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Fishing off the Gould.
Photo Credit: Sean Bonnette
Fishing off the Gould, which is not always an easy task. Winds can easily blow 60 kilometers per hour or more, whipping up the waves, which can spill onto the deck of the ship.

Goin' fishing

Catching specimens for study not an easy feat in Antarctica

A scientific fishing trip to the Antarctic Peninsula isn’t like heading to your favorite fishing hole to drown a few worms in hopes of bringing home dinner.

Winds can easily blow 60 kilometers per hour or more, whipping up the waves, which can spill onto the deck. And it’s cold. Bone-rattling, finger-numbing cold. Yet a team of scientists, with the help of the crew on the ARSV Laurence M. Gould External U.S. government site, shrugged off the challenging conditions to haul in hundreds of Antarctic fish for an experiment that compared heat tolerances between the red- and white-blooded animals.

Megan O’Neill — a high school teacher from Alabama who joined the expedition as part of the ARMADA project External Non-U.S. government site, which pairs educators with field researchers to increase awareness of science — described the thrill of retrieving fishing traps during a typical gale in her ARMADA blog External Non-U.S. government site.

Megan O'Neill conducts an experiment.
Photo Credit: Kristin O'Brien
Teacher Megan O'Neill performs an experiment on icefish at Palmer Station.

“I was amazed and a little concerned that it was too rough to be standing on the deck near open gates on the starboard side with waves crashing over the transom. Fortunately, our [marine technicians] are very consistently safety-oriented and [they] were strapped in with safety lines as they stood at the open gate with the grappling hooks trying to hook the buoys attached to the pots, which were hundreds of feet below.

“I could not believe they accomplished the task of throwing these hooks into 40-knot winds and snagging the lines of the buoys, dragging them in, setting the line on the pulleys and pulling them on board and making it look easy! Impressive!

“Meanwhile, my fingertips were in pain because they were so cold and the skin exposed on my face felt like it was being pelted with needles each time the wind whipped up and I shuddered each time someone yelled, ‘WAVE!’ as I turned to see another wave crashing over the back!”

Kristin O’Brien External Non-U.S. government site, principal investigator for the project studying thermal tolerances in notothenioids, said the haul from about five weeks of fishing around Palmer Station was very good.

“We did have quite a bit of weather to deal with on our fishing trip, but I think that’s normal,” she said during a recent interview. “For the most part, we were successful in capturing the animals we were after.”

Fishing techniques included trawling with nets at a depth of about 150 meters on the seafloor, as well as using fish pots — traps baited with bags of salted sardines and cut-up frozen mackerel.

“All of these animals are benthic species, so trawling is an effective way of capturing them,” explained O’Brien, with the University of Alaska External Non-U.S. government site.

Bruce Sidell External Non-U.S. government site, co-principal investigator on the project from the University of Maine External Non-U.S. government site, said the team is limited to trawling for about 20 minutes of bottom-time based on the needs of their experiments.

“The nature of the work we do, we need to get live fish in good condition that we can put into the tanks and bring back, transfer to Palmer Station External U.S. government site for further experiments,” he explained. “We don’t want them to go for a protracted ride.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs