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Dispatches from the field

Studying bottom-dwelling fishes and crabs of the Eastern Bering Sea Shelf


The front and back of Pyrulofusis deformis, a whelk that is the only snail in our research area that twists to the left, rather than the right
The front and back of Pyrulofusis deformis, a whelk that is the only snail in our research area that twists to the left, rather than the right.   Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Eastern Bering Sea
king crab
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Sweating the Small Stuff

For the eastern Bering Sea shelf bottom trawl survey, our goal is to learn as much as we can about the distribution and abundance of commercially valuable fish and crab species. Collected information is used to monitor the health of their populations and provide managers with needed information to ensure the sustainable use of these important marine resources. But we don’t just collect information on commercial species. We identify and collect data on everything we encounter. Monitoring the distribution and abundance of all collected species is invaluable for providing us with information about the general health of the marine community as a whole. It also gives us insights into interactions between the environment and the marine food web.

As we begin the northern Bering Sea survey, our primary focus is on understanding how the different bottom dwellers are responding to a changing marine environment. We also use this opportunity to collect important biological and genetic information on species for which we have little information because we have only been able to survey this area once in the past. If we are able to conduct this survey every other year, we can start to see patterns and trends in how individual species and the ecosystem as a whole may be responding to changes over time. .

Two types of lyre crab, Hyas lyratus (left) and Hyas coarctatus (right).
Two types of lyre crab, Hyas lyratus (left) and Hyas coarctatus (right).   Photo: NOAA Fisheries


Four species of hermit crab, from left to right: Pagurus trigonocheirus, Pagurus aleuticas, Pagurus confragosus, and Pagurus rathbuni.
Four species of hermit crab, from left to right: Pagurus trigonocheirus, Pagurus aleuticas, Pagurus confragosus, and Pagurus rathbuni.   Photo: NOAA Fisheries


What do we typically see?

Some interesting non-commercial crabs that we track during our survey are lyre crabs and hermit crabs. The two species of lyre crab we encounter, Hyas lyratus and Hyas coarctatus, look very similar and are sometimes found together, but they generally prefer different types of habitat.

Hyas coarctatus, the one on the right, generally likes cooler temperatures and shallower bottom depths, and it is very common in the most northern areas of the Bering Sea shelf.

There are 15 different species of hermit crab that we may see during the survey. Typically, we can come across several kinds in a single tow. Hermit crabs vary in many ways, including their color patterns, the shape and size of their claw, as well as their shyness. Some have a tendency to hide in their shell when perturbed, while others can get feisty, like the one on the far right!

Like lyre crabs, each species of hermit crab has a unique habitat where it lives, eats and raises its offspring. We collect information on their habitats, so we can also monitor how they may change over time.


Feathered friends

We had an unexpected visitor the other day. A black-legged kittiwake (who we named "Amelia") hitched a ride with us by landing in the deck bin. It isn't unusual for the boat to be followed by flocks of hungry seabirds looking for an opportunistic snack, so we are constantly shadowed by seagulls, fulmars, kittiwakes, albatrosses, and petrels.

The issue for our friend is that as the boat travels, the air cavitates around the railings and makes it difficult for a grounded bird to take off again. Fortunately, we have an expert bird handler on board in Crystal Peterson from the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

Crystal carefully approached the nervous Amelia and gently picked her up, walked her to the railing and provided her with enough lift to return to the skies.

It's hard to tell one kittiwake from another in the throng of birds around us, but we like to think one of them winks at us every now and then. Fair winds, Amelia!


gCrystal Peterson (IPHC) helps the black-legged kittiwake on its way.
Crystal Peterson (IPHC) helps a black-legged kittiwake on its way.   Photo: NOAA Fisheries

current EBS sampling grid
The map shows the sampling grid for the 2017 eastern and northern Bering Sea shelf bottom trawl survey (June 1 and August 30, 2017). The eastern Bering Sea shelf was completed on July 31, 2017. During survey operations in the northern Bering Sea, the map will be updated daily to show the stations that will be sampled on the current day by the FV Vesteraalen (star with V) and the FV Alaska Knight (star with A) Bottom temperature (C) in each 20x20 nautical mile grid cell will be colored in as the survey progresses. Image: NOAA Fisheries


Post by: Jason Conner

Meet the Bloggers

Bob Lauth
Bob Lauth

Bob Lauth has been a Fisheries Research Biologist for the NOAA AlaskaFisheries Science Center in Seattle for 26 years. Bob leads the Bering Sea Group, which is responsible for conducting summertime surveys of bottom fishes, crabs, and other bottom-dwelling creatures in the offshore marine waters of Alaska. Fascinated by Jacques Cousteau as a kid, Bob moved from Chicago to the 'ever-green' Seattle in 1980 to become a marine biologist without the slightest idea how to earn a living. After working three years in a dive store, teaching scuba diving, and doing marine field trips with school kids in the Puget Sound, Bob learned about the 'fishy side’ to marine biology. He enrolled at the University of Washington School of Fisheries, earned a Master’s degree, and then worked for the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission at a remote marine lab in Central America before returning to the northwest with his wife to raise a family and pursue his career in fisheries.

Jason Conner Jason Conner

Jason Conner is a fishery biologist who researches the groundfish populations of the Bering Sea. He began his career with NOAA Fisheries in Woods Hole, MA, at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, helping to record data on whale and seal populations in the Atlantic. He also spent two years in Gloucester, MA, working on fisheries data reporting systems for the Northeast Regional Office. Jason grew up in Denver, CO, but he has had a passion for the ocean since he was two years old. In his free time, Jason enjoys acting in community theater, playing ice hockey, and diving (with and without SCUBA).

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