A local student’s first time out at sea turned out to be a hands-on, in-your-face encounter with the beauty of the Northern Islands and the professional science work being done there.
Shirley Taitano, 21, who studies natural resource management at the Northern Marianas College, was recommended by her professor, Matthew Crane, to assist an expedition in the Northern Islands.
Dr. Robert Humphreys, of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, led the research aboard the vessel Oscar Elton Sette.
Humphreys returned to the islands after 30 years to continue what is called life history research on bottomfish in the Northern Islands. That involves studying the otoliths, or earbones of the fish, to learn a stock’s length-at-age, longevity, and health.
Data on the biological life of a fish can gauge whether a stock is more vulnerable to fishing than others. A more productive fishery, with high turnover, like the mahi mahi are less vulnerable because of the rate they reproduce, as opposed to sharks, which are not very productive.
Joining Taitano and NOAA scientists were a local team from the Division of Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality.
Taitano was the only NMC student onboard. Her daily activities on the vessel included processing fish and helping other scientists with their projects.
“Our data sheet had what species of fish we caught, the weight, length, gonad weight, and how many otoliths were taken out,” she said.
Research was done in the waters of Uracus, Maug, and Asuncion.
“I’ve heard many stories, seen pictures of the Northern Islands, but when it’s right in front of you, it is just so beautiful,” Taitano said.
According to her, there were a lot of coconut and tall trees, none of which were smothered by invasive vines.
Her favorite island was Maug, which is actually three islands sitting atop a sunken volcano.
“In the caldera, there are actual gas bubbles emerging from the seafloor so that tells me there are vents.”
She said a highlight of her trip was seeing the different islands and knowing that not many local residents get to have the same experience.
On working with the NOAA scientists, she said it was great to get hands-on experience with different researchers with the same interests as she has. “That really opened my mind as to what I want to do specifically in the future.”
Taitano wants to pursue marine biology, studying either ichthyology or coral reef ecology.
“Never turn down an opportunity that will open your mind and open doors for you in the future!” she said. “If I could redo it all again, I would in a heartbeat.”
While Taitano was the only NMC student aboard, Jaime Barlowe, a NOAA scientist on the research vessel, said they are engaging students from NMC to be a part of their research.
“We’re here to empower people that are starting out,” he said.
The expedition is currently finishing the second leg of its research around the islands of Pagan, Guguan, Sarigan, and Anatahan.