Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Jason!

Today's featured scientist is Jason Mostowy - read on for more about his cruise and future goals!

My name is Jason, I graduated from the University of  Miami in 2015 with a B.S. in Biology/Marine Science, and I've been working as a research tech in the FORCES Lab since 2013.

Larval lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles)
Image credit: FORCES
My main work for the lab involves processing the zooplankton samples we collect on cruises like this one - meticulously removing fish larvae and other target organisms, fitting the results into our considerable database, and dissecting larval fish for otoliths (earstones, used for ageing studies), gut contents, or genetic analysis projects. I'm also currently working on a project to characterize the larval distribution of the highly invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles) in the tropical western Atlantic. Gaining a better understanding of the early life ecology of this harmful species will help scientists better predict levels of lionfish population replenishment, which in turn can be used to determine where and how often lionfish removal efforts should be performed.

Jason sorts through plankton search for tunas

Jason rinses down the Bongo-90 with
Sarah and Lulu during night shift
This is my third year sailing aboard the Foster. I love working in the field, especially the many perks that come with going to sea - the chances to practice and expand my scientific skill set, the opportunities to get to know other scientists from a variety of disciplines, the stewards rescuing me from my unfortunate cooking for a few weeks, etc. It's been a long cruise for me; I first embarked way back on April 13th, and by the time we reach port on June 2nd I'll have spend 35 of the last 48 days at sea!

This fall - after what I hope will be a commensurately long and relaxing stint on solid ground over the summer - I plan to start graduate school where I will continue to study the factors that mediate the distribution and survival of larval fish in the GOM and Caribbean.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Featured Scientist: Tom Kelly

Today we learn about Tom who shares his insights into the infamous sediment trap! Here is his blog post. (Read previous guest posts here!)

Tom and the incubation system
My name is Thomas Kelly and I am a PhD Candidate at Florida State University in the Plankton Ecology and Biogeochemistry Lab. One of the principal tools that I use in my research is called a sediment trap. A sediment trap collects marine particles and organisms as they sink through the water column. You can think of a sediment trap as an underwater rain gauge that collects sinking plankton instead of falling rain drops.

Since most of the biological growth occurs where light is plentiful (i.e. photosynthesis), the majority of marine organisms live within the surface layers of the oceans. But as these organisms die, get broken up, or defecate, particles settle out of the surface layer and into the deeper ocean. Our sediment traps are placed in between these layers and can tell us about what kind and how quickly carbon, nutrients, and other material leaves the surface ecosystem.
Tom and Mike deploy the sediment trap

The deployment of the sediment trap is really quite straightforward and will typically take a bit over an hour. The whole assembly consists of a long rope that extends from the surface all the way down to the depth of the last sediment trap frame (Pictured to the left), about 650 (210m) feet. At the bottom we place 60 lbs (27 kg) of weights and at the top a set of buoys. For the Bluefin Tuna Cruise the sediment trap frames are placed at approximately 150, 400, and 600ft (50, 120, and 200m) of water depth so that we can measure how the sinking of particles changes with depth.

Onto the frame we attach a set of tubes filled with extra salty seawater so that any particles that sink into them will stay in the tube rather than being mixed out again (the denser fluid will stay inside the tube just like a glass of water will stay inside a cup). Besides that, the tubes are also spiked with formaldehyde to kill anything that tries to eat the sinking material and a baffle at the top to reduce turbulence around the top of the tube.

Tom plots his next filtration experiment
After 3-5 days of drifting, the sediment trap is ready to come aboard and be processed. In general, each of the sampling tubes is filtered and frozen for later processing on land where we can look at such things as the carbon and nitrogen content. Some of the specialized aspects that we can look at from the sediment traps include the size classes of the particles collected, the source of the material collected, and the quantity of various metals and nutrients within the material. Ultimately the sediment trap provides invaluable information about how the ecosystem looses energy and material to the deeper water column.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Featured Scientist: Jose Quintanilla

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 Jose Quintanilla from IEO!
Deploying the Bongo-90 in the GOM

My name is Jose Mª Quintanilla Hervás. I am one of the scientists in the Larval Ecology Group belonging to the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO), which is the public organization that carries out research in the oceans of Spain. For the last decade, my research has been focused on larval growth of different species in the Mediterranean sea (such as sardines, anchovy, bluefin tuna) and how it is influenced by environmental and trophic variables.

