UMES Sponsors Summer Marine Research Cruise
by Brad Stevens, UMES
Digging through a knee-deep pile of muddy sea stars for elusive angler fish, while kneeling on a hard metal deck in the middle of the night may not sound like the way to spend your summer vacation. But for a dozen graduate and undergraduate students from UMES and affiliated universities, the opportunity to spend 10 days at sea conducting marine research was the chance of a lifetime.
For the seventh consecutive year, the Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center, based at UMES, co-sponsored a marine research cruise aboard a NOAA Research Vessel. Previous cruises were conducted in January aboard an older vessel which was not very comfortable, resulting in many seasick students. This was the first year in which the cruise was conducted during summer, aboard one of the larger NOAA vessels, which made a world of difference. It was much more like a pleasure cruise with fish.
Students on the cruise came from UMES, Hampton University, Delaware State, the University of Rhode Island, and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. After assembling at UMES on June 28, they drove to Norfolk, VA to board the NOAA R/V Gordon Gunter, a 225 ft research vessel out of Louisiana.
Immediately after leaving port, the ship experienced mechanical problems, requiring its return to Norfolk, where it waited 5 days for repair. Despite the delay, the students kept up their spirits, explored the local area, and were elated when the ship finally left port on July 4.
Aboard ship, students were assigned to work either the “day” shift (noon to midnight) or the “night” shift (midnight to noon). Research activities were organized and supervised by Dr. Bradley Stevens of UMES and Dr. Rich Langton of the NOAA Sandy Hook (NJ) laboratory. This year’s research efforts were focused on the population biology and reproduction of deep sea red crabs and monkfish, both of which are important seafood resources.
Several times each day, the ship towed a large bottom trawl across the sea floor, bringing up a plethora of crabs, sea stars, fish, and other organisms. Some of the trawls were conducted as deep as 2500 feet, or about half a mile. Many of the fish captured from these depths have rarely been seen or studied by scientists. Some of the students found the process of sorting and identifying them to be the most enjoyable part of the cruise.
After recording all the data, students worked in teams to dissect and collect specimens from crabs and fish. Tissues were sampled for determination of reproductive stage, genetic analysis, presence of contaminants, and age or growth. At least one graduate student and several undergraduates will use these specimens for their thesis or internship research projects.
According to UMES graduate student Evan Lindsay, “The cruise provided hands-on experience that could benefit one’s future work as a marine or fishery scientist, for example. Personally, I am seeking a job that includes field work aboard research and/or fishery vessels. Participating on the NOAA-LMRCSC cruise provided both practical and resume-building experience for my career.”
Although half of the planned sampling was omitted due to the delay, a significant amount of biological samples were collected that will provide new information about deep sea crabs and monkfish.
According to Dr. Stevens, “The last two years, we studied red crabs during winter. This was the first time I’ve looked at them during summer, and we learned a significant amount already. Once we get all the samples processed, we’ll know much more about their reproductive cycle. This information is critical to support sustainable management of this resource”.
As the ship returned to Norfolk under a crimson sunset, students lounged on the top deck or played cards in the wardroom. Despite the hard work, it was all over too soon.