OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

Fossil Fest set for Feb. 12 at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center

NEWPORT, Ore. – Have you found an interesting fossil on an Oregon beach and wondered about its origin? Are you curious about what other treasures can be found on our shoreline?

Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center will hold a special event on Saturday, Feb. 12, called “Fossil Fest.” It will feature William Orr, known as Oregon’s pre-eminent paleontologist, and co-author of the book, “Oregon Fossils,” with his wife, Elizabeth. Published by the OSU Press, it is considered the definitive book on the state’s paleontology.

The Hatfield center is located on the south side of Yaquina Bay, just below the Hwy. 101 bridge. Visitors are encouraged to bring their fossils, or other beach finds, to the center on Feb. 12, and Orr will attempt to identify them.

He also will give a presentation at 1:30 p.m. at the center called “Digging up the King’s Valley Groundsloth.”

Other activities for Fossil Fest include a fossil swap and special displays staffed by the North American Research Group.

The HMSC visitor center, operated by Oregon Sea Grant, is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is by a suggested donation.

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Bill Hanshumaker, 541-867-0167

Forum paper: Scientists urge new research policies in wake of Gulf disaster

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists are having a difficult time gauging the recovery of marine species from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico because they lack sufficient data about historical population size and the distribution, growth rates and reproduction rates of many species.

In a forum paper published this week in the journal Science, they call for a new research agenda that prioritizes systematic acquisition of baseline data for marine species.

“It is impossible to diagnose whether a species is recovering or floundering if you don’t have good data on their status and trends,” said Selina Heppell, an Oregon State University fisheries biologist and one of the authors of the article. “Too much of the funding in this country goes toward putting fires out instead of gaining basic biological information, which is what resource managers need to identify and diagnose changes at the population level.

“This is not just about the Gulf of Mexico,” Heppell added. “It is a problem for protected species everywhere.”

Heppell, lead author Karen Bjorndal from the University of Florida, and eight other authors point to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, where scientists encountered difficulty evaluating the effects on wildlife because of limited data on abundance and demography – the rates of survival, growth and reproduction that are primary indicators of population change.

“Sadly,” they wrote, “the situation in the (Gulf of Mexico) is similar more than 20 years later.”

Heppell, who is a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, said doing an ecological and biological assessment of all marine species would be difficult and expensive. Therefore, she says, the emphasis should be on those species that are the most endangered, or those that have an economic impact, such as those creatures that interact with important fisheries.

“We spend millions of dollars assessing fish stocks,” she said. “If we want to monitor endangered species in the same way, we need to focus resources on the aspects of biology that provide the best information about population recovery. That involves research on demography, not just efforts to count individuals.”

In their Science article, the authors describe the assessment of sea turtle populations as a microcosm of the larger issue. Sea turtle populations are monitored almost exclusively by counting nests on beaches, but when those populations increase or decrease, scientists often don’t know why because nesting females are such a tiny fraction of the total population. In Florida, the number of loggerhead turtles, for example, increased from 1989-98, then plummeted.

Several factors could have contributed, but a lack of knowledge about age distribution, reproduction rates, mortality rates and other data have made it difficult to determine what triggered the changes – and impossible to create  management strategies to deal with them, noted Heppell, who has worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service on turtle conservation issues since 1995.

In contrast, Australian researchers have logged 30 years of demographic data on loggerhead turtles and when a steep decline in their population on the Great Barrier Reef took place in the 1980s and 1990s, they were able to attribute it to predation by foxes on nests and incidental capture in trawl fisheries.

“Both hazards have now been mitigated by government agencies,” the authors wrote,” resulting in an apparently recovering stock.”

The authors list seven elements that should be considered in crafting new research priorities for protected marine species, including sea birds and mammals, as well as turtles:

  • Integrate demography with abundance trends for the species at all life stages and determine environmental effects on those parameters;
  • Emphasize analyses of cumulative effects instead of focusing on individual threats such as pollution, bycatch or habitat loss;
  • Elucidate links among and within populations since oceans have greater movement, genetic exchange and dispersal than terrestrial systems;
  • Revise permitting processes to allow more rapid and flexible response to environmental concerns;
  • Encourage data sharing and increase access to data as a prerequisite for funding;
  • Improve assessment tools for evaluating anthropogenic impacts on populations;
  • Prioritize investments to focus on long-term population management needs.

 

“We know that hundreds, possibly thousands, of endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles were killed or injured by the Gulf spill,” Heppell said. “That species had been recovering rapidly – a great conservation success story. What we don’t know, and can’t determine with available data, is how detrimental the spill effects will be on that recovery.

