marine science and the coast

Lessons for the Northwest: Japanese death toll could have been worse…

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An estimated 20,000 people died or are missing after a massive earthquake-induced tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, yet some 200,000 people were in the inundation zone at the time.

The fact that 90 percent of the coastal region’s residents and visitors evacuated effectively is a tribute to planning and community drills, said Patrick Corcoran, an Oregon State University education and outreach specialist, who just returned from a disaster symposium at United Nations University in Japan.

If the same magnitude earthquake and tsunami hits the Pacific Northwest, he said, the death toll will be much higher because of the lack of comparable preparation. That 90 percent rate could be the number of victims, not survivors.

“Our human nature is not tuned in to long-term threats and 300-year-cycle disasters,” Corcoran said. “It takes a big cultural shift to go from not thinking about an earthquake and tsunami to really and truly expecting one.”

Although some Oregon communities have been proactive, most are so overwhelmed meeting immediate needs that tsunami preparedness is not a priority.

“The small size of Oregon coastal communities relative to the magnitude of the hazard also plays a role,” Corcoran said. “Expecting these small communities to prepare for a level of safety for seasonal homeowners and visitors from throughout the state would be somewhat akin to Portland hosting the Olympic Games. They couldn’t do it alone.”

“To be fair, the Japanese have been dealing with this threat for hundreds of years and it has been on our minds for a decade or so,” he added. “But we had better start taking the eventuality of an earthquake and tsunami a lot more seriously.”

A Sea Grant Extension specialist, Corcoran has worked for several years with Oregon coastal communities on earthquake and tsunami preparedness, as well as resilience to major storms and other natural hazards. He recently toured several communities in Japan that had been ravaged by the tsunami, most of which had been completely destroyed below the tsunami inundation line.

“What was striking,” Corcoran noted, “is how intact the homes and schools were just above that elevation. There was a clear line of safety. If you got above it, you were safe. If you didn’t, you weren’t. It wasn’t that far for most people – you just had to know where the line was and get to it. And most of them did.”

Japanese officials, in talking about rebuilding the village, are considering new approaches to development. Industrial, commercial and other non-residential buildings might be concentrated in the most vulnerable areas while homes, schools, hospitals and other crucial services would be located either out of the inundation zone or closer to high ground.

“That is the kind of planning the Pacific Northwest needs to consider,” Corcoran said. “It isn’t economically feasible to immediately shift our hospitals and nursing homes. But over a period of years or decades, when new facilities are being considered, preference might be given to sites at high elevations.

“A vast majority of the fatalities in Japan were among the elderly and a good portion of the others were family members and emergency personnel who went in after them when they realized they hadn’t been evacuated. Traffic jams cost lives.”

Corcoran said state and local agencies in Oregon have begun taking action, including producing new evacuation maps and improving communication and incident command plans.

“As good as our local emergency officials are, they will be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the circumstances,” Corcoran said. “Preparation must begin with the individual, then focus on mutual aid among neighbors, and finally on public aid and assistance. Businesses, too, must support the safety of their employees and customers.”

There are several examples of coastal communities preparing for an earthquake and tsunami.

  • Cannon Beach has commissioned evacuation maps and inundation models, hired a community preparedness coordinator, explored a vertical evacuation structure, and is looking into caching supplies at evacuation sites;
  • The Seaside School District is studying relocating all of its schools on a common campus outside the inundation zone;
  • OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport has increased its educational efforts on earthquakes and tsunamis, and held evacuation drills for employees.

“The question,” Corcoran said, “is whether we are preparing at a level commensurate with the risk.”

Communities and individuals can prepare for natural disasters by understanding that they eventually will happen. Once you accept that, Corcoran said, preparation becomes second nature. Identify areas of high ground near your home, work and recreation areas. Work to make them accessible. Then conduct practice drills on how to get to them.

“Our society tends to be dismissive of drills,” Corcoran said. “They are silly, they are embarrassing and it’s usually raining. The only people who actually do drills are high schools and nursing homes because they are required to. But drills save lives, as they learned in Japan.”

A final obstacle for West Coast residents to overcome, Corcoran said, is the feeling that technology will provide the answer.

“Oregon clearly needs to increase its standards for structural design and engineering for public buildings and infrastructure – and that long-term effort is under way,” Corcoran said.  “But we need to devote at least as much attention to educate and train locals and visitors on the basics of evacuation. We need to keep making progress on all fronts.”

