“Wait, is that how we did it last year?” Like a flashing billboard advertising the next big attraction, that phrase scrolls through my thoughts while I pack duct tape and zip ties into blue Rubbermaid totes. The cheesy advertisement could easily read:
“Back by popular demand… Spring in the Arctic! If you didn’t get enough last year, get your tickets now to witness breathtaking views and ground-breaking science. Watch extraordinary fish and incredible invertebrates emerge from the watery depths of the Chukchi Sea. Fish slime included absolutely free of charge.”
If last year was the first season of a show called “Spring in the Arctic,” I was one of the lucky few to get to play a part in the pilot season. In that first season, everything from my teammates to the trawl nets that we were using to catch fish were new to me. The kinds of creatures that were supposed to come up in those trawl nets were a mystery, too. At the risk of running into sea ice, nobody had ever taken a scientific vessel to survey the northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas in June, so nobody quite knew what to expect.
In case you missed it, here’s what happened last season on “Spring in the Arctic”: The team that I worked with studied fish. We set out two different kinds of trawl nets to collect fish from both the midwater and the bottom of the ocean. In our first year, we caught fewer fish in the spring than we have in the same area later in the summer, but the fish that we did catch were well-known in the region. Going through every trawl was like unwrapping a birthday present. We’d whoop when we’d dump out the catch and see fat sculpins all dressed up for the breeding season with polka dot patterns on their bellies. Even the saltiest crew member couldn’t help but crack a smile when I’d hold out a tiny alligatorfish on my palm for their inspection. The biggest plot twist was that Arctic cod, a species that many folks are interested in (folks ranging from birds and whales, to local Alaskans and scientists), was surprisingly absent. Last year, we only caught 15 Arctic cod total, and 11 of them were all captured in the same spot, northeast of St. Lawrence Island. Was this normal? Ending on a cliff hanger, we’d have to wait for the new season to find out.
Flash forward to 2018, and me packing up the nets, weights, and data sheets for another sampling season, this time with expectations for both the fish and the cruise itself. I knew that I needed to pack those same two nets so that we could compare what we caught across both years. Somehow, candy and a few items for comic relief (whoopie cushion anyone?) made it into my bag, too. This was no longer my first rodeo and I had learned how important small pieces of fun could be when work days started to get long.
Would we catch more fish this year? Would Arctic cod make a special guest appearance? Tossing our nets back into the ocean was the only way to find out.
The season opener also began with a feel-good reunion scene. Having given so much thought to what the fishing would look like in 2018, I had little expectation that I would be remembered much beyond “oh yeah, you caught fish last year, right?” Instead, I was surprised beyond measure to be greeted by name and welcomed back to the R/V Sikuliaq with hugs and high-fives. With such a great crew and an excellent team of scientists, how could we expect anything less than a stellar production?
So far, the 2018 season has started off with a bang, pulling up beautiful trawls with blue king crab, cranky looking sculpins, and slimy eelpouts. Arctic cod has remained largely offscreen and uncaptured, but there’s still plenty of trawling left to do. Comparing catches across years? Well, for that we’ll just have to wait for the season finale.