OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

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Scientists: Warming temperatures could trigger starvation, extinctions in deep oceans by 2100

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers from 20 of the world’s leading oceanographic research centers today warned that the world’s largest habitat – the deep ocean floor – may face starvation and sweeping ecological change by the year 2100.

Warming ocean temperatures, increased acidification and the spread of low-oxygen zones will drastically alter the biodiversity of the deep ocean floor from 200 to 6,000 meters below the surface. The impact of these ecosystems to society is just becoming appreciated, yet these environments and their role in the functioning of the planet may be altered by these sweeping impacts. 

Results of the study, which was supported by the Foundation Total and other organizations, were published this week in the journal Elementa.

“Biodiversity in many of these areas is defined by the meager amount of food reaching the seafloor and over the next 80-plus years – in certain parts of the world – that amount of food will be cut in half,” said Andrew Thurber, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-author on the study. “We likely will see a shift in dominance to smaller organisms. Some species will thrive, some will migrate to other areas, and many will die. 

“Parts of the world will likely have more jellyfish and squid, for example, and fewer fish and cold water corals.”

The study used the projections from 31 earth system models developed for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to predict how the temperature, amount of oxygen, acidity (pH) and food supply to the deep-sea floor will change by the year 2100. The authors found these models predict that deep ocean temperatures in the “abyssal” seafloor (3,000 to 6,000 meters deep) will increase as much as 0.5 to 1.0 degrees (Celsius) in the North Atlantic, Southern and Arctic oceans by 2100 compared to what they are now. 

Temperatures in the “bathyal” depths (200 to 3,000 meters deep) will increase even more – parts of this deep-sea floor are predicted to see an increase of nearly 4 degrees (C) in the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

“While four degrees doesn’t seem like much on land, that is a massive temperature change in these environments,” Thurber said. “It is the equivalent of having summer for the first time in thousands to millions of years.” 

The over-arching lack of food will be exacerbated by warming temperatures, Thurber pointed out.

“The increase in temperature will increase the metabolism of organisms that live at the ocean floor, meaning they will require more food at a time when less is available.” 

Most of the deep sea already experiences a severe lack of food, but it is about to become a famine, according to Andrew Sweetman, a researcher at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and lead author on the study.

“Abyssal ocean environments, which are over 3,000 meters deep, are some of the most food-deprived regions on the planet,” Sweetman said. “These habitats currently rely on less carbon per meter-squared each year than is present in a single sugar cube. Large areas of the abyss will have this tiny amount of food halved and for a habitat that covers half the Earth, the impacts of this will be enormous.” 

The impacts on the deep ocean are unlikely to remain there, the researchers say. Warming ocean temperatures are expected to increase stratification in some areas yet increase upwelling in others. This can change the amount of nutrients and oxygen in the water that is brought back to the surface from the deep sea. This low-oxygen water can affect coastal communities, including commercial fishing industries, which harvest groundfish from the deep sea globally and especially in areas like the Pacific Coast of North America, Thurber said.

“A decade ago, we even saw low-oxygen water come shallow enough to kill vast numbers of Dungeness crabs,” Thurber pointed out. “The die-off was massive.” 

Areas most likely to be affected by the decline in food are the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and North and South Indian oceans.

“The North Atlantic in particular will be affected by warmer temperatures, acidification, a lack of food and lower oxygen,” Thurber said. “Water in the region is soaking up the carbon from the atmosphere and then sending it on its path around the globe, so it likely will be the first to feel the brunt of the changes.” 

Thurber, who is a faculty member in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and the OSU College of Science, has previously published on the “services” or benefits provided by the deep ocean environments. The deep sea is important to many of the processes affecting the Earth’s climate, including acting as a “sink” for greenhouse gases and helping to offset growing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

These habitats are not only threatened by warm temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide; they increasingly are being used by fishing and explored by mining industries for extraction of mineral resources. 

“If we look back in Earth’s history, we can see that small changes to the deep ocean caused massive shifts in biodiversity,” Thurber said. “These shifts were driven by those same impacts that our model predict are coming in the near future. We think of the deep ocean as incredibly stable and too vast to impact, but it doesn’t take much of a deviation to create a radically altered environment.

