Three weeks at sea: Life aboard a catcher-processor

by Cheryl Barnes

As a PhD student, I spend a lot of time at the computer, analyzing data on fish predators and their prey in the Gulf of Alaska. The decades of data on fish abundance and diets collected by Alaska Fisheries Science Center, one of NOAA’s research labs, is a wealth of information. For my research, the data are a window into understanding the impacts of predation on walleye pollock, which support the largest single species fishery in the world.

Because it’s generally considered good practice to get out of the office and experience the data collection process, I decided to volunteer for this year’s groundfish survey. The entire Gulf of Alaska bottom trawl survey takes place between May and August every other year and stretches from the U.S.-Canada border in Southeast Alaska to the Aleutians. This summer, I participated in the fourth and final leg of the cruise, which lasted three weeks and ranged from Seward to Ketchikan.

Being slightly claustrophobic and having only experienced day trips at sea, I was a bit concerned about how I might fare on this particular excursion. Whatever happened though, it was going to be quite the learning experience! I was pleasantly surprised when we pulled up to the dock and I set eyes on what would be my home for the next 19 days. The F/V Ocean Explorer was an incredibly spacious 155-foot catcher-processor vessel with lots of room to move about.

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F/V Ocean Explorer at the dock in Seward, AK
Photo Credit: Cheryl Barnes

As you might expect, this commercial pollock fishing boat was equipped with a considerably large and open-style trawl alley necessary to accommodate vast amounts of net mesh, bulbous floats, and heavy lead. The deck also provided ample space to sort, weigh, and measure fish after each haul had been brought in. The factory (usually used to process and freeze the catch) was located below deck, but because the vessel was chartered exclusively for scientific purposes, fish were not kept or sold. Instead, we used the area as prep space and dry storage.

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Trawl alley and upper deck on the F/V Ocean Explorer
Photo Credit: Cheryl Barnes

On continuing to explore my floating residence, I found a hallway with sizeable staterooms just below the wheelhouse. I’d heard horror stories of five people being packed into a single room where only one of them could get out of their rack at a time. As luck would have it, we were afforded two-person units with roomy bunks, plenty of storage, and enough space to stand…two at a time. Conveniently, I also ended up with the only other woman onboard as my roommate, who happened to be one of the nicest and most considerate people I’ve ever met.

After our tour of the galley and a series of safety drills, I met each of the crewmembers onboard. Immediately, I could tell that our captain was one of the good ones. He was really outgoing, super approachable, and quite the storyteller! During the three-week voyage, I constantly found myself up in the wheelhouse, listening to tall tales and peculiar superstitions at sea. Our captain also wrote the funniest things in his communications to the first mate, which I checked on a daily basis just for a good laugh (sorry, I was sworn to secrecy). In addition to entertainment in the wheelhouse, we could always count on a good joke—typically of the dirty variety—from our first mate. The crew was always excited for a new batch of scientists because the rotation meant that they could retell stories and land their favorite punch line for the umpteenth time. We (the slightly nerdier bunch) loved it because even when we were all working like dogs, the crew helped keep things light and lively. All in all, I’d say that I couldn’t have been stuck on board with a better group of people.

It was a pretty cool experience seeing what a large commercial fishing vessel looks like, both inside and out. Mostly though, I enjoyed the opportunity to identify a wide variety of Alaskan groundfish species. Some of these fish looked familiar from the years I had spent working in fisheries in California, but others I had never even heard of or had only seen in books.

Species caught on different tows. Some hauls consisted of a wide range of species (left) while others were much less diverse (right). Photo Credit: Nancy Roberson

Among my favorite items found on the sorting table were the invertebrates. With deepwater tows, we got to see some pretty gnarly looking sponges, molluscs that look like hot dogs (one is actually called the “sandy hot dog” because it quite literally looks like you dropped an uncooked hot dog in the sand), and the sea mouse, a polychaete worm that I once used as inspiration for a very geeky Halloween costume. We also caught some sad-looking flatfish that we morbidly decided to collect eye parasites from.

Cool finds: some of the more interesting and rarely captured trawl specimens (left: sponge, right: juvenile arrowtooth flounder with eye parasites). Photo Credit: Cheryl Barnes

But it wasn’t always rainbows and roses. Occasionally, we’d get really “lucky” and bring up a net completely full of super sticky mud that we’d have to struggle through to find its biological inhabitants. One such tow took us four and a half hours to get through. Because we worked well past lunch, it made for a lot of very hangry scientists.

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One of three net dumps on the sorting table resulting from a “mud tow”
Photo Credit: Cheryl Barnes

Of the more feel-good moments was when I could immediately release live fish from the haul. This, I loved, probably because I’ve spent so much time using catch and release survey methods. Rockfishes experience barotrauma, where the air in their swim bladder expands as they are brought through the water column, making it difficult for them to swim back to depth after processing. Like flatfishes, it is also difficult to identify their sex without cutting them open to get a good look at their internal organs. However, lingcod and spiny dogfish come up in relatively good condition and their sex can be easily determined from the outside (yes, we love checking out fish junk). This made is possible to quickly collect the data we needed and let them go alive. And even though this meant getting the occasional tail slap to the face, it was well worth it to watch them swim away after we were done with them.

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Cheryl Barnes posing with a big lady lingcod just before processing and release
Photo Credit: Nancy Roberson

Though we mostly enjoyed processing fish day in and day out, everyone was pretty stoked when we pulled up the last tow of the survey. It signified our imminent ability to step foot on land, grab a cold beer, and sleep in our own beds. Even without the constant rocking of the boat that lulled me to sleep every night during the survey, I was ready to spread out again, return to my own space, and close my eyes without hearing the ever-present clanking and engine noise.

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Science crew celebrating our final tow of the survey
Photo Credit: Nancy Roberson

It’s been two weeks since I got home and I definitely miss the sunshine out on the open ocean. It’s been an exceptionally rainy summer here in Juneau and I am no longer able to simply climb to the upper deck when I want to bask in the glory of blue skies and calm water. I also miss chatting with our gregarious captain and crew, though I hope to stay in touch. And instead of flinging fish, listening to wise crack after wise crack, selecting from unreasonably diverse ice cream flavors, and passing by magically refilled bowls of bite-sized chocolates in the galley, I’ll be staring at a computer screen, reading scientific papers, and writing code for the rest of my days (or the next two years…it’s yet to be determined).

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Sunset captured from the F/V Ocean Explorer in Ketchikan, AK.
Photo Credit: Cheryl Barnes

Read more about Cheryl’s research on our current projects page. For more information about NOAA’s research program in Alaska, visit the Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering Division (RACE) and Resource Ecology and Ecosystem Modeling Division (REEM) online.

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