Media Contact: 

Patrick Corcoran, 503-325-8573

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Corcoran in Japan Corcoran and Japanese memorial Japanese village inundation

Verena Tunnicliffe to deliver OSU “Vents” lecture on March 1

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Verena Tunnicliffe, a University of Victoria marine ecologist and explorer of deep-sea environments, will deliver a free public lecture at Oregon State University on Thursday, March 1, to commemorate OSU’s Hydrothermal Vents Discovery Day.

Tunnicliffe’s lecture is sponsored by the “Frontiers of Science” lecture series.

“Beyond the Mid-Ocean Ridge: Hydrothermalism and Vent Communities on Volcanic Arcs of the Western Pacific,” will provide a biologist’s viewpoint of hydrothermal eruptions in a different part of the ocean than on ridge crests, which are more widely known. Her talk begins at 4 p.m. in Gilfillan Auditorium on the OSU campus.

The lecture marks the 35th anniversary of the discovery of hydrothermal vents on a research cruise to the Galapagos, led by OSU scientist Jack Corliss. That discovery revealed an entire colony of marine creatures – many of which had never been seen before – and launched a new era of oceanographic exploration.

As more hydrothermal vents were documented beyond the ridge crest systems throughout the world oceans, scientists have discovered life-nurturing conditions in volcanic arcs and seamounts that have their own geophysical, chemical and biological features. Life at volcanoes ranges from shallow-water “smokers” to liquid carbon-dioxide vents and pools of molten sulfur.

These will be a focus of the presentation by Tunnicliffe, which is sponsored by OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Tunnicliffe has worked closely with researchers at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, including Bill Chadwick and Susan Merle, on explorations of undersea volcanoes and associated hydrothermal vent colonies. She is a principal investigator with the Canadian Healthy Ocean Network, as well as the director of Ocean Network Canada’s VENUS (Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea) cabled observatory.

Media Contact: 

Bob Collier, 541-737-4367

Oregon Sea Grant funds $2 million in ocean and coastal research for 2012-14

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon Sea Grant has committed nearly $2 million to nine research and outreach projects over the next two years, including investigations into hypoxia and ocean acidification, community tsunami preparedness, and the migration and diseases of native salmon.

The competitive awards are funded by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) dollars awarded to the Oregon program as one of the nation's 32 National Sea Grant College Programs.

"This round of funding focuses on projects that speak to Sea Grant's key issue areas and national program goals, as well as OSU's emphasis on promoting healthy ecosystems, economies and people," said Stephen B. Brandt, director of Oregon Sea Grant.

The nine research teams will receive between $76,000 and $90,000 in each of the two grant years. The federal dollars are expected to leverage more than $500,000 in state and foundation matching funds over the grant cycle.

All Sea Grant-supported research is required to include an outreach/public engagement component. Sea Grant Extension and communications faculty collaborate with researchers on that aspect of their work, whether it's enlisting fishermen to help gather marine data, developing publications for targeted audiences or working with communities to develop and improve emergency response plans.

Oregon Sea Grant is also collaborating with three other West Coast Sea Grant programs – Washington, California and Southern California – on two major regional projects. One will apply social science measures to evaluate fisherman-to-consumer direct marketing in coastal communities. The other will attempt to develop a system of measuring and predicting the resilience of coastal communities to climate change. Together, the four Sea Grant programs are contributing $700,000 to those projects over two years.

Sea Grant-funded research projects for 2012-2014 are:

  • “An Integrated Engineering-Economic Vulnerability Assessment Tool to Increase Tsunami Preparedness in Rural Coastal Counties.” Young Chen, OSU Agricultural & Resource Economics, $180,202;
  • “Understanding, Forecasting and Communicating the Linkages between Hypoxia and Ocean Acidification in Oregon's Coastal Ocean,” Francis Chan, OSU Zoology, $177,531;
  • “Developing Realistic Metrics of Acidification Stress for Commercially Important Bivalves in Variable Habitats,” George Waldbusser, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences,  $175,137;
  • “Predicting Habitat Quality of Juvenile English Sole and Dungeness Crab in Coastal and Estuarine Nursery Grounds,” Lorenzo Ciannelli, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, $180,112;
  • “Taking Stock of Oregon’s Nearshore Fisheries: Development of Simple Assessment Tools for Better Management,” Selina Heppell, OSU Fisheries & Wildlife, $175,724;
  • “Geomagnetic Imprinting and Homing in Salmon and Steelhead,”David Noakes, OSU Fisheries & Wildlife, $179,270;
  • “Realized and Potential Larval Connectivity along the Oregon Coast,” Harold Batchelder, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, $167,100;
  • “Modeling Myxozoan Disease in Pacific Salmon: Establishing Watershed Models for Predicting Effects of Climate Change,” Jerri Bartholomew, OSU Microbiology, $76,729;
  • “Tides, Freshwater and Winds: Modeling the Impacts of Currents on the Oregon Inner Continental Shelf and Within Yaquina Bay Estuary,” James Lerczak, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, $169,117.

