2016-06-23 / Front Page

Bigelow Gives an Assist to Fisheries Research

By James Merolla


The NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow now docked in Newport is conducting numerous marine fishery studies to enhance and protect species in Narragansett Bay. There are hundreds of computers in the acoustics lab aboard NOAA. (Photos by David Hall) The NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow now docked in Newport is conducting numerous marine fishery studies to enhance and protect species in Narragansett Bay. There are hundreds of computers in the acoustics lab aboard NOAA. (Photos by David Hall) It is 209 feet long, cost $54 million, can trawl nets at depths of 1,000 fathoms, can study our marine ecosystem from the largest pod of sperm whales to microscopic plankton, and works to protect, manage, and preserve our natural resources.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) fisheries research vessel Henry B. Bigelow is now permanently home-ported at the U.S. Navy Base in Newport, with a diverse crew of 22 who are trained in every aspect of its mission – from design to computers, navigation, depth plumbing, lab maintenance, Hazmat gear, firefighting, first aid, mechanics, intricate repairs, and even minor surgery and cooking.

They need to be. There are more movable parts on the Bigelow than in the national touring companies of the musical “Hamilton.”

The Bigelow’s primary objective is to monitor marine fisheries throughout New England. The state-of-the-art ship has high-tech sonar and the capability to drop its nets via 500 meters of wires to trawl at depths of 1,500 feet. It also observes weather, sea state, and other environmental conditions; conducts habitat assessments; and surveys marine mammal and bird populations.

The crew may engage 100 instruments at once, ensuring that the scientists who come aboard the Bigelow will get accurate and untainted results.

This year, the unique ship first docked in Newport in April, was deployed for several weeks on sea missions, returned recently for restoration and tune ups, only to head out again this week to collect new samples.


A crew maintenance man polishes a brand new Double Horizontal Anchor Windlass, designed by Schoellhorn-Albrecht specifically for the NOAA fisheries research vessel. (Photo by James Merolla) A crew maintenance man polishes a brand new Double Horizontal Anchor Windlass, designed by Schoellhorn-Albrecht specifically for the NOAA fisheries research vessel. (Photo by James Merolla) The vessel is a humming testament to Henry Bigelow, the Woods Hole and Gulf of Maine scientist whose concern for marine issues and the environment shaped a generation of scientists to follow. The Bigelow provides critical data used in stock assessment and to inform fisheries’ management decisions.

“There are five ships in the Oscar Dyson class (of design) and most are named after prominent scientists,” said Lt. Commander Patrick Murphy, executive officer aboard the Bigelow under the command of Lt. Commander Jeffrey Taylor, who came aboard this month.

A tour of the Bigelow is even more impressive than seeing her in port. Murphy explained that the vessel usually goes out to a maximum of some 200 nautical miles offshore for up to 18 days at a time.

The crew of 20 to 22 supports the efforts of the scientific teams that come to study. Murphy’s encyclopedic knowledge of his vessel is extraordinary. He begins his tour under giant spools that can reel 150 feet of net and ground tackle in and out of the vessel, steered further by a crane and a swivel.

The nets place captured fish and other species onto a sparkling conveyer belt and into the wet lab, where scientists examine and/or dissect the haul in 100 different ways. “We put them in a ‘checker,’ then the scientists take over from there, sorting the fish. We then turn most of it and its energy back to the sea,” said Murphy.

The engines that control the ship and all of its gear appear as an endless series of power stations. “Just think of this ship as a floating power plant with four large diesel engines,” said Murphy.

His crew is ready for every possible contingency at sea. “All NOAA Corps officers have a background in science,” he added. “The option is to either take scientists and teach them how to drive ships, or to take ship drivers and teach them science.”

On June 27, they embark again for a two-week mission to study marine mammals. Cdr. Murphy pointed to the conveyor belt that sorts species and another device that can test samples for reproduction, size, age, and key health factors. “It’s a sample factory,” he said.

He showed another machine that measures “CTD” – conductivity, temperature and depth – of the tested water, including saline content and the density at various depths.

“We are continually sampling and measuring plankton. We can study 120 to 125 separate pieces of data at any one time, every few seconds,” said Murphy. He directed attention to a minus 80-degree Celsius freezer where the DNA of various species is studied.

He led a tour through the engine room, where sound is curtailed to a much quieter hum. “We are efficiently quiet,” said Murphy. “Our predecessors were so loud. We keep vibrations to a minimum, so we can sneak up on some sea mammals.

He pointed to the rudder, manufactured by Rolls Royce.

Permanently berthing the vessel in Newport offers NOAA the opportunity to cooperate with federal partners in the Northeast, including the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard.

Newport is currently home to three Coast Guard buoy tenders, CGC Juniper, CGC Willow, and CGC Ida Lewis, as well as the patrol boat CGC Tiger Shark. It regularly hosts visiting vessels and supports the work of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC).

The Bigelow itself was born during a vicious storm; its very construction in 2005-2007 was delayed for many months by Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, NOAA deployed the Bigelow to the Gulf of Mexico to help determine if oil continued to leak from the plugged well 5,000 feet below the surface and to monitor the undersea environment.

For his part, Murphy never knows what a trip may discover – pods of whales, sea turtles, or sudden storms.

“We have a full hospital,” said Murphy. “Many crew are EMT trained. We can do everything from stitches to removing barbs from stingrays.”

A couple of years ago in San Diego, Murphy was aboard a different ship when a pod of 50 to 75 sperm whales swam by. “I had never seen a whale. Now, if someone spots a pod, I ask, ‘Is it 70?’ I don’t get out of the chair for less than 30,” he smiled.

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