Monday, May 30, 2016

Blog guest post: Ofelia Morales Fadragas and Yoandry Montes Pérez, our Scientists from Cuba

In honor of our multi-lingual collaborations, we'd like to share this post about our special guest scientists in both English and Spanish! Scroll for your language of choice!


En este crucero los investigadores Ofelia y Yoandry fueron invitados a participar en la expedición del barco Nancy Foster con el objetivo de compartir con nosotros sus conocimentos sobre la hermosa isla de Cuba y de conocer las características hidrometeorológicas de los mares de Cuba y sus alrededores.

Above: Ofelia sorts through plankton on the microscope,
Below: processing samples for trophic studies
Una de las lineas de investigacion de este crucero oceanografico se relaciona con la abundancia y la conectividad de las especies marinas con las características físicas de la zona con los Estados Unidos, el Golfo de Mexico y el Caribe Occidental. Al mismo tiempo, el plan de muestreo se modifica segun las metas cientificas y las condiciones hidrodinamica de la zona, principalmente las corrientes marinas. 

MSc. Ofelia Morales Fadragas del Centro de Investigaciones Pesqueras (CIP) que realiza evaluaciones biológicas-pesqueras de la langosta (P. argus), para el manejo y conservación del principal recurso pesquero de Cuba, y con gran interés en la evaluación de la conectividad de la especie en el Atlántico.

El Ing.Yoandry Montes Pérez de GEOCUBA Estudios Marinos (GEOEM) dedicado a la oceanografía física, que ha participado en cruceros realizados en el Norte y Sur Occidental de las costas de Cuba, Canal de Yucatan y Golfo de Mexíco. 

Yoandry on the back deck ready for the next station
Durante este crucero del Nancy Foster Yoandry nos comparte que: me he interesado y he ejecutado las mediciones del CTD, del ADCP de casco realizando mediciones datos en tiempo real, los ADCP colocados en la rosseta del CTD, los XBT y la batimetria hecha en el Bajo de San Antonio, de especial interes porque no se habia realizado nunca una batimetria en esa zona con Multibeam.

Esta expedición es una gran experiencia y sentimos gratitud de poder participar y compartir con el grupo cientifico y con la tripulacion en investigaciones marinas de conjunto con la NOAA, el departamento de CIMAS de la University of Miami, el Instituto Español de Oceanografía (IEO) y ECOSUR de México.


Ofelia and Yoandry were invited to participate in the research expedition aboard the Nancy Foster in order to share their knowledge regarding the beautiful island of Cuba and to gain a better understanding of the hydrological characteristics of the island and its surroundings.

One of the research objectives of the oceanographic survey is to examine the abundance and connectivity of marine species along with the corresponding physical characteristics of the region between the U.S., the Gulf of Mexico, and the Western Caribbean. In addition, the sampling strategy is adapted depending on the scientific question and the hydrodynamic conditions of the area, mainly real-time ocean currents.

Ofelia in the dry lab
Ofelia Morales Fadras (MSc) joins us from the Center for Fisheries Research (Centro de Investigaciones Pesqueras, CIP). This institute carries out Caribbean spiny lobster (P. argus) stock assessments with the goal of improving management and conservation of Cuba’s main fisheries resource. They are also very interested in assessing the connectivity of the Caribbean spiny lobster in the Atlantic with relation to Cuba.

Yoandry Montes Perez (Ing.) joins us from GEOCUBA Estudios Marinos (GEOCUBA Marine Studies). GEOCUBA is dedicated to physical oceanography in and around Cuba. Yoandry has participated in multiple surveys carried out both in the North and Southwestern Cuban coastline, in the Yucatan Channel, and in the Gulf of Mexico.

During the Nancy Foster survey, Yoandry shared with us: "I was very interested in the physical component of the research survey and I have been able to carry out CTD, real-time ADCP, LADCP (connected to the CTD rosette), XBTs, and observe the Multibeam mapping that took place in the Banco de San Antonio. This mapping was very special because it had never been carried out in this region."

This survey has been a great experience and we are grateful that we were able to participate along with NOAA, CIMAS (University of Miami), the Instituto Espanol de Oceanografia (IEO), and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), Mexico. We were able to share with the scientists and with the crew throughout the cruise.

(L-R): Scientist Leif, Sr. Survey Technician Samantha, and Guest Scientist Yoandry with the CTD on the back deck

Friday, May 27, 2016

Chasing Eddies!

As Leg 2 begins, we are extremely excited to begin sampling a mesoscale eddy located south of Cuba! Oceanographic features like these eddies can be very important habitats for larval fish, and we want to explore why and how this changes for different fish species.