“We can use money from the resulting fines to develop a new strategy for monitoring and assessment that can identify the specific causes of population decline and make management more efficient,” she added.

Shifting the priorities of federal agencies to focus on research that emphasizes how and why populations change over time is a key, the authors say.

Conclude the authors: “In the wake of the BP oil spill, the need for this policy shift is as clear as it is compelling. If the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history is not enough to effect this policy shift, what would it take?”

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Hydrophones in North Atlantic document endangered right whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists using undersea hydrophones have documented the appearance of endangered right whales in a region east of Greenland, where they historically had been hunted but were thought to be extinct.

The scientists recorded more than 2,000 whale vocalizations from 2007-08, and since have identified them as right whales and mapped the geographic origin of those recordings. This mapping shows that the whales are using an area where ships commonly pass while in transit between the United States and Europe. And more shipping may take place as northern regions become increasingly ice-free.

Results of the research were published this week in the journal Biology Letters.

Lead author David Mellinger of Oregon State University said the use of hydrophones enables scientists to “listen” for whales in remote areas where visual observations are difficult to conduct. Right whales have unique vocalization patterns that allow scientists to differentiate their calls from those of other whales.

“In the last 50 years, there have only been two confirmed sightings of right whales in the Cape Farewell Ground, which is about 500 kilometers east of the southern tip of Greenland,” said Mellinger, an associate professor at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “The weather there makes it almost impossible to conduct regular surveys.

“But it was an important area historically for the whales, and we needed to determine if they were still using it,” he added. “The hydrophones showed that not only are they using the Cape Farewell Ground, but that they’ve broadened the range of where we’ve known them to be in the past.”

The North Atlantic right whale is among the rarest cetaceans in the world. Despite more than 75 years of international protection, scientists estimate that fewer than 450 individuals remain. Most of those are a “western stock” that can be seen off the East Coast of North America from Florida to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It is unknown whether most of the whales heard off Greenland and Iceland are from this stock.

Nor are scientists certain of the size of the population.

“We can’t tell how many individuals might have been in the area, because they aren’t individually distinctive in their vocalizations,” Mellinger said. “But we know there were multiple whales because we recorded vocalizations at roughly the same time from different locations.”

Right whales were nearly decimated by whaling in the 1800s and early 1900s, and despite a moratorium on hunting them, their recovery has been slow. The cause of many recent deaths has been anthropogenic, scientists say, especially collisions with ships and entanglement with fishing gear.

Also contributing to the journal article were other scientists from OSU, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Iceland. Funding for the study was provided by NOAA.

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David Mellinger, 541-867-0372

New study: Loss of reflectivity in the Arctic double estimate of climate models

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new analysis of the Northern Hemisphere’s “albedo feedback” over a 30-year period concludes that the region’s loss of reflectivity due to snow and sea ice decline is more than double what state-of-the-art climate models estimate.

The findings are important, researchers say, because they suggest that Arctic warming amplified by the loss of reflectivity could be even more significant than previously thought.

The study was published online this week in Nature Geoscience. It was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, with data also culled from projects funded by NASA, the Department of Energy and others.

“The cryosphere isn’t cooling the Earth as much as it did 30 years ago, and climate model simulations do not reproduce this recent effect,” said Karen Shell, an Oregon State University atmospheric scientist and one of the authors of the study. “Though we don’t necessarily attribute this to global warming, it is interesting to note that none of the climate models used for the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change report showed a decrease of this magnitude.”

The cryosphere is the collective portion of the Earth’s surface where water is in solid form and includes sea ice, snow, lake and river ice, glaciers, ice sheets and frozen ground. Most of these frozen areas are highly reflective, and “bounce” sunlight back into the atmosphere, keeping the Earth cooler than it would be without the cryosphere.

But as temperatures warm, ice and snow melts and reflectivity decreases, noted Shell, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

“Instead of being reflected back into the atmosphere, the energy of the sun is absorbed by the Earth, which amplifies the warming,” Shell said. “Scientists have known for some time that there is this amplification effect, but almost all of the climate models we examined underestimated the impact – and they contained a pretty broad range of scenarios.”

As part of the study, Shell, lead author Mark Flanner of the University of Michigan, and their colleagues compared Northern Hemisphere cryosphere changes between 1979 and 2008 in 18 different climate models to changes in actual snow, ice and reflectivity measurements of the same period. They determined that mean radiative forcing – or the amount of energy reflected into the atmosphere – ranged from 4.6 to 2.2 watts per meter squared.

