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NOAA Careers and Science Virtual Field Experience

Explore potential careers in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and discover the science behind these careers through this interactive Virtual Field Experience.
by

Spencer Cody

on 16 September 2014

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Transcript of NOAA Careers and Science Virtual Field Experience

NOAA Careers
If so, NOAA needs you! Meet Adria McClain; Adria is a survey technician who is responsible for collecting meteorological and oceanographic data and managing and maintaining the databases that store these observations. She also helps integrate the Pisces’ system resources with each visiting science party. She has an undergraduate degree in biology, a masters in physical oceanography and meteorology. She was on active duty in the Navy for 10 years with the Meteorology and Oceanography Community or METOC. During those ten years, she served two tours with the Naval Oceanographic Office where she was a hydrographer using sonar to make nautical charts for the Department of Defense. She also served one tour at the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center where she developed atmospheric and ocean models. She states that she very much likes her job even though she still has a lot to learn about fish and fishery biology since she does not have a background in those areas.
NOAA Careers: Do you have an interest in meteorlogy or oceanography?
If so, NOAA needs you! Meet Joe Tegeder; Joe is a physical scientist who is responsible for using the acoustics equipment onboard specifically the ME-70 and the EK-60 in order to map fish habitat on the ocean bottom. He has both an undergraduate and graduate degree in marine science. He currently works for the Pacific Hydrographic Branch for NOAA where he primarily works with updating nautical charts in the U.S. waters of the Pacific. Previously, he worked for the Naval Oceanographic Office where he helped map out harbors from around the world to develop anti-mining operations for possible future military missions.

NOAA Careers: Do you have an interest in the physical sciences and mapping?
NOAA Careers: Do you have an interest in doing the hands-on operational work required to carry out fisheries science?
If so, NOAA needs you! Meet Joe Flora; Joe is the lead fisherman onboard the Pisces. He helps implement all of the operational aspects of science missions by launching and retrieving science equipment, operating bandit reels, and cleaning and maintaining the ship in general. He was with the Military Sealift Command for eight years where he worked on refueling ships and transport operations involving cargo and ammunition. For the last nine years, he has worked in NOAA onboard the ships Thomas Jefferson, Gordon Gunter, and the Pisces. He has been on the Pisces for six years.
NOAA Careers: Do you have an interest in hands-on science and exploration?
If so, NOAA needs you! Meet the NOAA Corps; they navigate the ship, allocate and coordinate the ship’s resources with the crew and the embarking science party, and most importantly make sure all hands are kept out of harm’s way by implementing proper safety procedures and protocols. They bring all of the component parts together for a successful mission and try to make it as functional and as successful as possible. Applicants to the NOAA Corps must possess a minimum of a four year degree with a minimum of 48 semester hours in science, math, or engineering coursework. All of the officers onboard the Pisces have one thing in common: they have a background in science, mostly biology and marine biology. They also had to complete Basic Officer Training Classes after which they reported to a NOAA ship to serve onboard for two years where they learned watch duties and various other collateral duties along with all of the ship’s systems and operations. In addition to assigned duties, they needed to know how to deploy and recover a diverse array of equipment including fishing gear, oceanographic instrumentation, sonar devices, and underwater cameras. I could tell right away on the cruise that the officers had an inherent interest in science since they were always dropping in to see what we were working on exhibiting a genuine curiosity in the science that was going on. NOAA officers are rotated out of their work positions spending a certain period of time out to sea and on land in varying geographical areas with alternating assignments. This gives them a well-rounded experience in many aspects of NOAA’s mission.
NOAA Careers: Do you have an interest in working with food preparation and presentation?
If so, NOAA needs you! Meet Moises Martinez and Mark Potter; Moises is the chief steward. His responsibilities include making sure there is enough storage for food, linens, and toiletries. He is also responsible for hospitality onboard the ship and cleaning of the galley and mess. He works with the second cook to preplan menus, but he really tries to take requests from the scientists and crew and responds accordingly. He knows that there is not as much to do at sea during downtime as on land; so, he appreciates how much people look forward toward their meals; he tries to make everyone happy when possible. He was in the Navy for eight years where he realized his interest in preparing food. Later he worked two years in Italy with the Military Sealift Command as a cook and a baker. When he came back to the United States, he found out that NOAA was trying to contact him to see if he was still interested in working for them. He found this to be surprising since he had forgotten that he had applied through NOAA before he left for Italy two years prior. He started out as a second cook for NOAA and has worked his way up the last six years.