NOAA Ship Tracker shows the Foster's unusual track line.
Scientists deployed XBTs en route in order to find the eddy.
There are four major ways mesoscale eddies can affect larval fish:
  1. Larval distribution – baby fish can get caught in the eddy circulation (entrained) or be transported by eddies to other bodies of water.
  2. Eddies also impact how much and what types of prey are available for the larvae to eat, which can in turn affect fish growth.
  3. Larval fish can move up and down in the water column depending on the time of day (diel vertical migration), and this behavior may be impacted by eddy circulation patterns.
  4. In addition to active transport, eddies also generate thermal variations in the environment that affect biological rates.
Left: one of many XBTs deployed on Leg 2
Right: Physical oceanographer Ryan Smith gets real-time
temperature data from an XBT.

On this leg of our survey, our station plan will be very different from our approach on Leg 1, as we'll be employing an "adaptive sampling" strategy. Usually we spend weeks before the cruise planning our sampling stations, however, mesoscale eddies are very dynamic oceanographic features, constantly changing and evolving, so we'll need to modify our sampling plan on the fly based on real-time analysis of the data we observe. In order to find the boundaries and "center" of our target eddy, we will consult daily satellite imagery and altimetry data, as well as our own in situ measurements of ocean currents and temperature. We'll also use hull-mounted and acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCP) to determine the upper ocean current velocity, and temperature profiles from conductivity, temperature, depth (CTD) casts and expendable bathythermograph (XBTs) deployments to analyze the upper ocean thermal structure. All of these data together will help us to target the center of these circulation features, where we'll begin our sampling! Following this we will also sample along the edge of the eddy circulation (at its frontal boundary), and finally we will sample an area of common water outside of the eddy for comparison. 

While adaptive sampling can mean managing a lot of different types of data in real-time, it is extremely rewarding when the clues that the data provide direct you to the target area you are looking to sample!

Left: Scientist Cati Mena and Professor David Lindo prepare to deploy an XBT!
Right: David shoots an XBT off the stern - see it mid-air!

Plankton sample collection is only the first step! Once we get back on land, we’ll spend months sorting through samples, removing and identifying fish larvae and their prey. Then some of those fish larvae will be measured, their guts dissected (using VERY tiny tools!), and their otoliths (ear stones that have marks like tree rings!) analyzed to determine the growth and age of the fish. Finally, all of this information will be combined with the physical oceanographic data (which also has to analyzed) in order to answer our questions. It will be a lot of work but worth it when we get to present the final results and conclusions!

Images of the many steps of plankton processing: a. Unsorted plankton takes patience and a trained eye to find all the larval fish! How many can you spot? b. Once sorted, larvae must be identified - these are baby blackfin tuna. c. Individual fish can have their guts analyzed - check out how full this baby swordfish is! d. Otoliths can tell you how old a baby fish is, if you have a powerful enough microscope, that is. This otolith is less than 1mm in diameter!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sharing Our Knowledge

One of the FORCES Lab’s favorite things about our research cruise is the ability to invite groups of young, bright students onto the ship to experience first-hand the science that we’ll be conducting. This is a really unique, one-in-a-lifetime experience for these lucky middle and high schoolers, and we’re thrilled that they get to not only explore a government research vessel, but delve into the exciting world of larval fish ecology!

An iPrep student checks out tiny larval fish on the microscope
For this year’s research cruise, we've scheduled three events to share our science with students and educators at each of our port stops. In Miami, 40 middle school students from iPreparatory Academy and their teacher, Nicole Rasmuson, boarded the ship just days before we set sail for Havana, Cuba. We provided background on why we study larval fish to begin with (did you know less than 1% of fish eggs actually survive to adulthood?), what kind of things we’d be doing on the cruise (Bongos! Neustons! Mocness!), then let them experience what life is like working in a plankton lab! Using microscopes, students sorted through tiny plankton, searching for any fish hiding there. The kids then tried their hand at larval fish taxonomy, looking up close at the tiny fish to find clues to what their identifications might be. Clues can be found in the baby fish’s body shape, pigmentation, and location and number of spines. Many were shocked to learn that the tiny (4-8mm) fish they were looking at would grow into huge adults, like tunas and mahi mahi!

ENS Pickens shows the students around the back deck, along
with their teacher extraordinaire, Ms. Rasmuson
The kids were also treated to an up-close and personal tour of the ship that would be our home away from home for the next few weeks. Ensign Chris Pickens served as tour guide, and taught the students all about the NOAA Corps and what it’s like to live on a ship for months at a time. The students got to explore the bridge, and even adjust the levers that steer the ship! The Foster has two Z-drives, which allow the officers to move her easily from side to side.