Jose searches for the elusive bluefin tuna in the plankton sample
Dr. Quintanilla fractions mesozooplankton in the wetlab
This is my first time in this survey in the GOM. I'm very pleased to take part in it and to have the opportunity to continue the collaboration with our colleges from NOAA in order to improve our knowledge of bluefin tuna larval ecology from a multidisciplinary point of view in the framework of ECOLATUN project. One of my main interests is to establish a robust criteria for age reading of bluefin tuna larvae in order to be able to compare growth patterns of populations from Mediterranean and GOM and try to the determine the most important factors related with different growth rates in both areas taking into account that growth is one of the most important factors in larval survival and, therefore, in the recruitment and viability of the species.

Jose discusses his otolith research back in the Malaga, Spain
Nowadays, our group is interested in the study of the potential effect of larvae feeding behaviour on their growth based on Stable Isotope Analysis (SIA) and Compound Specific Isotope Analysis (CSIA)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Outreach & Education: Nancy Opens her doors during our Progreso Open House

The ship Nancy Foster arrived for the first time to Progreso in Yucatán on May 19. On Saturday, May 20, we held an Open House event to explain the scientific research activities we carried out in the Gulf of Mexico. On this occasion we were accompanied by Dr. Mario González Espinosa, Director of ECOSUR, Dr. Magda Estela Domínguez Machín, Assistant Director of Fisheries Resources in the Atlantic of INAPESCA, Dr. Josefina del Carmen Santos Valencia, Chief of CRIP Yucalpetén, and Dr. Alvaro Hernández Flores, Professor-Researcher at MARISTA University, together with Doctorate students in Fisheries and Aquaculture Bioeconomics at the university. The students of Marine Biology (UADY), led by Dr. Alfonso Aguilar Perera, Professor-Researcher of UADY Marine Biology Faculty, were present as well as Mr. Manuel Sánchez González, President of the Yucatán Shipowners Union.

Mike Stukel explains the sediment traps to local fishers
Student explores plankton in the microscope!
While everyone explored the ship, scientists explained the main activities carried out during our campaign in the different laboratories. In the “wetlab,” everyone got an opportunity to see the many organisms that make up the plankton using microscopes. 

The wetlab is also where each sample is carefully examined to search for tuna larvae and multiple filtrations of seawater take place. In the “dry lab” all the controls for deployment and recovery of of equipment take place. On the back deck, we saw the equipment used to ascertain nitrogen sources in relation to the plankton food-web dynamics in the habitats of the BFT. 

Scientists examine specimens under the microscope
Chief Sci Estrella Malca discusses the project goals
This is novel and exciting because, despite its importance, these research activities are being conducted for the first time in the Gulf of Mexico! Finally, on the bridge, the NOAA Corps officers showed us the state of the art navigation equipment and instruments utilized to safely and accurately lead the ship to and from our sampling locations.

Mexico and US collaborators
Students and researchers asked questions about our various activities and were surprised by the great diversity of organisms observed in the microscope and those captured on the computer screen during this survey. We would like to thank everyone for participating and to all of the port agents, the scientists, crew and officers for making this a fun and well organized event!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Jennifer!

Today's featured scientist is a recent graduate from University of California - San Diego, Jennifer Beatty! She is a research assistant at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Read on to find out her goals for this survey in her own words!

Jennifer fixes a sample collected in the GOM
"The lab I'm involved with studies the interaction of phytoplankton and zooplankton, which are the lowest levels of marine food webs. Phytoplankton are essentially the plants of the sea, while zooplankton are the animal plankton that eat them. The way these two interact changes in different parts of the ocean, which impacts the dynamics of organisms further up the food web, including bluefin tuna larvae! During this cruise, we are hoping to get an idea of what is happening at these lower food web levels to illuminate what conditions are optimal for larval bluefin tuna.

