters Student at the University of the Virgin Islands!
Kristen deploys a biodegradable drifter

My thesis project looks to model population connectivity of large bodied parrotfish of the genus Scarus within the USVI. The reason why we are focused on parrotfish is because they are one of the largest herbivores on Caribbean reefs. They remove excess algae which allows for coral dominated reefs. These fish are also delicious! Which makes them a huge staple in the artisanal fisheries of the territory. However, their populations have declined recently, primarily due to overfishing, reducing their contribution to these ecosystem services.  To better manage this genus, computer models can be developed to take larval fish found in the water column and trace them back to where they were born.  These sites where these fish are reproducing can then be protected to increase the chance of repopulating the surrounding reefs.



Kristen communicates from inside the wet lab with the winch operator, the back deck, and the bridge during a net tow

Since I am using the larval fish data collected on this cruise, I wanted to come aboard to really understand the collection process rather then just reading about it.  From this experience aboard the Nancy Foster I now have the complete story. I may have come for the sampling methods, but stayed for the cute baby parrotfish!

Beast mode! Kristen flexes her muscles on the back deck

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Sennai!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Sennai Habtes from the University of the Virgin Islands!

Sennai Habtes has been a longtime collaborator with the FORCES lab, since his days as a PhD student. We are always excited to get to sail with him each year! Sennai is a Research Assistant Professor of Biological Oceanography at the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands.

"This year I am working with the scientists of the NOAA SEFSC, Dr. Dan Otis from the University of South Florida, and Dr. David Lindo from the City University of New York, to understand how physical oceanographic processes affect larval dispersal around spawning periods. We are particularly interested in two phenomena: where do grouper larvae go after they are spawned, and how the oceanographic conditions surrounding high biological productivity areas in the USVI and Puerto Rico have an impact. Myctoperca venenosa, or the Yellowfin Grouper, spawn approximately 8-10 days after the full moon from January until April, at spawning aggregations sites along the shelf surrounding the USVI (primarily along the Gramanik Bank, on the South Drop). Although we routinely sample for larval fish during the times of year when grouper are actively spawning around the USVI, we have very little luck catching these larvae. We believe this may because they target zones with particular currents that transport the larvae below the surface. During this cruise we are using specialized nets called a MOCNESS (Multiple Openning and Closing Net Environmental Sampling System) to sample the area surrounding the spawning aggregations. This will allow us to determine where in the water column these larvae are transported.

Grouper larva, ~5mm length
Photo credit: FORCES Lab
"Additionally, we are targeting Lang Bank on St. Croix, to determine how oceanographic conditions, which support a high biological region there, influence the transport of larval fish. Along with our traditional measurements of oceanographic conditions, and net sampling of zooplankton and ichthyoplankton (larval fish) we are also using satellite imagery to identify interesting features that may help in either transporting the larvae faster or retaining them in coastal areas surrounding the USVI. These are two smaller studies that we have implemented in this years cruise to help understand how the coastal oceanography around the USVI and PR affect larval recruitment (addition of new fish into adult populations) and connectivity (transport, ultimately allowing for better management of marine fish populations in the Eastern Caribbean."

Satellite image shows the oceanography of the US Virgin Islands, with tracks of the drifters deployed on NF-17-03.
Image courtesy of Dr. Dan Otis - Institute for Marine Remote Sensing USF-CMS

For more on Sennai’s research see his faculty webpage at UVI: http://www.uvi.edu/directory/profiles/staff/habtes-sennai-y.aspx
or this recent news post from the team at the VI-EPSCoR program about Sennai’s background and his research: https://www.viepscor.org/news/2017/4/12/drhabtes

Monday, April 24, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Sarah!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Sarah Heidmann from the University of the Virgin Islands!

Sarah (L) and Jess sort some live plankton samples on board!
My name is Sarah Heidmann, and I'm a second-year Masters student in Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Virgin Islands. I'm originally from California and completed my undergraduate degree at Oregon State, both of which shaped my interest in the ocean, marine science, and SCUBA diving. 


Giovanni (L) and Sarah deploy cod ends for the MOCNESS tow. Photo credit: LTJG Niki Norton
My time on this cruise is thanks to my committee member and mentor, Sennai Habtes. I'm excited to be immersed in living and working on the ocean, experiencing life on a ship and participating in oceanographic research. It's a nice change from my own work, which involves nearshore fishing and diving. I am using acoustic tracking technology to study the movements of mutton snapper in a bay on St. Thomas, as well as at a spawning aggregation on St. Croix. 