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Andrew Thurber, 541-737-4500, athurber@coas.oregonstate.edu; Andrew Sweetman, +44 (0) 131 451 3993, a.sweetman@hw.ac.uk

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Sea pig (Image Courtesy of Ocean Networks Canada)

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Methane seep (Image by Andrew Thurber, OSU)

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Marine ecologist offers suggestions for achieving a strong, lasting ‘blue economy’

BOSTON – Incentive-based solutions offer significant hope for addressing the myriad environmental challenges facing the world’s oceans – that’s the central message a leading marine ecologist delivered today in during a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor in the Oregon State University College of Science, shared lessons from around the world about ways “to use the ocean without using it up” as nations look to the ocean for new economic opportunities, food security or poverty alleviation.

Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman, a former postdoctoral scholar under Lubchenco who’s now a Knauss Fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, co-authored the presentation, titled “Getting Incentives Right for Sustained Blue Growth: Science and Opportunities.”

In her presentation, Lubchenco pointed out that achieving the long-term potential of blue growth will require aligning short- and long-term economic incentives to achieve a diverse mix of benefits. Blue growth refers to long-term strategies for supporting sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors as a whole.

“If we harness human ingenuity and recognize that a healthy ocean is essential for long-term prosperity, we can tackle the enormous threats facing the ocean,” Lubchenco says, “and we can make a transition from vicious cycles to virtuous cycles.”

Lubchenco and her collaborators note that the world’s oceans are the main source of protein production for 3 billion people; are directly or indirectly responsible for the employment of more than 200 million people; and contribute $270 billion to the planet’s gross domestic product.

“The right incentives can drive behavior that aligns with both desired environmental outcomes and desirable social outcomes,” Lubchenco says.

The first step in building increased support for truly sustainable blue growth, she says, is highlighting its potential. That means working with decision-makers to promote win-win solutions with clear short-term environmental and economic benefits. Governments, industry and communities all have important roles to play, Lubchenco notes.

“Another key step is transforming the social norms that drive the behavior of the different actors, particularly in industry,” Lubchenco says. “Finally, it will be critical to take a cross-sector approach.

“Some nations, like the Seychelles, Belize and South Africa, are doing integrated, smart planning to deconflict use by different sectors while also growing their economies in ways that value the health of the ocean, which is essential to jobs and food security. They are figuring out how to be smarter about ocean uses, not just to use the ocean more intensively.”

Prior to her presentation, Lubchenco gave a related press briefing on how to create the right incentives for sustainable uses of the ocean.

In November 2016, Lubchenco, Cerny-Chipman, OSU graduate student Jessica Reimer and Simon Levin, the distinguished university professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, co-authored a paper on a related topic for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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"Catch share" fisheries program

2015-16 weather event took toll on California beaches; not so much for Oregon, Washington

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The 2015-16 El Niño was one of the strongest climate events in recent history with extraordinary winter wave energy, a new study shows, though its impact on beaches was greater in California than in Oregon and Washington.

The reason, researchers say, is that the Pacific Northwest had experienced comparatively mild wave conditions in the years prior to the onset of the El Niño, while California was experiencing a severe drought and “sediment starvation.”

Results of the study are being published this week in Nature Communications.

“Rivers still supply the primary source of sand to California beaches, despite long-term reductions due to extensive dam construction,” said Patrick Barnard, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author on the study. “But as California was in the midst of a major drought, the resulting lower river flows equated to even less sand being carried to the coast to help sustain beaches.

“Therefore, many of the beaches in California were in a depleted state prior to the El Niño winters, and thereby were subjected to extreme and unprecedented landward erosion due to the highly energetic winter storm season of 2015-16.”

The West Coast, on average, experienced a “shoreline retreat” – or degree of beach erosion – that was 76 percent above normal and 27 percent higher than any other winter on record, eclipsing the El Niño events of 2009-10 and 1997-98. Coastal erosion was greatest in California, where 11 of the 18 beaches surveyed experienced historical levels of erosion.

Peter Ruggiero, an Oregon State University coastal hazards expert and co-author on the study, said Oregon and Washington were not affected to the same extent.

