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Counting Fish | Estimating the Gulf of Maine's Fish Population

Counting Fish | Estimating the Gulf of Maine’s Fish Population
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Each spring, the research ship Henry B. Bigelow drags a net along the seafloor in the Gulf of Maine, cataloguing the fish it catches. What it finds will change the life of every fisherman in New England and impact every consumer who loves seafood.

[ May 1, 2013 ]

My shift ends at midnight. I deliver Ziploc bags of herring heads to the walk-in freezer, power-wash the fish gunk off my foul-weather gear, and turn my work­station over to the night watch, who will work until noon.

I’ve been on duty aboard the Henry B. Bigelow, the fisheries research flagship of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for a dozen hours, sorting winter flounder from witch flounder, cataloguing the stomach contents of cod and cunner, punching the results into a touchscreen monitor smeared with scales and slime. I should really head straight to my metal bunk to recover, but my mind is still reeling with the effort of learning new things, so instead I climb four flights of stairs to the fly deck for some fresh air.

A briny wind whips across the deck, and I lie flat on my back to escape it, staring at the night sky. Straight overhead, the Big Dipper frames the Bigelow’s radar dome. I watch the familiar constellation race forward across the sky, skid to a halt, then shoot backward to where it started. I watch it do this several times, puzzling over the state of the universe, before the obvious sinks in: It isn’t moving; we are.

At 208 feet long, with a labyrinth of passageways I’m still learning to navigate, the Bigelow can feel quite huge, but all it takes is the sight of the heavens wheeling above you and the slap of the black waters against the hull to make the ship suddenly feel like a rubber ducky on a big ocean, and to bring home the challenge of our mission. We’re attempting a task that sounds like the kind of thing that might have been charged to a Greek hero who was expected to fail: We’re trying to count the fish in the sea.

[ May 2 ]

On the fly deck, I shotgun coffee in the bright morning sunshine. A wall of white fog cloaks the coast. It looks just like a glacier, and it makes me think of the rivers of ice that created this landscape 10,000 years ago, scraping the land like a bulldozer and plowing mountains of sand and rubble off the edge of the continent, to become Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island.

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