The kids find out what it's like to steer a ship by rotating the Z-drives on the bridge.
Can you spot the steering wheel?
We had a blast with iPrep – thanks for letting us share our microscopic world with you!

iPrep students and teachers pose with the FORCES Lab in front of the Foster

 Stay tuned for pictures from our next event in Cozumel, Mexico!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Mapping the Unknown

During leg one we took a break from our normal operations to collect some data for our friends and colleagues at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. NOAA is responsible for the conservation and management of over 170,000 square miles of America's most iconic natural and cultural marine resources designated as National Marine Sanctuaries. Sanctuaries seek to preserve the extraordinary scenic beauty, biodiversity, historical connections and economic productivity of our most precious underwater treasures.

Like the United States, every country in the Caribbean has it's own special Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that they work to conserve for future generations. Cuba is a shining example with 126 Marine Protected Areas and boasting some of the most pristine and healthy coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Map of the newly designated Sister Sanctuaries - Guanahacabibes and Banco de San Antonio in Cuba, and Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries in the United States.
As you know from previous posts, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are connected by ocean currents. In an effort to conserve our interrelated marine ecosystems, NOAA, the US National Park Service, and Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environments signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on November 18, 2015 that aims to facilitate cooperation on the science, stewardship and management related to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). This was a historical agreement between two neighboring countries only recently resuming diplomatic relations. The MOU included a Sister MPA program that recognizes the important connections among the newly designated Sister Sanctuaries - Guanahacabibes and Banco de San Antonio in Cuba, and Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries in the United States. And the sharing of scientific research and outreach information promoted by this program will hopefully lead to increased protection of our delicate marine ecosystems.

Evolution of bathymetric mapping technology. 
While in the vicinity of Banco de San Antonio, we temporarily pulled in our plankton nets and switched on the multibeam echo sounder to make a bathymetric map of Banco de San Antonio. Bathymetry is essentially "underwater topography" and these maps illustrate the three-dimensional features (relief) of the sea floor. Although this type of work is out of our range of expertise, the crew of the Nancy Foster are experts. Survey Technicians Nick and Samantha have conducted hundreds of miles of mapping and specialize in turning the data collected into beautiful topographic maps. In fact, this type of bottom mapping is the sole mission of many NOAA ships who tirelessly survey the ocean bottom and provide this information to to the general public in the form of nautical charts that allow safe passage to all U.S. ports for both commercial and recreational boaters.

Bathymetric map of  Banco de San Antonio created from Nancy Foster survey data overlaid on a nautical chart, color corresponds to depth (warm=shallow). Charted depths in meters.

Three dimensional closeup of the southeastern portion of Banco de San Antonio. Red bumps likely correspond to coral formations.

The images produced through the Nancy Foster's work will provide information about the habitat and terrain on this very interesting feature that contains high biodiversity, including many species of fish, sponges, and corals. The bathymetric map will direct future research that will use methods such as underwater cameras, SCUBA divers, and possibly ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles) to explore in more detail the habitats on Banco de San Antonio.

Mowing the lawn: The Nancy Foster's track can be seen in orange as progress is made during mapping. The speed, direction and spacing of every pass over the bank is crucial to getting the highest quality data and requires an experienced bridge team.
Senior Survey Technician Samantha Martin monitors progress of the Nancy Foster's effort to map Banco de San Antonio.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Finding the Features

A Battle on Many Fronts

Where is the best place to catch fish? Alas, a question that plagues not only the fisherman, but the fisheries oceanographer as well. Ocean conditions and transport mechanisms play a vital role in the lives of the fish (and other creatures) that dwell there. Hours after spawning, ocean currents are sweeping fertilized fish eggs away from their spawning location. If the temperature is just right, the eggs hatch into larval fish where ocean features such as eddies will ultimately determine if the fish will find its favorite food and grow into an adult.

How do we find these ever-changing phenomena so we can study the effect they have on larval fish? Well...we have some tools.


You may find it strange that we use satellites orbiting hundreds of miles above the Earth to find habitat for larval fish that can only be examined under a microscope, but it’s true! From the deck of a ship, one patch of blue water often looks like the next, which is why we call on instruments such as the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) to do our sensing. A radiometer is a high-tech piece of equipment mounted on an orbiting satellite that detects radiation which can be used for remotely determining cloud cover, or, in our case, sea surface temperatures. Our collaborators at Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Services, Inc. (ROFFSTM) analyze the satellite data to provide us with a picture of where the boundaries between distinct water masses (“fronts”) are. The color image below makes it easy to see the fronts differentiated by surface temperature. 

