OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

hatfield marine science center

Oregon State part of new NSF research program in the Arctic

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University and five other universities this week received an award to initiate a new Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project in the Arctic that will explore how relationships between the land and water affect coastal ecosystems along the northern Alaskan coast.

The project has been funded by a five-year, $5.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and will join 25 existing and two recently awarded coastal LTER sites that form a network of terrestrial and aquatic biomes worldwide.

Two of the new coastal sites, the Northern Gulf of Alaska and the Northeastern U.S. Shelf, are in very productive regions for fisheries. The third site, The Beaufort Sea Lagoons, is the first marine ecosystem LTER in the Arctic Ocean. The project, “Beaufort Sea Lagoons: An Arctic Coastal Ecosystem in Transition,” is supported by NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.

 “It is a very rich, very important ecosystem and we don’t have a good understanding of how it works,” said Yvette Spitz, one of two OSU oceanographers who are principal investigators with the project. “There are chemicals, nutrients and other organic materials that are transported from the land to the ocean, passing through lagoons along the way.”

“One of the goals of the project is to understand how the transport of these materials is affected by changing precipitation, sea ice and melting permafrost – and what effect that has on biological productivity. These changes are presently occurring and are the most rapid in the Arctic”

Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin are leading the project, in collaboration with researchers at Oregon State, University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Texas El Paso, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and University of Toronto Mississauga.

Also participating will be young scientists from the native Iñupiat communities of Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) and Kaktovik, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“An important aspect of this LTER is the collaboration between scientists and the Iñupiat residents of the Beaufort Sea coast, which will greatly deepen our comprehensive understanding of these ecosystems,” said William Ambrose, director of the Arctic Observing Network in the NSF Office of Polar Programs.

The research will be based in Kaktovik, Utqiagvik, and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It will focus on a series of large, shallow (5-7 meters deep) lagoons that play a role in the transition of materials from land to sea.

Byron Crump, the other OSU oceanographer who is a principal investigator on the project, will focus on the smallest but most abundant organisms in the ecosystem – phytoplankton, bacteria, and other microbes.

“The old school of thinking was that bacteria were important in warmer ecosystems but not so much in colder regions like the Arctic,” Crump said. “We’re finding that isn’t true at all. Bacteria and other tiny organisms play critical roles in maintaining the food web that supports everything from krill to whales as well as important fisheries.”

Crump will look at the growth rates and genomic diversity of microbes, while Spitz will develop computer models that will evaluate how microbes, plankton and other small organisms influence the ecosystem and how they will be affected in the future under different scenarios of warming, increased precipitation and changes in groundwater.

Spitz and Crump are faculty members in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

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Yvette Spitz, 541-737-3227, yspitz@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Byron Crump, 541-737-4369, bcrump@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Photo of Beaufort lagoons (left): https://flic.kr/p/Sp3DZ5

 

 

 

Coastal erosion

Coastal erosion is one of the processes researchers will study.

Anomalous ocean conditions in 2015 may bode poorly for juvenile Chinook salmon survival

NEWPORT, Ore. – Fisheries managers have been predicting a slightly below-average run of spring Chinook salmon on the Columbia River this year but a newly published suggests that it may be worse.

According to researchers from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ocean conditions were historically bad in the spring of 2015, when migrating yearling fish that will comprise the bulk of this spring’s adult Chinook salmon run first went out to sea. In fact, Pacific Decadal Oscillation values – which reflect warm and cold sea surface temperatures – suggest it was one of the warmest nearshore oceans encountered by migrating Chinook salmon dating back to at least 1900.

The lack of food for the salmon in 2015 may have resulted in significant mortality that will show in this year’s run of Columbia River springers. One way or another, it will provide new information on fish survival and whether juvenile salmon prey data can help resource managers predict future returns.

Results of the research, which was funded by the Bonneville Power Administration and NOAA, have just been published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

About 80 percent of a typical spring Chinook run on the Columbia River come from fish that went out to sea as yearlings two years earlier, according to lead author Elizabeth Daly, a senior faculty research assistant with the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies, jointly operated by OSU and NOAA out of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

“When juvenile salmon first enter the ocean, it is a critical time for them,” Daly said. “They are adjusting to a salt-water environment, they have to eat to survive, and they have to avoid becoming prey themselves. When we sampled juvenile salmon in May and June of 2015, the fish were much smaller and thinner than usual, and many of them had empty stomachs. There just wasn’t anything for them to eat.”