Processing the ring net in the wetlab
"My primary goal for this cruise is to gain field experience at sea. I've worked with samples in the lab, but I wanted to see where they come from and how they are collected. Additionally, I wanted to taste what research at sea is like because I plan to pursue a graduate degree in marine science. Before I head there, I'd like to have a better idea if I prefer research dependent on field work or prefer to stay in the lab."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Mike!

This year's voyage is the first of two annual research surveys in the Gulf of Mexico for the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program. Our project, "Research, observation, and monitoring to support long-term sustainability in the GoM ecosystem, including fish stocks, fish habitat, and fishing industries," is in collaboration with some new partners to the FORCES Lab. Read on and get introduced to the project's PI from Florida State University, Mike Stukel!

Mike prepares sample bottles to be loaded into the sediment trap
My name is Mike Stukel, and I am an assistant professor at Florida State University. I am a plankton ecologist and biogeochemist in the FSU Plankton Ecology and Biochemistry Lab. I study the role that some of the smallest organisms in the ocean play in the global carbon cycle and their role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On this cruise, I am studying the role that different nutrients play in limiting the primary production of phytoplankton. These tiny algae are responsible for half of the world’s photosynthesis and half of the oxygen that you breathe. Their photosynthesis also supports the entire marine ecosystem of the open ocean Gulf of Mexico. One of my goals in this project is to quantify the food web pathways that partition this phytoplankton production between either the biological pump (which transports atmospheric CO2 into the deep ocean where it can be stored for centuries) or higher trophic levels including larval tuna. 

Mike and Tom (R) with their double-decker water filtrations!
My goal for this cruise is to understand the base of the food web that supports larval tuna.  In particular, I am interested in whether the algae responsible for photosynthesis are ultimately getting their nutrients from upwelling that brings nutrient-rich deep water into the sunlit surface zone or whether special phytoplankton (called Nitrogen-fixers) are creating their own nutrients from the nitrogen gas that is abundant in the atmosphere and ocean.  Answering this question is important to understanding whether or not total productivity in the Gulf of Mexico will decrease due to climate change.

Mike deploys the drifter array in the wee hours of the morning

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Kiana!

Meet Kiana, who just finished her first semester as an undergraduate student intern at the SEFSC FORCES Lab! Read about her goals for her first research cruise in her own words...

Kiana (R) helps Sr. Survey Tech Samantha retrieve the CTD
Hi everyone, my name is Kiana and I'm a sophomore undergrad at the University of Miami. As an undergrad intern, my main role is helping the senior researchers accomplish all the tasks needed on the ship. Some of my tasks include deploying nets, containing and logging samples, and inputting data.

As of now, I don't know exactly what I want to do in the future but I am excited to begin work on my senior thesis, which will be looking at lobster abundance in and around MPAs near Cuba. My biggest goals for this cruise are to learn the ins and outs of accomplishing an experiment at sea, in addition to learning valuable scientific skills that I can apply at school and in the future.

Kiana soaks up some sun on the back deck after a hard shift's work!
Besides participating in this cruise I will also be journeying to Saudi Arabia in late July to participate in research on the Red Sea, where I will be able to use many of the skills I learned aboard the Nancy Foster.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Lulu!

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 Lourdes Vásquez Yeomans from ECOSUR!

Today’s blog features our long-time collaborator and friend Lourdes Vásquez Yeomans, or “Lulu,” who is one of our most enthusiastic colleagues from Mexico’s ECOSUR (El Colegio de la Frontera Sur) Chetumal campus. Lulu is an ichthyologist in the Zooplankton Laboratory in the Departamento de Sistemática y Ecología Marina.

