hatfield marine science center

Miami marine science leader named director of OSU’s Hatfield center

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the nation’s leading marine science education and research facilities is getting a new director.

Robert K. Cowen, a marine biologist and administrator from Miami, Fla., has been named director of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. He succeeds George Boehlert, who recently retired.

Janet Webster will continue serving as interim director of the center until Cowen begins his duties in late July.

Cowen holds the Robert C. Maytag Chair of Ichthyology at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, where he has served on the faculty since 1998. He previously was on the faculty of State University of New York at Stony Brook and conducted research as a doctoral student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif.

“Bob Cowen has marine science education and research experience on both coasts and is well-suited to lead the Hatfield Marine Science Center into the future,” said Richard Spinrad, OSU’s vice president for research. “That future could include the development of a cohesive marine science-based curriculum as well as continuing to expand the center’s robust research and public outreach missions.”

Cowen’s studies range broadly, encompassing such issues as coastal fish ecology, fishery oceanography, larval transport and connectivity of marine organism populations. He has served on numerous national committees and panels, and is affiliated with the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), a multi-institutional research effort led by OSU. He also has served as associate dean for research at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“I am very enthusiastic about joining the Hatfield Marine Science Center and OSU – not only for their great reputation, but also for the huge potential for bridging marine science education and science activities across the university,” Cowen said.

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center is located on a 49-acre site in Newport, and has a combined annual budget of about $45 million and 300 employees. Its mission includes both research and education and what makes the facility unique, officials say, is that it houses scientists and educators from OSU and several federal and state agencies - a collaborative environment unmatched at most marine science facilities in the country.

Among those agencies are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Environmental Protection Agency.

The center also includes the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies – a joint research initiative between OSU and NOAA; the university’s Marine Mammal Institute; the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, which is the first of its kind in the country; and the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, a national leader in the development of wave energy.

“I look forward to working with all partners at Hatfield to further its education, science and public outreach missions,” Cowen said.

Story By: 

Rick Spinrad, 541-737-0662

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Robert Cowen

New study questions the role of kinship in mass strandings of pilot whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – Pilot whales that have died in mass strandings in New Zealand and Australia included many unrelated individuals at each event, a new study concludes, challenging a popular assumption that whales follow each other onto the beach and to almost certain death because of familial ties.

Using genetic samples from individuals in large strandings, scientists have determined that both related and unrelated individuals were scattered along the beaches – and that the bodies of mothers and young calves were often separated by large distances.

Results of the study are being published this week in the Journal of Heredity.

Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, said genetic identification showed that, in many cases, the mothers of calves were missing entirely from groups of whales that died in the stranding. This separation of mothers and calves suggests that strong kinship bonds are being disrupted prior to the actual stranding – potentially playing a role in causing the event.

“Observations of unusual social behavior by groups of whales prior to stranding support this explanation,” said Baker, who frequently advises the International Whaling Commission and is co-author of the Journal of Heredity article. The OSU cetacean expert is a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

The mass stranding of pilot whales is common in New Zealand and Australia, involving several thousand deaths over the last few decades, according to Marc Oremus of the University of Auckland, who is lead author on the study. The researchers say their genetic analysis of 490 individual pilot whales from 12 different stranding events showed multiple maternal lineages among the victims in each stranding, and thus no correlation between kinship and the grouping of whales on the beach.

This challenges another popular hypothesis – that “care-giving behavior” directed at close maternal relatives may be responsible for the stranding of otherwise healthy whales, Oremus said.

“If kinship-based behavior was playing a causal role in strandings, we would expect that whales in a stranding event would be related to one another through descent from a common maternal ancestor, such as a grandmother or great-grandmother – and that close kin would be clustered on the beach,” Oremus said. “Neither of these was the case.”

Because of the separation of mothers and calves, or in some cases, the outright absence of mothers among the victims, the study has important implications for agencies and volunteers who work to save the stranded whales, Baker said.