Details about the projects are available at http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/research/current-research

Media Contact: 

Stephen B. Brandt, 541-737-3396

"Patchiness” altering perceptions of ocean predators, prey

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists and resource managers have always been interested in how animals in the ocean find their prey and the relative health of marine ecosystems is often judged by the abundance of food for the myriad species living there.

But new studies focusing on ocean “patchiness” suggest that it isn’t just the total amount of prey that is important to predators – it is the density of the food source, and ease of access to it.

Kelly Benoit-Bird, an Oregon State University oceanographer, outlined the importance of this new way of looking at ocean habitats during a keynote talk Wednesday (Feb. 22) at the 2012 Ocean Sciences meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sophisticated new technologies are helping scientists document how predators target prey, from zooplankton feasting on phytoplankton, to dolphins teaming up to devour micronekton, according to Benoit-Bird, who received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.

“We used to think that the size and abundance of prey was what mattered most,” said Benoit-Bird, a marine ecologist who studies relationships among marine species. “But patchiness is ubiquitous in marine systems and ultimately dictates the behavior of many animals and their relationships to the environment. We need to change our way of thinking about how we look at predator-prey relationships.”

Benoit-Bird pointed to a section of the Bering Sea, where her research with collaborators had estimated the abundance of krill. Closer examination through the use of acoustics, however, found that the distribution of krill was not at all uniform – and this may explain why two colonies of fur seals and seabirds were faring poorly, but a third was healthy.

“The amount of food near the third colony was not abundant,” she said, “but what was there was sufficiently dense – and at the right depth – that made it accessible to predators.”

The ability to use acoustics to track animal behavior underwater is opening new avenues to researchers.  During their study in the Bering Sea, Benoit-Bird and her colleagues discovered that they could also use sonar to plot the dives of thick-billed murres, which would plunge up to 200 meters below the surface in search of the krill.

Although the krill were spread throughout the water column, the murres ended up focusing on areas where the patches of krill were the densest.

“The murres are amazingly good at diving right down to the best patches,” Benoit-Bird pointed out. “We don’t know just how they are able to identify them, but 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have known that they had that ability. Now we can use high-frequency sound waves to look at krill, different frequencies to look at murres, and still others to look at squid, dolphins and other animals.

“And everywhere we’ve looked the same pattern occurs,” she added. “It is the distribution of food, not the biomass, which is important.”

An associate professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, Benoit-Bird has received young investigator or early career awards from the Office of Naval Research, the White House and the American Geophysical Union. She also has received honors from the Acoustical Society of America, which has used her as a model scientist in publications aimed at middle school students.

Her work has taken her around the world, including Hawaii where she has used acoustics to study the sophisticated feeding behavior of spinner dolphins. Those studies, she says, helped lead to new revelations about the importance of patchiness.

Ocean physics in the region results in long, thin layers of phytoplankton that may stretch for miles, but are only a few inches thick and a few meters below the surface. Benoit-Bird and her colleagues discovered a layer of zooplankton – tiny animals that feed on the plankton – treading water a meter below to be near the food source. Next up in the food chain were micronekton, larger pelagic fish and crustaceans that would spend the day 600 to 1,000 meters beneath the surface, then come up to the continental shelf at night to target the zooplankton. And the spinner dolphins would emerge at night, where they could reach the depth of the micronekton.

“The phytoplankton were responding to ocean physics,” Benoit-Bird said, “but all of the others in the food chain were targeting their prey by focusing on the densest patches. We got to the point where we could predict with 70 percent accuracy where the dolphins would show up based just on the phytoplankton density – without even considering the zooplankton and micronekton distribution.”

