NOAA Fisheries At-Sea Volunteer Opportunities: Hands-On, Hard Work, and a Great Experience

Shelley Dawicki, Northeast Fisheries Science Center. E-mail: [email protected] For decades, volunteers have played an important role in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries at-sea research operations, working side by side with federal researchers during a variety of surveys throughout the year. These include spring and fall bottom trawl surveys; summer surf clam Spisula solidissima, ocean quahog Arctica islandica, and sea scallop Placopecten magellanicus dredge surveys; and fall Atlantic Herring Clupea harengus acoustic surveys. Most of the volunteers have worked with the Ecosystems Surveys Branch, based at the Woods Hole Laboratory of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), which conducts the majority of the NEFSC’s fishery assessment cruises each year. The NEFSC bottom trawl surveys have been conducted since the mid-1960s and represent one of the world’s longest time series of standardized fishery-independent abundance indices for important fishery species. The scallop and clam surveys began in the late 1970s, and the fisheries acoustic surveys began in 1998. “As far as I can determine, volunteers have participated on our surveys since the 1960s,” said Rob Johnston, who is chief of ecosystem survey operations at the NEFSC. “The volunteers are usually students, scientists, or educators with a specific interest in going to sea for a few weeks. It is not a cruise in the way the public thinks of a cruise, as a leisurely recreational activity or vacation. It is often hard, physically demanding work, requiring long hours on watch. The scientists and the volunteers work closely together.” Surveys are conducted to monitor recruitment, biomass and abundance, geographic distribution, and changes in the ecosystem. They also collect biological data used to track maturity stages and feeding habits as well as environmental data useful in a variety of research. Much of this information, added to landings and other data supplied directly by fishermen, is used for fishery stock assessments and helps guide management decisions. “It is important work, critical to our mission to understand, conserve, and utilize in a sustainable way the living marine resources on the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf,” Johnston said. Volunteers are members of the scientific party and work the same shifts as the scientists. That means a 12-hour stretch on the spring and fall bottom trawl surveys aboard the 209-foot NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow. The ship conducts multispecies finfish surveys throughout the U.S. Northeast Continental Shelf in four legs: Cape Hatteras/Mid-Atlantic, Southern New England, Georges Bank, and the Gulf of Maine. Each of the legs lasts two to three weeks. The spring 2015 survey began in early March and ran into early May. The fall 2015 bottom trawl survey will take place from early September through mid-November. Given that there are only 15 berths for the science party on the Bigelow and 24-hour operations, every bunk needs to be filled with a qualified person. Working out the logistics is the job of Katherine Sowers, Ecosystems Surveys Branch cruise staffing coordinator since 2006. “Volunteers are full-fledged members of the scientific party, and we place a great value on their participation to help us conduct the surveys and collect data,” said Sowers. “The demands of the schedule and the workload require that every member of the party be able to perform the duties required of a scientist during that leg of the voyage. Our biggest challenge is developing a well-balanced roster for each of the survey legs. Volunteers are important in that regard.” Volunteers learn about the opportunities through the NEFSC website (, by word of mouth, or through e-mail alerts. Once they sign up, complete a questionnaire, and meet medical requirements, volunteers are on Sowers’ e-mail list will be notified about upcoming surveys. Staffing calls for the next season’s survey are issued three times a year: the end of January for the spring, the end of March for the summer, and the end of July for the fall surveys. Sowers used to talk with many of the volunteers by phone, sometimes in person, but these days most of the communication is done by e-mail. “I get new candidates all the time, from all over the country and from all ages and backgrounds,” Sowers said. “Most of them have interest in or experience going to sea, are students who want or need the experience for degree requirements, or are educators who want to learn and then share the experience with others when they return, such as participants in the NOAA Teacher at Sea program. This spring, for example, we had volunteers on every leg from such places as the U.S. Coast Guard, Cornell University, and the University of Rhode Island.” Depending on the type of cruise, volunteers handle fish, scallops, and other species caught in nets or a dredge; sort the catch; sample specimens; and record data. In the process, they learn about various fish and shellfish species, how surveys are conducted, and the types of information collected and where it goes. Once processed, data are used in stock assessments, as guidance for resource managers, and for a wide range of research programs. The operations of the research vessel, how the catch is collected, and preparations for handling the catch aboard ship are all part of the learning experience. The at-sea volunteer opportunity can help students decide on career paths and is a positive addition to resumes. Joseph Kunkel and Carol Glor represent the diversity of volunteers. Kunkel, a biologist and professor at the University of New England, has been a volunteer scientist since 1998 during spring and fall bottom trawl surveys aboard the NEFSC’s fisheries survey vessels Albatross IV, Delaware II, and now the Henry B. Bigelow. Glor is a middle school teacher from New York who teaches home and career skills and who was a 2014 NOAA Teacher at Sea. She joined the scallop survey aboard the research vessel Hugh R. Sharp in July 2014 as a first-time volunteer. The type and timing of the surveys makes a difference. There are more volunteer opportunities for students and teachers on the summer clam and scallop surveys, which tend to have shorter legs. The clam surveys, to determine the distribution and abundance of Atlantic surf clams Spisula solidissima and ocean quahogs Arctica islandica, are conducted aboard a chartered commercial vessel in three legs in late July and August, each leg lasting about five days. Since 2012, about one-third of the resource is surveyed annually from the Delmarva Peninsula to Georges Bank. The sea scallop surveys are conducted between May and July aboard the 146-foot research vessel Hugh R. Sharp, operated by the University of Delaware as part of the University– National Oceanographic Laboratory System research fleet. The 2015 integrated benthic/sea scallop survey used an eight-foot dredge and “HabCam,” a towed underwater imaging vehicle, to determine the distribution and abundance of scallops from the Mid-Atlantic Bight to Georges Bank. A number of volunteers, from college students to high school teachers, worked with NEFSC staff aboard each of the three legs, which range from 11 to 14 days each. At the end of their experience at sea, each volunteer completes an evaluation, and Sowers speaks with the watch chiefs to get their input. “The science crew enjoys meeting new people from different backgrounds and interests, and the volunteers come away with an appreciation of life at sea and the work involved in the surveys,” Sowers said. “It isn’t for everyone, as the workload can be tough and dealing with seasickness is not something you want to do. But the experience is usually a positive and memorable one.” Some of the positives of life aboard ship come when volunteers are not on watch. The galley is popular because food is always available there, and the ship’s lounge is a place to relax with a book, watch movies, play cards, or chat with shipmates. Some do handwork they have brought, and with 24-hour Internet, everyone can stay in contact with family and friends ashore via their laptop. Out on deck, volunteers can observe the variety of seabirds, sometimes rare sightings, or catch glimpses of whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. And then there are the picture postcard sunrises and sunsets at sea—there is nothing like it. One recent fall bottom trawl survey volunteer said of the experience: “I had worries that as volunteers, we will get small, maybe unnecessary jobs, but that was not the case at all. We were actually doing the work. Awesome!” RELATED LINKS

  • NEFSC cruise volunteer information:
  • Other volunteer opportunities at NOAA: