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CEFAS Mackerel Egg Survey 4-24 June

MARINElife surveyor Nuala Campbell joined the CEFAS scientists on the CEFAS Endeavour for a survey of the North Sea to carry out a health check of the Mackerel population. All photos (except fish eggs and larvae) Nuala Campbell.


13:00 BST

The Port Pilot guided our exit from harbour at Lowestoft, through the narrow way to the raised bridge. Crew calling the distance from Port and Starboard, 2m, 3m, clear, all clear, reminding me of seafarers of old singing out the depths. Friends and locals waiting quayside waved farewell and we are on our way.

Bunting up ready for departure

Out past the harbouring seawall and past the first breakwater, Captain Paul Kersey threaded our way through the sand banks off the Wash and into the southern North Sea.

The first leg of our journey tested the Tin Tow (Golf 7) high-speed plankton sampler, a multi-tasking towed carrier which is towed behind the vessel. Besides collecting plankton it also monitors depth, salinity and sea temperature. On return the samples are analysed by the CEFAS scientists to build a picture of the marine environment and its fish population.

MARINElife observers aboard ships are there to survey and log cetaceans and seabirds which act both as environmental indicators of the state of the seas surrounding us, but also often as pointers to the presence of prey.


Our ETA at the first sampling Prime Station is 21:00, so there won’t be much light for observing and recording for me this evening, but still there should be Gannet and gull species.

Map of the North Sea with all the prime stations, transects run east /west along the lines of stations

05/06/2022 06:00 BST wind: 060° 25.5 knots/Beaufort force 6

An early morning sight look-out and the sea is a blue-slate colour, white-capped and a rolling swell.


Single and small groups of Kittiwake, with a few immatures struggling against the wind, cross the bow and Lesser Black-backed Gulls in large numbers later. We pass oil rigs and cruise ships as we make our way along Transect 1.


The blue skies are coming with light rain and mist by 08:00 and Prime Station 5, where the Tin Tow is deployed for another set of samples. By 09:40 the rain is so heavy observations have to be suspended but as the ship surges ahead at 9.9 knots we soon move off into a lighter misty rain.


By 14.15 the crew and scientists are watching the echo sounder for fish and soon a hopeful cast of sea anglers assemble on the aft deck. The aim is to sustainably catch small samples of Mackerel to check for fertility.

Line fishing for a small sample of adult Mackerel

· Kittiwake

· Gannet

· Lesser Black-backed Gull


06/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 230° 27 knots/Beaufort force 7

Steaming to Transect 3 via Prime station 42 on Transect 2. Again, a smidgeon of blue sky before the start of observations but as we move into the German Bight, we have grey skies. This area looks like a massive parking lot, the ships awaiting orders and the mist and fog rolls in limiting sightings.


Still there are Kittiwake, Gannet and Lesser Black-backed Gull. The joy comes with watching Common Terns diving into the water after small fish.


We finally pass Helgoland, shrouded by mist and change course to head west on Transect 3. There are distant wind farms, which when established, are said to be fish nurseries and Harbour Porpoise feeding grounds.


As we move along Razorbill and Guillemot appear, along with rainbows in the sea spray.

As the weather worsens the seabirds disappear but the sampling reveals healthy Mackerel, Horse Mackerel and Pollock eggs and larvae in various life stages. Blue jellyfish are also caught in the small net at the rear of the Tin Tow.


Fish eggs (Photo: CEFAS)
Fish larvae (Photo: CEFAS)

· Kittiwake

· Gannet

· Lesser Black-backed

· Razorbill

· Guillemot

· Common Tern


07/06/2022 06:00 BST wind: 322° 27 knots/Beaufort force 6

Fog again at the start of observations. It was a stormy night, all equipment and belongings secured, As the morning progressed the sun finally broke through and the seas calmed.

By 08:00 visibility was completely restored and two immature (I4) Gannets joined the ship to fly with us onto Prime Station 35.


This morning for the first time Fulmar joined the Lesser Black-backed Gulls and an unidentified passerine winged round the bow and turned eastward along with a another immature Gannet (I5) trailing a line and float wrapped around its leg, it is likely starvation awaits it, as deep diving will become impossible.