Ocean “patchiness” is not a new concept, Benoit-Bird says, but may have been under-appreciated in importance.

“If you’re a murre that is diving a hundred meters below the surface to find food, you want to maximize the payoff for all of the energy you’re expending,” Benoit-Bird said. “Now we need more research to determine how different species are able to determine where the best patches are.”

Media Contact: 

Kelly Benoit-Bird, 541-737-2063

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Dolphins circling prey
Dense patches of food draw ocean predators

OSU scientist receives prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Angelicque “Angel” White, an oceanographer from Oregon State University, has received a 2012 Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Fellowships were awarded to 126 top young researchers in the United States and Canada. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars identified as rising stars and the next generation of scientific leaders.

“Today’s Sloan Research Fellows are tomorrow’s Nobel Prize winners, said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Sloan Fellowships historically have been awarded in seven fields, including chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, and physics. This year, the foundation expanded to include ocean sciences and awarded eight fellowships in that field, including the one to White.

White is an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences whose work focuses on ocean productivity and phytoplankton physiology. She is a member of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE), and has been active in a collaborative project to monitor harmful algal blooms off the Oregon coast.

She also has studied the Pacific Ocean “garbage patch,” a huge collection of plastic trapped in a gyre off the West Coast, which she has described as problematic, but exaggerated in scale in many media reports.

Sloan Fellowships provide $50,000 over two years for equipment, technical assistance, professional travel, trainee support and other activities supporting the fellow’s research.

A list of the 2012 recipients is available at: www.sloan.org/fellowships/page/21

Media Contact: 

Angel White, 541-737-6397

Researchers eye monitoring system for offshore wind energy impacts

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The next generation of wind energy facilities in the United States may be built offshore where winds are stronger, floating platforms could be utilized, and links to power grids may already exist.

Though the development of such offshore wind towers locally is still in the conceptual stage, there already is concern over the potential impacts that the huge, rotating blades of wind turbines could have on seabirds and bats. Even attempting to monitor such impacts is daunting.

The Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University has received a three-year, $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a multi-sensor array to record the interactions – including impacts – of birds and bats on the blades, platforms and towers of wind turbines.

“Unfortunately, the usual way to document the impact of wind turbines on birds and bats is to collect the carcasses,” said Robert Suryan, an OSU seabird expert who is principal investigator on the project. “That would be hard to do out in the ocean. Even on shore, surveys are limited at large or remote facilities and can be compromised by scavengers that remove the carcasses.”

So the researchers are coming up with a different approach – synchronizing an array of sensors that will include accelerometers to measure variations in blade movement from impact, visual and infrared cameras, and acoustic devices to record strikes and identify the bird or bat involved. The monitoring system will be designed to run continuously and on multiple turbines at once to estimate the potential impact of the entire wind farm.

The project team led by Suryan includes co-principal investigators Roberto Albertani, an OSU engineer, and Brian Polagye, an engineer from the University of Washington.

“This is the first foray into offshore wind energy for the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center,” said Belinda Batten, who directs the center, which is a joint effort between OSU and the University of Washington. “It builds upon our strengths in wave and tidal energy, and our efforts to gauge potential environmental impacts of new forms of renewable energy.”

Though the researchers’ focus will be on an array for offshore turbines, the sensors will have potential usage in terrestrial facilities as well, pointed out Suryan, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU, who works at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The technologies for the array are not new, the researchers say, but integrating the instruments and developing automated strike detection software to capture events – and then remotely transmit relevant data – has not been done. In addition to the engineering challenge, the researchers must account for the impact of the rugged Pacific Ocean, where winter storms frequently produce 20- and 30-foot waves.

“In Oregon, many seabirds are heavy-bodied and fly close to the surface of the ocean – possibly below the sweep of the rotor blades,” Suryan said. “Potential collision with the lower tower and base is still a concern and will be monitored by this system. Studies are needed to identify which species fly at altitudes that might put them at risk of blade impact; we know less about how far and frequently bats move offshore.

“There is also the issue with platforms, which might attract birds as a roosting area,” Suryan added. “Some of it may depend on how far offshore they might be.”

The researchers will spend much of the next three years developing their instrumentation array and synchronizing the instruments. They will test their instrument array on land in Newport and on experimental turbines at Mesalands Community College in New Mexico and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

“There is a big push in New England to develop offshore wind energy, as well as in areas where oil and gas platforms already exist,” Suryan said. “One possibility is to use those platforms for hydroelectric power generation from the currents below, and wind energy from turbines above the surface. Our project was funded from an initiative to remove market barriers for developing offshore wind facilities, especially floating platforms that can be used in deep water.

