marine science and the coast

Scientists unlock keys to global ocean circulation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Though the United Kingdom and the Aleutian Islands are at the same latitude, they have vastly different climates – due largely to the difference in salinity between the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the system of currents those oceans produce.

Now researchers may have solved the mystery of why the Atlantic is saltier than the Pacific; the cause appears to be global mountain ranges and the Antarctic ice sheet.

When the cold, salty surface water of the North Atlantic Ocean sinks and begins its long journey toward Antarctica, it triggers a complex pattern of global ocean currents that brings enough warmer water back along the European shoreline to keep most of that continent’s climate temperate. The northern Pacific Ocean doesn’t have that same mechanism because its salinity is much lower, and scientists have long speculated as to why.

The new study pinpointing the role of mountains and ice sheets was published by researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Hamburg. Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Program, it was just published online in the Journal of Climate.

The Rocky Mountains of North America and the Andes of South America block water vapor transport from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, according to Andreas Schmittner, an Oregon State oceanographer and lead author on the study. Most of the water that evaporates from the Pacific is blocked by those mountains and falls as rain or snow, eventually returning to the Pacific Ocean and keeping it fresher.

“Without those mountains, much of the precipitation would fall in the middle of the continents and drain into the Atlantic instead of the Pacific,” said Schmittner, an associate professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State.

Water vapor from the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, on the other hand, comes across Central America via tradewinds and dumps into the Pacific – creating the salinity disparity. The amount of fresh water this mechanism creates is significant, Schmittner said, about 200,000 cubic meters per second.

“That is roughly equivalent to the output of the Amazon River flowing into the Pacific,” he pointed out.

The mountains of East Africa keep water transport originating in the Indian Ocean from reaching the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the massive Antarctic ice sheet also plays a major role, the researchers report in their study. This ice sheet intensifies the winds and shifts the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to the south. Without the sheet, the temperature contrasts between the land mass and the atmosphere at lower latitudes would lessen, decreasing winds, Schmittner said.

“Those winds push the Circumpolar Current, which is the most powerful ocean current in the world, to the south,” he said. “If the ice sheet disappeared and was replaced by air, the current would be pushed northward and block the flow of salty water from the Indian Ocean, around the tip of South Africa, into the Atlantic.”

Climate model simulations by the researchers found that removing the mountain ranges creates a fresh North Atlantic and a salty North Pacific.

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Andreas Schmittner, 541-737-9952

OSU scientist one of four honored as Pew Fellows in Marine Conservation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scott Baker, an Oregon State University conservation geneticist and cetacean specialist whose work was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Cove,” has been named one of four 2011 Pew Fellows in Marine Conservation.

The prestigious Pew Fellowship program provides a three-year stipend to distinguished scientists for conservation projects designed to address critical problems facing the world’s oceans. Baker, the associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, will use the fellowship to study populations of dolphins in the South Pacific.

There have been few studies of dolphins around islands of the South Pacific, thus scientists are unsure how many species there are, whether local populations from different islands are genetically distinct, and how they are faring in relation to their historic abundance.

“What little work that has been done suggests that dolphins show a lot more local fidelity than previously assumed,” Baker said. “Although some dolphins are found in large populations in the open ocean, others form much smaller communities attached to individual islands or island chains. One of the goals of our research is to determine whether the distribution of these island populations is influenced by seascape characteristics, and how genetically distinct these different populations might be.”

Baker’s study will focus on a vast area of the South Pacific stretching from Micronesia in the west to Polynesia in the east, an area roughly the size of the North Atlantic Ocean. The region has some of the largest protected marine areas in the world and Baker’s study will help determine if these are sufficient in scale to sustain local dolphin populations.

“Dr. Baker’s project can help guide policy decisions for creating permanent areas, not only to protect dolphins, but other highly migratory creatures as well,” said Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environmental Group.

A professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU, Baker’s laboratory is located at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport on the central Oregon coast. In his genetic analysis laboratory, he conducts forensic work on the tissues of whales and other cetaceans. Baker has documented the under-reporting of fin whales in Japan, the threat to minke whales of commercial “bycatch” whaling, and the illegal sale of whale meat as sushi in restaurants in Seoul, South Korea, and Los Angeles.