You can follow me on Twitter (@SarahLHeidmann) to get updates on my research!

The St. Thomas crew! L-R: Kristen, Sarah, Sennai, Vanessa, and Alexis! T-shirt design by Kat Dale

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Jess!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Jess Scicchigno from CUNY College of Staten Island!

Jess poses with the CTD
Hi!  My name is Jessica Scicchigno and I'm going to take you on a bit of an academic wild ride.  I am currently going to graduate from the CUNY College of Staten Island in June 2017.  I am graduating with an English Bachelor of Arts and a Psychology Bachelor of Science with a minor in Geology.  So how  did an English major end up on a NOAA cruise? I'm glad you asked.

I met Professor David Lindo-Atichati in a meteorology class he was teaching at my college.  I would come into class beaming with excitement over earth science disciplines, a subject I have always been interested in. This excitement was noticed and Professor Lindo invited me on a NOAA research survey he was involved with.  I was always a huge NOAA fan and this was something I always wanted to do.  Naturally, I could not say no.  Now I am on my first oceanic cruise.

So what do I want to get out of this? I want to learn as much as possible about the instruments used to collect data.  Science is taken for granted - scientists on this ship literally work day and night.  We work in rough seas.  We work rain or shine.  We do also get sea sick!  I want to learn how to work the equipment and gain an appreciation for data collection.  You truly do not know how difficult it can be until you're doing it yourself. Simply seeing a piece of equipment in a picture can no longer do it justice after this experience.  

Ready to deploy the Bongo net -
hard hat, PFD, and tether? Check!
In addition to that, I want to know more about the Caribbean currents and how the ocean is "setup" in this region.  I want to know how the biology is influenced by this and what biology is here! Just from taking the samples with nets we have seen some amazing creatures. I want to learn, partly, the day to day life of creatures here.  When do they migrate? What do the other scientists here know about grouper migrations or spawn sites? What fish are common in what areas?  I have always loved fish, and being surrounded by people who love them just as much as I do is nothing short of amazing.  It's even more amazing to learn from them - both fish and people.

Although I have taken a very unusual path, the dreaming teenager in me could not help but tear up at the initial sight of the gorgeous Nancy Foster, sitting at the dock at 2 AM when I arrived.  This surreal atmosphere has led me back to the sciences, and I want to go deeper into oceanography for sure after this cruise.  I always wanted to do this - now I just want to do it again.

Jess models her survival "Gumby" suit during an Abandon Ship drill

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Coral Reef Fish in USVI: Where do they come from?

Figure showing the dominant flow modes a) cyclonic
 and b) anticyclonic flows around St. Croix
(Source: AMSEAS Model)
If you've ever been to the Caribbean, you've seen white sand beaches and clear blue waters - perfect for snorkeling and SCUBA diving to see the coral reef systems beneath the surface. These reefs demonstrate incredible diversity of fish, crustaceans, cephalopods, and many other organisms. As larval fish biologists and oceanographers, we are interested in where coral reef fish spawn, and the oceanographic processes that transport larvae to their ultimate settling location, the coral reefs.

Though the US Virgin Islands are relatively small, the oceanographic features surrounding them can be quite complex. The southern-most island, St. Croix, is geographically isolated 50km from the northern islands by a 4000m-deep trough, and we hypothesize
that its position affects how waters flow into and around the northern islands (St. Thomas and St. John).

We devised a sampling plan which should help us understand the flow near the shelf break south of St. Thomas and St. John, specifically if there is connectivity between inshore and offshore areas, or if there is a barrier between them.

L-R: Sennai, Jess, Tanya, and Dan throw SVP drifters off the stern.