Satellite image and analysis analysis from ROFFS showing sea surface temperature (SST), currents (blue arrows), completed/planned stations (pink Xs) and future possible sampling locations (red Xs)
We know certain species such as Atlantic bluefin tuna often spawn near fronts, so this helps us in determining where the best areas to sample for larvae are. But satellites have their limitations. Despite the Caribbean’s reputation for sunny beaches, the clouds do occasionally roll in and prevent the satellites from “seeing” the ocean surface.

Circulation Models

While satellites provide accurate, near-real time information, sometimes it is useful to get an estimate of what the future holds. Ocean general circulation models such as the Hybrid Coordinate Ocean Model (HYCOM) use environmental inputs and complex mathematical formulas to produce predictions of ocean parameters such as Sea Surface Temperature (SST) and the speed and direction of ocean currents. 

HYCOM model output for sea surface temperature (degrees Celsius)
HYCOM model output for ocean currents (arrows show direction, colors show speed in cm/second)
While the model is not a perfect predictor, it proves useful on cloudy days or when you want to do some advance planning which is almost always necessary on a ship that has a maximum speed of 10.5 knots (~12 mph).

Ship Data

Having the support of satellites endlessly gathering data and computers constantly running models are great assets to what we do…but so is having access to a high-tech research vessel! Flow through sensors show real-time sea surface temperature and salinity as the ship is sailing and echo sounders are pinging the bottom and displaying a precise depth. But perhaps the most important tool aboard to detect frontal zones is the Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler, also known as the ADCP.  

ADCP output from the 2015 survey across the Yucatan Channel. The ship's track is in black with the direction and size of the arrows showing the direction and speed of the current. Color indicates SST.
The ADCP uses sound waves and the Doppler Effect to measure how fast water is moving in the water column. What does all this jargon mean? It means that we can detect the speed and direction of the current directly below the ship…while the ship is moving! So once we consult the satellite images and model outputs, the ADCP confirms that we have arrived at the right spot. Then it is time to tow some nets…

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Let's get Sampling!

North of Havana, Cuba, the sampling is officially underway! 

One goal of this first leg is to better understand the oceanography around Cuba, especially the northern and western regions. For hydrographic modelers in the U.S. working in the Gulf of Mexico and Straits of Florida, this region is of great interest since access to empirical data from around Cuba has been lacking and these waters are tightly connected to surrounding U.S. waters. One way to visualize this connectivity is through the deployment of satellite-tracked surface drifting buoys ("drifters"). Like a high-tech message in a bottle, the drifter floats along with ocean currents periodically communicating its position and other data such as temperature to passing satellites.

Research Associate Akihiro Shiroza deploys a drifter off of the Nancy Foster in 2015

The image below shows the paths of some drifters deployed off of the Yucatan in Mexico in 2006. As you can see, not all of them ended up in the same place. Some ended up in the Gulf of Mexico, one returned to the Caribbean south of Cuba and the other ended up in the Atlantic following the Gulf Stream! This illustrates how fish spawned in similar areas can end up very far from each other.

Drifter trajectories from a larval study in 2006. Each color represents one drifter. Open circles are start points and stars are end points.
Over the first week of sampling we were able to collect lots of physical data - information about currents, temperature, and salinity - as well as biological samples. These biological, or plankton, samples included tuna larvae and possibly even a couple of bluefin tuna larvae (though, of course, we need to confirm these identifications with genetics once we return to the lab!). These physical and biological data were collected from areas of upwelling to the west of Havana and on the eastern end of Guanahacabibes Peninsula (western-most point of Cuba) and also from a mesoscale eddy located on the western side of the Loop Current.

Plankton collected on NF-16-02. From top left to bottom right: Amphipod, larval anglerfish (Ceratioidei), larval blackfin tunas (Thunnus atlanticus), larval squid, larval lobster, larval lionfish (Pterois volitans)

Areas of upwelling are very important for life in the ocean as the deeper waters that are flowing up to the surface bring with them lots of nutrients. Once these nutrients reach a depth where sunlight can penetrate, they are taken up by phytoplankton to help them grow and reproduce and, thus, primary productivity is increased. These areas of increased productivity are great for zooplankters that eat the phytoplankton. And, in turn, as zooplankton (such as copepods) grow and reproduce, these areas become great for larval fish that each the copepods. Those increases in nutrients move right up the food chain! 

Collecting plankton is hard work! Top: Ofelia, Atsushi, and Aki rinse down the net. Middle: Lulu and Raul prepare the sample for sorting by rinsing out the cod end (grey PVC with holes). Bottom: Lulu and Estrella diligently sort through the plankton, pulling out any fish species of interest.

