Jul 20, 2009

Dropping the F bomb

It’s funny to think of my grandfather sitting in a boat in the middle of an empty Ohio lake. No bait, no tackle…not even a fishing pole. Just a net, a lit cigarette, and some TNT he borrowed from the family coal mine. I imagine him taking a puff off of an unfiltered Lucky Strike and lighting the stick. I would bet that no matter how familiar you are with dynamite, even if you’ve used it a thousand times, you would still get a rush watching the sparks fly off of that fuse. I see him lobbing that bomb in the air and hearing a distinct but satisfying,


I bet his chest felt like it was going to burst as he witnessed the water spout. And I can only imagine the look of all the creatures that made their way up to the surface, ready for the picking. I have a feeling that dinner was easy to catch that day. I’ve also heard a tale or two about some other activities with the boom sticks that didn’t turn out so well for him during his adolescent years.

What can I say, my grandfather was a pyro.

Believe it or not, but people around the world still fish with the stuff. Some artisanal blast fishing still exists in parts of Southeast Asia, the Aegean Sea, and Africa. It’s extremely destructive to marine habitats, especially coral reefs. Fishermen typically use homemade bombs made of potassium nitrate or ammonium nitrate/kerosene mixture poured into glass soda bottles. Mmm…just like momma used to make. They then throw the bombs directly over shallow coral reefs to kill fish, only to leave a car-sized hole in the reef as an unfortunate side effect. While the local communities often support law enforcement of this damaging fishing practice, it’s almost non-existent in these remote areas.

In the Gulf of Mexico, something similar is happening. Instead of a fisherman with a homemade molotov, it’s an engineer using explosive charges with the intent to decommission an artificial habitat. A massive fish kill is the consequence.

Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and gas platforms

A whole bloody mess of them

There are two ways in the Gulf of Mexico to decommission a platform, non-explosive severance and explosive severance. Non-explosive methods involve cutting (sand jet, rotary, diamond, arc torches, etc.) facilitated by commercial divers. This method can be potentially dangerous for the divers, and has very little impact to the marine environment. The explosive method uses charges to achieve severance. The explosive method is much safer for offshore workers; however, the pressure waves and acoustic energy that is produced is extremely damaging to the local marine life that are attracted to the structure.

Tens of thousands of fish surround these structures at any given time. The detonation produces intense concussive effects on fish and marine mammals, imploding gas filled organs and causing massive internal damage to the body. The animals close to the blast tear into pieces; while the fish further away turn into jelly, even further away the fish suffer concussion, and then just a really bad headache at about half a mile or more from the blast.

Here’s a photo taken by a fisherman after the decommissioning of an oil rig off of Dauphin Island, Alabama last month. Article here.

Most of the fish you see floating on top are red snapper, but the vast majority of the bodies are lying on the bottom. Divers reported a mass of red snapper, amberjack, spadefish, and cigar minnows on the seafloor. This was only a 5 pound explosive charge, which is considered a small blasting scenario. A standard blast uses 20-80 lbs. And a specialty blasting can use up to 500 lbs of charges. Take the kids, you could go fishing with a baseball glove.

According to a report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Gulf of Mexico contains nearly 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms. Many have already been decommissioned and most of the remaining platforms need to be removed by year 2020. On average, there are about 80-100 decommissionings in the Gulf of Mexico per year using explosive methods. If one blast can kill 500 red snapper, that’s 50,000 of them killed every year from oil and gas platform removal alone. That’s 25,000 recreational limits of red snapper…and snapper don’t top the species list for the highest kill count. Atlantic spadefish and blue runner take the most beating. Other snappers, grouper, red fish, triggerfish, and numerous other species in low abundance are also rubbed out. It’s just a little too much to ignore, in my opinion.

Vernon Minton, the director of the state of Alabama’s Marine Resources Division, after seeing the floating snapper photo stated that he would bring this issue up at the next Gulf Council Meeting. Looking forward to it, Vernon.