09/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 240° 15 knots/Beaufort force 4

The fog bank is too dense to see beyond 50m. If it lifts I may change my Bird Box observation to port side, the visibility seems to be clearer there. We are steaming eastward now, away from Scotland towards Denmark. Yesterday the late watch scientists spotted a dead whale aft, possibly a Pilot Whale, with birds feeding on the corpse. However, I was off duty from observation at the time so couldn’t confirm.


07:15 and there were morning reports of a small yellow-brown passerine hitch-hiker, I finally logged it and got a photo, a Siskin, far from home.

08:00 at Prime Station 67, fog wrapped around us again after a brief hiatus, again observations were seriously reduced.

09:00 and though we have calm seas, the fog is still dense, and we steam along Transect 5 towards Prime Station 68.

09:46 Line fishing for small samples of Mackerel commenced, the fish don’t care about the fog…

11:30 the fog horn test, a classic sound bringing forth memories of old B&W movies.

13:55 a warbler joined the Siskin, and busily hunted for flies around the aft deck.


After I was off watch, at about 22:00, one of the scientists alerted the SIC to the sight of a whale surfacing several time aft of the Tin Tow G7. From his photo of the dorsal fin, it was judged to be a Minke.

Heading into the fog

• Gannet

• Kittiwake

• Fulmar

• Guillemot

• Siskin

• Warbler sp.

• Auk sp.


10/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 187° 15 knots/Beaufort force 4

A beautiful clear morning with no sign of fog or rain. In the distance a huge cable-laying ship, shadowed by a smaller guard ship.


We move towards Prime Station 79, and eastwards to the Danish coast, no pastries for us though. We will turn after sampling at Prime Station 80 and steam up towards Norway and 58°N.


By 07:20 the sun is cloaked in cloud. One of the scientists excused the low line-catch by suggesting that the school of fish assumed we were a large whale hovering above…hmmm.

Starboard a wind farm off the Danish coast loom up sentinel-like out of the fog.


A small gap in the overcast sky and sun flares off the port side, still we are moving ahead into another fog bank as we pass Nissum Fjord and on towards Limfjorden, only names on the charts as no sighting of the fjords are to be seen – all is lost in the fog.


By the end of the observation watch, blue skies return, glaring off the port side again, but a clear view forward. We are still steaming towards Transect 7 and Prime Station 121, at 58°N 8°E.

Gannet leading the way

• Lesser Black-backed Gull

• Kittiwake

• Gannet

• Fulmar

• Common Scoter

• Shearwater sp.

• Great Black-backed Gull

• Herring Gull

• Guillemot


11/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 165° 9 knots/Beaufort force 3

A slow start after a recheck of sampling equipment. We go on our way then to Transect 7 and Prime Station 121. The weather changes again, rain, choppy seas and reduced visibility for observations, the ship has no trouble, relying on instrumentation. We move off from the north Danish coast, and Common Scoter – sea duck – fly through the observation area of the Bird Box at 8:43hrs as we head out to cross into Norwegian waters.


Another weather change by 09:00, sunshine and 17.5 knot winds, Fulmars circle the ship in hope of fish, and it is a Tin Tow G7 deployment, so they will be disappointed.

Navigation officer Ben plots ahead, he is covering the remainder of Transect 7 already.

By 12:45 a 5 aside team of Fulmar follow the ship with a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gull joining the game.


Captain Paul has taught me another meme – Byes Ballot law this time:

“Stand back to Wind – Depression on Left”

This works for the Northern Hemisphere, reverses in the Southern. But it gives a rough guide to weather states, a lot more useful than “Red sky in the morning – Sailors Warning”… which I have found to be untrue.

Navigation desk on the CEFAS Endeavour

• Lesser Black-backed Gull

• Kittiwake

• Gannet

• Fulmar

• Common Scoter

• Hirundine sp.


12/06/22 06:00 BST wind 254° 15 knots/Beaufort force 4

Only Fulmar to be sighted over a grey and choppy sea. Later the Gannet join them as we pass through the Forties oil field and out of Norwegian waters and head westwards towards Scotland.


