1… 2… 3… Haul-back. The radio clicks off and the winch on deck starts to run again. Soon the net will be on deck and sorting will commence.
The excitement was mounting in the fish lab as everyone slid into their Grundens bibs and put on float coats and hard hats. We peered out the doors to the deck and saw the beam trawl floating a few meters away from the boat. Armando Urrutia, deck boss, craned up the codend (bottom of the net where the fish are) to the sorting table. We untied the end in great anticipation, only to find that we had been skunked… no fish at all. Libby Logerwell, the conductor of beam trawl operations, was level headed and suggested that the acoustics monitor may have been misfiring and the net hadn’t actually hit bottom.
Round 2. After a short transit back to station we deployed the net again. When it was time to haul back, we geared up and tried to control expectations of what would be in it. The trawl was brought on board and emptied onto the sorting table to reveal a plethora of life that composes the benthic (seafloor) habitat. We first sorted out all of the fish from the invertebrates with species such as Arctic cod, saffron cod, capelin, and an assortment of sculpin. Many of these fish, specifically cod, are target species. They are treated with special care and preserved to be analyzed at the lab when the survey is over. Some of the fish are smaller than a centimeter but most range between 1 and 10 cm, and have very clever camouflage, so it is a bit of an "I spy" game to pick them all out.
There were "oohs" and "ahhs" from many of us as we looked at the diversity of life of the invertebrates. Many of the scientists aboard had never sorted a beam trawl. Sea stars, brittle stars, hermit crabs, snow crabs, and shrimp crawled about on the table and found their prey easily accessible for a quick snack. After a subsample was taken and catch was sorted by species, they were brought inside the lab for processing. There was a steep learning curve for identification, with pages of guides turning rapidly.
It still amazes me the diversity of life right underneath us. I look out the porthole in my room to see open ocean and a grey sky, but 50 meters down is a world of wonderful variety and color. All of the setbacks or complications with equipment remind me how much we have to maintain just to get a glimpse of these creatures' habitat and how lucky we are to be able to do so. Now on to the next station, to do it all again tomorrow.