Unsupported Browser Detected

Internet Explorer lacks support for the features of this website. For the best experience, please use a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Edge.

60 Species of Fish to Celebrate 60 Years of the Bottom Trawl Survey

November 29, 2023

National Systematics Lab research zoologist Katherine Bemis shares her team’s work and 60 of their favorite marine species in celebration of the Bottom Trawl Survey’s 60th anniversary.

Two scientists stand in a lab taking photos of fish in a tank. There is a camera and lighting system set up. One scientist is adjusting the lighting on one side of the lab while the other scientist is on the other side of the lab in front of a laptop. Both scientists are looking at the laptop screen. National Systematics Lab team photographing fish during the fall Bottom Trawl Survey. Fish are placed in a phototank and images are taken using a camera controlled from a laptop. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Sabrina Dahl

I’m a research zoologist and curator of fishes for NOAA’s National Systematics Lab located at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Scientists at the National Systematics Lab focus on identifying marine species and developing species identification tools. For me, that means participating in NOAA’s fisheries surveys like the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Bottom Trawl Survey.

In September, I sailed aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow on the fall Bottom Trawl Survey. On the survey, which is conducted in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean from Maine to North Carolina, scientists collect data on:

  • Geographic distribution
  • Size, age, and lifespan
  • Maturity and spawning periods
  • Diet

These characteristics differ between species, so, to manage fish sustainably, we must first know how to identify them. This sounds simple, but it can be challenging.

A collage of seven species of fish. Four fish are from the top-down perspective and three are in profile. Colors range from brown to orange. Some have dark spots or banding patterns.
Species of goosefish, frogfish, batfish, and their relatives, which use lures to attract prey. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Katherine Bemis

While many species are familiar in commercial or recreational fisheries, such as black sea bass, summer flounder, and bluefish, the total biodiversity is much larger. There are more than 600 species of fish living in the ocean from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Fear, North Carolina. This astonishing diversity includes many common species but also many rare and poorly understood species.

Collage of 16 species of fish. All are from the top-down perspective. Colors range from brown to nearly transparent. Some have dark spots or banding patterns.
Species of flatfish, adults have eyes on the same side of the head. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Katherine Bemis

My team and I use both anatomical and genetic data to verify fish identifications. First, we photograph each species to capture their “true” or live colors and patterns. Then we take a tissue sample for genetic studies and preserve the specimen. The specimens are archived and permanently housed at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History as voucher specimens.

Collage of 13 species of fish. All are from the profile perspective. Colors range from white and browns to oranges. Some have spots, patches, and/or banding patterns.
Species of filefish, spikefish, pufferfish, and their relatives, many of which inflate with water to appear larger to predators. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Katherine Bemis

These voucher specimens document the presence of a species at a particular time and place. The genetic sequence data and photographs allow us to verify the identification and compare specimens with others. The value of these vouchers is that they can be revisited and re-examined as we learn more about biodiversity. The photographs we take will also be used by scientists to help them reliably identify fish on future fisheries surveys.

Collage of eight fish. All are from the profile perspective. Colors range from white and browns to oranges and yellows to black. Some have dark spots, white flecks, or banding patterns.
Species of sea basses, known for their bright colors. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Katherine Bemis

This fall marks the 60th anniversary of the science center’s Bottom Trawl Survey. To celebrate, I’m highlighting 60 of our favorite species of fish we photographed during the survey. While this is only about 10 percent of fish diversity in the region, you can appreciate the fantastic biodiversity of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean!

 Collage of 16 fish. Fifteen are from the profile perspective and one is from the top-down perspective. Colors range from white and browns to oranges and reds. Some have dark spots or banding patterns. Some have long, flowing fin rays. Some have claw-like fins.
Species of sea robins, which have modified fin rays used for sensing prey beneath the sand. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Katherine Bemis
Previous: Kicking Off The 60th Year Of The Fall Bottom Trawl Survey Next: Setting Sail on the First Leg of the 2023 Fall Bottom Trawl Survey

Meet the Blogger