Marine Resources Monitoring, Assessment, & Prediction - MARMAP

MARMAP's Salty Beginings

R/V Dolphin
R/V Dolphin

The SC MRD offshore fisheries MARMAP program was initiated late in 1972. Ichthyoplankton and groundfish surveys were conducted twice a year as an extension of the surveys north of Cape Hatteras by NMFS, Woods Hole. Our heavy bottom trawl net, which was designed for cod and haddock, caught most of the ubiquitous sand bottom fishes, ripped to shreds on patch reefs, and surprised the hell out of many schools of migrating rough-tail stingrays (the 500 lb. ones). In those “good old days,” the R/V Dolphin, which had been surplused by Uncle Sam for obvious reasons, still had enough of her ocean-going tug power to wallow across shallow sand bars (remember that one John?) but had to head home in 50-knot winds (with green water awash on the back deck). When the crew got sick on their new boots, it just washed away! Trawling was conducted around the clock for cruises as long as 14 days, in winds to over 30 knots. Trawling in strong following seas was more like surfing with a butterfly net, until the catch had to be worked up. In heavy seas, the spray came over the pilot house and from those leaky windows into the crew's sleeping quarters (without a drain, of course), so on occasion we would have to wade to bed and listen to the slosh of water under our bunks. The pounding in the crew's compartment against the winter sea was so continuous that some crew had to have wives lift and drop their beds at home before they could get to sleep. With the stations about a 30 min. steam apart, tired biologists often just laid on the inside deck in full foul weather gear awaiting the next set and retrieval of the nets. The cooks always tried to provide good food, although sometimes the chicken in the oven came out more bruised than cooked.

We tried to set the bongo plankton nets one night at the 100 fathom curve with snow blowing at a 45 degree angle and ribbons of fog raising from the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The perils of a deep water hydro cast with multiple Niskin bottles for water samples included a hydrowire dripping with wet man-of-war tentacles dropping like fire on our arms.

Successful Trawl
Successful trawl

We never knew what would come up in the trawl, if it came back at all (and sometimes the whole rig would just “snap” off). On one occasion a very large nurse shark was dropped on deck amid a catch of coral. The frantic thrashing of the shark sent a puree of squashed fish, invertebrates and “hot” sponge fire over everyone (PAINFUL) until one brave crew member sat on the shark's tail. Sorting through fish covered with fire sponge caused ungloved hands to swell to the full extent of the skin, to the dismay of the scientist and his dermatologist. A “checkers” full of stingrays was always a time of extra fun, the pressure reduction inherent in bringing rays to the surface caused them to regurgitate the stomach full of very smelly crabs, etc., which was then beat into a fine spray by the flapping of the ray trying to swim in air. We once had a large catch of rays which contributed to every man on both watches being pierced by at least one poison spine (treatment consisted of placing wound in alternating scalding and ice water [PAINFUL] to denature the toxin). When we trawled the crazy currents in waters greater than 100 fathoms depth, the trawl doors occasionally got to spinning on their way to the bottom. The resulting twists (up to 19) in the 9/16” wire hard against the fantail, required the rest of the night to untangle!

By 1970-80, trawling gave way to underwater TV, and trapping of snapper and grouper in the sponge-coral habitats that trawls could not sample. This long-term fishery independent data on the relative abundance of important finfishes continues today to estimate the trends in offshore fish populations, with the same types of devoted “sea-going salts” as in the “old days!”