During the 30-year study period, cryosphere cooling declined by 0.45 watts per meter squared. The authors attribute that decline equally to loss of snow and sea ice.

“Some of the decline may be natural climate variability,” Shell said. “Thirty years isn’t a long enough time period to attribute this entirely to ‘forcing,’ or anthropogenic influence. But the loss of cooling is significant. The rate of energy being absorbed by the Earth through cryosphere decline – instead of being reflected back to the atmosphere – is almost 30 percent of the rate of extra energy absorption due to carbon dioxide increase between pre-industrial values and today.”

The “albedo” or reflectivity process is simple, scientists say, but difficult to measure on a broad scale. The reflectivity of ice and snow is obviously much greater than that of darker, unfrozen ground, or open sea water. But researchers also have discovered that variations in the snow and ice result in different albedo impacts.

For example, pools of melted water on top of sea ice can have significantly less reflectivity, which in essence may speed up the warming and possibly melting of that sea ice.

“While the current group of models underestimates these Northern Hemisphere cryosphere changes, new models will be released this year that will have better representations of snow and ice,” Shell said. “This study will help climate modelers improve the new generation of models to better predict the rate of cryosphere and albedo decline in the future.”

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Karen Shell, 541-737-0980

OSU’s Abbott president-elect of The Oceanography Society Council

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, has been elected president-elect The Oceanography Society Council.

The council is the governing body for The Oceanography Society, which was founded in 1988 to disseminate knowledge of oceanography, enhance research and education, promote communication among oceanographers and bring together different disciplines. Its membership includes oceanographers, engineers and other scientists active in ocean-related fields, as well as persons who have advanced oceanography through leadership and public service.

This non-profit organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C., also publishes the magazine, Oceanography.

“With the release last year of a new national ocean policy, this is an important time for the oceanographic community in regards  to research, education and public service,” Abbott said. “The Oceanography Society will engage its members in the implementation of this policy.”

Abbott joined the OSU faculty in 1988 and has been dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences since 2001. He is a member of the National Science Board, and serves as vice-chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

Scientists in Newport may hold key to future of Alaska king crab

NEWPORT, Ore. – Both the red and blue varieties of Alaska king crab have declined significantly and as resource managers struggle to determine why, a small team of scientists in a most unlikely location is working on an insurance policy – trying to raise crabs from the larval stage to juveniles in a hatchery setting.

The idea isn’t to immediately begin seeding the Bering Sea or Gulf of Alaska with hatchery-raised youngsters, the scientists say. It is to see if it’s even feasible – in case it’s needed in the future.

And this all is taking place in Newport, Ore., where the only places to find king crab are in stores and restaurants. In Oregon, the Dungeness reigns supreme among crabs; but Newport is also the site of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, a place that more than a dozen scientists and technicians from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center call home.

The reason for locating at HMSC is simple, according to Allan Stoner, who directs the Alaska Fisheries group in Newport. “The OSU lab provides seawater facilities rivaling any in the country for research with cold-water species, and our biologists have more than 25 years experience working with the systems here,” he said.

In the OSU laboratories, where clean seawater is pumped daily from Yaquina Bay, the scientists will try to perfect culture of king crab through the juvenile stages – and explore whether or not the young crabs can be conditioned or “trained” to select good habitat and avoid predators. Hatchery-reared animals are “often deficient in these tasks,” Stoner pointed out.

“Pacific halibut are death on crabs,” Stoner said. “We’re going to see if experience with young halibut about 25 centimeters long helps the juvenile crabs to learn avoidance behavior. Pacific cod can also be a problem, though they aren’t as aggressive as halibut. If these controlled experiments work, we’ll test similarly trained crabs in the field in Alaska.”

The Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology program – known as AKCRRAB –  received $303,000 from the NOAA SeaGrant Aquaculture Research Program, and an additional $157,000 in matching funds from Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Alaska, and Alaska SeaGrant for the project, some of which will support the Newport research.

AKCRRAB scientists from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery have made great strides in producing king crab larva that can survive in hatcheries. Their early experiments, in 2007, generated just a 2 percent survival rate and a few thousand juveniles. That rose to 31 percent in 2008, and 50 percent in 2009 and 2010, when scientists successfully raised more than 100,000 red king crabs to their first juvenile stage.

But the key now is helping them get bigger – and smarter – so they eventually could be released back into the wild and have a chance at survival, Stoner said.