12:30 and more blue skies to be seen the sea calms but still very few sightings of birds and none of cetaceans. However, we are heading towards Prime Station 108 and over deeper waters, though still in the vast Forties field, oil rigs and platforms abound, looking like stilted Steam-Punk sea castles.


A lone shearwater, a Manx, appears at 15:20 and a Guillemot and Razorbill between 17:27 and 17:42, all these in the observation area of the Bird Box.

Gannet diving behind the Endeavour

• Fulmar

• Gannet

• Guillemot

• Razorbill

• Manx Shearwater


13/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 255° 9.5 knots/Beaufort force 3

I spied a beautiful moon through my cabin scuttle in the very early hours, a portent I hope of a good sighting watch.


We are heading up past the Orkney Isles this morning and by 06:20 I am logging formations of 42 Guillemot flying through the observation area of the Bird box and past the ship.


Thick fog creeps in by 07:00 but still many auk species, mostly Guillemot but also Razorbill and at 06:40 a Great Skua.


A Black Guillemot crosses the Bird Box at 10:10, still Gannet and Fulmar, a single Manx Shearwater and finally Puffin along with high flying gull species.


Fog, rain and intervals of sun through hazy clouds rapidly follow through the whole day and the Orkney Isles are vague outlines in the distance off port side.


The Tin Tow G7 is deployed at 17:43 and two Cormorant/Shags appear. They join the hopeful Fulmar and Gannet followers aft, they, being intelligent birds and quick learners, soon realise that the set-up would deliver no supper tonight and head off to the coast again.

Fulmar

· Fulmar

· Guillemot

· Razorbill

· Black Guillemot

· Manx Shearwater

· Puffin

· Gannet

· Great Skua

· Lesser Black-backed Gull


14/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 342° 11 knots/Beaufort force 3

Calm seas, good visuals and still grey skies this morning. We are surrounded by the Ringhold Oil field, with attendant service ships, this is shipping area Viking. The Endeavour is moving east along Transect 9 towards Norway.


08:15 sailing towards the rising sun in calm seas, but only Fulmar escort us.

9:30 to starboard a Great Skua is seen resting on the water and this is also a quiet area for seabirds, (and yes NO cetaceans to be seen… scientists and off watch crew keep asking!)


Logged on transect are the usual Gannet, Fulmar, Lesser and Great Black-Back Gulls.

On days like this, it is the galley crew who are the morale uplifters. They continue to serve with panache and good humour whatever the weather or rolling of the waves. Give Thanks for them!

Galley crew

· Great Skua

· Gannet

· Fulmar

· Lesser Black-backed Gull

· Great Black-back Gull


15/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 181° 7 knots/Beaufort force 3

Thin, high clouds, with a weak sun filtering through. A flattish grey sea and we are moving along Transect 10 towards Prime Station 161.


We are steaming the route away from Norway and towards the Shetland Isles, again 30-40 hopeful Fulmars surround the ship as we slow for Tin Tow G7 sampling. They soar low over the aft, and then settle on the water.


By 07:40 Gannets, both adult and Immature (I4) join the crowd hoping for a trawl, along with the Fulmar, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.


At 08:30 I sight a juvenile Great Skua settled and resting on the water, considerably more red-brown than the adult, and sitting high on the sea.


One of the crew, a Scot, told me that Fulmar are called Skurries in Scotland, I can see that as they wing-up to a final glide over the waves.


At Prime Station 159, a single Fulmar circles the ship, no longer are we considered a food source in this area. After this sampling among the Frigg Gas Field, we cross the territorial line between Norwegian and the Scottish waters off Shetland.


At 17:45 the entertainment is provided by an adult Great Skua chasing 5 adult Gannets to pirate their catch.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

· Fulmar

· Auk sp.

· Gannet

· Great Skua

· Gull sp.

· Great Black-backed Gull

· Lesser Black-backed Gull

· Kittiwake


16/06/2022 06:00 BST wind: 271° 8 knots/Beaufort force 3

A low sun and a calm sea for transect 8 and Gannet and Fulmar again to be seen.