“You would have thought that there would be massive damage associated with erosion in Oregon and Washington with the strength of this El Niño,” said Ruggiero, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “But the previous three years had mild winters and therefore the sand buildup was much higher than in California. It helped the Northwest offset the potential erosion from the El Niño.”

Oregon and Washington also have broader beaches than in California, Ruggiero pointed out, which also eases the erosion of sand dunes and impacts to development.

The 2015-16 El Niño, in some ways, was stronger than the 1982-83 event, which caused an estimated $11.5 billion in damages, the researchers say in the study. Only a portion of the damage was directly related to coastal erosion, with damage to houses and roads, they note. Most of the impact was from related storms, flooding and other damage that occurred inland.

The Nature Communications study is important, the authors say, because it is one of the first attempts to document the oceanographic “forcing” directly related to beach impacts created by El Niño. The study documents the amount of power created by winter storm waves, using height and “period” – or the length of time between waves. It is the level of forcing, along with relative beach health, that dictates the amount of erosion that occurs and the associated impacts from that erosion.

“During an El Niño, the nearshore experiences higher water levels because of the storms and the fact that the water is warmer and expands,” Ruggiero said. “In Oregon, the water was about 15-17 centimeters (roughly 6-7 inches) higher than average, which led to higher storm tides.”

Although Northwest beaches were buffered from catastrophic damage, Ruggiero said, they did experience significant retreat. And it may take a while for the beaches to rebuild.

“We’re not completely recovered yet, and it may take years for some beaches to build back up,” he said. “After the 1997-98 El Niño, it took some beaches a decade to recover.”

Ruggiero, his students and colleagues have been monitoring Northwest beaches since 1997, and in 2015, they received a National Science Foundation rapid response grant to study the impact of El Niño on beaches. Ruggiero also receives support from the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for additional monitoring.

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Peter Ruggiero, 541-737-1239, pruggier@coas.oregonstate.edu; Patrick Barnard, 831-460-7556, pbarnard@usgs.gov

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South Beach, Oregon
Oregon's South Beach

 

(Left: Crescent Beach in Callifornia. Photos by Nick Cohn, Oregon State University. https://flic.kr/p/RwDLsb)

Whale lovers can support Marine Mammal Institute with new license plate

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new license plate featuring a gray whale and her calf likely will be available to Oregon drivers by summer 2017.

This project is sponsored by the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute and enthusiasm for it is running high, said Bruce Mate, director of the institute.

“Everybody I’ve shown the plate design to has loved it,” said Mate, whose institute will receive $35 from the Oregon Department of Transportation every time a vehicle owner spends $40 to buy the plate.

The money will go toward whale research, graduate student education and public outreach.

The license plate depicts the cow-calf pair on a two-tone blue background that emulates sea and sky. In the upper left corner is a lighthouse, and across the bottom it reads “Coastal Playground.”

Renowned wildlife illustrator Pieter Folkens created the lifelike whale images, originally for a poster for the Marine Mammal Institute, which is part of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“They’re extremely detailed,” Mate said. “You can see every barnacle.”

The institute paid an application fee of $5,000 to ODOT to begin the license plate process, Mate said, and will pay another $80,000 to cover production costs. In addition, it needs to turn in an “expression of interest” from at least 3,000 vehicle owners stating they plan to buy the plate. Oregon Rep. David Gomberg has helped develop and advance this initiative, which should help promote coastal tourism.

As part of the process to gain public support, 30,000 flyers will be distributed along the coast by Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department volunteers helping out during the annual weeklong “Whale Watching Spoken Here” celebration that runs between Christmas and New Year’s. Each flyer contains an expression-of-interest form.

There will be volunteers at all Oregon coastal headlands to help visitors see southward-migrating gray whales. Between 10,000 and 25,000 whale watchers interact with the volunteers each year during the week between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, Mate said.

Interest can also be registered online at http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/whaleplate. No financial commitment is required, but it’s asked that only those serious about buying a Coastal Playground plate register.

