LISTEN: A NOAA research vessel, docked in Nome, offers a peek into multi-year Arctic fish study

The NOAA research vessel Ocean Starr at port in Nome. (Photo by JoJo Phillips/KNOM)

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel Ocean Starr made a stop in Nome before the third and final leg of the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Program, a multi-year study of fish species in the Chukchi sea.

These surveys are usually only accessible as data points and research summaries, but since the Ocean Starr was grounded for the weekend, KNOM’s JoJo Phillips was invited aboard for an inside look at the day-to-day operations of a NOAA research vessel.

The Ocean Starr spent just shy of three weeks at sea. Conditions were favorable and some of the crew say the leg was productive.

“We only had one weather day but we were able to come in near shore, so the waves weren’t that big,” said NOAA research biologist Ed Farley. “The rest of the time it was very nice.”

He has been overseeing a survey through the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Program, which is part of a larger, multi-year research effort funded by the North Pacific Research Board.

This is our third time we’ve been up in the Chukchi sea,” he said. “An Integrated Ecosystem Survey was conducted in 2012 and 2013.”

There are a number of advantages to multi-year research projects. Larger pools of data spread out over several years means a better, more accurate picture of the region. On a practical level, Farley says there’s also a certain degree of comfort a scientist starts to feel on their second or third survey.

“This is our fourth survey, we’ve got things down pretty good,” he said. “It’s always a learning curve on a new vessel, but this is second time we’ve used this vessel. Whenever you get on a new vessel, it’s hard to describe the tempo you need… we have most of those bugs worked out.”

Over the last several weeks, Farley and his crew sampled midwater environments and trawled the ocean floor. They are looking for answers to a question that’s on everyone’s mind: What is the impact of seasonal sea ice on the Chukchi Sea ecosystem?

Specifically, Farley and his crew have been tracking the health of various fish species.

“This area in the Chukchi Sea is a nursery area for age-zero cod and we’re trying to understand how the warming of summer temp is going to impact their fitness and potentially their survival,” he said.

Water temperatures have consistently risen over the course of the survey. Farley believes this warming has contributed to the proliferation of a number of different fish species in the Northern Chukchi sea.

“This year we caught a number of arctic sand lance, previous surveys we didn’t find the numbers of arctic sandlance in the northern Chukchi, so that was different,” he said. “We found a lot of age zero Walleye pollock, something we’ve never seen that far north.”

Research Biologist Ed Farley holds up a cod sample aboard the Ocean Starr, at port in Nome. (Photo by JoJo Phillips/KNOM)

Whether walleye pollock or arctic sand lance can survive year-round in the Chukchi Sea remains to be seen, but Farley is skeptical.

“We all know it’s going to get cold again in the winter, ice is going to show up,” he said. “It’s fairly likely those fish won’t survive that cold temperature…. Essentially we’re trying to understand what happens to the food web as it starts to warm.”

These comments are only preliminary findings. More in-depth scientific analysis will occur on land, which is why Farley says it’s so important to gather accurate, well-kept samples.

Below deck, standing beside two massive coolers filled to the brim with little vacuum sealed packets, Farley holds one up to display the teardrop outline of an arctic cod.

“This is a larger cod; we don’t get very many of these,” he said.

The Ocean Starr uses a complex array of acoustic imaging equipment to sight and trawl midwater environments, which results in a healthy catch and a consistently large number of samples.

In previous years, the fish have been packaged and labeled, then stored in these freezers at -20° for further lab work on the mainland. However, last year the lab noticed some of the fish were being misidentified.

“The lab did some species work and said, ‘Wait a minute these aren’t Arctic cod they are pollock — really, really small pollock,’ so this year we’ve done something even greater,” Farley said.

Farley leads me over to a second set of freezers; these ones clock in at -80° and are used for genetic subsampling. They ensure a higher degree of accuracy when it comes to identifying the smallest samples.

Other highlights of the onboard Ocean Starr laboratory include an electron microscope for zooplankton, special filters to sample chlorophyll and, of course, the vessel’s three trawls: midwater, surface, and bottom.

“We use this winch and we tow it behind the vessel,” Farley said. “It’s a pretty small net and doesn’t take much.”

Between sampling, processing and on-board analysis, Farley says there isn’t much time for downtime. It’s telling when someone considers eating as time off.

“Meals, we eat every day. 6 o’clock, 11 a.m., and 5 p.m.,” he said. “Food is good.”

When the crew does finally wrap up their day, Farley says the norm is an early night.

“When the day is done, movie night usually, then everyone goes to bed,” he said. “Start all over the next day.”

The Ocean Starr has been resting in the Nome marina for the better part of a day, but all around it there is a flurry of activity. Crew members are loading and unloading as the 171 ft R/V prepares for another few weeks at sea. Farley, who oversaw the previous leg, won’t be joining them.

“We’re doing what we call a leg change in Nome, so we have other scientists who are getting on,” he said. “Some are staying — I’m leaving.”

It’s all in a day’s work for NOAA. The Ocean Starr continued on to just south of Kotzebue for the survey, while Farley went back to work in Juneau. The survey was wrapped up last month and Farley’s team expects to release results in the near future.