Baker’s DNA identification of dolphin meat, potentially tainted with mercury contamination, was prominently featured in “The Cove,” where he was seen in a portable genetic laboratory working in a cramped Tokyo hotel room. The provocative film documented the hunting of dolphins in the small Japanese fishing village of Taiji, and the high levels of mercury found in the dolphin meat sold for human consumption.

Baker is also an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and supervises graduate students there and at OSU. He chairs the executive committee of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium, frequently testifies at meetings of the International Whaling Commission, and edits the prominent Journal of Heredity, a publication of the American Genetic Association.

The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation has awarded 120 fellowships to individuals from 31 countries since it began. The program is managed by the Pew Environmental Group in Washington, D.C.

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Scott Baker, 541-867-0255

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Scott Baker
Scott Baker
spinner dolphins
South Pacific dolphins

Sea lion entanglement in marine debris preventable, study finds

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study by researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute suggests most entanglements of Steller sea lions in human-made marine debris along the Pacific coast could be prevented through education and changes to manufacturing and packaging processes when the entangling materials are produced.

In the first study of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, Kim Raum-Suryan, an OSU faculty research assistant, studied Steller sea lions between 2005 and 2009 at two of Oregon’s most iconic locations, the Sea Lion Caves and Cascade Head. Steller sea lions use these as “haul-outs,” places where the mammals rest on land between feeding forays.

Over the past 30 years, the Steller sea lion population has declined by more than 80 percent, resulting in its threatened status in the eastern portion of its range (central California to southeast Alaska) and endangered status in the western portion (western Alaska).

During the study, which was completed with funding from Oregon Sea Grant, Raum-Suryan witnessed 72 animals entangled in debris including: black rubber bands used on crab pots; hard plastic packing bands used around cardboard bait boxes (and other cardboard shipping boxes); and hooks and other fishing gear.

Since 2000, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has recorded more than 500 Steller sea lions in Alaska and northern British Columbia that have either become entangled in marine debris or have ingested fishing gear.

“There are likely many more entangled animals from Alaska to the central California coast that are not observed because entanglement can lead to death by drowning, infection or starvation before the sea lions ever come ashore,” said Raum-Suryan, who used spotting scopes as well as remote video cameras to document the entangled mammals. “And because these animals can be observed only when they are on land, the numbers might be significantly higher.”

Raum-Suryan said sea lions often sink when they die at sea, resulting in few dead and entangled Steller sea lions stranding on beaches. “This adds to the difficulty of assessing the mortality of the entangled mammals,” she said.

Of the observed identifiable neck entanglements, black rubber bands were the most common neck entangling material (62 percent), followed by plastic packing bands (36 percent) that are cut and glued at the ends around cardboard boxes to keep boxes from bursting.

“We don’t want to point fingers or place blame, because the important thing here is that entanglement is preventable and everyone can do their part,” Raum-Suryan said. “From fishers and crabbers to beachcombers, people can help get the word out on what I call ‘Lose the Loop,’ or making sure all loops – from six-pack plastics to packing bands – are cut before any bands are discarded.”

Sea lions are curious animals and tend to seek out and play with entangling debris, which is how loops lodge around their necks and then cut into the flesh as the animals grow.

Raum-Suryan, who participated in a similar study in southeast Alaska where salmon fishing gear was a more common cause of entanglement, is working with Oregon’s fishing and crabbing industry to raise awareness about the bands and loops.

She has also suggested to manufacturers and packaging companies that the glue used to attach packing bands around boxes could be biodegradable so it would release after short exposure to saltwater and sunlight. Other materials also could be manufactured to biodegrade more quickly.

In both fishing and packaging industries, plastics and synthetic materials have replaced natural fibers over the past 50 years because these materials are lower cost, lighter weight, stronger, and more durable. But they last longer once discarded or lost, are less likely to sink, and are more difficult for marine organisms to escape from once entangled.

“Because entanglement is preventable, even one animal dying this way is too many,” Raum-Suryan said. “These are human-caused problems, and we can prevent them by being aware and making a few changes, like cutting all bands at home and at work.” She has seen packing bands used on boxes ranging from toys to furniture.