Mesoscale eddies are also significant oceanographic features for very similar reasons. The dynamic flow patterns associated with eddies include areas of upwelling. In addition to the upwelling, the recirculating nature of the eddy currents can sometimes retain weak-swimming plankton within the eddy feature, and, therefore, near those areas of increased productivity. Mesoscale eddies are found throughout all of the world’s oceans and since the advent of satellite techniques that allow us to observe the ocean over large spatial and temporal scales scientists have begun to recognize that eddies may be critical to much life in the ocean. Our work on eddies on this cruise has just begun……stay tuned for much more in depth sampling of mesoscale eddies on leg 2!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The FORCES Awaken

NOAA Ship Nancy Foster alongside in Havana, Cuba
The Nancy Foster is underway once again with an eager compliment of scientists ready to comb the Caribbean for plankton! As with last year the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) is partnering with the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) to tackle this year’s scientific objectives.

The first part of the 2016 survey (NF-16-02) will be working in waters around western Cuba and east of the Yucatan Peninsula. The focus of this part of the survey will be to continue our study of the distribution and abundance of Atlantic bluefin tuna (ABT) and other tuna larvae in the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean Sea. In addition to tuna larvae, the 2016 survey will sample other larval species found near regional coastal reefs including snapper, grouper, parrotfish, and spiny lobster larvae. The goal is to understand the role that the major current systems play in the dispersal/retention of these species and identify possible spawning locations, examine growth and survival of larvae, and increase our understanding of species recruitment to benthic habitat.

The second part of the 2016 survey (NF-16-03) will take place in the vicinity of the Virgin Islands (VI). During this part of the survey, we plan on sampling water properties, currents, and dispersal and transport of fish larvae in the VI and neighboring regions. Results from the survey can enhance our understanding of regional spatial variation in the supply of fish larvae between managed and non-managed areas.

The mighty Neuston net soars again
While the research area and sampling methods may seem similar to last year’s project, we can assure you, our loyal reader, that new and exciting things are in store for 2016! One major change that happened since last year is a rebranding of the very lab that brings you this blog. Say goodbye to the SEFSC’s Early Life History (ELH) Lab and hello to the Fisheries Oceanography for Recruitment, Climate, and Ecosystem Studies (FORCES) Lab! During its humble beginnings, the ELH lab was focused on larval fish taxonomy (i.e. the description and classification of larval fishes) but in the years that followed our work has expanded to a point where now we use tools such as biophysical models, genetics, and isotope analysis to look at the role larval fish and plankton play in the ocean ecosystem in an effort to protect and manage our valuable ocean resources.

The first days of any cruise are indeed hectic as the science party begins to regain their sea legs and shake the rust off. As we put our first nets in the water and deploy our inaugural CTDs north of Havana, Cuba, here is a recap of what the Foster has been up to since we embarked in Miami.

Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro
NOAA Ship Nancy Foster arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard Base Miami Beach on May 2nd, at which point the controlled chaos began. Scientists and crew worked like ants to load all of the necessary equipment and supplies for almost two months at sea; nets, frames, CTDs, hundreds of sample jars, drums of ethanol, drifters, microscopes, computers, liquid nitrogen, fuel, FOOD! Members of the science party flew in from all corners of the world; Mexico, Spain, Japan… Last-minute generator repairs completed…Amongst the chaos we also managed to host a 6th grade class for a field trip aboard the vessel. Somehow, everything got done and on May 7th, lines were tossed and NF-16-02 and the Nancy Foster were underway! Next stop: Havana.

The day long transit to Havana gave us some time to catch up with each other, (re)familiarize ourselves with the ship, and discuss the upcoming sampling plan. We also took this time to test all of our science equipment. We stopped to deploy our nets and CTD to make sure all of the electronics were functioning properly and went over deployment and recovery procedures (it is a true group effort!).

A Havana icon
The Nancy Foster arrived in Havana on May 8th to embark the last two members of our science party. The crew and science party enjoyed the prestige of being one of the first U.S. Government vessels to pull in to Havana in a very long time. For more pictures and information on the Nancy Foster's visit to Cuba click here, or here.  With our Cuban colleagues aboard, the Foster left Havana on May 10th en route to station 001.  Although the weather was less than ideal, we were hoping that our excitement to get the survey started would soothe our seasickness (but if that doesn’t work, there is always sea sickness medication).

Stay tuned as our exciting 2016 survey unfolds. If this is your first Nancy Foster Chronicle, feel free to browse previous years’ blogs to get an idea of what we are all about!

Clyde keeps a watchful eye on the ship