Friday, June 10, 2016

Pollock in the Night

Last week, two intrepid NOAA researchers came to collect fish in Fort Worden. Mara Spencer and Scott Haines have been collecting walleye pollock off the Fort Worden floating dock for the past 20 years. After collection, the fish rest in the Marine Exhibit Lab before the long trip back to Newport, Oregon, and the Hatfield Marine Science Center, where Mara and Scott are based.

One tiny walleye pollock in his new home
The walleye pollock fishery is one of the largest in the world, with over 3-million tons harvested each year. The NOAA team is investigating the effects of global change on these and other arctic fishes. They use a collection technique I’d never seen or heard of, so I practically begged to tag along to watch the fish-trapping spectacle.

In the dark of night, Mara lowered a bright light into the calm, black water. At first, all we saw was blue water and the glare from a huge net lying in wait below. Then, there was movement. A small gray speck squiggled towards the light. It was joined by another and another until there was a thick swarm of crab larvae following the light. Next came the fish. Juvenile walleye pollock, some only a few centimeters long, began to creep towards the center of the net. Bright green and orange gunnels slithered passed, pipefish effortlessly floated by, and tadpole sculpin frantically swam in the midnight sun. Like flies to a porch lamp, the life in the eelgrass bed below was inescapably drawn towards the glow. Undulating shadows signaled the arrival of more mysterious creatures. Bizarre polychaete worms squirmed and burrowed into the net, a solitary squid jetted away, and kelp isopods flew by, silhouetted like bees in the sun.

Fish in the exhibit: Walleye pollock, shiner perch (giving birth!), and a painted greenling
Just when I thought I knew this ecosystem fairly completely, it threw a few more surprises my way. Just a friendly reminder from this stunning planet that mystery abounds and adventure is out there. As I grow as a naturalist, it can be frustrating to encounter new organisms I can’t identify. I must remind myself to see the phrase “I don’t know” as a puzzle, not a failure. Surprises like a squid under a light are what make fieldwork so fun and the Marine Exhibit such a joy.

REBECCA MOSTOW is the Marine Exhibit Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

The Marine Exhibit is open for Summer Hours! Come say hello to the resident animals, and get ready to meet some brand-new critters! The exhibits are open every day from 11 am -5 pm, except Tuesdays.


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