“Rescue efforts aimed at ‘refloating’ stranded whales often focus on placing stranded calves with the nearest mature females, on the assumption that the closest adult female is the mother,” Baker pointed out.  “Our results suggest that rescuers should be cautious when making difficult welfare decisions – such as the choice to rescue or euthanize a calf – based on this assumption alone.”

Long-finned pilot whales are the most common species to strand en masse worldwide, the researchers noted, and most of their beaching events are thought to be unrelated to human activity – unlike strandings of some other species. Both naval sonar and the noise of seismic exploration have been linked to the stranding of other species.

The phenomenon is not new. In fact, mass strandings of whales or dolphins were described by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago and were thought to have some kind of natural cause, Baker said, although it is unclear what that may be.

“It is usually assumed that environmental factors, such as weather or the pursuit of prey, brings pilot whales into shallow water where they become disoriented,” Baker said. “Our results suggest that some form of social disruption also contributes to the tendency to strand.”

“It could be mating interaction or competition with other pods of whales,” Baker said. “We just don’t know. But it is certainly something that warrants further investigation.”

The researchers hope their study will lead to better genetic sampling of more pilot whales and other stranded whale species, as well as the use of satellite tags to monitor the survival and behavior of whales that are helped back into the ocean.

“The causal mechanisms of these strandings remain an enigma,” Oremus said, “so the more avenues of research we can pursue before and after the whales beach themselves, the more likely we are to discover why it happens.”

The study was funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, with support from the New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Australian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. Baker’s work is supported by a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship for the study of dolphins around islands of the South Pacific.

Story By: 

Scott Baker, 541-272-0560

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Invasive species danger from tsunami may not be known for years

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists from Oregon State University, who have examined more than three dozen pieces of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami that have washed ashore on the Northwest coast, say the potential damage from invasive species may not be known for years.

The researchers say some of the pieces of debris they’ve examined have included algae, barnacles, mussels, starfish, snails and other organisms that are found only in Asia. While few species on the floating debris are native exclusively to the West Coast of the United States, several of the species they examined can be found in both locations.

Which of the species originating in Asia, if any, gains a toehold in the Pacific Northwest – and what potential damage there may be ecologically and economically – is nearly impossible to anticipate, they say.

“Ecologists have a terrible track record of predicting what introduced species will survive and where,” acknowledged John Chapman, a marine invasive species specialist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “The real question for scientists who study these species is the big picture view – how do things get introduced into a new location and move around the world?

“The Japanese tsunami was a terrible tragedy and the debris that is arriving is certainly an unintended consequence,” he added. “But it is providing us with an unprecedented experiment on species introduction.”

Chapman and OSU colleague Jessica Miller were among the first scientists to examine the huge dock that washed ashore in June of 2012 near Newport. Ripped from its moorings in Misawa, Japan, it floated across the Pacific Ocean for 15 months, arriving near Agate Beach covered in seaweed, barnacles, mussels and other organisms.

Since then, they have examined another Misawa dock that beached in northwest Washington, as well as numerous boats and other large pieces of debris. Models produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that another peak of debris will arrive on the West Coast between now and June, as favorable winds and currents drive floating objects ashore.

It should subside during the late spring and summer, Miller noted, but some debris is projected to arrive over the next five years.

“We’re observing more ‘settlement’ on these debris items that appears to have occurred soon after the tsunami,” said Miller, an OSU marine ecologist at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Recently, we have sampled several boats that were clearly colonized by animals, such as the blue mussel, after the tsunami.

“We are trying to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that allow organisms to disperse across the ocean,” she added.

The researchers say that some of the Asian aquatic species that “hitchhiked” aboard the tsunami debris may have reproduced during their trans-Pacific journey, and it is possible they could have released gametes into local coastal waters. This increases the chance that these non-native organisms may become established and turn into invasive species.

Once established, these species also have the potential to breed with similar local species and create hybrid organisms, the researchers noted. “Certainly there is precedent for that in the invasive species world,” Chapman pointed out. “Just look at kudzu, Himalayan blackberry and English ivy – they’re all hybrids. So the potential exists.”

The OSU scientists and three other researchers have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to quantify the species arriving on tsunami debris, assess their abundance, and characterize the organisms morphologically and genetically. They also are examining the species’ reproductive state and looking for parasites on host organisms.

Other researchers involved in the project include Jim Carlton of Williams College, who is one of the leading experts in the world on marine invasive species; Gregory Ruiz of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Portland State University (who studies parasites and pathogens); and Jon Geller of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (who studies genetics).

As the two-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami approaches, the OSU scientists say the risk of non-native species aboard the debris becoming invasive is still very real.

“From day one, we’ve been asked which species we should be worried about,” Chapman said, “and the answer is just not that simple. We cannot predict which starfish or algae species poses the biggest threat – but we know that invasions in general are bad. We just don’t know which of them, if any, will turn out to be a problem five, 10 or 20 years down the road.

“And we do know that the rate of new, introduced species discoveries has increased exponentially over the last hundred years,” Chapman added. “More are coming.”

Miller concurs, saying the threat from the tsunami debris may not be known for years.

“I think it is safe to say that we are still concerned that some of these non-native species could establish themselves along our West Coast,” she said. “And the potential ecological impacts could be significant.”

Story By: 

John Chapman, 541-867-0235

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ODFW photo of Japanese boat
Boat from Japan
at Gleneden Beach

Tsunami debris species 1
Japanese organism
attached to the boat

Tsunami debris image 3
Buoy from Astoria

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center to unveil Japanese dock exhibit on March 10

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new exhibit featuring a portion of a dock that washed ashore near Newport more than a year after the devastating March 2011 Tohoku, Japan, earthquake and tsunami will open on Sunday, March 10, at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The unveiling of the tsunami awareness exhibit will begin at 2 p.m. at the center, located at 2030 Marine Science Drive in Newport, just southeast of the Highway 101 bridge. It is free and open to the public.

The opening and dedication takes place two years after a massive earthquake rattled northern Japan, triggering a tsunami that killed thousands of people. The tsunami also inundated Japan’s coastline and ripped loose at least three massive docks from the city of Misawa, one of which floated across the Pacific Ocean and washed ashore just north of Newport near Agate Beach in early June of 2012.

A slice of the dock was cut away and preserved, and will serve as an educational exhibit and memorial to the events that brought it to Oregon.

“The exhibit will be a vivid reminder that a similar earthquake and tsunami could just as easily happen here in the Pacific Northwest,” said Janet Webster, interim director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “The exhibit also will highlight the risk from invasive species, and detail the journey of the dock from Misawa to Newport.”

Webster said the dock has been of great interest to the public and to scientists since it arrived at Agate Beach. It drew thousands of visitors to the coast before it was carted away and cut into pieces, and captured the attention of biologists who rushed to examine the dozens of living organisms attached to the structure.

Television crews from Japan have visited the OSU center several times to follow up on the story, and the arrival of other tsunami debris up and down the coast brings another wave of attention.

Shawn Rowe, an OSU free-choice learning specialist based at Hatfield, said the exhibit provides a good opportunity to broaden public awareness about earthquakes, tsunamis, invasive species, and preparedness. It resonates with the public, he noted, because it had not occurred in recorded history.

“It was a unique confluence of circumstances that led to the dock arriving in Newport,” Rowe pointed out. “While fishing floats, logs and debris arrive on the West Coast from Asia with some regularity, rarely does a structure this large that had been anchored for years in an inlet in Japan – and thus accumulating local seaweeds and organisms – rip loose and journey across the ocean.”

The Hatfield Marine Science Center recently installed a tsunami interpretive trail beginning at the center, which highlights an evacuation route to higher ground for employees, residents and visitors to Newport’s South Beach peninsula.

Story By: 

Mark Farley, 541-207-5283

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Newport to hold tsunami evacuation drill on Oct. 11

NEWPORT, Ore. – Growing awareness of the potential dangers of a major earthquake and tsunami has prompted Oregon State University and community leaders in the coastal town of Newport to expand the scope of their annual tsunami evacuation drill.

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center is coordinating the exercise, which will begin at 10:18 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11. Several hundred participants are expected from OSU and the federal and state agencies co-located on the South Beach peninsula, and well as employees and residents from adjacent locations. As part of the drill, Highway 101 will close for five minutes.

The OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center is located on Newport’s South Beach Peninsula, a growing hub for marine science research and applications – and right in the tsunami inundation zone. The area also includes the new NOAA Marine Operations Center – Pacific, the Port of Newport’s public marina, the Oregon Coast Aquarium and headquarters for Rogue Ales.

George Boehlert, director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center, said the 300 or so employees at the center are well aware of tsunami dangers. In fact, NOAA and OSU scientists located there conduct cutting-edge research on tsunamis and subsea earthquakes and volcanoes and they helped prompt the first drills, which last year were expanded to include all of the South Beach Peninsula neighbors.

The closest high ground for many South Beach peninsula workers and residents is a hill just west of the entrance to the Yaquina Bay Bridge. Dubbed “Safe Haven Hill”, the Oregon Department of Transportation-owned property is more than 85 feet high and estimated to accommodate several thousand people if necessary.

Although it is possible to reach the top, the hill appears overgrown and inaccessible, with access limited to two rough, steep trails. The City of Newport is aggressively pursuing grant funding to increase access.

“Safe Haven Hill serves as a critical assembly point for South Beach Peninsula evacuees, and making it accessible to as many people as need it is a high priority for us,” said Newport Mayor Mark McConnell. “HMSC has been a great partner, and their activities have helped the city jump-start our outreach efforts to other neighborhoods within the inundation zone.”

Maryann Bozza, program manager for the OSU center and organizer of the drill, said the goal in last year’s exercise was “to reach our actual evacuation point, which is the top of the hill at 85 feet, and build confidence in our staff that we can achieve 85 feet of elevation in 15 minutes.”

“This year we'll take the next step and throw in some obstacles, which are likely after a large earthquake,” Bozza said. “Evacuees may not be able to make a bee line for the top of the hill, so they need to be aware of alternate routes."

The challenge of safely escorting several hundred people across the Oregon Coast’s busiest highway has become a community-wide effort. A team led by Newport Police Officer Tom Lekas includes the Newport Police, Newport Police Volunteers, Lincoln County Emergency Management, Newport Fire Department, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members, Oregon Emergency Management and Oregon Department of Transportation.

“The road closure is an inconvenience to drivers, but it is a key component of a realistic drill,” said Boehlert. “The only other route to Safe Haven Hill passes under the Yaquina Bay Bridge, which is likely to be down or unsafe after a major earthquake.”

The Oct. 11 drill will begin at 10:18 a.m., with a highway closure of less than five minutes in both directions planned for about 10:30 a.m. Several hundred participants are expected and the entire drill is expected to last one hour.

A second drill will occur on Thursday, Oct. 18, in conjunction with the statewide Great Oregon Shakeout drill, scheduled for “10/18 at 10:18.” At that drill, South Beach Peninsula participants will walk to the Oregon Coast Community College hill, which is a mile away and serves as an alternate evacuation point for South Beach peninsula employees. No highway closures are planned for that day.

Story By: 

Maryann Bozza, 541-867-0234; cell: 541-219-2612

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Image taken from 2011 tsunami evacuation drill at Hatfield Marine Science Center. Photo Credit: Newport News-Times.

OSU, City of Newport plan for exhibit featuring piece of tsunami dock

NEWPORT, Ore. – A section from a huge dock that ripped loose from its moorings in the northern Japanese city of Misawa during the massive earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011 will become part of an exhibit in Newport, Ore., just a few miles from where it washed ashore in early June of this year.

The dock, which became an instant tourist attraction for several weeks, has since been dismantled. But a piece of the huge structure has been saved and will be on display at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center by early next year.

The City of Newport is providing initial funding for the project and Mayor Mark McConnell hopes donations will fill the gaps. When finished, the dock section will be mounted outside of the HMSC Visitor Center, accompanied by educational signage as well as a memorial plaque. The exhibit is being developed by Oregon Sea Grant, which manages the Visitor Center, and will serve as the start of an eventual interpretive trail built along the tsunami evacuation route from the OSU center to higher ground.

“That would certainly be fitting,” said McConnell, who visited Sendai, Japan, last summer. “The devastation we saw in Japan was incredible. You realize when you see it first-hand that you can’t plan or build for an event of that magnitude, but you can prepare for it by educating yourself about the risks and creating strategies for safe evacuation.

“The exhibit will be a reminder that the tragedy in Japan could just as easily happen here,” he added.

Shawn Rowe, an OSU free-choice learning specialist based at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, said the focus of the planned exhibit’s educational effort will be on tsunami awareness, the risk of invasive species from the tsunami debris, and how the dock got here in the first place.

“It is a good opportunity to broaden public awareness about such issues,” said Rowe, who works for Oregon Sea Grant. “This was a unique event. Certainly, materials float over from Japan quite often. But rarely, if ever, have we seen a confluence of circumstances that led to the dock arriving in Newport, Ore.”

Fishing floats, logs and debris arrive on the West Coast from Asia with some regularity, but rarely does a structure this large that had been anchored for years in an inlet in Japan – and thus accumulating local seaweeds and organisms – rip loose and journey across the ocean.

“What was surprising to us is that so many of the plants and animals that were attached to the dock survived the 15-month journey across the Pacific Ocean,” said Jessica Miller, an OSU marine ecologist who has studied the dozens of plant and animal species on the dock. “What we don’t yet know is whether these species have established themselves in local waters with the potential to become invasive.”

Mark Farley, who manages the HMSC Visitor Center, said the dock section will be delivered to Newport in the next few weeks, and work on the foundation for the display and signage will continue into the early part of 2013.

“Our hope is to have the exhibit open to the public by the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami next March,” Farley said.

For more information on donating to the Japanese dock exhibit at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, go to: http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/visitor/get-involved/donate, or call Mark Farley at 541-867-0276.

Story By: 

Shawn Rowe, 541-867-0190

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Community forums planned to discuss site for wave energy test facility

NEWPORT, Ore. – Three public forums will be held in August on the Oregon coast to discuss four possible locations for a “grid connected” wave energy testing facility, the final phase of the wave energy testing program being developed by the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, or NNMREC, at Oregon State University.

Completion of this Pacific Marine Energy Center is still several years in the future. But its construction and completion will provide jobs, aid economic growth, attract researchers and industries from all over the world, and help experts determine which type of wave energy technologies work best, in what conditions and for what purposes.

Officials say the facility will be a complement to the Ocean Sentinel, a mobile wave energy testing system developed by OSU that’s already nearing completion and will soon begin operation on the Oregon coast near Newport, with ocean testing of a “WetNZ” device developed by private industry.

The communities being considered for the Pacific Marine Energy Center are Newport, Reedsport, Coos Bay, and Camp Rilea near Warrenton, all of which have characteristics that could make them suitable for the project.

NNMREC is waiting to receive final approval this fall for $4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for more detailed studies and design work. It also is working closely with the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, a key partner in development of the project. A development plan for this project is already under way, which will determine the best site, estimated costs and other issues.

“We’ve already been talking with community leaders and other officials for some time about this project, and now we want to broaden the discussion, hear more viewpoints,” said Kaety Hildenbrand, a marine fisheries Extension leader with the Oregon Sea Grant program, which is based at OSU.

“The purpose of these forums is to help people understand what we’re trying to do, and listen to their interests, questions and concerns,” Hildenbrand said. “One part of our goal is simple. We want to find a good fit, a situation where most residents want this facility and feel positive about it.”

The “grid connection” means that the electricity produced by wave energy testing could be connected through cables to the shore and used commercially for electrical power.

The forums, which are free and open to the public, will all be from 5:30-7:30 p.m., at three sites:

  • Aug. 20, Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport
  • Aug. 22, Pacific Auditorium in Reedsport
  • Aug. 23, Coos Bay Public Library, Myrtlewood Room, in Coos Bay

A fourth forum may be held at Camp Rilea this fall following some further consultation with officials involved.

OSU and NNMREC are national leaders in the development of wave energy, a potentially huge, sustainable energy resource that could produce significant amounts of electrical power with no greenhouse gas emissions. Work is under way in three primary areas – developing and testing new technologies; doing research on possible biological or environmental concerns; and conducting human dimensions research and public outreach, engagement and education.

When complete, the Pacific Marine Energy Center would have four test berths connected to a regional electrical grid, capable of testing individual, full-scale, or small arrays of devices up to one megawatt in size. It would offer standardized power analysis at an accredited facility, power demonstration on the electrical grid, and many other features that could help this evolving industry move forward.

Because of its steady and powerful wave energy resource, it’s expected that Oregon will be the location of the nation’s first commercial generation of wave-produced electricity, officials say.


Story By: 

Kaety Hildenbrand, 541-574-6537, ext. 27

Coastal visitors may encounter whales – but what kind are they likely to be?

NEWPORT, Ore. – For the past several weeks, gray whales that spent the spring breeding or calving in the waters off Mexico have been arriving in the Pacific Northwest to feed for the summer and fall, including areas along the Oregon coast.

The gray whales often are visible to coastal visitors from the bluffs along Highway 101, or to ocean fishing enthusiasts pursuing salmon, halibut or other fish. Whale-watching tours available in many coastal ports introduce hundreds of tourists to migrating and resident whales.

But gray whales aren’t the only species of whale that can be seen off Oregon, according to experts at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.

“You can sometimes spot humpback whales and blue whales along the coast, but typically they are further from shore,” said Barb Lagerquist, who does whale research for the institute, located in OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Having said that, people last year got a rare peek at blues and humpbacks within a couple of miles of shore off Depoe Bay.”

During migration, gray whales often travel close to shore, with mothers and calves close together, Lagerquist noted, and it isn’t uncommon to see groups of three to five adults together. There is a small population of gray whales – perhaps 200 or so – that feed off the coasts of northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and southeast Alaska from May to October, rather than migrating to the Arctic. These resident whales are known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group.

“We have already seen some of these animals along the coast this year,” Lagerquist said. “They feed very close to shore in waters depths of less than 20 meters. We recently saw a mother-calf pair inside the tip of the north jetty in Newport’s Yaquina Bay as we were heading out in our boat.”

Less frequent visitors to Oregon waters are minke whales, which are more common off Asia and in the Arctic, but will occasionally venture within a few miles of shore.

How can you tell what kind of whale you’re seeing? Lagerquist said the keys to whale identification are body size, color, the presence or absence of dorsal fins, and the position and shape of the dorsal fins. Most whales seen off Oregon will be grays, she added, especially close to shore.

Here is a link to some photos from OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute: http://bit.ly/Mu5Zm8

Gray whales: Adult gray whales are about 35 to 45 feet in length, and are a mottled gray in color with occasional white spots and white barnacle scars. They usually have patches of barnacles and whale lice on their bodies.

Gray whales don’t have a dorsal fin, but have dorsal “knuckles” – a series of bumps protruding from their back and extending along their tail. “The first knuckle can be quite large and look like a small dorsal fin,” Lagerquist said.

Humpback whales are slightly bigger than grays – about 40 to 50 feet in length – and are dark gray or even black in color. They have very long, narrow “wing-like” pectoral fins, which can be white on the underside. Humpbacks also have a small, stepped dorsal fin.

