The Seascapes

The Seascapes

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The “Butterfish Smackdown”: “This could get a little nautical”

"2011-12-16 13:25:23 GMT"
The “Karen Elizabeth” headed east north east as Chris tried to set the net for a tow along the bank.  The gulls pumped their wings hard to continue sidesliping along our wake. Despite the wind they were still as full of their greed as their grace, crying out their expectation loudly for what we soon might just toss back into the sea.  But it was blowing too hard to set the net crosswind, so over the “Karen’s” loudspeaker, Chris told Denny, Josh and Mike to wait until he finished turning the boat up wind and sea.  I was in the bridge too, waiting to enter the time and location where the net would begin to fish, which along with other descriptions of the tow including its catch, I would soon send over our gliders tail through a satellite to the Ocean Observing System onshore.  The “Karens” bow plunged deep into the face of an oncoming wave.  The world disappeared behind the white water in the windows, then between the rivulets of draining seawater the white capping, broad shouldered waves and crystalline blue sky that always follow the passage of a front, began to reappear.  I’m sure my eyes widened just a little bit. But I am more certain I didn’t allow Chris to know that they did.  While we fished gannets soared updrafts from trough to wavetop on long white and black tipped wings.  The northwesterly was gusting to 40 knots and the seas were 10 to 12 feet.  We were still working and I had gotten my gale.
Mike Broniewski with a clean tow of allot of butterfish

Late that night, but really it was the next day, when the wind was much lighter and the sea was down, Chris picked his last station. I had gone down below to get a little sleep until midnight when we were scheduled to reach Chris’s waypoint.  When I woke up and climbed into the bridge it was 1 AM and he was still looking.  “Listen buddy, the habitat model needs a station before first light too” I said.  He kept steaming for minute, and then with noticeable agitation turned around.  After about 10 minutes more we set the net again.  I entered the time, longitude and latitude.  “Where are we?” I asked.  “In the middle of nowhere”, He replied disgusted he had to fish here. “South side of Alvin Canyon.  Right on the bank” He added.  After 20 minutes of towing along the 84 fathom isobath we hauled back.  I went down on deck to help weigh the catch that I assumed would be light.  When the net bag opened, a little over 3000 pounds of butterfish along light traces of a few other species poured out and filled the fishbox.  I sorted until I heard Chris slow the boat for his second tow.

On the left is the real time monitoring system showing the configuration and position of the net including real time depths and temperatures.  The monitors for the 50 and 200 khz fisheries hydroacoustics are on the right. The bottom is broken in the acoustics because we are setting the net to tow downslope.  

As I climbed up into the bridge I said  “I’m crying crocodile tears for you. That one was over 3000 pounds”. “Well I wanted 10,000 pounds” he said as he moved back to the winch controls to set the net again.  This time we were towing down the bank.  We started in 57 fathoms of water with a bottom temperature of 58 degrees. The temperature held steady until the water was 83 fathoms deep, then it began to fall to reach 55.8 F at 93 fathoms.  It was time to haul back.  The acoustics showed fish stacked up where the bottom depth was between 89 and 93 fathoms.  Like our earlier observation the fish seemed to be stacked up downslope on the cold side of a subtle bottom temperature front. His second tow also produced 3000 pounds of butterfish.  Chris told me that he usually doesn’t fish downslope or with his doors armed with temperature sensors, so the results of these tows surprised him.  He told me he had learned something on our cruise.  I am glad to know that because I learned a tremendous amount from him about the fish that overwinter at the edge of the continental shelf which he fishes from Cape Hattaras to the Canadian boarder as if it was a river running through his own back yard.  And I have just started scratching at the surface.

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