Meet Mark; he is the second cook onboard the Pisces. His responsibilities include cleaning, preparing food, cooking, and restocking. He used to work in computer servicing but had to make a career change due to the economic downturn. He liked preparing food; so, he decided to go back to school. He went to Great Lakes Culinary Institute in Traverse City, Michigan, where he worked with some world class chefs to learn what he needed to know in order to work onboard the Pisces. Prior to his assignment on the Pisces, he worked on freighters and research vessels in the Great Lakes for a couple of years.
NOAA Careers: Do you have an interest in engineering and mechanical systems?
If so, NOAA needs you! Meet Jake DeMello; Jake is the chief engineer for the Pisces. His responsibilities include maintaining any mechanical, propulsion, or electrical system. He works to ensure that these systems are running safely and efficiently. He has worked for NOAA for six years. Prior to NOAA he worked in engineering on cruise ships and tankers. He has a BA in marine engineering from the California Maritime Academy and is licensed as an unlimited chief engineer through the Coast Guard.
NOAA Careers: Do you have an interest in the biological science?
If so, NOAA needs you! Meet the fishery research biologists onboard the Pisces; this includes the science party’s chief scientist and fishery research biologist, Kevin Rademacher, fishery research biologist Paul Felts, and fishery research biologist John Moser. Other members of the science party include fishery biologist Adam Pollack and guest scientist Harriet Nash. In order to be a fishery biologist, one needs a degree that includes courses such as limnology, ichthyology, fishery biology, and various other aquatic topics. A background including technology, computer programming, and statistics is also useful when data analysis software is needed to produce maps and other displays of research data. Having research experience that gives one the ability to do the data collection and processing, trouble-shooting, and analysis that is needed to carry out fishery research is also necessary.
NOAA Careers: Do you have an interest in computers, computer programming, and electronics?
If so, NOAA needs you! Meet Jim Johnson; Jim is an electronics technician for this mission. His responsibilities include data downloading and maintenance and repair of the camera array system. He started working for NOAA as a contractor and has been a NOAA employee for the last five years. He has a four year degree in electronic engineering technology and a background in computers, technology, and computer programming.
It takes many different types of skill sets with many different types of backgrounds to make a NOAA mission like this a success. Since it takes all kinds of people to get the job done, NOAA needs people with all of these backgrounds working together as a team for a common goal. Maybe a NOAA career is in your future?
NOAA Science
It has been the subject of many ocean myths and legends: ships becoming trapped in mats of thick, unrelenting seaweed. Of course, such stories are not true, but the giant mats of seaweed that inspired such fear in sailors hundreds of years ago are very real and are an important component of the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem. The Carthaginians and later the Romans first described a portion of the Atlantic covered in seaweed. By the 15th century, the Portuguese had named the area the Sargasso Sea after the sargaco rock rose that grew in their water wells back home, which appeared to be similar to the seaweed that grew on the surface of the water in stagnant parts of the Atlantic. From this comes the genus name Sargassum or as it is commonly referred to along the Gulf coast as gulfweed.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Sargassum can form large mats acres in size. These large mats of brown algae provide a floating micro-ecosystem in the Gulf. Sargassum is a food source for many marine organisms. The mats also serve as a nursery for fish and invertebrate eggs and developing young. The thick mats provide structure and cover in an ocean environment that may be lacking in the necessary cover to support the development of their young and to keep them hid from potential predators. Within the mats many types of marine herbivores can be found. The presence of various herbivores draws in fish to feed on those organisms grazing on the Sargassum. In fact, some organisms have evolved to look like Sargassum for protection. One good example of this is a type of frogfish called the sargassum fish. The sargassum fish can appear to be brown, yellow, or olive depending on whatever color they need to be in order to blend in with the mat of algae.
NOAA Science: A Floating City of Life
Safety is always a key concern when going on a survey aboard a research vessel such as the Pisces. This is especially true when a ship is moving and lifting the sensors and equipment to facilitate the science the Pisces is carrying out. Whenever we are launching or retrieving either the CTD or camera array, protective gear including a hardhat and a life jacket are required. Whenever we are using a bandit reel, the same equipment is needed as well. Losing someone overboard is a constant concern. That is why these precautions are taken whenever operations are occurring on a weather deck and is why we have drills for a man overboard situation to recover someone as fast as possible.