“Regardless of where wind energy platforms are built – on land, or at sea – placement is critical,” he added. “You want to avoid major flyways and travel corridors.”

Media Contact: 

Rob Suryan, 541-867-0223

Oregon preparing for debris from Japanese tsunami

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As the one-year anniversary of the devastating March 11, 2011, Japanese earthquake approaches, and debris from the ensuing tsunami moves closer to the West Coast, a group of Oregon agencies, university scientists, political staff, non-governmental organizations and others is preparing for its arrival.

This week, the group held a conference call to review Oregon’s response to the potential arrival of the debris and to chart a communication strategy to educate West Coast residents about what may happen. Questions directed at state and county leaders, Oregon State University Extension experts, the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center and others are increasing daily.

When will the debris arrive? Where will it land? Is there any danger of radioactivity? What shall we do if we find something?

Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer and expert in ocean currents, said the debris is still months away from arriving on the West Coast, though it is possible that strong winds may push some floating items that rise high above the surface more quickly to the North American shore. Floats from Japanese fishing nets have washed up on the Washington coast in recent weeks, but those haven’t been tied directly to the tsunami.

“Material from Asia washes up on the West Coast routinely,” Barth said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it is tsunami-related. A Russian ship discovered a small Japanese fishing boat in the waters north of Hawaii in October that was definitively tied to the tsunami – and it was about where we thought it should be, given the currents.” NOAA reports no radiation was detected on the fishing boat.

Barth, who is the associate dean of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, has met with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, and representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and various Oregon agencies and organizations in recent weeks. He said it is difficult to calculate how much debris remains in the ocean, and what exactly will arrive on our shore.

When and how it arrives is a matter of ocean physics, he pointed out.

“Much of the debris generated from the earthquake and tsunami has or will become waterlogged, weighed down with barnacles or other organisms, and sink,” Barth said. “A large fraction of it will be diverted south into the ‘Garbage Patch’ between Hawaii and the West Coast, and may circulate in that gyre.

“What remains should arrive here at the end of 2012, or the beginning of 2013,” he added. “If it arrives in the fall and winter, it will get pushed up north by the currents to Washington, British Columbia and even Alaska. Debris arriving in late spring and summer will hit Oregon and be swept south into California waters.”

What does arrive is unlikely to be dangerous, according to Kathryn Higley, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at OSU. Higley was one of the most widely cited scientists following the incidents at Japan’s Dai-ichi nuclear plant after the earthquake. She says the lag time between the tsunami and the nuclear incident, coupled with the vastness of the ocean, makes it unlikely that the debris will carry any danger from radiation.

“The major air and water discharges of radioactive material from the Dai-ichi plants occurred a few days after the debris field was created by the tsunami,” Higley pointed out. “So the debris field was spread out at the time the discharges occurred. This would have diluted the radiological impact.

“Secondly, wind, rain and salt spray have been pummeling this material for months,” she said. “The key radionuclides are composed of iodine and cesium – which are chemically a lot like chlorine and sodium. Most of the iodine has gone because of radioactive decay. The radioactive cesium, to a great extent, will be washed off and diluted in the surrounding ocean.

“Therefore, while we may be able to detect trace amounts of radioactive material on this debris, it’s really unlikely that there will be any substantial radiation risk,” Higley said.

Staci Simonich, an OSU professor of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, has been monitoring the air for emissions from Japan and said that since last April (2011), radiation levels were at “background.”

“Those are naturally occurring levels – at concentrations far below standards for public safety,” she said.

NOAA is monitoring the debris from a national perspective and has a website that can educate the public and keep interested persons updated. It is at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/.  The agency suggests that beachcombers and others who find material they think may be from Japan report it at disasterdebris@noaa.gov – and use common sense.

They write: “As with any outdoors activity, it is important to follow common sense and put safety first. Avoid picking up debris that you are not well-equipped and trained to handle. For example, be careful of sharp objects that could cut yours hands; avoid picking up sealed containers of chemicals – they may crack or break and spill the content on you; likewise, report any full drum on the beach, and avoid handling it yourself. If you are uncomfortable handling any debris item, leave it where it is.”