“It should be an interesting experiment,” Stoner said. “Ben Daly (a Ph.D. student at the University of Alaska) will take crabs into the Gulf of Alaska on tethers during 2011 to see how they respond to their environment and potential predators. The action will be observed using underwater cameras with live-feed to the nearby shore.”

The project is ambitious, but so are the stakes. Red king crab has been Alaska’s top shellfish fishery and since 1959, U.S. fishers have harvested nearly 2 billion pounds of the delicacy from Alaska waters, worth about $1.6 billion. But the fishery has crashed as fewer crabs are reaching adulthood and the fishery for red king crab is now closed entirely in the Gulf of Alaska.

“Overfishing, climate change, predation by fish, and ocean acidification are all possible explanations,” Stoner said, “though it’s likely a host of factors.”

George Boehlert, director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, said the location of so many scientists from state and federal agencies on site is equally important to the center’s seawater system.

“We have scientists from many different disciplines, as well as agencies, who can provide different experiences and perspectives that make the Hatfield Marine Science Center unlike any research facility in the country,” Boehlert said.

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Allan Stoner, 541-867-0165

Oceanic “garbage patch” not nearly as big as portrayed in media

CORVALLIS, Ore. – There is a lot of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean, but claims that the “Great Garbage Patch” between California and Japan is twice the size of Texas are grossly exaggerated, according to an analysis by an Oregon State University scientist.

Further claims that the oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, and that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950s are equally misleading, pointed out Angelicque “Angel” White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State.

“There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists,” White said. “We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don’t need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic.”

White has pored over published literature and participated in one of the few expeditions solely aimed at understanding the abundance of plastic debris and the associated impact of plastic on microbial communities. That expedition was part of research funded by the National Science Foundation through C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education.

The studies have shown is that if you look at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically “cohesive” plastic patch is actually less than 1 percent of the geographic size of Texas.

“The amount of plastic out there isn’t trivial,” White said. “But using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size.”

Another way to look at it, White said, is to compare the amount of plastic found to the amount of water in which it was found. “If we were to filter the surface area of the ocean equivalent to a football field in waters having the highest concentration (of plastic) ever recorded,” she said, “the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line.”

Recent research by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the amount of plastic, at least in the Atlantic Ocean, hasn’t increased since the mid-1980s – despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic, she pointed out.

“Are we doing a better job of preventing plastics from getting into the ocean?” White said. “Is more plastic sinking out of the surface waters? Or is it being more efficiently broken down? We just don’t know. But the data on hand simply do not suggest that ‘plastic patches’ have increased in size. This is certainly an unexpected conclusion, but it may in part reflect the high spatial and temporal variability of plastic concentrations in the ocean and the limited number of samples that have been collected.”

The hyperbole about plastic patches saturating the media rankles White, who says such exaggeration can drive a wedge between the public and the scientific community. One recent claim that the garbage patch is as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge is tall is completely unfounded, she said.

“Most plastics either sink or float,” White pointed out. “Plastic isn’t likely to be evenly distributed through the top 100 feet of the water column.”

White says there is growing interest in removing plastic from the ocean, but such efforts will be costly, inefficient, and may have unforeseen consequences. It would be difficult, for example, to “corral” and remove plastic particles from ocean waters without inadvertently removing phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small surface-dwelling aquatic creatures.

“These small organisms are the heartbeat of the ocean,” she said. “They are the foundation of healthy ocean food chains and immensely more abundant than plastic debris.”

The relationship between microbes and plastic is what drew White and her C-MORE colleagues to their analysis in the first place. During a recent expedition, they discovered that photosynthetic microbes were thriving on many plastic particles, in essence confirming that plastic is prime real estate for certain microbes.

White also noted that while plastic may be beneficial to some organisms, it can also be toxic. Specifically, it is well-known that plastic debris can adsorb toxins such as PCB.

“On one hand, these plastics may help remove toxins from the water,” she said. “On the other hand, these same toxin-laden particles may be ingested by fish and seabirds. Plastic clearly does not belong in the ocean.”