Humpbacks are very acrobatic, Lagerquist said, and can often be seen breaching, or propelling almost their entire body out of the water – spinning around and landing on their back or side.

Minkes are the smallest baleen whale, at 23 to 33 feet. They are dark gray to black with white bands on the top of their small pectoral fins – sometimes called “white mittens.” They may also haves a pale gray chevron, or swirling pattern, on their back, and they have a prominent falcate dorsal fin. Sightings of these animals close to Northwest shores are rare.

Blue whales are occasionally seen off the coast and are notable because of their massive size, Lagerquist said. These whales can reach lengths of 75 to 85 feet and weight as much as 240,000 pounds. Blue whales are a mottled bluish-gray color and have a small dorsal fin on the back quarter of their body that may be falfcate, pointed or triangular in shape.

Killer whales may also be seen along the Oregon coast, most commonly in spring months during the gray whale mother/calf migration. Killer whales are not technically whales, but rather the largest member of the dolphin family, reaching 20 to 32 feet in length. They have a striking black and white color pattern, with a white eye patch, a white patch extending from underneath up their sides, and a gray “saddle patch” behind their dorsal fin. Adult males have a very tall, triangular dorsal fin; female dorsal fins are falcate.

Lagerquist reminds coastal visitors that all marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and it is illegal to harass them. Vessels or people in the water should not approach whales closer than 100 yards. Violators may be subject to fines and/or imprisonment.

More information on whales is available in publications by Oregon Sea Grant at: http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/sgpubs/collection/marine-animals

Story By: 

Barb Lagerquist, 541-867-0322

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California Blue Whale
A blue whale off Oregon's coast

Species identified from the Japanese dock that washed ashore

NEWPORT, Ore. – As scientists continue identifying the organisms attached to a floating dock from the 2011 Japanese tsunami that came ashore at Agate Beach just north of Newport, Ore., earlier this month they also are casting a wary eye to the future and what other potential invasive species may arrive.

“The floating dock can be considered a wakeup call that conveniently arrived on the beach within five miles of a leading marine science center,” said Jessica Miller, an Oregon State University marine ecologist who was one of the first scientists to examine the organisms. “This provides us with a spectacular opportunity to understand the overall invasion process and the risks associated with tsunami debris fields to come.”

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is leading the state’s response to the invasive species threat and coordinating with OSU, state and federal agencies and other partners. ODFW has established a website http://www.dfw.state.or.us/conservationstrategy/invasive_species.asp that keeps the public, scientists and the media informed about best practices for disposing of debris with organisms on it.

The Oregon Invasive Species Council has a hotline for reporting suspected invasive species at 1-866-INVADER.

Miller and colleague John Chapman, who work out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, have identified as many as 50 different organisms from the dock, which has definitively been linked to Japan. They are still trying to identify and catalog some of the remaining species.

The fear, researchers say, is the species that arrive on debris from Japan may colonize along the West Coast, which has been most vulnerable to invasive species brought here in the ballast water of ships, as well as by other mechanisms. Tsunami debris is an undocumented, if not new threat for invasives.

“Among the living organisms that we have identified from the dock are some that could aggressively invade local marine environments and threaten native species,” said Chapman an OSU aquatic invasive species specialist from the university’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “The real question is how many of these organisms may have left the dock before it was beached.”

Chapman said some of the species that have the most potential for successful invasion are the Northern Pacific seastar (Asterias amurensis), the Japanese shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus), and a species of brown algae (Undaria pinnatifida), which had covered the dock, which was 66 feet long, 19 feet wide and seven feet high.

Gayle Hansen, an OSU botany and plant pathology specialist, is working with Hiroshi Kawai from Kobe University in Japan on further identification of algal species, and the OSU scientists are also working with Jim Carlton of Williams College to find taxonomic experts to help with identification.

