college of agricultural sciences

'Flex' leads researchers to five endangered western gray whales

Sources: Greg Donovan, IWC, +44 1223 23971; www.iwcoffice.org
Valentin Ilyashenko, IPEE, + 7 495 254 8601 ; www.sevin.ru
Bruce Mate, +1 541 867 0202; http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/
Vyatcheslav Rozhnov, IPEE RAS, + 7 495 952-73-05; www.sevin.ru

CAMBRIDGE, U.K. – The saga of Flex the whale continues to deliver surprises a year after the 13-year-old male western (North Pacific) gray whale was tagged and took scientific observers on a four-month, satellite-tracked ride, far from the Asian coast where he was expected to migrate, across the Bering Sea, through the Gulf of Alaska and down the west coast of North America.

Flex’s surprise journey was a revelation to many whale experts, who had estimated only about 130 of the “critically endangered” mammals remain. A scientific team coordinated by the International Whaling Commission has tagged five more western grays this year in the same Russian coastal waters where it tagged Flex. The team hopes to expand that number to 12 in coming days.

The route taken by Flex, who was initially tagged just off the coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, has increased the need to better understand the movements of western gray whales, as well as the need to evaluate and improve conservation measures, according to Greg Donovan, head of Science for the International Whaling Commission and coordinator of the project.

“Notwithstanding the scientific interest, this collaboration is being undertaken because western gray whales are considered one of the most-endangered whale populations in the world,” Donovan said. “It is clear that we need to re-examine our understanding of the population structure of gray whales in the North Pacific and any conservation and management implications. We can only do that through increased information from genetic, individual identification and especially satellite telemetry data from more animals. 

“We are indebted to the Russian and American scientists who are undertaking this work in a challenging part of the world.”

Flex’s journey last summer attracted no small amount of public attention, particularly as he made his way down from the Gulf of Alaska and reached Oregon’s coast before his tag stopped working. In no small part, this was because researchers tracking the whale posted his progress on publicly accessible websites, generating an international game of “where in the world is Flex?”

The research team has created new tracking maps for whales being tagged this year --  http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2011  for English readers and, for Russian, http://kit.sevin-expedition.ru/news/news_69.html.  Weekly maps stringing together the whales’ coordinates will be updated each Monday afternoon as long as the tags remain active. 

Bruce Mate, who directs Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and is a pioneer in the use of satellites to track endangered whales, is leading the tagging portion of the project. Mate said it isn’t unusual for gray whales to migrate thousands of miles annually, en route between breeding or calving grounds to feeding grounds in search of food, but he acknowledged the importance of the potential migration patterns by Flex and his fellow western gray whales.

“In the 1970s, it had been claimed that western gray whales had gone extinct,” Mate said, “but then a small aggregation was discovered by Russian scientists off Sakhalin Island that has been monitored by Russian and U.S. scientists since the 1990s. It is essential to understand the relationship between the animals that frequent the feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island with those in the eastern North Pacific population – which have recovered from their endangered status, been de-listed from the U.S. Endangered Species Act and re-occupied much of their former range.

“Without better information, it is not possible to state categorically whether the situation is considerably better, or even worse than we thought prior to Flex.”

Another member of the research team, Valentin Ilyashenko from the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution and the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission, has proposed since 2009 that recent western and eastern gray whale populations are not isolated and that the animals now found in the west are a part of an eastern population that is restoring its former historical range, which includes the Okhotsk sea.

“The tagging last year of Flex was the first time a whale from Sakhalin had been tagged and monitored via satellite. Flex spent two months feeding near Sakhalin Island as winter began approaching, and other forms of observation would have been almost impossible,” said Ilyashenko.

Flex’s movement from Okhotsk to the Kamchatka Peninsula wasn’t big news; western gray whales are often seen in this area. “But his movement across the deep waters of the Bering Sea and around the Aleutian Islands had never been documented before,” said Ilyashenko. “The possibility that these animals are part of the eastern stock warrants serious consideration.”

The collaboration will help conservationists better protect the western grays, said Ilyashenko. “Resource managers in Russia will use the findings from the tagging and tracking project to plan future conservation strategies.”

The eastern gray whale population was also once tenuous because19th-century whaling decimated its numbers. But the remaining 2,000 eastern gray whales mounted a big comeback in the 20th century, breeding off the Baja California coast and migrating to feeding areas in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. There are now an estimated 18,000 eastern grays.

