A Day on the Bay, Biological Oceanography Style

By Heather Fulton-Bennett, Biological Oceanography Lab

The term cruise generally brings to mind tropical weather and luxurious surroundings, but scientific research cruises are much more about long hours of work and only a few brief moments to enjoy the view. As a new student in the Biological Oceanography Laboratory, I was simply excited to get out on the water.

View of San Francisco Bay
Our view of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge as we approached our anchorage for the afternoon

The Biological Oceanography Lab is part of a testing program for ballast water sterilization systems and utilizes the training vessel TS Golden Bear as a semi-mobile research station. With increasing concerns about the spread of invasive species through boating traffic, researchers are trying to minimize the potential for the viable organism to be transported in the ballast water of ships. State regulations focus on minimizing the number of live organisms present following treatment, and our lab is responsible for determining if treatment systems are effective by providing organism counts. Live organism counts are done by microscope on both the untreated and treated ballast water to compare the number of live organisms before and after the treatment. Current regulations require very low numbers of live organisms to be present in the water, so it is crucial to make sure the systems are effective.

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Being Resourceful, the MLML Grad Student Way

By Catherine Drake, Invertebrate Zoology Lab

Sometimes when sampling, you have to be resourceful.  Not everything will go according to plan (an instrument might break or a sampling method may not work), which is why problem solving is a great skill for any scientist to have.  Such mishaps can even be humorous, as I found with my trip to Catalina Island with the Biological Oceanography lab two weeks ago.

The city of Avalon on beautiful Catalina Island.

We set out for Catalina Island in the early morning of Sunday, May 6th to meet the TS Golden Bear as it traveled around the island on its way southward.  Two of our crew boarded a small boat and made their out to the ship, while the rest of us explored the beautiful island.  While on the ship, the others worked on the treatment of the ship’s ballast water, took samples, and brought them back to the island.  Then, it was time for us to start our zooplankton counts.

The issue we faced was that we had no facility to conduct out counts in, so we had to improvise.  Time for us to put our problem solving caps on!  We went into the hotel room and started to stare at all the objects—furniture, cabinets, shelves, etc.—to figure out how we could setup our counting stations.  Our final configurations worked like a charm!  My setup comprised of an ironing board, a wicker chair, and a microscope.  And although the stations weren’t conventional, we were still able to get the data, and had fun in the process.

My microscope setup for my zooplankton counts.

The Ballast Water Balancing Act

By Catherine Drake, Invertebrate Zoology Lab

Docked in the Carquinez Strait, an offshoot of the San Pablo Bay in the city of Vallejo, is the TS Golden Bear.  It is a training ship for the California Maritime Academy, which—like MLML—is a campus of the California State University.  The Biological Oceanography lab at MLML utilizes the ship for ballast water research.  As ships traverse the globe, they pick up ballast water from one area and release it back into the ocean once they reach their destination.  Ships uptake seawater into their ballast tanks to optimize balance and streamlining when traveling a great distance.  During this process, potentially invasive planktonic organisms are brought into the tanks and transported by being held in the ballast tank during travels.  As these organisms are released back into the ocean, they are now introduced into a new environment.

The TS Golden Bear, which houses the laboratory and is the source of ballast water used in the research conducted by the MLML Biological Oceanography lab.
Ships take in seawater and store it in ballast tanks in order to remain balanced as they glide through the oceans. Then, they discharge the ballast water as they enter a port or harbor.

This can pose a problem, as some plankton can become invasive, meaning that they can outcompete native organisms in a habitat.  According to Ruiz, et al., shipping is considered the largest transfer mechanism for coastal invasions.   As a result, regulations developed by IMO (International Maritime Organization) are implemented to reduce invasive plankton.  One of their requirements forces ships to reduce the number of live zooplankton to 10 live zooplankters per 1000 liters after the water has been treated with a kill-factor (toxic reagents, oxygen reduction, UV light, heat, etc).  “Though the challenge of coming up with an effective but environmentally safe kill factor is still up and coming, so are the methods to determining the quality of the treatment system,” says Julie Kuo, a student in the Biological Oceanography Lab.  Consequently, this has enhanced the collaboration between engineers, and scientists to construct standard operating procedures to determine the quality of a treatment system based on IMO regulations.

Copepods, tintinnids, rotifers, and cladocera are all zooplankton that can be found in ballast water.

Enter Dr. Welshmeyer and the Biological Oceanography lab: the purpose of their project is to count the number of live zooplankton alive before and after the treatment.  This process is used to determine whether or not the treatment tested on the Golden Bear is successful at meeting the IMO regulations.  As we boarded the ship, we carried microscopes and coffee down through the ship to a room that was designated as our lab.  In the 8 by 15 foot room, we setup our microscopes and began counting zooplankton.  That particular day, we were counting pre-treated water, which was full of zooplankton swimming around; this included tintinnids, copepods, rotifers, and nauplii.  After our counts of the live and dead zooplankton, we extrapolated that there were anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 live organisms per cubic meter; up to 60% were alive in an untreated sample that was concentrated from one cubic meter of water from the Carquinez Strait.  So, treatment systems have to be incredibly affective in order to kill all but ten zooplankton in ballast water!

Julie Kuo, a graduate student in the Biological Oceanography lab at MLML, counts the number of zooplankton in a sample of pre-treated ballast water.

Drop-In to MLML Open House: The Bottle Drop – See Niskins in Action

photo: E. Loury

Biological Oceanography student Shana Carmichael readies a Niskin bottle to show Open House visitors how scientists use it to collect water at different depths in the ocean.  The bottles are arranged in a carousel on a CTD instrument like the one shown below (and modeled here).   Scientists lower the instrument to the depth of interest in the ocean, then send down a “messenger” weight that triggers the bottle to close at both ends.   Each bottle can be filled with water from a different layer of the ocean, allowing scientists to sample oxygen, nutrients, plankton and other water components across a range of depths.  Come to Open House to see a nifty Niskin for yourself!

MLML Open House is Saturday, April 30 & Sunday, May 1.

photo: E. Loury

Drop-In to MLML Open House: Discover Chromatography – We Want These Colors to Run

photo: E. Loury

How do biological oceanographers identify the phytoplankton in water samples they collect at sea?  They can use a technique called chromatography that separates the pigments that phytoplankton use for photosynthesis.  The major groups of plankton contain different pigments, and those pigments  produce a color spectrum when they separate by weight.  Scientists can use this color spectrum “fingerprint” to identify the type of phytoplankton the pigments came from.

You can try your hand at chromatography at MLML’s Open House thanks to the Biological Oceanography lab!  Did you know that pen ink is composed of many different pigments?  Watch the ink separate into a spectrum of colors to see for yourself!

MLML Open House is Saturday, April 30 & Sunday, May 1.