Lulu sorts plankton samples in search of bluefin tuna larvae
“I work with coastal and oceanic ichthyoplankton (eggs and fish larvae) mainly from the Mesoamerican Reef System, with emphasis on the Mexican Caribbean. ECOSUR has one of the best collections of larval fishes in Mexico! I am also one of the curators of this collection, and always facilitating its expansion. Thousands of fishes in the museum have been archived from the multiple joint-oceanographic surveys carried out with NOAA in Mesoamerican waters, the Eastern Caribbean, Cuba, and the Gulf of Mexico. An added value of this collection is that more than 4,000 specimens so far have been analyzed for genetic ID, so we know with certainty which species it is. One of our partners in this endeavor is the MEXBOL network as well as the BOLD consortium.

L-R: Jason, Lulu, Sydney, and Sarah rinse down the Bongo net

Lulu and Chief Scientist Estrella model their cruise shirts
“On this survey, I am using my skills as a taxonomist to help the team identify bluefin tuna larvae and other resources of high commercial value such as dorado, marlin, grouper, and snapper. My main goal on this survey is to increase my country’s understanding of bluefin tuna spawning events in our territorial waters. Bluefin tuna is a resource of high commercial value that has suffered a significant decrease in its abundance, which is an alarming situation. Bluefin tuna are also a shared resource between USA and Mexico, so we have to make collaborative academic partnerships like our 10-year academic and research partnership between NOAA’s FORCES lab and my Larval Fish Lab in ECOSUR.

The Night Shift! L-R: Sydney, Lulu, Jason, and Sarah
“I hope that many young marine biology students are motivated by this field of research! I think that it is necessary to continue these efforts. I am happy to participate in this project, and I am grateful to Dr. John Lamkin for being part of his team and the Mexican authorities (SEMAR, DIGAOHMINAPESCA, SRE) for understanding the importance of these investigations and granting our project the scientific permits to work in Mexican waters."

Monday, May 15, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Sydney!

Meet Sydney, who has been an undergraduate student intern at the SEFSC FORCES Lab since Fall 2016! Read about her goals for her first research cruise in her own words...

Sydney models our safety gear
My name is Sydney Harned and I'm a junior at the University of Miami. My goal for this cruise is to learn as much as I can! 

This is my first research cruise, so I'm here to gain some real world experience in the marine biology field. It's been really neat to see scientists specializing in different research areas coming together to work on a project together. 
Sydney is a pro at running the Bongo net!
Since I'm still an undergrad I don't have a specific research focus yet, but I'm hoping to pursue marine genetics in graduate school. For my senior thesis, I'll be using genetics to determine presence/absence of Bluefin Tuna eggs at different stations in the Gulf of Mexico from a previous cruise!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Return of the Tuna!

And....we're back! Back in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), on the hunt for larval bluefin tuna (BFT)! The next two legs of our survey will be focused on finding patches of bluefin larvae (Thunnus thynnus), and studying the biogeochemical habitat in which we find them. We are joined by some familiar collaborators from the University of Miami-RSMAS, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), and the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO), as well as some new team members!

A glimpse of some of the new equipment we'll be using!
Why is this important? Well, you may know that BFT are one of the mostly highly sought after fish in the commercial industry, as they are large, delicious, and highly valuable. But this also means that they are being over exploited - which means that the levels at which they are currently fished are not sustainable long-term. Atlantic BFT are highly migratory species (HMS), distributed throughout the northern Atlantic Ocean. However, they migrate south to the GoM and the Mediterranean Sea to spawn only once a year during the summer months.

The FORCES lab studies the early life stages of tunas in order to tell their "origin story." Why do the adults travel miles and miles to this specific area? Are there certain oceanic features that provide a protective nursery habitat for the larvae and increase their chances for survival? Are there certain biochemical gradients in these waters that help the larvae grow faster or more fit for surviving the pelagic environment? How will forecasted changes in this environment affect larvae in the coming decades?

