Aboard the Oscar Dyson, NOAA to pursue new research near Kodiak

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel Oscar Dyson left its homeport in Kodiak on April 1. The boat mostly provides insight into Alaska’s fish populations, from the Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea. 

The Oscar Dyson docked at Kodiak’s Pier 2 on March 31. Most of the day was foggy and misty but lifted later that afternoon. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Terry McTigue is an ecologist for NOAA and the chief scientist on Oscar Dyson’s current research cruise, which runs through early April. She said a lot of their research revolves around trawl fisheries. 

“So the big pollock surveys and those kinds of things go out on this vessel, or on the east coast, we’ll be bottom fish or shrimp on the Gulf Coast [of Mexico],” she said.

McTigue said the ship has a 25-person crew – about half of whom are part of the NOAA Corps, which is an unarmed branch of federal uniformed officers.

McTigue demonstrating some of the equipment the team will use to take mud samples. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Lieutenant Benjamin Kaiser is a member of the NOAA Corps and is the ship’s operations officer. 

“The primary stuff that we do is oriented around the Alaska pollock fishery, specifically the Alaska walleye surveys that go around in the Gulf of Alaska on the western side and also the Bering Sea,” he said. 

Alaska’s pollock fisheries are the state’s largest by volume. Kaiser said NOAA recently finished the winter survey for the species, looking at spawning numbers. But unlike commercial trawlers, the Oscar Dyson does short midwater net drags to get a snapshot of what’s in the water to verify what they see on sonar. 

“The scientists will be able to interpret to see how much is below the ship on our current track line and then basically they have to ground-truth that data,” Kaiser said. 

Lieutenant Commander Emily Rose also is a member of the NOAA Corps and captains the Oscar Dyson. She said their research provides data used for fisheries management.

“The pollock stuff that we do is very impactful directly,” the captain said. “So it’s kind of what we’re used to doing, having things that directly impact the communities pretty quickly.” 

Lt. Cmdr. Emily Rose on the bridge of the Oscar Dyson. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

But for this cruise, they’re also laying the groundwork to develop forecasting methods for harmful algal blooms, which are responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning.  

“It’ll be the first time we’ve done anything like this – and we’re excited,” Rose said. 

McTigue, the chief scientist, said they’ll be taking mud samples from around Kodiak to find the root causes of the blooms. The ship will even host staff from the Kodiak Area Native Association to help their research.

“We’re going to work over here, the bays along the coast of Kodiak and then do lines that go all the way up on the continental shelf,” McTigue said. “Because this is our first year, we don’t know which of those samples are going to be reasonable.”

They also have some stations to check in the Shelikof Strait, on the west side of Kodiak Island.

Scientists unpacking and preparing their lab ahead of the research cruise. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

When they’re out to sea though, it’s a 24-hour operation for 12 days straight. McTigue said the crew has a unique approach to prevent burnout. 

“We do four hours on, eight hours off, four hours on, eight hours off,” she said. “So you would work, for instance, (from) midnight to 4 a.m., noon to 4 p.m. and you’d have a gap of time where you can sleep and a gap of time where you can relax.”

The ship also has a home-theater onboard as well as food available 24/7. They’ve also vastly improved their connection to folks on shore through satellite internet. 

“When you’re on this boat and you’re not actively working, it’s better to keep you amused and happy and fed because that keeps the whole cohesiveness,” McTigue said. 

The NOAA research vessel is expected to return to Kodiak this weekend.

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