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Being a NOAA Fisherman on the Bottom Longline Survey

September 09, 2022

Josh Cooper is a member of NOAA Ship Oregon II’s deck team. This team is a critical part of effectively collecting data for the bottom longline survey.

Josh Cooper and James Rhue move the cradle during the bottom longline survey.JPG Josh Cooper (front) works with James Rhue on moving the cradle for shark research on the bottom longline survey. Credit: NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations/ Justin Weeks, Ensign

The success of any research expedition is dependent on everyone aboard the ship. The team is made up of scientists, NOAA Corps officers, and civilian professional mariners. Efficient teamwork from driving the boat, to engineering, mechanical operations, cooking, and research need to come together for the science operations to run smoothly. Everyone plays a role in the research taking place and keeping everyone safe during the trip. Here I interview Josh Cooper, one of the civilian professional mariners on NOAA Ship Oregon II.  

Ellie Hartman: What is your academic background?

Josh Cooper: I attended the University of Alabama and I double-majored in Marine Biology and Biology. I did a lot of work at the Laboratory for Aquatic Ecology where I focused mainly on stream ecology. At that point I wanted to shift my focus to fisheries, so for two summer semesters I went to Dauphin Island Sea Lab, on the coast of Alabama. There I concentrated on fisheries science but completed other courses in marine geology, oceanography, and wetland ecology. 

What is your job on the Oregon II? What does your job entail?

I am a NOAA Fisherman, appointed to the Deck Department. As a kid I grew up always wanting to fish for a living and now here I am living out my childhood dream! My job entails assisting my team and the science team on the deck with the operations necessary for the successful retrieval of marine organisms. 

Our job is to make sure the scientific crew have everything they need to ensure the data is collected efficiently. Along with setting and hauling back the longline, our team passes the animals off to scientists, and we hold the sharks for extra safety.

We attend to general needs while out at sea, such as painting the boat, securing the decks, and going on lookout at night for foul weather. At the beginning of this trip we were pretty busy because the Oregon II had just left an 8-month stint of repair and maintenance. So, we did quite a bit right away to ensure that the ship had everything needed to set out to sea to conduct science.

How long have you been with NOAA?

I was excited to become a full-time employee for NOAA in March 2022. Previously, I was a NOAA contractor since 2014. During my contract with the agency I was a fisheries observer on commercial vessels for a total of 8 years, with 2 years in the North Pacific Groundfish Program in Alaska and 6 years in the Shrimp and Reef fish Program in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic. I was also part of the team developing an Artificial Intelligence camera system to help augment the fisheries observer program here in the Gulf. 

Is this your first trip on the Oregon II? How has it been so far?

This is actually my third trip on the Oregon II. The first two trips I did were as a contracted fisheries observer on the summer and fall groundfish trawls. When I was an observer I assisted with the new camera system on board used for the observer trips. This Bottom Longline Survey trip has already been different from my previous observer trips on commercial fishing vessels because working with a team of scientists allows me to have more scientific conversations and I am really intrigued by that.

Josh Cooper, James Rhue, Paul Clerkin, and Chris Love stand by CTD.
Josh Cooper (second from left) assists in running the Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) apparatus to collect scientific data on the physical properties of the water. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/ Ellie Hartman

What were some of the things that you learned as an observer?

I learned a lot as a fisheries observer! I learned I was able to endure long stints at sea—some up to 90 days—on the Bering Sea, that I could live without air conditioning in August 100 miles from land in the Gulf of Mexico, and that a mattress is a luxury when it comes to fishing boats. This interview is not long enough to describe the array of living conditions and sea stories I’ve accumulated through my years at sea. But in general, I think one of the most valuable aspects I learned was how to get along with a myriad of different people. The boats are giant mixing pots of people with a lot of diversity. We are all trying to co-exist. That taught me how to be a good shipmate and how to cope with being at sea for a long period of time. 

You worked on Alaskan fishing vessels. Is it nice to be in the heat in the Southeast? Are there things you miss about Alaska?

I enjoy the weather more in the southeast! I don’t have to be chipping at ice on the deck while at sea. The heat is a lot safer to sail in, so I don’t have to worry about freezing on the cold deck. Also, I am a lot closer to my family being stationed out of the Gulf of Mexico, which helps with maintaining a work-life balance. 

However, I do miss the species and scenery I would see being an observer up in the Aleutian Islands. There are many species that are incredible and very rare, such as the short-tailed albatross, and a plethora of whale species. I enjoyed my experience in Alaska overall! My adventure there started really quickly. I was needed and hired within a week and moved within 2 weeks of the interview. It was a quick decision, but I was so glad that I made it.  

What are the things you enjoy about working and living on the boat?

I really love being out at sea because it is always beautiful out here and every single trip is a new adventure! Everyday ends with a bit of SAS—Sunsets At Sea. I meet new people every trip, which keeps it exciting. I also enjoy seeing new places at all the different port calls we make during the season.

Being on a vessel is a great time to focus on reading books and catching up on TV shows during my downtime. I enjoy getting away from the mainland for a while. Disconnecting is great aboard the ship, but having a good internet connection helps me maintain my relationships back home which staves off any feelings of isolation one may get after long legs at sea.

Josh Cooper assist Walter Ingram and Jacob Gonzales in deploying CTD
Caption: Josh Cooper (middle) assists the science team with the Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) apparatus. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/ Ellie Hartman

What are you looking forward to seeing on this trip? Do you have a favorite shark?

On the bottom longline survey, I look forward to seeing tiger sharks! We have already seen a few and I was really excited about that because I have never seen one in person! I thought it was really cool that they have a slimy black coat on them that I didn’t know about. That was really interesting to see! 

How important is it to work as a team amongst the deck department and the boat?

Working as a team within the deck department is crucial. A lot of the jobs that we do on the vessel take more than one person to accomplish the task, so it is important to know what your teammates are doing around you and your role. I am very glad to work with James Rhue because he has a ton of experience on this boat and this survey, so he is able to teach us everything we need to know. 

Also, even if someone is not in my department but needs assistance, it is important to be a good shipmate! We are all a team at the end of the day and need to work together to get tasks done. It is critical to not leave people high and dry and be aware of the others around you and what they are doing or needing.

Meet the Blogger

A smiling young woman holding a camera

Ellie Hartman

Ellie Hartman was born and raised in Breckenridge, Colorado. She was a communications intern, research assistant, and marine mammal observer for NOAA's Southeast Science Center. She graduated from Barry University with a Master's of Business Administration and graduated from University of Miami with a Master's of Professional Science in Marine Conservation. Meet Ellie


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Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on February 27, 2024