“It’s a great plate and promotes coastal tourism and just a healthy image for Oregon,” Mate said. “I expect a lot of people will like it, and it’s a way for people to inexpensively support marine mammals.”

It’s not necessary to wait for a vehicle’s registration to need renewal, or buy a new car, to purchase the Coastal Playground plate, Mate noted. For $40, a new plate can be ordered at any time without affecting the vehicle’s registration cycle.

“This plate is a joyful celebration,” Mate said. “Gray whales were on the Endangered Species List because of exploitation, and now they’re the only whale species to have been removed from the list because they’ve recovered. And they’re Oregon’s flagship large whale. Ninety-five percent of the whales you see from shore are gray whales.”

Visible from the coastline year-round, gray whales migrate past Oregon in both directions on their annual journey between Alaska and Baja California. From late April to mid June, northward-migrating females and their calves stay close to shore to avoid predation from killer whales – so close, Mate says, “you could practically skip a stone out to them.”

During the first week in January, the peak time for the southern migration, gray whales pass by Oregon viewing points at an average rate of 35 whales per hour.

Mate said he is banking on the enduring mystique of whales to help the Coastal Playground plate pay off for the Marine Mammal Institute.

“Whales are huge, they’re warm-blooded, they live in an environment we wouldn’t do well in,” Mate said. “They’re really easy to emote with.”

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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New, complex call recorded in Mariana Trench believed to be from baleen whale

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A sound in the Mariana Trench notable for its complexity and wide frequency range likely represents the discovery of a new baleen whale call, according to the Oregon State University researchers who recorded and analyzed it.

Scientists at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center named it the “Western Pacific Biotwang.”

Lasting between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds, the five-part call includes deep moans at frequencies as low as 38 hertz and a metallic finale that pushes as high as 8,000 hertz.

“It’s very distinct, with all these crazy parts,” said Sharon Nieukirk, senior faculty research assistant in marine bioacoustics at Oregon State. “The low-frequency moaning part is typical of baleen whales, and it’s that kind of twangy sound that makes it really unique. We don’t find many new baleen whale calls.”

Recorded via passive acoustic ocean gliders, which are instruments that can travel autonomously for months at a time and dive up to 1,000 meters, the Western Pacific Biotwang most closely resembles the so-called “Star Wars” sound produced by dwarf minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Australia, researchers say.

The Mariana Trench, the deepest known part of the Earth’s oceans, lies between Japan to the north and Australia to the south and features depths in excess of 36,000 feet.

Minke whales are baleen whales – meaning they feed by using baleen plates in their mouths to filter krill and small fish from seawater – and live in most oceans. They produce a collection of regionally specific calls, which in addition to the Star Wars call include “boings” in the North Pacific and low-frequency pulse trains in the Atlantic.

“We don’t really know that much about minke whale distribution at low latitudes,” said Nieukirk, lead author on the study whose results were recently published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. “The species is the smallest of the baleen whales, doesn’t spend much time at the surface, has an inconspicuous blow, and often lives in areas where high seas make sighting difficult. But they call frequently, making them good candidates for acoustic studies.”

Nieukirk said the Western Pacific Biotwang has enough similarities to the Star Wars call – complex structure, frequency sweep and metallic conclusion – that it’s reasonable to think a minke whale is responsible for it.

But scientists can’t yet be sure, and many other questions remain. For example, baleen whale calls are often related to mating and heard mainly during the winter, yet the Western Pacific Biotwang was recorded throughout the year.

“If it’s a mating call, why are we getting it year round? That’s a mystery,” said Nieukirk, part of the team at the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, a partnership between OSU and the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “We need to determine how often the call occurs in summer versus winter, and how widely this call is really distributed.”

The call is tricky to find when combing through recorded sound data, Nieukirk explains, because of its huge frequency range. Typically acoustic scientists zero in on narrower frequency ranges when analyzing ocean recordings, and in this case that would mean not detecting portions of the Western Pacific Biotwang.

“Now that we’ve published these data, we hope researchers can identify this call in past and future data, and ultimately we should be able to pin down the source of the sound,” Nieukirk said. “More data are needed, including genetic, acoustic and visual identification of the source, to confirm the species and gain insight into how this sound is being used. Our hope is to mount an expedition to go out and do acoustic localization, find the animals, get biopsy samples and find out exactly what’s making the sound. It really is an amazing, weird sound, and good science will explain it.”