Among other findings, which White believes should be part of the public dialogue on ocean trash:

  • Calculations show that the amount of energy it would take to remove plastics from the ocean is roughly 250 times the mass of the plastic itself;
  • Plastic also covers the ocean floor, particularly offshore of large population centers. A recent survey from the state of California found that 3 percent of the southern California Bight’s ocean floor was covered with plastic – roughly half the amount of ocean floor covered by lost fishing gear in the same location. But little, overall, is known about how much plastic has accumulated at the bottom of the ocean, and how far offshore this debris field extends;
  • It is a common misperception that you can see or quantify plastic from space. There are no tropical plastic islands out there and, in fact, most of the plastic isn’t even visible from the deck of a boat;
  • There are areas of the ocean largely unpolluted by plastic. A recent trawl White conducted in a remote section of water between Easter Island and Chile pulled in no plastic at all.

There are other issues with plastic, White said, including the possibility that floating debris may act as a vector for introducing invasive species into sensitive habitats.

“If there is a takeaway message, it’s that we should consider it good news that the ‘garbage patch’ doesn’t seem to be as bad as advertised,” White said, “but since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place.”

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Angel White, 541-737-6397

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Larger plastic from trawls

A sample of plastic found in the ocean

2010 ocean conditions make future salmon outlook a flip of the coin

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Pacific Ocean conditions off the Northwest coast were truly Jekyll and Hyde-like in 2010 and that is making life difficult for biologists who try to predict future salmon runs by analyzing how well juvenile fish will survive their first few weeks at sea.

The sudden transition from El Niño to La Niña conditions was so abrupt that the impact on fisheries may not be known for a while, says Bill Peterson, a NOAA fisheries biologist at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

“The warm El Niño water lasted until June, and then within just a few days, the ocean got as cold as it has been in recent years,” said Peterson, who is a courtesy professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “It was just plain nuts.

“I don’t think I’m making a forecast this year,” he added with a laugh. “It could go either way.”

For the past 13 years, Peterson and his colleagues have conducting trawl surveys funded by the Bonneville Power Administration in June and September from Cape Perpetua to La Push, Wash., counting the abundance of juvenile salmon along the near-shore waters of the West Coast. The survival rate of juvenile salmon is the key indicator for future salmon runs, says Peterson.

When salmon first enter the ocean, they must have enough food to not only survive, but to grow rapidly enough to avoid predation. The smaller they are, the more potential predators there are lurking offshore. And when ocean productivity is high, other fish like herring, anchovies and sardines provide a dining alternative for those predators.

Which brings us back to 2010.

“During the tail end of the El Niño, in May and June, we had some of the worst ocean conditions we’ve seen in the 13 years we’ve been sampling,” Peterson said. “Then in July, the conditions were as good as they’ve ever been. So it’s a question of timing.

“If the juvenile salmon came out early, they likely died,” he said. “If they came out later, they should be fine.”

Peterson said the juvenile chinook count this summer was the third highest they’ve had in their 13 years, raising hope for future chinook runs.

But, he warned, there is a caveat.

“We caught almost no juvenile coho salmon in September,” Peterson said, “and that worries me.”

Juvenile coho tend to stay just off the Northwest coast and if they migrated seaward too early, Peterson pointed out, they may have encountered a barren ocean.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” he said. “Coho return as adults after 18 months; spring chinook come back after two years and fall chinook, three years or longer. If these fish can make it to adulthood, they should be fine. There’s not much that out there that feeds on them other than sea lions and orcas.

“It’s all about how they fare as youngsters,” he added, “and the jury is definitely still out this year.”

Juvenile salmon spend months in fresh water and can leave estuaries at any time. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what triggers their migration to the ocean, but they should learn quite a bit about the importance of timing this year, Peterson said. “If the fish didn’t come out too early, we should have a great run of chinook salmon in 2013,” he said.

As for next year? That, too, is something of a crapshoot, Peterson says. Fishermen reported large numbers of chinook jack salmon in many Oregon bays and rivers; on the other hand, the coho jack count at Bonneville Dam was 15 percent less than normal, he added.

“Jack salmon can be an indicator of the strength of runs the next year, but in some years, its predictive value is truly awful,” Peterson said. “If the cold ocean conditions persist, we can hope for the best.”

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Bill Peterson, 541-867-0201

Whale from endangered population surprises scientists

NEWPORT, Ore. – A lone western gray whale, tagged off Russia’s Sakhalin Island by scientists in September and tracked for more than 70 days, has suddenly taken off from its feeding area and sped across the Sea of Okhotsk to the west side of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Dubbed “Flex” by researchers, this 13-year-old male is one of just 130 western grays remaining in what is one of the world’s most endangered whale populations.

Scientists tracking the whale’s movements via satellite at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center say they are surprised by Flex’s movements and wonder what the animal will do next. They are inviting the public to follow the whale’s progress on a map that is updated weekly (http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2010).

