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Wingspread Study Hits Silver Dollar Jackpot

October 01, 2019

Scientists and fishermen return for the final leg of this year's experiment with the scientific survey net used for the world's longest-running bottom trawl survey. Lovely sunrises and tiny butterfish abound.

View of the deck of the  F/V Karen Elizabeth at sunrise.

Scientists and fishermen boarded the F/V Karen Elizabeth on September 23 for the final leg of the study on the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow’s trawl net used for the twice-yearly scientific survey of the Northeast shelf. The Karen Elizabeth can tow two nets at once, making it the perfect platform for examining net performance under different conditions.  

The study is focused on how the net performs at different spreads, and what differences in catch can be attributed to that spread. The "spread" is how widely the net opens. There are four target species. Gulf of Maine witch flounder and American plaice occur in deeper water. Southern New England winter flounder and windowpane flounder occur in shallower water.

The study was designed by the Northeast Trawl Advisory Panel. This is the fourth experiment looking at the survey net's performance using the Karen Elizabeth's twin-trawl capability. Our science center has a team of people who work with the panel to develop and complete research projects.

Paul Kostovick was chief scientist for this leg.  With some help with others on the trip, he sent us this journal and these photos. Paul is currently acting chief of our Data Management Systems Division.

Day 1- September 23, 2019

Leg 2 of the wingspread study sailed from Pt. Judith, RI on Monday.  After a mid-survey evaluation of the data we’ve collected we now have our marching orders to focus on shallow-water stations with a narrow (9 to 14 meter) wingspread.  So far the weather has been rough, so we’re steaming south of Block Island to target winter flounder, summer flounder, and sand dab flounder. With the wind blowing 25 knots, the catches comprise our target species as well as winter and little skate, butterfish, and scup, with whiting mixed in.  We’re planning to stay here for the next 24 hours until the weather dies down. Once we have a calm sea, we’ll start exploring the fishing grounds a little to maximize our efforts by catching larger numbers of the target species.  


Black sea bass, Centropristis striata, captured during the 2019 wingspread study aboard the F/V Karen Elizabeth. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Day 2- September 24, 2019

Going to sea is always a departure from our daily routine. When you draw the midnight shift it comes with its own adjustments. It’s tough to get sleep before your shift on the first day, so I awoke not entirely refreshed but ready to see some fish. We are fishing off the coast of Block Island and catching a good amount of fish that would be familiar to any angler that fishes near shore in Southern New England. Black sea bass and scup are well represented in some of these tows. What I find interesting is that these fish are always so much larger than what I tend to catch on the line. Today we caught a black sea bass that was almost 6 pounds! The iridescent blues and greens never translate in a  photograph but these fish have great coloration. The best part of the midnight shift is sunrise, and today we observed it with the Block Island Wind Farm in the background.

Day 3- September 25, 2019

A beautiful sunrise greeted us today as we continued our furious pace of fishing off of the southeast corner of Block Island. Weather conditions have finally begun to settle down. This has made the pace of work much easier, as our baskets full of butterfish have stopped sliding across the deck! We are making great progress toward the number of tows we need, and the usual species in this area are making their appearances - including large hump-head black sea bass and goliath summer flounder. This is the third day we have fished in this general area. We plan to move east tonight to find better numbers of the shallow-water flatfish that the study is targeting.

Day 4, September 26, 2019

Today we moved east, and began fishing approximately 10 nautical miles south of Martha’s Vineyard to target more sand dab flounder.  Catches have been heavy with butterfish, scup, small long-finned squid, and our target species, sand dab flounder and winter flounder.  The weather is gorgeous with sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures. The sea has been calm all day with a minor pick-up in the wave height this evening that is not expected to be unmanageable for the workload. 

Day 5- September 27, 2019

At this point in the trip you've got a routine going. The species composition has been pretty consistent and you generally know what to expect from a shift. Some novelty can be interesting...or it can be challenging. On the midnight shift we were inundated with tiny butterfish. These shiny, round fish look like they are made of aluminum and have been part of our catch the whole time, but today we got into large numbers of much smaller fish. During catch processing, we run the fish over a conveyor belt and then sort the fish by species into buckets or baskets. Today we had far too many silver-dollar-sized fish to pick out individually from the conveyor, so we had to alter our strategy.

shiny young Atlantic moonfish on a man's fingertips

Shiny young Atlantic moonfish. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Instead of picking individual butterfish off the conveyer, we picked everything else and let those butterfish fill basket after basket at the end of the conveyor belt. It made for a bit of a confusing start, but once we figured out that the old plan wouldn't work and changed strategy, we got back to a quicker pace. Sunrises continue to be a great mid-shift motivator and we've had great clear weather the last couple of mornings. Speaking of taking a moment to look around, for the last four days we have been visited by a group of boisterous common dolphins checking us out on their morning commute. 

Day 6th, September 28, 2019

We continue to fish today south of Martha’s Vineyard, and although we all forgot to bring our Vineyard Vines clothing, our oil gear is certainly making a fashion statement. The weather has been very cyclical over the past few days, and while the temperature is very warm, the sea state tends to flare up from time to time. The species diversity has stayed mostly the same around here, but today was dominated by large amounts of mixed butterfish and scup during the day, and 8 to 10 baskets of skate per net after sundown. Although the trip comes to an end tomorrow, it has been a fantastic experience working with the crew of the F/V Karen Elizabeth, as they have kept us consistently on the fish and worked diligently to help us achieve the goals of this study. 


Morning breaks on the horizon for F/V Karen Elizabeth captain and crew during the  2019 wingspread survey. Photo: NOAA Fisheries



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Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on March 31, 2023