In addition to Mate, other team members include Vladimir Vertyankin and Grigory Tsidulko of IPEE RAS, Amanda Bradford from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Honolulu, and Ladd Irvine from Oregon State University. Tsidulko and Bradford have both studied western gray whales for many years with U.S. scientists David Weller and Robert Brownell of NMFS and Russian scientist Alexander Burdin.

The telemetry program was developed by IPEE RAS, Oregon State and an international team of experts from the International Whaling Commission and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and was carried out under a permit granted to IPEE RAS as part of their western gray whale research program. Every care is taken for the well being of the animals, and only whales agreed to be in good body condition by Bradford, an expert in this field, can be tagged.


The western North Pacific population of gray whales was greatly reduced by whaling in previous centuries. It was feared to be extinct in the mid-1970s, but was ‘rediscovered’ off Sakhalin Island, where it has been monitored for the past 15 years. There is evidence of a fragile recovery. Individual animals can be recognized and sexed by photographs and genetic information obtained from biopsies. Sakhalin Island is also the site of major offshore oil and gas activities, and national and international efforts are under way to minimize the impact of industrial development on the whale population. In addition, the whales are threatened in much of their presumed range by accidental entrapment or entanglement in fishing gear and by heavy ship traffic. A Rangewide Conservation Plan has been developed by IUCN and endorsed by the IWC; obtaining telemetry data is also a high-priority action within that plan.

Funding for this international collaboration was provided by Exxon Neftegas Ltd. (ENL) and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (Sakhalin Energy). ENL and Sakhalin Energy have sponsored a western gray whale monitoring program conducted offshore Sakhalin since 1997.


Bruce Mate, 541 867 0202

Multimedia Downloads

Western Gray Whale - Sakhalin Island, Russia
Flex the whale

Six OSU students receive USDA scholarships

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Dreams of careers in science are a little more in reach for six Oregon State University students receiving scholarships through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Multicultural Scholars Program.

The scholarships provide recipients with up to four years of tuition and a paid internship and/or research experience.

The Multicultural Scholars Program is designed to increase the number of students from traditionally underrepresented groups in the food and agricultural sciences. All of the OSU scholars will work toward bachelor's degrees in bioresource research, an interdisciplinary sciences program with an emphasis on mentored research. Students in the program may choose from 13 different study options, focusing on topics from water resources to toxicology.

The new MSP scholars are:

• Cynthia Le of Hillsboro

• Jorge Lopez-Contreras of Eugene

• Charlie Ta of Portland

• James Thomas of Corvallis

• Elyssa Trejo of College Station, Texas

• Jose Solis-Ruiz of Forest Grove


"The USDA Multicultural Scholars Program grant enables students from underrepresented minority groups to not only have scholarships to attend college, but also provides them the opportunity to enhance their educational experiences at Oregon State University through involvement in our outstanding Bioresource Research major," said Sonny Ramaswamy, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"The major offers a 'high touch, high impact' opportunity of mentored research experiential learning to the students," he added.

Most of the students involved in the Multicultural Scholars Program are the first in their family to attend college, said bioresource research adviser Wanda Crannell.

"Through this program we can increase their ability to graduate and help prepare them for employment opportunities in areas with shortages," Crannell said. "To improve retention and graduation rates, it's imperative that first generation college students have additional support, whether that's in terms of scholarship assistance, social belonging, or professional development."

Students are already getting started on their studies with summer internships. Sophomore Charlie Ta, working under the guidance of OSU professor and USDA researcher Inga Zasada, is developing a technique to detect viruses in nematodes, or roundworms. Zasada said the work has an economic impact because the nematodes can pass viruses to small fruits.

The MSP students will also participate in the OSU chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS).

Crannell said the Bioresource Research program has an excellent track record of sending students on to advanced opportunities.

"Within three years, more than 60 percent of the graduates have gone on to graduate school," she said. "Generally, graduates seeking placement have found it in either graduate programs or jobs, typically within three months of graduating."

A similar group of MSP students received funding beginning fall 2009. Five of the six are still enrolled at OSU; one out-of-state student, returned home to continue her education and a replacement scholar was named. All of the 2009 MSP scholars have completed internships, attended national MANRRS conferences and serve as regional or chapter MANRRS officers.


Wanda Crannell, 541-737-2999

OSU’s Edge to chair Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Dan Edge, head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, has been named chairman of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

This seven-member commission sets policy for the state on fish and wildlife resources, including the territorial sea. Edge, who has been on the commission since 2004, succeeds Marla Rae, whose term expired. Edge has been vice chair of the commission since 2007.