As for my grandfather fishing with dynamite. I'm not sure if it was a one time thing or what. Maybe my dad can elaborate. But, I'm pretty sure he was using the tools at hand to feed the family. He taught my father to fish, and a little later he taught me a few things.

About fishing...not explosives.

Jul 9, 2009

Electronics versus saltwater

Currently the lab is working on several projects, most of which require ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) video sampling of artificial reef fish communities. So, we've received quite a bit of funding to do this work and we're in need of a new ROV. We're conducting video transects of different reef types: natural reefs, artificial reef modules, and wrecks. To perform the transects, we need to know the ROV's position on the sea bottom. Recently, Videoray has put out its newest model, the Pro-4, which can be outfitted with the tools we need.

This machine makes our other two look like toy boats. It has better navigation, more power, and a ballast system. We're also going to equip it with a smart tether positioning system which will allow us to track the ROV's movements with real time GPS. The movement data can also be uploaded into Google Earth, which is nice.

Looks like I have another user manual to read and memorize. Because I'm the guy that should have all the answers when this thing gives us trouble. Yes I said "when" and not "if". ROVs break. Tethers break. Video recorders break. Generators break. You name it...I've broken it. The amount of money it has taken to replace all the stuff I've broken could pay for the entire college education of my wife and I. This is why nobody lets me borrow anything.

The ROV is a fantastic tool for conducting fisheries research. Videoray does great work and we've been happy with their machines and service. But the nature of it all....electronics dipped in salt water? There are a million components to a working system, and if one goes wrong, then research can't be conducted. No video...no data. For this reason we have backups, and we have backups for backups. We're pretty rough on the machines doing offshore work, so every time we go out we carry hundreds of pounds of equipment onboard. Just in case the inevitable happens.


complete and utter breakage

So when the new machine arrives, it's time for me to hit the campus pool. Its where we go to practice with the ROV, perform experiments, and sometimes just to chase the old people around during lap swim. I have to learn how to use this thing before we go offshore in a few weeks to work alongside David Doubilet and National Geographic. He contacted us last year to see if we would be interested in working with him on an article for the magazine. He wants to take some underwater shots of our ROV on some artificial reefs off of Florida. In other words, he wants to film us filming fish. He'll be here in August, and if things go as planned, the article should be in the magazine by Fall 2010.

You should check out his work. Impressive is an understatement. I'm pretty stoked about the whole thing, so I'll definitely let you guys know how it goes. Five bucks says I'll probably end up crippling David's equipment somehow. Why? Because it's probably more expensive than ours.

Jul 5, 2009

A new record for me to beat.

I don't know if you guys ever watch the annual Nathan's hot dog eating contest on the 4th, but I do. I never miss it. As I watched this years contest, I felt a myriad of emotions...excitement, disgust, sheer amazement, and more disgust. How is it physically possible to eat 68 hot dogs? Ask Joey Chestnut. It's his third contest win in a row, and he broke the world record again this year. He again ripped the title away from the Japanese, with Takeru Kobayashi coming in second with 64 dogs.

You should try to find Chestnut's interview after he won. He's about to spew the entire time. The interviewer keeps asking him questions, and Chestnut looks like he's trying to focus on not unleashing a tide of chewed up hot dogs on the dude. It was entertaining and completely nauseating.

But, the Japanese got back another world record the day before the hot dog eating contest. The world record Largemouth Bass. The bass was caught on Lake Biwa in the Shiga Prefecture. It was caught by Manabu Kurita, a pro staffer at a local tackle shop. The beast weighed 22 lbs and 5 oz. beating the previous record by an ounce. The previous record stood for 77 years. The 1932 record was held by George Perry who caught a 22 lb 4 oz bass on Montgomery Lake in Georgia.

I've seen the world record replica of Perry's bass. Its mouth looked like the opening of a 5-gallon bucket. As a bass fisherman myself, I was pretty amazed.

Here's the catch. Even though the Japanese bass is technically heavier than the American bass, the International Game Fish Association rules state that a replacement record must weigh 2 ounces more than the previous record. So on paper, it's considered a tie.