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Dwarf minke whale

Rockfish siblings shed new light on how offspring diffuse and disperse

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A splitnose rockfish’s thousands of tiny offspring can stick together in sibling groups from the time they are released into the open ocean until they move to shallower water, research from Oregon State University shows.

The study conducted in the OSU College of Science sheds new light on how rockfish, a group of multiple species that contribute to important commercial and recreational fisheries in the Northwest, disperse through the ocean and “recruit,” or take up residence in nearshore habitats. Previously it was believed rockfish larvae dispersed chaotically to wherever currents carried them.

“When you manage populations, it’s really important to understand where the young are going to and where the young are coming from – how populations are connected and replenished,” said Su Sponaugle, a professor of integrative biology based at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “This research helps us better understand what’s possible about offspring movement. We don’t know fully by what mechanisms the larvae are staying together, but these data are suggestive that behavior is playing a role.”

The findings were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Primary funding came from the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Mamie L. Markham Research Award.

The discovery of “spatial cohesion” among the larvae came via the collection of newly settled rockfish in a shallow nearshore habitat off the central Oregon coast. Nearly 500 juvenile fish that had started out up to six months earlier as transparent larvae at depths of a few hundred meters were collected and genetically analyzed, with the results showing that 11.6 percent had at least one sibling in the group.

“That’s much higher than we would have expected if they were randomly dispersing,” Sponaugle said.

Bearing live young – a female can release thousands of able-to-swim larvae at a time – and dwelling close to the sea floor in the benthic zone, rockfishes make up a diverse genus with many species.

Adult splitnose rockfish live in deep water – usually 100 to 350 meters – but juveniles often settle in nearshore habitats less than 20 meters deep after spending up to a year in the open sea. Taking into account dynamic influences such as the California Current, siblings recruiting to the same area suggest they remained close together as larvae rather than diffusing randomly and then reconnecting as recruits.

“This totally changes the way we understand dispersal,” said lead author Daniel Ottmann, a graduate student in integrative biology at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. “We’d thought larvae were just released and then largely diffused by currents, but now we know behavior can substantially modify that.”

Splitnose rockfish range from Alaska to Baja California and can live for more than 100 years. Pelagic juveniles – juveniles in the open sea – often aggregate to drifting mats of kelp, and the large amount of time larvae and juveniles spend at open sea is thought to enable them to disperse great distances from their parental source.

“This research gives us a window into a stage of the fishes’ life we know so little about,” added Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, an assistant professor of integrative biology at OSU’s Corvallis campus. “We can’t track the larvae out there in the ocean; we can’t look at their behavior early and see where they go. But this genetic technique allows us to look at how they disperse, and it changes the conversation. Now that we know that siblings are ending up in the same places, we can consider how to more effectively manage and protect these species.”

Because larval aggregation shapes the dispersal process more than previously thought, Ottmann said, it highlights the need to better understand what happens in the pelagic ocean to affect the growth, survival and dispersal of the larvae.

“Successful recruitment is critical for the population dynamics of most marine species,” he said. “Our findings have far-reaching implications for our understanding of how populations are connected by dispersing larvae.”

In addition, Grorud-Colvert adds, there’s the simple and substantial “gee whiz” factor of the findings.

“These tiny little fish, a few days old, out there in the humongous ocean, instead of just going wherever are able to swim and stay close together on their epic journey,” she said. “These tiny, tiny things, sticking together in the open ocean – it’s cool.”

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Splitnose rockfish

Tsunami-safety panel to oversee construction of Marine Studies building

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University President Ed Ray announced today the creation of an oversight committee to monitor construction of a Marine Studies Building and student housing in Newport, Ore.

“This committee will ensure that the design, engineering and construction of these buildings meet or exceed the earthquake and tsunami performance commitments the university has made to the public,” Ray said.

Ray also charged the committee with ensuring that the buildings are operated with the highest level of safety and evacuation procedures, preparation and training. The committee’s charge is available online.