Other organisms aboard the dock include at least eight species of mollusk, an anemone, a sponge, an oyster, a solitary tunicate, a granular claw crab, three or more species of amphipods, four or more species of barnacles and worms, bryozoans, a European blue mussel known as Mytilus galloprovincialis, and a sea urchin.

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center has created a website that has photos of some of the identified species, It can be found at http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/floatingdock

Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer who specializes in currents, says the dock that arrived at Agate Beach could have landed elsewhere if it had reached nearshore waters a few weeks earlier or later. The key, he said, is how seasonal winds create currents.

“Summertime winds come from the north and push currents south,” Barth said. “Because the Earth is rotating, that pushes things away from the shore and may keep some debris out at sea for a while. But when these northerly winds reverse and become southerly – or just relax and weaken – the surface flow is back on shore and that will bring debris with it.

“After about mid-October, coastal currents will reverse and flow to the north,” Barth added, “so at that point, we can expect more debris to land in Washington and British Columbia.”

Barth said there are some areas of the coast – including near Coos Bay and Winchester Bay – where currents sweep close to shore and may attract more debris. Conversely, he said, debris can get caught in an offshore “convergence zone” and drift hundreds of miles up the coastline before beaching.

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Jessica Miller, 541-867-0381

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Scientists hope OSU whale-tracking data can reduce accidental deaths

NEWPORT, Ore. – A multi-agency team of scientists has launched a project to reduce the number of whales killed from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing nets by identifying high-risk areas along the West Coast of the United States.

The WhaleWatch project will use data from the tagging and satellite monitoring of more than 300 whales, conducted by researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, and combine it with environmental data and human activities to look for areas where whales and ships are most likely to intersect – and when it is most likely to occur.

The project will involve scientists from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as Oregon State.

Bruce Mate, director of the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, has led tagging studies of numerous populations of seven whale species over the past three decades. The tags can last anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year, and provide scientists with details about migration routes, feeding areas, frequency of diving and other activities.

“We hope that the study shows any propensities for risk where there is strong overlap between whale migration routes and anthropogenic activities,” said Mate, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. “We know, for example, that the West Santa Barbara Channel off California is a place where blue whales feed and it is right in the middle of shipping lanes to the Los Angeles harbor.

“Identifying the seasonal trends, as well as the geographical movement, may help policymakers find ways to better protect the whales,” Mate added. “We’re just trying to provide the science.”

Project leader Helen Bailey, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said a number of recent net entanglements involving gray whales off California illustrates the need for the research, which is being funded by a variety of agencies and organizations.

“A first step in reducing these threats to whales is to have a better understanding of where the whales go,” Bailey said. “We will be analyzing the largest satellite tracking dataset for large North Pacific whales from Oregon State University, and combining it with satellite-derived environmental data.”

Mate has seen first-hand the results of whales’ interactions with ships. In 2007, he tagged a number of blue whales off the southern California coast during a project featured in a 2009 National Geographic Channel documentary, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale.” During the three months surrounding the field work, five blue whales were struck by ships in the immediate area and died.

“That was really sobering,” Mate said. “To see that kind of an impact on one species, in a small geographic area, really demonstrated how at-risk some species may be – and how difficult it may be for struggling populations of whales to recover.”

Mate and his colleagues at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., are pioneers in the use of satellites to monitor tagged whales. They most recently tracked a western gray whale named Varvara from Russia’s Sakhalin Island all the way to the breeding grounds of Mexico – and back.

As technology has improved, so has the ability to track whales during their entire migration routes.

“When we first started,” Mate recalled, “we were lucky if the tags lasted more than a month. Whales can be tough on tags, and the Pacific Ocean can be a rugged place. Now we routinely deploy tags that usually last for three or more months and show us where the whales seasonally feed, breed and birth their calves – and it is that ability to monitor through the seasons that is so important.”

The tag used by the researchers that has lasted the longest reached 620 days, on a sperm whale.

The WhaleWatch project is being funded by NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the Pacific Predators Program, NOAA, OSU, and the Office of Naval Research.

Story By: 

Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

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California Blue Whale