Jamie Doyle, an OSU Extension Sea Grant specialist in Coos and Curry counties, said a variety of Oregon agencies and non-governmental organizations are beginning to plan for various response scenarios. As Oregon’s planning progresses, she says, “expect more information for the public.”

“One other concern is what should happen if someone finds any personal effects,” Doyle said. “A lot of people lost their lives, and many people still have family members who are missing. We need to be sensitive to the possibility of finding something that may be of personal significance to someone in Japan.”

Tomoko Dodo, from the Consulate General of Japan’s office in Seattle, has asked that persons finding something that could be considered a personal “keepsake” for a survivor report it to local authorities, or the consulate in Seattle at 206-682-9107.

Patrick Corcoran, an OSU Extension Sea Grant specialist for the North Coast, said the focus thus far has been on research and “building the capacity to respond” to the arrival of the debris. Specific information on Oregon resources and contacts will be forthcoming, he said.

Among the other organizations working on planning Oregon Surfrider Foundation, Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism (SOLV), Coast Watch, Oregon Emergency Management, Oregon Public Health Division; West Coast Governors’ Alliance; Oregon Parks and Recreation Department;  Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association; Oregon Fishermen’s Cable Committee; Office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden; Office of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber; Washed Ashore; Oregon Department of Environmental Quality; Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development; U.S. Coast Guard; and Western Oregon Waste.

Media Contact: 

Jack Barth, 541-737-1607

Scientists follow endangered whale from Russia for second straight year

NEWPORT, Ore. – For the second consecutive year, an international team of scientists has tracked a whale via satellite from one of the world’s most endangered populations to the West Coast of the United States from the waters off Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

Last year, the saga of “Flex” captured the attention of the public as the male, 13-year-old western gray whale journeyed across the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean to Vancouver Island and down to Oregon before the tag finally quit working.

This year, they are tracking “Varvara,” a 9-year-old female western gray whale that has again surprised scientists by not only coming to the West Coast – but by apparently heading for a known breeding ground of eastern gray whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon of the Sea of Cortez. Varvara took a different route across the Bering Sea than did Flex but both moved swiftly down the West Coast upon arriving in North America.

Varvara (which is Barbara in Russian) has steadily moved south at a clip of about 100 to 125  miles a day, breezing past Washington, Oregon and California and has entered the waters off Mexico – her fourth country in two months. Interested persons can track her progress online at: http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2011.

Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, whose team tagged the endangered whale in September and has watched her make the 6,000-mile-plus trek over the past two months. He said her journey is more than a feel-good story, such as that depicted in the new film, “Big Miracle.”

Varvara’s adventure has tremendous ecological and management significance, Mate says.

“There are only about 130 western gray whales left in the world,” Mate said, “and they were thought to be distinct from their more populous cousins, the eastern gray whales that we see up and down the Pacific Coast. But this is the second consecutive year we have tracked a whale from Russia to our coast, so Varvara’s journey is suggesting that the visit from Flex last year may not have been an anomaly.”

In the 1970s, western gray whales were thought to have gone extinct, but a small aggregation was discovered by Russian scientists off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored by Russian and U.S. scientists since the 1990s. Eastern gray whales likewise were decimated by whaling and listed as endangered, but conservation efforts led to a recovery and, at 18,000 strong, they have been delisted.

Protecting such an endangered population has been difficult. Five western gray whales have died in Japanese fishing nets within the past five years, and their migration patterns take them into shipping lanes and through oil and gas drilling sites.

Not all scientists believe that western gray whales are a separate, distinct species.  Valentin Ilyashenko of the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, who is the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission, has proposed since 2009 that recent western and eastern gray whale populations are not isolated and that the gray whales found in Russian waters are a part of an eastern population that is restoring its former historical range.

Ilyashenko, Mate and their colleagues first tagged and tracked a western gray whale near Russia in December of 2010, when they followed a male named “Flex” to the West Coast of the United States. It was the first time scientists had documented that western gray whales journey to this side of the Pacific Ocean.

In the fall of 2011, the team returned to the Sakhalin Island region and tagged six whales to see if they would duplicate the migration pattern followed by Flex. Four of the tags stopped working before the whales left Sakhalin in the fall. Varvara and a whale named “Agent” crossed the Bering Sea into the North Pacific and into the home range of eastern gray whales. Mate said researchers lost the signal on Agent halfway across the Gulf of Alaska, but Varvara’s signal is still going strong.

