Marine biology in action

University of Alaska students get a taste of life aboard the research vessel Steller

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2007

Kristen Dunlap peeled back the fish's ribs and peered into its guts. She poked at two tiny unidentified objects as three others crowded around waiting to get a good look.

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"I think those are tumors," she said to her teaching assistant, Andrew Eller.

Eller was more concerned, though, about the parasite that had attached itself to the pollock's gills. Its yellow tubes of eggs bulged conspicuously, and its body shined a bright red, as if it had found the finest meal a creature in the sea could ask for.

"That goes straight into the heart of the fish. It doesn't kill it, it's just a nuisance," Eller said.

The students from University of Alaska, Fairbanks and Southeast, were getting their first hands-on experience with live fish on board the Steller, a 70-foot mid-ocean trawler that was designed as a research vessel.

The ship looked for schools of forage fish - herring, pollock, and capelin - near Shelter Island on a calm Thursday morning, as the students and teachers of the senior-level ichthyology class waited to see what else they'd get to measure and identify that day. The trip is a chance for them to put to practice what they've learned from their textbooks.

Also on board was JJ Vollenweider, a fisheries research biologist with National Marine Fisheries Service. She'd just returned from a 10-day research trip to Glacier Bay, where she was tracking herring and measuring them for their fat content, hoping to find if that's any indicator of how well they'll survive the winter.

She said the day-long trip is a good opportunity for the students to see how actual field work is conducted and what conditions a researcher lives under.

"You can have a romantic notion about fisheries or marine biology. We were joking the other day about how this actually isn't a fishing study, that it's really a study of cramming a bunch of strangers together in a small space and seeing how they interact," Vollenweider said.

That life is obviously worth it for Vollenweider. A look of excitement and expectation fills her face as the crew hauls up the net, and unloads the fish.

"It feels like Christmas a couple of times a day, every time the net comes up," she said.

A couple dozen herring, capelin, and pollock gape up at the class from a blue container, gasping among a pile of jelly fish.

Assistant Professor Nicola Hillgruber dives in and grabs a trophy, a little pink squid, and tells the class to get to work measuring and sexing, or figuring out if the fish are male or female.

"For the first time, they are actually getting exposed to live fishes and getting a much better idea of what fishes actually look like. Everybody knows that as soon as you pull a fish out of the water and it dies, the colors change. And once you've got it pickled, in alcohol and everything, it changes completely," Hillgruber said.

The students were also learning how to keep warm and dry, and getting a little taste of life on the sea.

The second word you learn on an ichthyology class field trip on a boat, after ichthyology, is Dramamine.

Within an hour, a couple students, plus a newspaper reporter, were down for the count in the sleeping quarters, clutching their stomachs and burying their heads under the pillows.

A surefire cure is fresh ginger, said the Steller's chef Jeremy Storm. He keeps plenty of it on hand, and started handing it out in bite-size slivers to those turning green.

Storm's forte is providing comfort through food, and giving crew members and researchers something to look forward to after a long day enduring the elements. From berry crisps to roasted lamb with homemade pear-apple chutney, he said surprises and unique foods are "very comforting things after a long day in the cold, and 10-foot swells and things."

Captain Dan Foley said he'd want none other than a life on the sea. He's a commercial fisherman and has provided charter research trips for government agencies for about 14 years.

"The more we know about the fish, the better we are able to manage them. I've been doing this for 30 years. We don't want to overharvest whatever we are fishing, so the more information that we have about the fish, the better the scientists can make a decision about how much we can be harvesting," Foley said.

"They affect the lifestyle of everybody in Southeast Alaska," he said.

As it turns out, studying fish isn't just about guts, parasites and sexing. As student Nate Catterson said, "Alaska's all about fish." And just about everyone on board expressed an appreciation for just how important fish are to people.

"I just feel like they are the livelihood of this state," Dunlap said. "Because they are so important to everybody. People rely on them for food, industry, jobs. It's an important field. And they are really neat and cute."

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