Raum-Suryan worked with Alaska Fish and Game to produce an educational video that helps viewers understand entanglement and what they can do prevent it. The video is available on a free DVD from the Alaska Fish and Game, or can be viewed online at: http://www.multimedia.adfg.alaska.gov:8080/WildlifeConservation/entanglement.wmv

The threatened and endangered Steller sea lions are much larger than the protected California sea lions that are common along the Oregon coast. Male Steller sea lions can weigh up to 2,500 pounds, compared to only 700 pounds for a male California sea lion The vocalizations and coloring also differ. Steller sea lions are lighter in color with thick necks and roar, while California sea lions are darker and bark.


Kim Raum-Suryan, 541-867-0393

Public urged to refrain from touching seal pups

NEWPORT, Ore. – The arrival of spring has brought a number of young seal pups onto Oregon beaches, where they are at-risk from well-meaning coastal visitors who want to “rescue” them.

Oregon State University marine mammal biologist Jim Rice is urging the public to refrain from touching or approaching the seal pups, which in most cases are not orphaned or abandoned, he pointed out. They frequently are left on the beach by their mothers, who are out looking for food.

“Seal pups being left alone on the beach in the spring is perfectly normal,” said Rice, who coordinates the statewide Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network headquartered at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Newborn pups typically spend several hours each day waiting for their mothers to reunite with them.”

“Adult female seals spend most of their time in the water, hunting for food, and only come ashore periodically to nurse their pups,” Rice said. “But the mothers are wary of people and unlikely to rejoin a pup if there is activity nearby.”

Unfortunately, Rice said, concerned but uninformed beach-goers will sometimes interfere, by picking up seal pups and taking them away from the beaches – and their mothers. A more common threat is the hovering by curious onlookers around pups, which can cause stress to the pups and prevents their mothers from returning to them.

“It’s tempting for some people to attempt to ‘rescue’ these seemingly hapless pups,” Rice said, “but a pup’s best chance for survival is to be left alone. A dependent pup that’s taken away from its mother will certainly die.”

Even with the best of intentions, people can do a great deal of harm. And additionally, persons who disturb seal pups – even those who are just trying to help – risk being fined under laws intended to protect marine mammals from harassment. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits interference with seal pups and other marine mammals on the beach.

Bystanders should stay at least 50 yards away and keep their dogs leashed, Rice said.

“After suckling for about four weeks, weaned pups are abandoned by their mothers, left to fend for themselves,” Rice added. “They will continue to come onto beaches periodically to rest as they grow and learn how to catch their own food.”

The harbor seal pupping season on the Oregon coast is generally March through June, with a peak in mid-May. Anyone who observes incidents of seal pup harassment, or animals in distress, should call the Oregon State Police at 1-800-452-7888, Rice said.

The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network is an organization comprised of state agencies, universities, and volunteers, working together to investigate the causes of marine mammal strandings, provide for the welfare of live stranded animals, and advance public education about marine mammal strandings.

You can visit the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network online at http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/ommsn

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Jim Rice, 541-867-0446

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Don't touch the pups

Data streaming in from Space Station to OSU lab

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A prototype scanner aboard the International Space Station has been taking new images of Earth’s coastal regions during the 16 months since it was launched, providing scientists with a new set of imaging tools that will help them monitor events from oil spills to plankton blooms.

The images and other data are now available to scientists from around the world through an online clearinghouse coordinated by Oregon State University.

Additional details of the project will be announced in a forthcoming issue of the American Geophysical Union journal, EOS, and can be found on an OSU website about the project.

The Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, or HICO, is the first space-borne sensor created specifically for observing the coastal ocean and will allow scientists to better analyze human impacts and climate change effects on the world’s coastal regions, according to Curtiss O. Davis, an OSU oceanographer and the project scientist.

“What HICO does that other ocean imaging systems like NASA’s MODIS cannot is provide color sensor data down to the human scale,” Davis said. “Whereas the normal resolution for an ocean imager is about one kilometer, HICO provides resolution down to 90 meters. And instead of having just nine channels like MODIS, it has 90 channels.

“This allows us to focus the imaging system on a section of the coastline and map the ocean floor in water as deep as 50 to 60 feet,” he added. “It gives us the ability to track sediment down the Columbia River, and to distinguish that sediment from phytoplankton blooms in the ocean. It can reveal near-shore eddies, currents, and the influence of coastal streams entering the ocean.

“It is a scientific treasure trove for the coastal oceanographer,” he added.