“The average tag lasts 123 days, and she has passed that mark already, but the tags also are capable of lasting up to a year,” Mate said. “Ideally, it will continue to operate as she returns north from the breeding lagoon so we can see if she takes the same route back to Russia.”

Greg Donovan, head of science for the International Whaling Commission and coordinator of the project, said the data the team is acquiring is of enormous significance.

“Western gray whales could be a separate population, they could represent an expansion of eastern gray whales, or there could be some of both sharing some of the same feeding grounds off eastern Russia,” Donovan said. “It is clear that we need to re-examine our understanding of the population structure of gray whales in the North Pacific and any conservation and management implications that arise from that understanding.”

OSU’s Mate said past studies by the university’s Marine Mammal Institute suggest that gray whales typically stay in the breeding areas for 20-25 days before beginning their return migration. That should put Varvara back in the ocean off Los Angeles in late February, and back to Oregon by March, he estimated.

Media Contact: 

Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202, or 541-272-1175

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New study: Juvenile predation preventing Steller sea lion recovery

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new study suggests that the impact of predation on juvenile Steller sea lions in the Gulf of Alaska has been significantly underestimated, creating a “productivity pit” from which their population will have difficulty recovering without a reduction of predators.

Scientists using “life history transmitters” to study Steller sea lions found evidence of age-structured predation by orcas (killer whales) and other large predators in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and adjacent areas, which may change with the population density of the sea lions.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal PLoS ONE.

“It is generally accepted that most pinniped populations suffer from high attrition in the juvenile years, but this study suggests that predation accounts for most, if not all of this attrition in the case of Steller sea lions,” said Markus Horning, an Oregon State University marine mammal expert and lead author on the study.

“The focus of predators on juveniles has the end result of heavily capping female recruitment – or the number of females that survive until they are old enough to have pups,” Horning added.

Previous studies have pointed to a reduction of birth rates as a possible explanation for the decline of Steller sea lions in Alaska. But the newly published study by Horning, who works at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., and Jo-Ann Mellish of the Alaska Sea Life Center and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, counters that and suggests that predators increasingly are targeting younger Steller sea lions as populations of the marine mammal decrease – reducing the numbers of potential breeding females.

The end result may be the same: Not enough Steller sea lions are being born each year to rejuvenate the population, which has declined by 80 percent over the past four decades.

However, the mechanisms for such a deficit in newborn pups may be different, Horning says. Previous studies suggest that reduced birth rates are a result of episodic changes in the ocean that affect feeding, growth and reproduction. Other factors known to affect sea lions – including mortality from fishing gear, ship strikes, and legal and illegal hunting – typically affect survival, but rarely result in a lower birth rate.

Predation, on the other hand, may be preventing too many juveniles from reaching breeding age, the study concludes. Orcas are the most common predators of Steller sea lions, though salmon sharks and Pacific sleeper sharks also are known predators, and great whites are suspected.

To measure mortality and predation among western Steller sea lions, the researchers deployed specialized transmitters in 36 juvenile sea lions from 2005 to 2011 in the Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound region of the Gulf of Alaska. The abdominally implanted archival tags are designed to record data on temperature, light and other properties during the sea lions’ lives, and after the animals die, transmit data to satellites.

These unique buoyant tags are liberated from decomposing or dismembered carcasses after death, or are passed through the digestive tract of predators, and float to the surface or rest ashore, according to Horning, an investigator with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute.

“The transmitters are amazing recorders of the life history of the animals, and can tell us in most cases how they died,” Horning said. “Gradual cooling and delayed extrusion are signs of a non-traumatic death, say disease or starvation, or of entanglement, drowning or shooting. When the sensors record precipitous drops in ambient temperature along with immediate sensing of light and the onset of data transmission, it is indicative of acute death by massive trauma – usually associated with dismemberment by predators.”

Horning said other traumatic deaths, including ship strikes and shooting should leave a different “signature” on the recorders and are unlikely to result in the immediate extrusion of the tags.

During the study period, 12 of the animals died and at least 11 of those deaths were by predation, the researchers noted. Once they established a rate of predation-related deaths, the researchers applied that to a new population model of Steller sea lions and discovered that such a high rate of predation among juveniles could make it impossible for the population to recover without a lessening of predation.