As with any building, fire is a serious threat. On a ship fire is a threat that endangers everyone onboard. Everyone is given an assignment list on their bunk card. Each bunk card lists the person’s individual emergency billet assignments for a fire, abandon ship, and a man overboard. During a fire everyone may end up becoming a part of the fire suppression crew. People need to report to there assigned stations. During a drill a mock fire is assessed and contained, and fire suppression equipment is tested out. The Pisces is designed to contain fire wherever possible by having heavy fireproof doors throughout the ship making it more difficult for fire to spread to other decks.

If an emergency requires the ship to be abandoned, people are required to report to specific life raft stations with life jackets, a survival suit, and other items in order to leave the ship behind. Life jackets and survival suits are found in our staterooms and throughout the ship. This is an act of last resort once every attempt to save the ship has been made. The Pisces is specifically designed to prevent water from entering cabins and corridors by using water tight doors. This is designed to either prevent taking on water or at least slow the process down enough to abandon ship.

Other general precautions must be observed onboard. Passengers and crew are not allowed to run while onboard for several reasons. The watertight doors come up from the floor by nearly a foot in addition to many other obstacles. Places like any of the weather decks or the wet lab where we process fish specimens are often wet and slippery. Perhaps the most obvious reason one should be careful moving around onboard is the movement of the ship itself. Large waves and swells can send the ship into an unpredictable motion. This makes even walking or standing difficult at times and is certainly disorienting. The Pisces has several features to accommodate this problem. Handle bars and railings are found throughout the ship in order to stabilize yourself during swells. Having a handle bar in the shower may seem rather over the top, but when your morning shower starts to resemble a theme park ride that you may have been on before, then you will start to understand why that feature is there. Cabinet and drawers are self-locking; otherwise, they would constantly slide in and out, which is why we had to tape down many of the drawers in the dry lab that do not have this feature. When you are on a moving ship, everything takes a little longer to do than on land. It is just something you have to get used to.
NOAA Science: Safety
The degree to which the Gulf of Mexico is rich in sea life is truly stunning. The Gulf produces more fish, shrimp, and shellfish than the waters of New England, the Chesapeake, mid- and south-Atlantic combined; consequently, the SEAMAP survey area includes a wide variety of sea life with great abundance. A lot is riding on our ability to understand and manage the Gulf of Mexico. According to a 2010 National Marine Fisheries Service report, the five U.S. Gulf states harvested 1.3 billion pounds of commercial shellfish and fish. In that same year, the Gulf produced 82% of the U.S. shrimp harvest, and 59% of the U.S. oyster harvest, and over a billion pounds of fish. Maintaining the Gulf as a productive fishery for years into the future is essential to the U.S. economy and its food production. So, what is going on with reef fish in the Gulf? In general, many commercially valuable species in the Gulf are showing signs of strain due to over harvesting and various environmental factors. However, compared to waters in some parts of the neighboring Caribbean that have had commercially valuable reef fish devastated by lax regulation and enforcement, some parts of the Gulf appear relatively pristine.