Two key statistics stand out from 2015, the researchers noted. The California Current system off the West Coast was more than 2.5 degrees Celsius (or 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than normal, and the juvenile Chinook were smaller and skinnier than during a cold-water year, weighing an average of 17.6 percent less.

When the oceanic waters off Oregon and Washington are cold, young salmon primarily feed on readily available fish prey such as Pacific sand lance and smelts, which triggers their growth spurt. When waters are warmer, there is less food available, and they primarily eat juvenile anchovies and rockfish, which are less-desirable prey than cold-water species.

Daly said 2015 began on a somewhat positive note. Although cold-water larval fish species were absent, the researchers found abundant amounts of other larval fish in January, February and March, the fourth highest biomass in the last 18 years. Thus even in the absence of preferred cold-water species, there was food in the California Current system – at least for a while.

However, by the time the juvenile Chinook salmon migrated to the ocean later that spring, these larval anchovies and rockfish had all but disappeared – making even backup food sources for the salmon scarce.

The researchers theorize that these larval fish died off because they themselves had little to eat. Long-time NOAA biologist Bill Peterson told Daly and her colleagues that the Pacific Ocean off the Northwest coast in early 2015 was devoid of cold-water, lipid-rich copepods, a key element in the food chain. In 2015, it was so warm offshore that virtually no lipid-rich copepods were to be found.

“We think the larval anchovies and rockfish had nothing to eat, so they died off,” Daly said. “So when the salmon entered the ocean later that spring of 2015, the cupboard was bare.”

“During warm years, there is typically less upwelling that brings cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface,” said Richard Brodeur, a biologist with the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center and co-author on the study. “Salmon populations may be able to handle one year of warm temperatures and sparse food. But two or three years in a row could be disastrous.”

“The young salmon may have to travel farther north to find food, and they become highly susceptible to becoming prey themselves because of their weakened condition.”

Preliminary results from 2016 by study co-author Toby Auth suggest that ichthyoplankton biomass was again high in late winter, but it was dominated once more by anchovies and sardines, which normally spawn off Oregon in summer. Juvenile salmon sampled in the spring were small and somewhat thinner than normal, Daly said.

“For the first time, we found that the salmon were eating juvenile sardines in 2016 – a new prey for them,” she noted. “Sardines were spawning off the central Oregon coast for one of the first times because of the warm water. We don’t know the long-term impact this will have on salmon. Hopefully, it can become a new food source for them if waters remain warm.”

As this year’s run of spring Chinook salmon unfolds on the Columbia River, Daly and her colleagues will be watching to see if the numbers of adult fish returning align with predictions of a poor return based on 2015 ocean conditions, prey availability, and juvenile fish size.

It could provide valuable information to resource managers in the future.

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Elizabeth Daly, 541-270-1370, elizabeth.daly@oregonstate.edu;

Ric Brodeur, 541-867-0335, Richard.Brodeur@noaa.gov

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OSU to expand sediment core collection to one of largest in the world

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the nation’s most important repositories of oceanic sediment cores, located at Oregon State University, will more than double in size later this year when the university assumes stewardship of a collection of sediment cores taken from the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

OSU has received a pair of grants from the National Science Foundation to assume the curatorial stewardship of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean National Collection of Rock and Sediment Cores, housed at Florida State University since the mid-1960s. Oregon State will house the expanded collection in a sophisticated new facility located just off-campus.

NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, whose logistical support and awards to researchers allowed many of the cores to be obtained.

The OSU Marine and Geology Repository will be available to scientists around the world to study the sediment cores, which provide evidence of the Earth’s climate over the past millions of years, oceanic conditions, the history of the magnetic field, plate tectonics, seismic and volcanic events, ice ages and interglacial periods, and even the origin of life.