Previous research has shown that an adult killer whale, from a purely caloric standpoint, would need to consume 2-3 Steller sea lions pups per day to exist, or one adult female sea lion every two to three days.  The new population model developed by Horning suggests that as Steller populations decrease, predators may be targeting more juveniles.

“Young sea lions spend more time close to shore and the haul-outs where they are suckled by their mothers,” said Horning, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. “They can be found more predictably by predators than can older animals and adult males.”

“As the density of more ‘profitable’ adults declines, more juveniles may be targeted and never grow to adulthood, which makes rebuilding their populations problematic,” Horning added. “Unless predation is lessened, it appears they are in a productivity pit.”

The model suggests that at the highest abundance (such as before the decline began four decades ago), pups comprise 7 percent of all predation events, juveniles 46 percent, and adults 47 percent. But when overall populations decline to a level of 20 percent (which is the current level for the western stock), pups comprise 23 percent of the mortality, juveniles 72 percent, and adults just 5 percent.

“This changeover strongly suggests an age-structure density dependence in predation rates,” the authors wrote.

The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the North Pacific Research Board, the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, the Alaska Sea Life Center and the North Pacific Marine Science Foundation.



Media Contact: 

Markus Horning, 541-867-0270, or 


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Young Steller sea lion

Stellers in Alaska

OSU to retire one research vessel, take over operation of another

NEWPORT, Ore. – For more than 35 years, the Oregon State University research vessel Wecoma has carried scientists out of Newport to sea to learn about fisheries, climate change, undersea earthquakes and volcanoes, tsunamis, marine dead zones and other scientific issues.

The R/V Wecoma made its last official voyage in November, taking a research team off the Northwest coast to map the Cascadia Subduction Zone. And now the venerable vessel is heading into retirement.

In its place, another ship in the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, the 35-year-old Oceanus, will support scientific research in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oceanus was also scheduled to be retired but will arrive in Newport, Ore., in February after making the long trek from the East Coast.

This changing of the ships is somewhat unusual, according to Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU.

Abbott approached the National Science Foundation about a rapid analysis of the two ships to see which one would be more cost-effective to operate over the next several years. A team of technicians returned the verdict – a strong recommendation for the 177-foot Oceanus.

“During the analysis, we also discovered some problems with the Wecoma’s hull, as well as corrosion that would have required costly dry-docking,” Abbott pointed out. “The combination of that discovery and the overall report prompted us to send a letter of interest to the NSF to take over the Oceanus and retire Wecoma.”

“There are a few differences in science capabilities,” Abbott added, “but Oceanus is very capable and will be more cost-effective to operate over the next five to 10 years, at which point we hope to have a new ship.”

OSU has operated large research vessels since 1964, and has had the Wecoma since 1975. The fate of the ship is unclear – after its retirement from the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, OSU and National Science Foundation leaders will review options for disposition.

Oregon State is an active member of UNOLS, a consortium of 60 academic research institutions that operate 16 vessels around the country, according to Demian Bailey, OSU’s marine superintendent. Wecoma and Oceanus are owned by the National Science Foundation and support research projects funded primarily by NSF and the U.S. Navy.

Both ships will be docked at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, adjacent to a new facility built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to maintain its Pacific fleet. That fleet supports monitoring and research needs of NOAA.

OSU also operates the 54-foot Elakha and 85-foot Pacific Storm, which are used primarily for near-shore research.

Oceanus will leave Woods Hole in late January, sail through the Panama Canal and arrive in Newport in late February. It will be ready to support the first OSU research cruise in late March.

A retirement celebration for the Wecoma will be held at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in March.

The Wecoma:

  • Built in 1975, and overhauled in 1995;
  • 184.5 feet long
  • Cruising speed: 12 knots
  • Range: 7,200 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 30 days
  • Capacity: 13 crew members and 18 scientists

The Oceanus:

  • Built in 1975, and overhauled in 1994;
  • 177 feet long
  • Cruising speed: 11 knots
  • Range: 7,000 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 30 days
  • Capacity: 12 crew members and 14 scientists

History of OSU Research Vessels

  • 1964 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 180-foot Yaquina
  • 1968 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 80-foot Cayuse
  • 1975 – The School of Oceanography commissions the 184-foot Wecoma
  • 2000 – The College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences commissions the 54-foot Elakha
  • 2012 – The College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences takes over operation of the 177-foot Oceanus.
Media Contact: 

Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

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R/V Oceanus