One area of concern is our red snapper stocks. It can be a difficult population to maintain since major swings in reproduction occur from year to year. This can give both recreational and commercial fishermen a false sense that a population is doing well; however, with red snappers one thirty-year-old female lays more eggs than 30 one-year-old females. Therefore, it is in our best interests to ensure some older fish survive for reproduction. This same trend can be applied to other commercial fish in the Gulf further complicating management efforts. The populations of both red snapper and vermillion snapper are showing signs of recovery since setting harvesting restrictions. Red snapper still has a ways to go to get to the targeted sustainable population. Currently, the red snapper population is only 13% of the target population level while the vermillion snapper is now at 92% of its target population. Both populations are well below levels documented early in the 20th century. We see a similar problem with some of the grouper in the Gulf.

Species such as the gag grouper and red grouper have faced similar declines due to overfishing, and both have shown signs of recovery while the gag grouper is still under a population rebuilding plan. While the bandit reels are targeting fish stocks that often have commercial or recreational value, the camera array reveals the context to the rest of the story about the habitat that is up to several hundred feet below our feet. Just as freshwater fish back home are often attracted to some sort of structure, reef fish exhibit the same tendencies. Survey areas where we catch few, if any, fish using the bandit reels often appear as barren, flat muddy or sandy bottoms. This stands in stark contrast with the rich communities that congregate around structure. Areas in the Gulf that have structure often have a remarkable array of fish and an even wider ranging variety in invertebrates. So far on this cruise, we have viewed dozens of species of fish representing groups as diverse as snapper, grouper, sharks, eels, triggerfish, pufferfish, anglefish, damselfish, jacks, porgies, and tilefish.

The invertebrate diversity at these sites spans many phyla including sea fans, sea sponges, crabs, brittle stars, sea lilies, shrimp, tunicates, and various types of algae. One may wonder why structure is found in these places. In many cases these communities thrive on ancient coral reefs. These reefs are no longer living themselves since the 150 to 300 feet we often find them in is too deep for the colonial animals that make up coral to have symbiotic algae living with them. There is simply not enough light at that depth for the types of algae normally associated with coral to carry out photosynthesis. Then how did corals get to such depths in the first place? Twelve thousand years ago large ice sheets existed across much of the northern hemisphere. These continental glaciers locked up approximately 100 feet of ocean sea level into ice at the peak of glaciation. Therefore, many of our survey sections are directly over where the Gulf coast once was in very recent geological time. Once the global climate warmed, the glacial ice sheets collapsed and filled the ocean basins to their present day sea levels leaving the existing coral reefs in near darkness.
NOAA Science: Sea of Life


While the camera array can be used to measure the length of some of the fish viewed, it cannot reliably determine characteristics such as age or sex. Determining age or sex just through appearance can be very tricky in the Gulf and is frequently unreliable. Many species of fish will grow at different rates depending on available forage and other environmental factors. This is an issue that is also commonly encountered among freshwater fish in South Dakota. Complicating fish characteristics even further, many reef fish are one or the other sex at different phases of their lives. They are not strictly male or female but change roles depending on complex physical or environmental factors. With so many factors complicating these characteristics, live catches are necessary to determine the full story of what is going on with reef fish in the Gulf.

For live catches we use bandit reels. Bandit reels are similar in concept to a standard fishing rod and reel except they are built for heavy duty sea fishing. The reel and rod are attached to the side of the ship. One hundred pound test line is used with a five pound sinker weight. Each line for the bandit reels has ten hooks, a small float that keeps the hooks in a vertical column, and a large float that keeps the ten hooks just above the ocean bottom.

Again, in order to guard against bias in the results, we use the bandit reels with a set procedure. For our survey we are using three bandit reels at a time each with ten hooks. The bandit reel stations are in radio communication with the dry lab, where the chief scientist is coordinating the sampling, and the bridge, which is keeping the ship in position for the lines preventing lines from running under the ship. Since we want to be as objective as possible without contributing to any type of bias in the sampling, each line was in the water for exactly five minutes. Even though it may have went against every natural inclination of most fishermen and fisherwomen, we were not allowed to jig our lines or do anything that might attract more fish to our bait. In addition to standardizing the number of hooks and the length of time spent fishing, three different sizes of hooks are used and rotated out from each bandit reel station; consequently, one of each of the three hook sizes is always being used for each survey area.