Our stations are positioned at inshore, slope, and offshore locations:
A plankton sample!
Photo credit: LTJG Norton
  • Oceanographic Eulerian data: ADCP, CTD, and XBTs will provide data on the temperature, salinity, and velocities of the water column being sampled. With water velocities we will be able to calculate potential vorticity, which will give us an idea of the ability of the flow to spin. These instruments sample from the surface to the ocean floor! Our Eulerian metrics are important to better understand the physical nature of the inshore and offshore environments where our fish larvae live. 
  • Oceanographic Lagrangian data: SVP and biodegradable drifters will be deployed at each segment on the transects, and will transmit through satellite a time series of speed and direction of the currents. We are deploying the drifters in pairs to be able to compute relative dispersion, which is a measurement of the separation of two surface particles (e.g. larvae) drifting in the ocean. Our Lagrangian metrics are important to better understand the inshore and offshore transport of our fish larvae. 
  • Biological data: Bongo plankton nets will be towed, sampling from the surface to the ocean floor. Fish larvae from these samples will give us an idea as to what species of reef fish are spawning in these areas. These biological metrics are also important to quantify how the nature and transport within inshore and offshore environments affect fish larvae.  
  • Oceanographic data: ADCP, CTD, and XBTs will provide data on the temperature, salinity, and potential vorticity of the water column being sampled. These instruments sample from the surface to the ocean floor!
The CTD is brought back on the ship by ST Stephanie
Photo credit: LTJG Norton

We are very excited to see the results of this study! Upon completion, we will be able to better understand the specific mechanisms which drive interactions between fisheries and the environment in the USVI, and hopefully be able to gauge the effectiveness of current fisheries management strategies, while developing methods for improvement. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Vanessa!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Vanessa McKague from the University of the Virgin Islands!

Vanessa runs the CTD in the dry lab on Easter Sunday
Hi everyone! I'm Vanessa McKague, Oceanographic Technician from the University of the Virgin Islands! I am also a new mother of an 8 month old boy.  Having a child really changes so much in your life and most of all your priorities change dramatically.  But because I love my job and what I do, I wouldn't want to have to choose between them. I am learning as I go along but I am trying my best to be both a great mother and a productive scientist. I love being an Oceanographic Technician because I get to do all of the hands on science that I love. I work with many oceanographic instruments (i.e., CTDs, ADCPs) and perform calibrations and maintenance as well as program them for deployments and process the data. On this cruise I have been running the CTD rosette.  I work in the dry lab on the computer using Seasave software to view the ocean profile data in real time and to collect water samples in the niskin bottles at the surface and at the deep chlorophyll maximum.

Vanessa decked out in safety gear on the back deck.
At UVI, I work with Dr. Sennai Habtes (who is also on this cruise) in the Oceanography Laboratory.  One great opportunity that I recently had was to take a Larval Fish Identification Course.  I have not had previous experience doing this so it was such a great learning experience for me.  It was very hands on and we all had microscopes to look at all of the samples.  My favorite part of the course was taking an unknown sample and using the skills that we had gained to identify the larval fish species.

Colton helps Mom learn how to identify larval fish! 
What I want to get out of the cruise: Deploying the mooring for the relocation of the St. Thomas CariCOOS/VI-EPSCoR oceanographic buoy. The original location was south of St. Thomas, but now we will have real time oceanographic data northwest of St. Thomas.  It will be the first oceanographic buoy located north of the Virgin Islands in the Atlantic Ocean!  We successfully deployed the anchor and chain with surface buoy markers on the first day of the cruise.  We will then go back out on a calm day in a smaller vessel and use commercial divers to attach the buoy and inspect the site.

Secondly, I just want to be out to sea doing science!  This is one of the best parts of my job and I look forward to this opportunity.  It is a time to focus on collecting data and to talk to other scientists without interruptions of everyday life.  We are all living out here together so there are plenty opportunities to learn from each other and to come up with new ideas and projects for future work.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The weather started getting rough....

....the tiny ship was tossed!

Jason and Alexis deploy the CTD using tag lines
Working in the Caribbean is usually filled with picturesque islands, clear skies, and flat seas, but sometimes a weather system comes through that changes all that! The last few days we've experienced some big waves and windy conditions, and slightly altered our course to try to stay in more protected waters. We want to ensure the safety of everyone on board, as well as protect our delicate plankton nets and sensitive instruments.

Sara and Jason are ready to hook the CTD for recovery
Though we always have certain safety measures in place, we'll make some changes once the weather starts to turn. Everything on the ship needs to be carefully secured. We use tag lines to keep instruments steady during deployment and use hooks for recovery. We sometimes even have to change our course to avoid bad weather. This week, we diverted our trackline inshore to avoid wind speeds of 30 knots!

Weather is just one of the many factors we have to consider while sampling at sea!

Giovanni ducks to avoid a wave crashing on the back deck! 

Jason and Alexis weren't so lucky - they got drenched while rinsing down the Bongo net!

Thankfully, at the end of every storm is a sunrise like this:
Sunrise off the bow. Photo credit: LTJG Niki Norton