The $50 million center for global marine studies research and education will be built at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. The 100,000-square-foot facility is an integral part of OSU’s ambitious Marine Studies Initiative, designed to educate students and conduct research on marine-related issues – from rising sea levels and ocean acidification to sustainable fisheries and economic stability.

Housing to accommodate Oregon State students at the campus will be located near Oregon Coast Community College and located out of the tsunami zone.

“Life safety for the occupants of these buildings, as well as the safety for all Hatfield Marine Science Center faculty, staff, students and visitors, is of the highest priority for OSU,” Ray said.

Scott Ashford, dean of Oregon State’s College of Engineering, will chair the committee, which will report to interim Provost and Executive Vice President Ron Adams. The committee will be made up of eight university leaders and will be advised by two seismic and structural engineers, one of whom will be externally employed and independent of the university.

Committee members include Michael Green, OSU interim vice president for finance and administration; Toni Doolen, dean of the university’s Honors College; Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for Student Affairs; Jock Mills, government relations director; Steve Clark, vice president for University Relations and Marketing; and Roy Haggerty, associate vice president for research. OSU’s Office of General Counsel will serve in an advisory capacity.

The committee will be advised by Chris D. Poland, an independent, third party seismic resilience structural engineer, who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering; and Dan Cox, an OSU professor in civil and construction engineering with expertise in coastal resilience and tsunami impacts.

Ashford said the Marine Studies Building will meet or surpass the new “inundation zone” construction guidelines announced recently by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Faculty researchers within OSU’s College of Engineering and Oregon State’s O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory aided in the standards’ formation.

In addition to design, engineering and construction matters, the committee will also oversee safety and evacuation planning, procedures and training for the Marine Studies Building, the HMSC campus and the student housing to be built in Newport.

The committee’s charge also includes keeping stakeholders informed; maintaining transparency of all the university’s work regarding design, engineering, construction and safety operations; and ensuring the buildings are completed within budget and on time.

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Hatfield Marine Science Center

Larvae from fat fish on deep reefs help keep shallower populations afloat

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Populations of coral reef fish in shallower, more vulnerable habitats likely owe at least some of their sustainability to the prodigious reproductive abilities of large, old counterparts that dwell at greater depths, a recent study suggests.

Researchers found that fish in the mesophotic zone – 30 to 150 meters underwater, the depth limit for reefs that depend on photosynthesis – are present in lower densities than at other depths, but consisted of larger, older fish with better than average reproductive capabilities.

That mesophotic population, research suggests, is heavy on what are known as BOFFFFs: big, old, fat, fecund, female fish.

Results of the study were recently published at nature.com. Primary funding for the research came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research.

Su Sponaugle, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, teamed up with two other researchers, lead author Esther D. Goldstein and Evan K. D’Alessandro, both of the University of Miami, to study the demographics of bicolor damselfish populations across three reef depths off the Florida coast.

The team studied bicolor damselfish at shallow (less than 10 meters); deep shelf (20 to 30 meters); and mesophotic reef locations, looking at population density and individuals’ structure, growth, size and reproductive output. The damselfish is a small, short-lived plankton feeder that’s closely associated with reef habitat. At mesophotic depths, however, the fish can live more than a dozen years.

The researchers sought to assess the potential of mesophotic reefs to support robust fish populations. Because of their greater depth, those reefs are less susceptible to both human-caused and natural habitat disturbances such as temperature increases.

The scientists found that as water depth increased, the bicolor damsel fish population density decreased and age distributions shifted toward older, and larger, individuals. Among those individuals are the BOFFFFs that produce lots of large eggs that likely hatch high-condition larvae.

The larval stage for the bicolor damselfish lasts 30 days, during which time the larvae are carried by water currents to eventually settle to a reef. At whatever depth they settle to, within 24 hours, larvae will metamorphosize into juveniles and then remain in close proximity to the reef for the duration of their lives.

“They’re very site attached,” Sponaugle said. “Once they settle somewhere, that’s where they live, grow and reproduce – that is, until they’re eaten.”

Across all depths, the fish are genetically similar, meaning it’s probable that shallow water and mesophotic reefs exchange young.