After five minutes of fishing, the lines are brought up and fish are tagged one through ten to keep fish identified with a specific hook and depth. The tagged fish are then taken to the wet lab for measurement readings. In the wet lab, fish length, weight, sex, and phase of reproductive development are recorded. Since reproductive development, and sometimes even sex, can be difficult to determine, a sample of each fish’s gonads (ovaries or testes) are removed and placed in a labeled specimen vial for confirmation in the lab back on land. The otoliths (inner ear bones) are removed from the fish, as well, in order to reliably age the fish back in the lab. Once the measurements are recorded, they need to be added to the database to be compiled with the gonad and otolith specimens. This is just a small piece of the monitoring that is occurring in the Gulf through NOAA. The Gulf of Mexico is a remarkably diverse expanse of ocean and requires significant scientific research in order to understand and track fish populations and the habitat and forage that sustain them. Without these types of intensive scientific studies on the ocean, we could not possibly manage or attempt to conserve a natural resource that we would, otherwise, have little to no understanding of.
Onboard the ship I was able to explore the different decks. The Pisces is a large ship, but it is not until you move around on the decks that you realize how much space is needed to carry out all of the diverse series of scientific operations. The Pisces is equipped with a hydraulic crane with the ability to lift 10,000 pounds, which is needed to raise and lower science equipment and remove and replace the gangway, the walkway needed to board and get off the ship while it is docked. The ship also has a giant spool called a net reel where they store the fishing nets used for trawling missions and a series of winches with thousands of feet of wire to lower scientific instruments into the depths of the ocean. Even when the Pisces is not carrying out any specific operations while in transit to an operation point, the ship is utilizing every opportunity to gather data on the ocean and the atmosphere. The Pisces is specifically designed to run quietly to allow for state-of-the-art acoustic sensors to gather information on topographic features of the bottom and even information on various types of biomass in the water column such as fish, plankton, and the different types of coral on the ocean bottom. The ship is also always taking meteorological readings for scientific use, calibration, and navigation. Wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, water temperature, barometric pressure are just some of the observations that are constantly being compiled; therefore, even in the dead of night in our transit, the Pisces is carrying out valuable scientific research and monitoring.
I arrived at the Pisces during the afternoon on the 26th. This was very helpful in giving me some time to explore the area in Pascagoula and the ship before takeoff the next day. I was assigned a very nice stateroom that I am sharing with another member of the science party. I was surprised that our accommodations were so spacious. We get our own desk, tv, sink, bathroom, and shower. It reminded me of living in the college dorm my freshman year minus the group showers; so, I was more than pleased with the living arrangements.

Looking around Pascagoula directly adjacent to where the Pisces was docked, I was amazed at all of the heavy industry concentrated around the Pascagoula River. The river hummed with activity day and night with trains, cargo ships, tugboats, oil and gas well repair work, ship repair work, fishing operations, and tourism. It was quite remarkable to see where some of the goods that we buy in stores back in South Dakota first make their landing on the North American continent and to get a sense of the scale of the sea-based operations needed to make international trade possible. The ocean is how you are able to sell your beans to Brazil or wheat to China. It is the economical lifeblood that connects all of us, but we seldom think of what happens to our goods beyond the retail store or the elevator. We just know the system works and take the infrastructure behind it for granted. Though South Dakota is more than a thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico, it is linked by trade with the rest of the world through the Gulf.
I flew into Gulfport, Mississippi, on Monday, May 26, and took a taxi to the Pisces in Pascagoula, Mississippi. By chance I met a crew member who noticed the NOAA Teacher at Sea t-shirt I was wearing at the airport. He too had flown in on the same plane that I had from Atlanta. He was very interesting to talk to learn about many of the diverse backgrounds needed to operate a ship like the Pisces. In our conversation he had talked about why he joined NOAA and some of his past work that had given him the experience necessary for the job. Since he is a crew member on the deck crew, experience at sea and ship operations is a necessity. The crew allows for day-to-day operations, ensures safety of the ship and the passengers, and assists with the research in its logistics and implementation where necessary. The crew member I talked to had extensive experience working at sea on cargo ships and looked forward to his future work with NOAA and was very interested in all the science that the Pisces carries out.