“We’re making guesses as to where ‘Flex’ will now head, but they’re just guesses because western gray whales have never been tagged before and we do not know where they breed and calve in the winter,” said Bruce Mate, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute and a principal investigator on the project.

“Many scientists think he could wind up in the southeast China Sea, but he might head over to the east side of Kamchatka Peninsula for the winter, or he could surprise us all and come east across the Aleutian Island chain and then head south to Baja and the Sea of Cortez with eastern gray whales.”

Going to Baja would be unexpected, Mate pointed out, because western whales are considered genetically distinct from their much more common eastern North Pacific cousins.

“These are uncharted waters for scientists and we’re anxious to see where he goes – and how long the tag will last.”

Mate is a pioneer in the use of satellites to track marine mammals. The OSU professor led the tagging portion of the study, which was conducted in collaboration with Russian scientists. Western grays were decimated by whaling in previous centuries and the whales were feared to be extinct in the mid-1970s. But a population was rediscovered off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored since the mid-1990s.

Sakhalin Island is the site of major offshore oil and gas activities and efforts are under way to minimize the impacts of industrial development on the whales, which also face threats from accidental entanglement in fishing gear. Five female western gray whales have died accidentally via entanglement over the past four years.

Flex spent two months feeding off Sakhalin Island after he was tagged and his departure may be timed to the weather, Mate said. The ocean there will ice over soon. The whale was first seen as a calf in 1997 and has been observed visually on a regular basis during summers since then. But this is the first time a whale from this critically endangered population has been tagged and followed by satellite.

Scientists had hoped to tag a dozen whales during the month-long expedition in the fall, but poor weather conditions and treacherous seas made even finding and approaching the whales difficult. They finally were able to tag Flex on the last day of their voyage and have been tracking him since.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Mate said. “This particular tag stays attached an average of about three months on gray whales. Western grays are bottom feeders and the tag can easily get scraped off while feeding, or during contact with other whales during mating.

“But we’ve had two months of monitoring during the feeding season now, which has never been done before with western gray whales,” he added. “And we have seen movements over a very small area. This is a great chance for the public to learn about these whales at the same time we are.”

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Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

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Western Gray Whale - Sakhalin Island, Russia

Hatfield center’s art campaign to support marine education

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new fund-raising campaign is designed to support and enhance marine education programs and exhibits at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, while creating a work of ocean-themed art to hang in the visitor center's lobby.

The “Glass Quilt Campaign” is seeking sponsors for glass squares printed with names of donors, friends, organizations or loved ones. There will be as many as 160 squares, each bearing a colorful image of Oregon marine life that will be combined to create the work of art.

The squares will be interlocked to form a large “quilt,” which will be displayed at the HMSC visitor center for the next five years. The art work was designed by David Adamson, a Newport artist who graduated from OSU in 1991 and worked at the center as a marine educator.

Donors can support the Glass Quilt Campaign through tax-deductible donations of $250 or more. Donations may be made through the center's Web site at: http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/visitor/glassquilt, or by check, made payable to OSU Foundation-HMSC Glass Quilt and mailed to Nancee Hunter, Glass Quilt Giving Campaign, Hatfield Marine Science Center, 2030 SE Marine Science Drive, Newport OR 97365.

Since 1965, the visitor center has served as the public face of the Hatfield Marine Science Center research and education complex on Newport's South Beach.  The visitor’s center is managed by Oregon Sea Grant, an OSU-based marine research, education and public engagement program affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sea Grant marine education programs at the visitor center encourage children and adults to enjoy marine science as they learn more about the natural world.

This year, the visitor center expanded its reach to worldwide audiences via the popular OctoCam – live, streaming online video of its resident giant Pacific octopus – and its new ScienceCam, providing live science education programming for classrooms far from the ocean.

“New and exciting opportunities arise every day,” said Nancee Hunter, director of the visitor center.  “Advancements in teaching and classroom science, technology that allows for hands-on exhibits, guest teachers, new and fascinating animal displays – these require resources beyond our typical operating budget.

“By giving to the Glass Quilt Campaign, people will contribute to our ongoing work of teaching the next generation to value Oregon's oceans, land and way of life.”

The Glass Quilt effort is part of The Campaign for OSU. Guided by the university's strategic plan, The Campaign for OSU seeks $850 million to provide opportunities for students, strengthen the Oregon economy and conduct research that changes the world. Approximately $635 million has been committed to date from more than 54,000 donors.

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Nancee Hunter, 541-867-0357