“Mesophotic reefs are sort of a warehouse for future fish in the shallower reefs,” Goldstein said. “The fish are older and larger on average, and they invest a lot into reproduction, which is good.

“So even though there are not as many of them on these deep reefs, their offspring hatch from larger eggs and likely experience higher survivorship, so it would seem they have the capacity to contribute more than their fair share to the shallow-water environments.” 

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Bicolor damselfish

Study finds local fidelity key to ocean-wide recovery of humpback whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – Humpback whales can migrate thousands of miles to reach feeding grounds each year, but a new study concludes that their fidelity to certain local habitats – as passed on through the generations – and the protection of these habitats are key to understanding the ultimate recovery of this endangered species.

The study documents the local recruitment of whales in Glacier Bay and Icy Strait in Alaska over a 30-year period. The researchers found that contemporary whales that utilize these rich feeding grounds overwhelmingly are descendants of whales that previously used the area.

In other words, the population recovery of humpback whales in the region depends on cultural knowledge of migratory routes passed on from mothers to their calves; it is not a product of whales from outside the area suddenly “discovering” a rich feeding ground.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Endangered Species Research.

“Humpback whales are recovering from exploitation on an ocean-wide basis, but ultimately their individual success is on a much more local scale,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study.

“Humpback whales travel globally, but thrive locally.”

The study compares records of individual whales returning to Glacier Bay. The first, referred to as the “founder’s population,” included whales documented by a local high school teacher, Charles Jurasz, beginning in the 1970s. Jurasz was one of the first researchers to realize that individual whales could be identified by photographs of natural markings – a technique now widely used to study living whales.

Over the years, other researchers – including the authors of this study – continued to record the return of these whales by photo identification and they later collected small genetic samples to confirm the relatedness between individual whales.

Using a large database maintained by Glacier Bay National Park and the University of Alaska Southeast, the records of the founding population were then compared to records of the “contemporary population” returning to Glacier Bay, more than 30 years after Jurasz’s initial studies. The results were striking.

Of the 25 “founding females” that were also sampled for genetic analysis, all but one was represented in the contemporary group – either as still living, or by a direct descendant, or in many cases, both. Several of the founding females were even grandmothers of individuals in the contemporary population.

“We looked at three possibilities for population increase over a 33-year period including local recruitment from Glacier Bay/Icy Strait, recruitment from elsewhere in southeastern Alaska, and immigration from outside the region,” said Sophie P. Pierszalowski, a master’s student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and lead author on the study.

“It is clear that the contemporary generation of whales is based on local recruitment, highlighting the importance of protecting local habitat for recovering species, especially those with culturally inherited migratory destinations.”

Humpback whales in the North Pacific were once estimated to number more than 15,000 individuals based on catch data before commercial whaling took a toll, reducing the population to less than a thousand by 1966. Humpback whales were first protected by the International Whaling Commission in 1965, then listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Since the protection, the oceanic population has increased to an estimated 21,000 individuals based on photo-identification studies and other evidence. The recovery has been slow, in part because humpback whales can live to be 70 years of age and their recovery is driven primarily by local fidelity and recruitment.

“Limiting vessel traffic in important habitats is one way to help protect humpback whales,” Pierszalowski said, “along with maintaining legal distances by vessels, reducing the risk of entanglement with fishing gear, and maintaining stranding networks that have the capacity to quickly disentangle whales.”

OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute is based at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

Story By: 
Source: 

Scott Baker, 541-272-0560, scott.baker@oregonstate.edu;

Sophie Pierszalowski, 541-737-4523, pierszas@oregonstate.edu

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Photo of mother and calf to the left:

https://flic.kr/p/MbQR5w


 

 

 

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New technologies – and a dash of whale poop – help scientists monitor whale health

NEWPORT, Ore. – A lot of people think what Leigh Torres has done this summer and fall would qualify her for a spot on one of those “World’s Worst Jobs” lists.

After all, the Oregon State University marine ecologist follows gray whales from a small inflatable boat in the rugged Pacific Ocean and waits for them to, well, poop. Then she and her colleagues have about 20-30 seconds to swoop in behind the animal with a fine mesh net and scoop up some of the prized material before it drifts to the ocean floor.