By 08:00 6 Fulmars wait patiently, resting on the water, as the sampling equipment is retested. Shame that there will still be no breakfast for them…


At 09:20 we are steaming into the sunshine dead ahead, and auk species appear, resting on the waters around us. Mostly Guillemot with Razorbill among the count, and fast-flying auks in formation cross the bird box against the sun-glare.


At 13:30 Captain Paul conducts a “Person overboard” exercise; an impressive complete work-boat deployment and retrieval in 12 minutes flat. I got to play a part as a “pointer” indicating the direction of the floating dummy posing as the body.


At 14:26 more excitement occurred, a ringed racing Pigeon was spotted aboard. This hard-nosed group of scientists and seafarers adopted the bird, named it Gavin, and fed it fresh water and seeds (begged from the galley). The ring (X3753) indicated, on further enquiry by our resident Dr Dolittle (scientist Sam), that it was supposed to be flying from mainland Scotland to Northampton, and the owner considered it a failure as a racer. The dear Dr will take it to a local Pigeon rescue centre.

Feeding the racing pigeon

· Lesser Black-backed Gull

· Fulmar

· Gannet

· Guillemot

· Razorbill

· Auk sp.

· Great Skua

· Ringed racing Pigeon


17/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 179° 22 knots/Beaufort force 6

Prime Station 131 Tin Tow G7 sampling and rain washes the bridge windows.

Looming out of the mist is an array of 5 oil and gas platforms, bridge-joined and with a flotel (floating hotel for workers) stuck on the end.


By Prime Station 132, visibility reduces dramatically due to the constant heavy rain, and my observations are suspended. Fulmars still congregate around the aft deck though as the Tin Tow G7 is lowered whenever there is a sampling.


Fulmar find their food mainly through smell so are able to sniff out a fishing vessel through thick mist and rain. The sea state varies between Beaufort 6 and 7.


We stand still for more calibration testing of the Tin Tow G7, and it’s a chance to catch up on data inputting and paperwork. A Research Ship is full of serious scientists and dedicated seafarers, nothing is taken for fact unless it is proved by the data, checked and analysed.

Adult Gannet

· Fulmar

· Gannet


18/06/2022 06:00 BST wind: 257° 20 knots/Beaufort force 5

A lovely morning, cumulus clouds against a blue sky and a blue/grey sea capped with white waves. Vision clear to the horizon, perfect observing conditions.


By noon we are finally on the way to the next Prime Station, 135, and there are still blue skies and more than 30 Fulmar are following the ship. Port side the sea, with the sun glaring on the surface is a shiny steel/grey. The wind and the sea state remain the same and Gannet and Lesser Black-backed Gulls are fellow travellers.


As the crowd of Fulmar thin out and we reach Prime 135, a single Pigeon circles us and flies out of sight.


A long inter-transect lies ahead to get us in position to reach Prime Station 100 and Transect 6.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

· Lesser Black-backed Gull

· Fulmar

· Gannet

· Great Skua

· Pigeon sp.

· Guillemot

· Kittiwake

· Gull sp.


19/06/2022 06:00 BST wind: 245° 27 knots/Beaufort force 7

The Endeavour is enroute to Transect 6 and Prime Station 100, skirting Norway and heading for the waters off Denmark.


The blue above is hemmed by clouds above the horizon and the sun glares off the port side. The sea surface has a blued-steel sheen and only an occasional whitecap to be seen.


The wind speed is now 19 knots, giving us a force five on the Beaufort Scale technically, but it doesn’t look that rough. There is a waning moon, clear in the sky.


Suddenly, at 08:09, alerted by Leading AB Andy, a cetacean swims fast by to starboard. It is a White-beaked Dolphin at 210° about 50m from the ship, then a second individual surfaces aft at 310°, again 50m off. They each surface for a minute, dive under the stern and disappear again into the sea at a fast speed. Result!


By 09:00 we have a large crowd of 28 Lesser Black-backed Gull, plus the usual Fulmar and a few Gannets (including a young I2) flying over and behind the ship. A Great Skua joins them for a while, then after about 5 minutes loses interest and departs southwards.


