Fish your heart out

29 07 2008

The catch of the day

I’ve been waiting for a chance to write this post for over a week now, but life on a fishing cruise such as this is tiring, time-consuming, and busy. We made it to Palmer station on July 17th, over a week ago, unloaded cargo, and headed out (not so) bright and early the next morning. We tasted a little piece of paradise that is Palmer Station…and that little bit was very much appreciated. If McMurdo Station is the Holiday Inn of the Antarctic, Palmer Station is surely the quaint little bed & breakfast getaway off the main tourist track. The station is run by 20 people, there are only five small buildings, the delicious food is served in a galley heated by a cozy wood-burning stove, there’s a bar/lounge area (a BYOB thing) with nice leather couches and a wall full of movies, a very well-equipped gym, a fleet of Zodiacs (beefy rubber inflatable boats with outboard motors) that can be used for science and recreational use, and a much-advertised fish tank converted into a hot tub (yes, for people). On top of this and perhaps most importantly, are relatively well-stocked labs, a good-sized aquarium room, and helpful support staff. I understand now why the Antarctic scientists and staff alike dream of working in the slow-paced Utopian society that is Palmer station. Our group will spend more time on Station in the coming weeks and I’ll write more about the station then, but for now our goal is to catch fishes so our maritime way-of-life continues.

We’ve been on three fishing trips so far, lasting 3-4 days each. As you can imagine, a fishing trip in the Antarctic is much different than the kind of fishing you might be familiar with. Although there’s ample opportunity in this part of Antarctica to use a rod and reel from shore, and weather-permitting from zodiac, the majority of our fish are caught either in traps or in trawls. Both of these methods are borrowed from commercial fisheries technology, but scaled down to science size. Traps are made from big, heavy rings of steel and lined with a woven mesh that keeps fish inside after they’ve come to inspect the bait. The Otter trawl that we use is about eighteen-feet wide at the mouth, about 30 feet long, and has two metal doors (or wings) at the front end that help keep the net open while it’s being dragged along or near the bottom. Both methods have the potential to catch a lot of fish if used in the right place at the right time…unfortunately for us we’re not in one of these places.

In essence, a fishing trip aboard the LMG (our ship) is an exercise in extremes. While the traps are in the water (usually 24hours), or a trawl is being dragged (about 2 hours) one can be extremely bored. But, as soon as the traps or trawl comes to the deck and the catch is dumped, one is extremely busy as the fish are hurriedly collected in buckets, identified and sorted, counted, and samples are taken from those that are in less-than-optimal condition. While preparing and baiting the traps and in taking them apart after use, one’s hands can become extremely cold and wet. After three days of trawling every two hours around-the-clock, being rocked along in crashing waves and winter storms, drinking too much cheap coffee, and finding few spare moments for a restless nap, one is extremely tired. In the end, an aquarium full of fantastical creatures from the Antarctic deep, available for one to delve into the secrets of survival in this “extreme” environment, is extremely rewarding.

Too much has happened in the past week and a half for me to give a detailed description of it all. Therefore, here’s a little log of what we’ve been doing, how the weather has been, and what we’ve seen. There’s a map in the pictures below that shows our ship’s track since this adventure began in Punta Arenas, Chile. Many other pictures with descriptions should give you an idea of the life I’m living here.

July 18th – 20th: Dallman Bay (8 hours northeast by ship) to trap and trawl in about 150m of water. Dallman bay is exposed to the open Sothern Ocean, but we had pretty good weather. We dropped traps and trawled along the north side, with a spectacular view of ice covered mountains, glaciers, and occasional pack and pancake ice. Trawls brought up many fishes that I personally haven’t seen before, all notothenioids. The most amazing thing was that our trawls were regularly bringing up kelps and other seaweeds from 150m (~450ft)!!. The water here is so clear and there’s so much sun during the austral summer that the seaweeds can survive much deeper than I’m accustomed to. In the greenish-brown Oregon coast water, seaweeds aren’t likely to survive below 50ft. We caught a lot of icefish, family Channichthyidae. These fishes are the only adult vertebrates to completely lack hemoglobin. That means that their blood, gills, liver, spleen, kidneys etc. are an icy white. No red, nowhere.Creepy.

July 21nd: Back in Palmer Station to drop off fishes and re-supply with laboratory materials, and scientific equipment. One restless night and out fishing again the next morning.

July 22nd – 25th: To near Hugo Island to Trap and Trawl in about 600m of water (10 hours west, by ship). The diversity here was quite high. Circumpolar deep water intrudes onto the continental shelf here, and it’s a little bit warmer than the surface waters (2°C vs. -1°C). This small difference in temperature means that deep-sea fishes that aren’t particularly adapted to the Antarctic climate can survive here too, and you get an interesting mixture of Antarctic and globally-distributed deep-water fishes. We caught three species of hard-to-find dragonfishes, and a bucketful of eelpouts (slimy eel-shaped bottom dwelling fishes) among many other more common notothenioids. The invertebrate bycatch was amazing (see picture of the tank, below).

July 26th – 28th: To the Neumayer Channel and the Bismark Straight (2 hours east by ship) for trapping and hook-and-line fishing from zodiacs. We dropped traps and then we were hit with a whopper of a winter storm. We couldn’t find a calm anchorage and the snow was blowing so hard it was hard to see the water from the bridge. We spent the night slowly moving about fighting the 50-knot (57mph) winds, continuously monitoring the radar for icebergs. Four inches of snow fell on deck, but a lucky break in the weather (the eye of the storm passing over us) allowed us to get out to fish from our zodiacs near an old whaling station (now maintained as a museum by the British) called Port Lockroy. To get off the ship and to put some distance between us and the two ever-rumbling 6000hp diesel engines was a fabulous treat. Winds were calm, Gentoo penguins were swimming about, and the fishing (4 fish landed) wasn’t that bad (by Antarctic winter standards).

July 29th: Back at Palmer station for a day or two. The galley greeted us and the ship’s crew with twenty-five delicious, homemade pizzas with fresh vegetables and pesto etc. My coffee this morning (from a fancy espresso machine on station) didn’t taste like the liquid tar I’m used to having on the ship. Another winter storm is moving through. We had 55-knot winds last night and the ship kept her engines running in case it would break free from the moorings. New snow all over station and many freshly calved icebergs in Arthur Harbor (the bay in front of the station) today.

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