“These cores are time capsules, allowing scientists today to compare the conditions on the Earth we live in with the way it was eons ago,” said Thom Wilch, Earth Sciences program manager at NSF. “This collection of cores and samples is an incredible resources that has yielded many important scientific findings about the past. Preservation and curation by OSU ensures that the cores are available for future research by the national and international scientific communities.”

Oregon State has operated a sediment core lab since the 1970s, but its origins were rather modest, according to Joseph Stoner, a geologist in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-director of the OSU Marine and Geology Repository. Lacking a storage facility, the first cores were kept in a cooler at a Chinese restaurant in Corvallis.

From those humble beginnings, the repository has grown into a treasure trove for scientists, storing thousands of cores – mostly from the Pacific Ocean, with a few from the Arctic, Bering Sea, and many terrestrial lakes. The collection also includes dry terrestrial cores and dredged rocks from submarine volcanoes and the ocean floor.

“The expanded collection will include some 35 kilometers, or about 22 miles, of sediment cores, more than doubling the size of our current repository at Oregon State,” Stoner said. “OSU already shares on average 5,000 subsamples of the cores with scientists each year – a number that will more than double with the expansion.”

When completed over the next two years, the expanded repository will give Oregon State the premier collection of sediment cores from the Pacific and Southern oceans. It is difficult to put a dollar value on the cores, OSU researchers say, though their worth can be calculated in a different way.

“If we had to replace the cores in our current OSU repository, it would cost roughly a half billion dollars just in ship time to go collect them,” Stoner said. “That doesn’t include the cost of the people involved. To replace the Antarctic collection would easily cost more than $1 billion, since the Southern Ocean is so remote, travel is difficult, and you can only work two or three months out of the year.”

The real worth, though, is the cores’ scientific value, noted Anthony Koppers, co-director of the OSU repository and also a faculty member in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. The OSU collection includes cores that have sediments as old as 50 million years, and from as deep as a kilometer below the Earth’s surface.

The new Antarctic collection has the most complete set of cores from the Southern Ocean in the world and those cores provide an important look into the Earth’s climate history over the last few million years. The Southern Ocean collection also includes numerous cores gathered under the NSF-funded international Antarctic DRILLing Project (ANDRILL) program and provides clues to the history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet over the past 17 million years.

“This will bring a lot of researchers from around the world to Oregon State,” Koppers said. “The Antarctic research community is very active, very enthusiastic, and very diverse. With our new facility, we will have the capacity to work with researchers in numerous disciplines studying a variety of scientific questions.”

Oregon State will spend the next several months preparing the new facility, which will be unlike almost every other repository in the world. It will have a refrigerated industrial storage space of 18,000 square feet, the researchers note, providing plenty of room for the collection to grow over the next five decades.

The size of the facility likely will lead to other collections moving to Oregon State, Koppers predicted.

“Most core repositories are starving for space,” he said. “We anticipate hearing from them as word about the transfer and our new facility gets out.”

The new repository facility will occupy much of the former Nypro Building in Corvallis. In addition to the enormous refrigerated storage area, which has 28-foot-high ceilings for both cold and dry storage, it will include:

  • Up to 11 laboratory areas, including facilities for core splitters, imagery, microscopy, rock analysis, sediment analysis CT scanning and other scanning techniques;
  • Freezer storage for frozen ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica;
  • A laboratory where researchers can work on eight different cores at once while using digital imaging and data from the individual cores displayed on large-screen computer monitors;
  • A seminar room for 35 people, where cores can be brought in for classes and presentations;
  • Office space for resident scientists, staff, and visiting scientists.

Florida State University made the decision in 2015 not to compete for renewal as its Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science program was moving in a different academic direction. Koppers and Stoner submitted a bid for Oregon State to acquire the collection and were awarded two grants from NSF to transfer the Antarctic collection and to provide stewardship for it.

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Joseph Stoner, 541-737-9002, jstoner@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Anthony Koppers, 541-737-5425, akoppers@coas.oregonstate.edu

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(Photo available at: https://flic.kr/p/QRcnho)

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)

SeaPig

Methane seep (Image by Andrew Thurber, OSU)

CRSeep

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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By Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Catch share

"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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whale plate

Design of proposed plate

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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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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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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