Mind you, gray whales can reach a length of more than 40 feet and weigh more than 30 tons, making the retrieval of their daily constitutional somewhat daunting. Yet Torres, a principal investigator in the university’s Marine Mammal Institute, insists that it really isn’t that bad.

“We’re just looking for a few grams of material and to be honest, it doesn’t even smell that bad,” she said. “Now, collecting a DNA sample from a whale’s blow-hole – that’s a bad job. Their breath is horrendous.”

Being a marine pooper-scooper isn’t some strange fetish for the Oregon State research team. They are conducting a pilot project to determine how gray whales respond to ocean noise – both natural and human – and whether these noises cause physiological stress in the animals. Technology is changing the way the researchers are approaching their study.

“New advances in biotechnology allow us to use the fecal samples to look at a range of things that provide clues to the overall health and stress of the whales,” Torres said. “We can look at their hormone levels and genetically identify individual whales, their sex and whether they are pregnant. And we can analyze their prey and document what they’ve been eating.

“Previously, we would have to do a biopsy to learn some of these things and though they can be done safely, you typically don’t repeat the procedure often because it’s invasive,” she added. “Here, we can follow individual whales over a four-month feeding season and pick up multiple samples that can tell us changes in their health.”

The study is a pilot project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Acoustics Program to determine the impacts of noise on whale behavior and health. Torres, who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, focuses on gray whales because they are plentiful and close to shore.

“Many marine mammals are guided by acoustics and use sound to locate food, to navigate, to communicate with one another and to find a mate,” said Torres, a faculty member in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and an ecologist with the Oregon Sea Grant program.

Ten years ago, such a study would not have been possible, Torres acknowledged. In addition to new advances in genetic and hormone analyses, the OSU team uses a drone to fly high above the whales. It not only detects when they defecate, it is giving them unprecedented views of whale behavior.

“We are seeing things through the drone cameras that we have never seen before,” Torres said. “Because of the overhead views, we now know that whales are much more agile in their feeding. We call them ‘bendy’ whales because they make such quick, sharp turns when feeding. These movements just can’t be seen from the deck of a ship.”

The use of small, underwater Go-Pro cameras allows them to observe what the whales are feeding upon below. The researchers can identify zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, and fish in the water column near feeding whales, and estimate abundance – helping them understand what attracts the whales to certain habitats.

Joe Haxel and Sharon Nieukirk are acoustic scientists affiliated with OSU's Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies and the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at the Hatfield center who are assisting with the project. They deploy drifting hydrophones near the whales to record natural and human sounds, help operate the overhead drone camera that monitors the whales’ behavior, and also get in on the fecal analysis.

“Gray whales are exposed to a broad range of small- and medium-sized boat traffic that includes sport fishing and commercial fleets,” Haxel said. “Since they are very much a coastal species, their exposure to anthropogenic noise is pretty high. That said, the nearshore environment is already very noisy with natural sounds including wind and breaking surf, so we’re trying to suss out some of the space and time patterns in noise levels in the range of habitats where the whales are found.”

It will take years for the researchers to learn how ocean noise affects whale behavior and health, but as ocean noises continue increasing – through ship traffic, wave energy projects, sonar use, seismic surveys and storms – the knowledge they gain may be applicable to many whale species, Torres said.

And the key to this baseline study takes a skilled, professional pooper-scooper.

“When a whale defecates, it generates this reddish cloud and the person observing the whale usually screams “POOP!” and we spring into action,” Torres said. “It’s a moment of excitement, action - and also sheer joy. I know that sounds a little weird, but we have less than 30 seconds to get in there and scoop up some of that poop that may provide us with a biological gold mine of information that will help protect whales into the future.

“That’s not such a bad job after all, is it?”

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Source: 

Leigh Torres, 541-867-0895, leigh.torres@oregonstate.edu

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Link to: the whale fluke photo

 

 

For a video of the research, click here

 

 

 

 


 

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Aerial shot of a gray whale.

 

 

 

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Researchers use a drone to monitor whale behavior