Lake Biwa is one of the most ancient lakes in the world. Its more than 300 feet deep, and its considered to be 4 to 5 million years old. Interestingly, large mouth bass are an invasive species in the lake, and Japanese officials have been trying to rid the lake of bass and other invasives. Looks like there's one less lunker in there.

They asked Manabu what lure he used to catch the giant fish. He wouldn't give any details. I bet it was hotdogs.

Jul 2, 2009

they'll eat anything.

Might as well keep rolling on the food subject. I'm a bit of a foodie myself. I'm always interested in world food culture, especially Asia's. I love Asian food...Japanese, Korean, Indian, Thai, etc. But, I think everyone would agree that Asians eat some questionable stuff. Over there, anything that comes out of the water is fair game. And they don't waste anything. Nothing. Eye balls, guts, skin, bones...yeah. They know how to cook it, and it's mind-blowingly spectacular.

This also leads us to the bigger picture of American food culture. We're spoiled and grossly ignorant when it comes to our food. You give a fish to an American, he fillets it, skin off and throws the rest in the garbage can. Then he looks at you funny because all you gave him was ONE fish. You give a fish to anyone else in the world, they would cook it whole... and enjoy every bit of it. The American would look at this, cringe, express extreme distaste under his breath, and grill up his meager meal feeling culinarily superior and a little hungry after eating it. Some of the best parts of our seafood (or any food for that matter) are the parts that we dismiss. And parts that, even in my opinion, are meant to be dismissed are also gladly eaten elsewhere in the world. What I'm trying to get at is that we as Americans don't appreciate our food. All we know is that we want it, we want as much as we can carry, and we want some more of it for later, too.

I've worked the charter boat docks for a couple of years now. I've watched group after group of paying fisherman go offshore to catch 100s of pounds of whatever they can hook. It's like an indian tribe shooting down as many buffalo as they can so they can survive the winter. They bring back enough fish to feed a very large village, and it all goes into their second freezers at home. They might get around to eating it, or it might hang out in there for 6 months to a year, get freezer burnt, and then get tossed out because it's time to go out and load the freezer again. What ever happened to going fishing with your buddies, drinking beer, and just catching dinner? I feel like now it is less about the fun of a day of fishing, and more about the harvest. Fishing like its going out of style, or more likely, fishing like its a race.

My favorite part about doing research on charter boats is that when we are on our way back to the dock, we'll make a "grocery" stop. We'll hit a few spots to catch some dinner. After we catch a few and everyone can take a fish or two home, the captain encourages us to keep fishing to catch our limit anyway. And not only catch our limit, but to try to catch the biggest fish we can. It's not because we want to bring more fish home, its because he doesn't want to show up at the dock with a slightly vacant cooler. It's ego. It's pride. We need to catch our limit. We HAVE to catch our limit. I can see why they act like this. It's good for business. You show up to the dock everyday with your limit and line the planks with big fish, you make yourself a name as a good captain. It brings customers back to line that cooler again. It shouldn't be like that.

And its not just charter boats, recreational fisherman can be the same way. Everyone catches as many fish as possible right up to the point where it's illegal, and sometimes that doesn't stop them. You're not starving, guys. In fact, a lot of us spend more money catching the fish than it costs to buy the very same fish at the market. I think they want to justify the gas, the ice, the bait, and the tackle expense. On most days, you'll never catch up. It shouldn't be about the return, it should be about the day.

Again, it comes back to pride. "Dammit, I spent all of this money getting ready for this fishing trip, and I'm sure as hell going to bring back everything I catch whether its legal or not." Or a lot of times, it's fed by a personal vendetta against management. People will break the law every time they hit the water to spite "the man." The animosity that gets thrown my way about fisheries management in the Gulf of Mexico... it would take me days to write about that.

A little change in our food culture and our attitudes about fishing couldn't hurt. So get on it. By the way, the throat of the fish is the best part.