Edge’s appointment comes at a time when fish and wildlife management in Oregon is particularly challenging. Acknowledging the needs of economic development and the passion for fish and wildlife expressed by many interest groups requires a delicate balancing act.

In recent weeks, issues such as the return of wolves to Oregon, and the impact of sea lions on fish in the Columbia River have gained widespread media attention as well as intense public scrutiny. The commission also must contend with invasive species, climate change, energy development, habitat fragmentation and other issues.

“Oregonians are not particularly shy about voicing their opinion,” Edge said, “but that generally is a good thing. Fish and wildlife are part of the state’s heritage and those voices underscore a true public interest in maintaining our natural resources. Since becoming a commissioner, I’ve always appreciated the thoughtful comments and suggestions we receive as we deliberated about difficult issues.”

Edge, who has been at OSU since 1989, was just named a fellow of The Wildlife Society. He is president of the National Association of University Fish and Wildlife Programs and was the first Mace Professor of Watchable Wildlife at OSU.

His research emphasis has been on the effects of forestry and agriculture on wildlife. He also has received three national teaching awards and is a national leader in distance education in natural resources.

Edge was on the federal forestland advisory committee for Oregon from 2007-09, and was on the fish and wildlife subcommittee for the Governor’s Climate Change Task Force in 2008.

In 2007, the Chronicle of Higher Education ranked universities in both fisheries and wildlife science, and selected OSU first in the nation in wildlife science and second in fisheries science. The university also has been ranked No. 1 in conservation biology.

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Dan Edge, 541-737-2910

OSU horticulture graduate student receives $10,000 scholarship

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Abha Gupta (Latham, N.Y.), a graduate student in horticulture at Oregon State University, has received a $10,000 Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship from Annie's Homegrown.

Annie's natural and organic foods business each year offers $75,000 in scholarships to students studying sustainable agriculture. During her first farming season out of college, Gupta worked at Blue Heron Organic farms, an experience that shaped her views of the food system.

"I saw how farming organically is more about farming the soil, rather than the vegetables themselves," she said.

Gupta's research investigates the impact of school gardens on academic achievement and how local foods programs influence school pride, self-confidence and academic performance of students in elementary, middle and high school.

"The outcomes of Gupta's graduate work are sure to help educators and policy makers better understand how access to healthy, local foods can influence learning environments," said Gail Langellotto-Rhodaback, an OSU horticulture professor and coordinator of the university’s Master Gardener program.

"Abha possesses the academic acumen that allows her to consider and collate data and concepts from multiple sources," Langellotto-Rhodaback said. "Her socially conscious values lead her to find answers that can help our communities be more just and healthy."

When Gupta completes school, she plans to continue working with the farm-to-school movement to develop school programs, teach, start a farm or bring farming and gardening to communities as an extension agent.

"Having a strong connection to our food and how it is grown is integral to a healthy society and individual health," she said. "People must know what it means to eat well and produce food in a responsible way, if only because we should know how to tend to one of our basic human functions."


Oregon State University shares $9 million grant to manage late blight disease

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University is part of a 17-institution consortium that will share a grant of $9 million to study late blight, one of the world’s most significant diseases, which affects potatoes and tomatoes. The institutions are in the United States, Mexico and Scotland.

As part of the study, OSU will receive $789,542 over the next five years.

"Late blight is a significant disease of potatoes, which is the world's largest non-cereal crop, and a tomato pest," said Niklaus Grunwald, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who has a courtesy appointment in OSU’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. "The plan is to reduce fungicide use and costs for growers and to find long-term controls of late blight."

The grant, funded by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is designed to develop diagnostic tools, grow disease-resistant plants through breeding and biotechnology, and improve management for growers.

Challenges loom, said Grunwald, one of the researchers on the project. Genes that were thought to be resistant to late blight have failed, and strains of the disease have appeared that are not sensitive to fungicide. "There may not be one solution to late blight," he said.

However, the grant's design combining research, education and extension will direct growers to a late blight website and strengthen communication between researchers and growers. Its reporting and alert system will help growers make science-based decisions, Grunwald said.

A 10-week summer research program for undergraduate students, funded by the grant, aims to help boost the number of skilled plant pathologists.

The grant was awarded through the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. The long-term goal is to strengthen global food availability through increased food production and reduced losses.


Niklaus Grunwald, 541-738-4049