LOTS of water filtration will be involved!
We are incredibly excited to be embarking upon a brand new set of surveys with several new partners in order to start to answer some of these questions.  We even more thrilled that our new research team was selected as one of the few projects funded by the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program! This Science Program funds "research, observation, and monitoring to support long-term sustainability in the GoM ecosystem, including fish stocks, fish habitat, and fishing industries" (for more on the program, click here). The FORCES Lab at the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center teamed up with Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Florida State University, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa to examine the "Effects of nitrogen sources and plankton food web dynamics on habitat quality for larval BFT."  Together, we will use net tows, satellite data, oceanographic models, and drifters, to find patches of bluefin tuna larvae in the GoM and then we will follow these patches over the next few days. Every day we will sample (around the clock!) the in situ conditions and characteristics of the patch, in order to obtain a bottom-up understanding of BFT recruitment in the GoM. We will share with you more as we keep drifting with the tunas!

We can't wait to share this new journey with you!

Don't worry, we'll still show you loads of sunsets at sea

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Outreach & Education in St. Croix

Students from St. Croix 7th Day Adventist School pose in front of the Nancy Foster in Frederiksted, St. Croix

One of our favorite parts of our annual surveys is being able to pull into port and welcome local students on board for a small glimpse into what we do at sea. We know this can be inspirational for many young people who may be interested in pursuing a marine science career, and we greatly value these events during our port visits. It isn't often your school field trip takes you on board a NOAA research vessel!

This year, we pulled into St. Croix, the southernmost of the U.S. Virgin Islands. We welcomed two groups on board, and, with the help of the Nancy Foster's NOAA Corps officers, shared what life and research is like at sea.

Students from the AZ Academy try their hand at sorting plankton under the microscope in the ship's wet lab
We were first visited by an all-female group of students from the AZ Academy, who are part of a community transfer project entitled "Diving for Debris," part of the "Pride in Our Seas, Pride in Ourselves" project at the University of the Virgin Islands, and funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program. Two-thirds of our own science team was comprised of women - we truly value supporting young women who have an interest in science. These ladies have bright futures ahead of them! 

Students from the AZ Academy work together to match larval fish photos with their adult counterparts

Students from St. Croix 7th Day Adventist School check out plankton under the microscope
Our second group of students joined us from the St. Croix 7th Day Adventist School in Christiansted, who work with the outreach and education specialists at the VI-EPSCoR program. 22 students and 3 teachers toured the ship, visited the wet lab, and examined larval fish and plankton samples under the microscope. These middle and high school students were high-energy, and some wanted to stay on the ship and sail with us!

ENS Keith Hanson shows students from St. Croix 7th Day Adventist School the steering controls on the bridge

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Dan!

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 Dr. Dan Otis from the University of South Florida!

My name is Dr. Dan Otis, and I work at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science in the Institute for Marine Remote Sensing (IMaRS). The primary focus of my work is using satellite measurements to study the color of the ocean. The color of the ocean as viewed from space can provide information about what is in the water. Three main things that I look for that change the color of the ocean are chlorophyll-a, colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM) and suspended sediments. Chlorophyll-a is a pigment that plants use to harvest light energy and carry out photosynthesis. In the ocean, this is done by algae called phytoplankton. Examining trends and patterns in the amount of chlorophyll-a in the ocean tells us where phytoplankton are most abundant and can allow us to track features in the surface waters of the ocean.

This is my third year on the USVI leg of this cruise and while I’m out here, I filter lots of water to measure phytoplankton and CDOM, and also use an instrument called a radiometer that measures the color of the ocean surface. I then compare what I see at the surface to what the satellite sees from space. This year, I have also been providing imagery from a several ocean color satellites to scientists on board, so we can see how phytoplankton is distributed in the waters of the USVI and how water movement may be affecting larval fish. Ocean color satellites generally collect one “scene” or picture of the ocean surface in a location every 1-2 days.  However, there are often clouds that get in the way, so we make composites of several daily scenes to remove clouds. The  image below is a composite of several images collected by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor during the cruise. This is called a “false-color” image where different colors represent different concentrations of chlorophyll-a, which can be interpreted using the color bar to the right of the image. The units in this case are mg/m3.

Composite image of chlorophyll-a during cruise