While many students enjoyed their winter break on balmy beaches or snowy ski slopes, seven LMRCSC graduate students were braving stormy North Atlantic seas aboard the NOAA research vessel Delaware II. In January, students associated with the Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center, headquartered at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, spent 10 days investigating marine life of the North Atlantic. Guided by NOAA Biologist Dr. Vince Guida and UMES Professor Dr. Bradley Stevens, the group set out to document the variety of fish and invertebrates on the continental shelf from Woods Hole, MA down to Virginia Beach, VA. Using a small mesh beam trawl and a larger otter trawl, the students captured organisms on the continental shelf at depths ranging from 20 to 200 m, and on the continental slope at depths from 300 to 900 m. Although NOAA surveys this area each spring and fall, few studies are conducted in this region during mid winter or at depths below 250 m, so the abundance and types of organisms present at that time and depth are not well known.
Of particular interest on this cruise were deep-sea red crabs and monkfish. Both species live at great depths and support modest fisheries worth several million dollars annually, but little is known about their life history or biology. Work was conducted round the clock, with students sorting themselves into day and night shifts. Each time one of the deep trawls came up on deck, students sorted and weighed the catch, then separated the different species for measuring. In one corner of the lab Dr. Stevens and other students measured crabs, and took blood, eggs, and tissue samples to determine their reproductive status. In another corner graduate student Evan Lindsay, working with Dr. Andrea Johnson of UMES, collected blood, tissues, and vertebrae from monkfish, in order to assess their health, age, reproductive status and pollutant burdens. According to Dr. Stevens, understanding the biology and reproductive status of these species will lead to improved management and conservation.
Dr. Guida is particularly interested in documenting the northward movement of southern species that has been occurring along with increasing water temperatures. In particular, white shrimp, common south of Cape Hatteras, and several species of fish have been occurring more often over the last few years.
“One of the most interesting things we caught were transparent larvae of Caribbean spiny lobsters” said Dr. Stevens. “They were over a thousand miles from their place of birth, and could only get this far due to warm water extending up the coast.”
The students did have some initial discomfort due to the winter weather and ten foot seas during the first few days of the cruise, but overcame it with their dedication and perseverance (and liberal amounts of anti-nausea medication). Nonetheless, graduate student Emily Tewes was philosophical about her experience. "As a student in this field, I think it is really important to have an "out to sea" experience, and there is a lot to be learned from working with NOAA” she said. “Not only do you get a feel for what the work is like, but it can help you decide whether this type of work is a good fit for you in the future.”
Students participating in the cruise included Whitney Dyson, Evan Lindsay, Courtney McGeachy, Candace Rogers, and Emily Tewes from UMES, Andrea Stoneman from Delaware State University, and Sarah Bornhoeft, a recent graduate of Salisbury University and UMES. This is the eighth year that NOAA has provided ship time for the research cruise, in order to provide training and experience to students of marine science. Despite the value of this opportunity, future cruises are questionable due to Federal budget cuts, and the planned decommissioning of the Delaware II later this year.