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March 14, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Message in a Bottle: The Story Behind the Story

Drift Bottles Helped Determine Distribution of Fish Eggs and Larvae, and Much More

A recent news article about a message in a bottle caught my attention. Drift bottles were released during the last cruise of the Albatross IV in November 2008. One of the bottles ended up in the Azores in 2009, another washed ashore in 2011 on St. Lucia in the Caribbean.

But this recent news involved the Albatross III, which conducted 128 fisheries and oceanographic research cruises in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean during its service from 1948 to 1959. Like the finding in 2009 of an Albatross IV drift bottle in the Azores (see related links), there is a fascinating story attached to the Albatross III and this latest drift bottle tale.

As many readers may already know, a drift bottle was found on Sable Island, about 190 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on January 20, 2014. Warren Joyce, a biologist working at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, found the bottle while conducting research on gray seals. The bottle was numbered and inside had a paper and postcard. According to an online article published by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), an internet search by Joyce traced the bottle back to WHOI and to scientist Dean Bumpus, who tracked currents in the western North Atlantic over several decades using surface drift bottles and mushroom-shaped seabed drifters (see related links).

But how was the Albatross III involved in this tale? And were other fisheries research vessels involved in drift bottle studies? With the help of Nancy McHugh of the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Ecosystems Surveys Branch and Jim Manning of the Oceanography Branch, we examined cruise files and drift bottle records and found much more to the story.

The bottle recovered on Sable Island was released on Albatross III Cruise No. 73, which departed Woods Hole on April 17, 1956 to sample haddock eggs and larvae on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine and to also collect hydrographic data. The science party comprised John B. Colton, Jr. as “chief of party” and biologists Donald B. Foster and David Miller, all from the fisheries service.

The bottle was one of 12 launched on April 26, 1956. In all, 800 drift bottles were released from the Albatross III at various locations during cruise 73 before the ship returned to Woods Hole on April 28. If that many bottles were released on one cruise, were drift bottles released on other Albatross III cruises, and if so, for what purpose?

Further investigation revealed that thousands of drift bottles were released from the Albatross III during cruises in 1953, 1955, and 1956 to determine the distribution of haddock eggs and larvae and to identify general circulation patterns of water in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank regions.These cruises revealed that the area of maximum haddock spawning – the northeast part of Georges Bank - coincided with the area of minimum drift bottle returns. Haddock eggs and larvae spawned on the northeastern part of Georges Bank could therefore be transported out of the area by water currents and lost to the fishery (see related links for cruise 73 information).

“Cruise reports and data logs indicated that vast numbers of drift bottles were released over several decades by our ships, primarily the Albatross III, but also several other vessels,” said Nancy McHugh. “Our filing cabinets of data are truly a gold mine of information and provide yet another interesting window to the past.”

Press releases in the cruise files also revealed a joint research project between the Woods Hole Fisheries Laboratory, then part of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and WHOI. According to a March 21, 1957 press release, transponding drift buoys developed by WHOI and drift bottles were to be released from the Albatross III on Georges Bank. Another press release issued April 25, 1957 noted that the buoys would follow the drift of water masses containing developing haddock eggs to be sampled during the annual survey of haddock spawning.

The 1957 project, conducted on the northeast part of Georges Bank, involved both drift bottle releases and the release of four transponding drift buoys in the area of maximum haddock spawning. The spar buoys, 19 feet long and six inches in diameter and painted international orange, were used to study non-tidal currents on Georges Bank by drifting for about nine weeks. The buoys floated vertically and, when triggered, transmitted signals about their location to the Albatross III.  The WHOI research vessel Bear shared duties monitoring the drifting buoys with the Albatross III.

The press release described the drift bottles used in these studies as “about the size of those used for tonic and soft drinks. Each bottle contains an orange paper and white information card. When the bottle is found on shore, the information card should be filled out with the time and place of finding and mailed as soon as possible. A reward of 50 cents will be paid to the finder of each card returned. When a bottle is found, at sea, it should be thrown back after the bottle number, location and time have been recorded.”

Drift bottles were a simple way to learn about the non-tidal movement of the waters containing the eggs and larvae of commercially-important fishes that spawned in the region. Drift bottle returns also provided information about surface currents and helped researchers develop ocean circulation maps before the advent of sophisticated instruments and satellite tracking systems. Fisheries scientists, oceanographers, and others would share this information.

“The Gulf of Maine surface current diagrams that often appear in our publications were derived primarily from the drift bottle studies conducted many decades ago,” Manning said. “It is amazing how well these studies characterized the surface current patterns, which we simply are fine-tuning with today’s technology.”

On many of the cruises, the odd numbered bottles were ballasted with dry sand, while the even numbered bottles had no ballast. The idea was that ballasted bottles would float vertically, at or near the ocean surface, and be less influenced by winds and breaking waves.

The report “Drift Bottle Records for Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, 1931-1956” by Dean Bumpus and C. Godfrey Day of WHOI, was published in November 1957 as Special Scientific Report – Fisheries No. 242 by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The report states that the drift bottle data “are the result of extended studies by the United States Bureau of Fisheries and more recently by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in the region of Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.”

Intrigued, we further scrutinized the 1957 report and learned that the Albatross II was also involved in drift bottle studies. In fact, of the 17 drift bottle releases made between 1931 and June 1956 included in the Bumpus and Day report, three were made in 1931 and 1932 by the Albatross II and 12 by the Albatross III in 1953, 1955 and 1956. The WHOI research vessel Atlantis made the remaining two cruises, one each in 1933 and 1934.

In a second Bumpus report on drift bottle records for 1956-1958 published by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1961, we found more release records for Albatross III and for the first Delaware. The drift bottle data in the 1961 report, from research vessels as well as from lightships and the U.S. Air Force Texas Towers, was the result of “extended studies by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the Gulf of Maine area.”

While it is unclear how many drift bottles were released on the 1931 and 1932 Albatross II cruises, a quick tally indicates that 19,555 drift bottles were released during the twenty-eight research cruises made by the Albatross III between 1953 and 1958. The objective of most of these cruises was to determine the distribution of haddock or herring eggs and larvae and the general circulation pattern of water in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank area. Albatross III also released thousands of drift bottles during studies of the coastal currents from south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to New Jersey and the New York Bight area during the 1940s and early 1950s.

An additional 1,511 drift bottles were released on five cruises in 1957 and 1958 by the Delaware, acquired by the fisheries service in 1950 to support fishing and research operations in the Northwest Atlantic. While some of the bottles were released to track surface currents, other bottles were designed to drift along the ocean bottom, each ballasted with four feet of copper wire in the cork and a stick of wood to stop the cork from imploding. The bottles were to be recovered by fishermen’s otter trawls and scallop dredges.

A test of this bottle design was conducted on two Delaware cruises in the fall of 1959; such bottles were used in U.S. waters in 1960-1961. Bottom drift bottles were replaced in the U.S. by a mushroom-shaped sea-bed drifter that was based on a design by P.M.J. Woodhead of the Fisheries Laboratory in Lowestoft, England.

Hundreds or even thousands of additional drift bottles and seabed drifters were released on fisheries research cruises in the 1960s and perhaps into the early 1970s, until more sophisticated instruments and technology replaced them. A random check in the survey files, for example, found that 325 drift bottles and 195 seabed drifters were released on one Albatross IV cruise in 1969.

These releases were part of a 40-year cooperative program between the Woods Hole Laboratory of NOAA Fisheries Service and WHOI which began in 1931 with the Albatross II and continued until at least 1969 with the Albatross IV.

This fisheries drift bottle mystery is solved.

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