In general, the crew can be divided up into the following categories: deck crew, officers, stewards, technicians, and engineering. The deck crew carries out the implementation of operations and day-to-day maintenance of the decks. The officers are members of the NOAA Corps, one of seven uniformed services of the United States. The stewards maintain the galley (kitchen) and mess (dining room) providing meals to everyone on the Pisces. The technicians process data and maintain data collection systems and other electronics. Engineering operates and maintains the ship’s engines, equipment, and various electrical and operational systems. Whether it is the deck crew, officers, stewards, technicians, or engineering, all are needed to make the science carried out by the science party possible.
NOAA Science: Arrival in Pascagoula
NOAA Science: Ship of Science
NOAA Careers: Many People with Many Skills
NOAA Careers: A NOAA career for you?
It was not until the Pisces arrived at its first survey area off the coast of Texas that I was able to appreciate the volume of scientific data collection that this vessel could collect. It took most of the 27th and all of the 28th to arrive at our initial survey area. While in transit, the Pisces is constantly collecting data. Data such as air temperature, wind direction, relative humidity, wind speed, and barometric pressure are recorded and periodically reported back to NOAA and the National Weather Service and from other marine vessels to improve data on meteorological events in the Gulf and weather forecasts.

NOAA Science: Meteorology and Climatology
In addition to collecting meteorological data, the Pisces uses a fishery acoustics system called the ER-60 to track depth and various sea floor features. This system can also be used to monitor biomass such as fish, coral, and even plankton.

The Pisces not only has the ER-60 for fishery acoustics, but it also has a state of-the-art multi-beam echo sounder, the ME-70, that has 27 transducers that are aligned in a configuration allowing for scans of wide swaths of the ocean bottom. In fact, the Pisces has engines that are specifically designed to run quietly enough to accommodate such advanced acoustic equipment. The ME-70 is used for mapping various sample areas of the SEAMAP survey.
NOAA Science: Acoustics
Once we arrived at our initial survey area within the SEAMAP survey grid, the amount of science conducted increased dramatically. In the survey areas, the camera array is dropped to the sea floor to survey fish populations. In most cases we are looking at fish habitat from 50 to 120 m deep. Video and still photos are taken of fish attracted to the bait bag filled with squid. To ensure that sampling is both consistent and unbiased for the survey, pictures and video are pulled at random from all four cameras on the camera array. It is important that the same procedures are carried out throughout the SEAMAP survey gird concerning data collection in order to be able to reliably compare different survey areas and track species development and abundance.
NOAA Science: Camera Array
In order to assist the camera array in obtaining accurate information about precisely how deep the camera array is when it is recording fish population data, a Temperature Depth Recorder or TDR is attached to the camera array to compare position in the water column to what the ship’s fishery acoustics system is displaying. This is necessary in case the camera array has fallen off an underwater cliff or is hung up on some other topographic feature.

The Conductivity Temperature and Depth submersible aids the ship’s acoustic equipment in determining an accurate depth of the ocean bottom. Since sound travels at different velocities in water that has different densities and temperatures, information regarding the salinity and temperature of the water must be fed into the ship’s fishery acoustics system to calibrate the system for it to accurately read the bottom depths. If temperature or salinity are not taken into account, the depth will either be too shallow or too deep compared to the true value.
NOAA Science: CTD probe.
NOAA Science: Fisheries biology
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