Noon and our following crowd of Lesser Black-backed Gull has dropped to 19, a single Gannet and a couple of Fulmar.


The following crowd of birds reduces, but still includes an immature Gannet (I3) and a couple of adults, we travel through intervals of rain and sun, and we punch into the constant wind and onto the next sampling station.

1st summer (I2) Gannet

· Lesser Black-backed Gull

· Gannet

· Great Skua

· Fulmar


Cetacean

· White-beaked Dolphin


20/06/2022 06:00 BST wind: 343° 23 knots/Beaufort force 6

Greeted by the sun, puffy cumulus clouds and blue skies. Again a choppy sea with many white-capped waves; skimmed by Fulmar and a couple of Gannet.


There have been few sightings of juvenile Gannet and more than a few dead Gannets floating on the sea between 07:47-07:53hrs BST. I read a report early this morning, confirmed by a DEFRA bulletin, that hundreds of dead Gannets had been seen on their nesting grounds at Bass Rock and on St. Kilda. Bird Flu and close contact between nests are speculated to be the cause.


We steam past a port side view of Ekofisk Oilfield, with its linked platforms and flotel and the sun continues to shine. Once Prime Station 92 sample is collected at 09:10; line fishing for Mackerel commences, to many good marks on the echo sounder.


We stop for towing equipment re-rigging, and observation ends for the day at 11:15, time to catch up on data entry…

Dead Gannet

· Fulmar

· Gannet

· Gull species

· Lesser Black-backed gull


21/06/22 06:00 BST wind: 284° 15 knots/Beaufort force 4

A Blue sky beginning, however, clouds shroud the sun by 06:45 as we sample at Prime Station 87.


At 07:15 at the start of observation effort again, a Turtle Dove stopped for a rest on the bow railings, but all else is quiet on the water as we steam towards Scotland.


08:13 and the second thrill of the morning, my first confirmed whale of the survey, a Minke, slow swimming off the starboard, then after a minute, diving.


More than a few dead Gannets float past, out of the range of my bird observation survey, but still identifiable at over 2km. We carry out a calibration tow for about an hour, then back to the observation post for my logging watch.


The Turtle Dove, a rapidly declining species in the UK, is still with us at 16:15, I hope it makes it safely to Scottish shores.


I have stopped counting the dead, and am concentrating on the living, auks in numbers surround the ship, Guillemot and Razorbill are easily spotted, but some chains of auks wiz past the Bird Box so speedily it is hard to identify individual species.


A productive observation watch, in spite of the sad overtones.

Turtle Dove

· Gannet

· Turtle Dove

· Guillemot

· Fulmar

· Kittiwake

· Gull species

· Great Black Back gull

· Razorbill

· Diver species

· Auk species


Cetacean

· Minke Whale


22/06/2022 06:00 BST wind: 232° 8 knots/Beaufort force 2

The Scottish border Lammermuir hills are visible, we have a calm sea, speckled with dead Gannets. The Cheviot range, which marks the English side of the border, even though now well inland, contain deep water fossils, evidence of the Lapetus ocean which once covered the area some 500 million years ago.


Just before 06:30 a dolphin, probably a Bottlenose from the quick glance I had at it, surfaced then dived at about 125m away from the starboard side. Alas no 2nd sighting for confirmation, the movement was so fast.


By 06:52 a Grey Seal, milling with a slow swim, leisurely glanced up, with its dog-shaped face, at the ship as it too cruised by to starboard. At 07:03 a second individual, further out at 200m, popped a head up, “Spy hopping” we call it.


We continue to steam along the inter-transect into the waters off northeast England, the sun shines and the sea is calm, so the AB seafarers, using hammer and angle-grinders, chip off rust, ready to be repainted. This ship is well cared for.


Auks abound, as we pass the throng, Guillemot fathers shepherd their chicks out to sea, carefully showing them the way to survive. The fledglings leap off the nesting cliff when they are about 3 weeks old and the mother, having laid the egg leaves it to the father to care for it out on the wide waters.

Guillemot

· Guillemot