This sophisticated imaging system was developed by the Naval Research Laboratory and installed aboard the space station in 2009. Its development was an experiment – to see if engineers could create an “Innovative Naval Prototype” instrument very quickly, at low-cost, and make it work for a year, said Davis, who worked for several years at the laboratory before joining the OSU faculty.

That first goal was achieved last October and now the focus is on the second goal, conducting useful science with this unique data set.

“We’ve already talked to 40-50 interested scientists and shared some preliminary data,” he said, “and they’ve been excited about the potential. They all want a piece of it.”

Some of the images HICO has provided have revealed interesting data:

  • Images of the Han River in South Korea outline the dynamic, rapidly shifting shallow mud flats that are covered by the incoming tide, but include sandbars where boats can easily get mired;
  • Images from the Straits of Gibraltar, separating Spain from North Africa, reveal where large internal waves propagate hundreds of feet below the surface. These waves, which were used during World War II to hide submarines moving through the channel, can affect fishing and boat navigation.
  • Images of the Columbia River, taken during a large storm and after, reveal changing breakwaters and bars that demonstrate the complexity and dynamics of this large system.

“We hope to begin imaging the area around Sendai, Japan, which was devastated by the recent earthquake and tsunami to see what we might learn,” Davis said.

The space station orbits Earth about 16 times a day and the researchers are able to get about 5-6 good images daily of targeted locations. Cloud cover and darkness limit the number of possible images, and the transmission of data files is enormous.

Jasmine Nahorniak, a senior research assistant, developed and runs the website through OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences where HICO images and other data are stored and shared with scientists around the world.

"We have a couple of thousand images and a growing number of scientists who are interested in the data,” she said. “It’s a work in progress.”

The HICO website is at: http://hico.coas.oregonstate.edu/

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Curt Davis, 541-737-5707

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HICO on Space Station
An image of HICO aboard the International Space Station

HICO Columbia River
The mouth of the Columbia River

Scientists seeking to save threatened Nassau grouper

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists studying the Nassau grouper, an iconic Caribbean reef fish decimated by over-fishing, say it is showing tentative signs of recovery off the Cayman Islands since the government there imposed protective restrictions eight years ago.

However, their research also shows that the groupers’ behavior during spawning – and subsequent dispersal of their larvae – may threaten the long-term viability of the species without further protection.

“Nassau groupers form large aggregations to spawn,” said Scott Heppell, a fisheries ecologist at Oregon State University. “They are very predictable. The same trait that promotes their reproductive success, however, also makes them extremely vulnerable to fishing. And once their populations diminish, it is hard to rebuild them.”

Heppell and his colleagues are working with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment on a project to learn more about the Nassau grouper. They are particularly interested in how far the larvae disperse with the currents after spawning – a key factor in Caribbean nations’ efforts to rebuild depleted stocks.

As part of REEF’s “Grouper Moon Project,” the researchers deployed short-term and long-term drifter buoys to see where the currents potentially could carry the larvae. They also tagged several adult fish and set up telemetry sites to track the adults en route to their spawning aggregation – work supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program.

What they’ve found is that the groupers aggregate during the first full moon after the winter solstice. As many as 4,000 fish will gather at a site west of Little Cayman Island, then spawn some three to eight days later. The timing of their spawning appears driven by currents, said Heppell, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“We wondered why the fish waited to spawn after aggregating,” Heppell said, “and the buoys appear to have provided the answer. As soon as the currents died down and eddies formed, spawning began. This has the effect of limiting short-term dispersal of larvae and keeps resident fish close to home.”

The long-term buoys that were released eventually drifted south, suggesting that some larvae would be carried far from the Cayman Islands. However, halfway through their 45-day journey, the buoys rode currents back to within 100 kilometers of the Cayman Islands.

“The combination of spawning when eddies arrive, and the circular nature of long-term currents has the effect of keeping fish close to home,” Heppell said. “The Cayman Islands used to have five spawning sites for Nassau groupers; now there is one. Despite protections, the other sites haven’t yet regenerated – and the limited distribution of larvae may be the reason.”

Project leaders have started a Baby Grouper Adrift website to track the location of drifter buoys over the next month in an effort funded by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. The public is invited to follow the progress of the researchers at: http://www.reef.org/programs/grouper_moon/adrift/

Nassau grouper are fish that often grace tropical postcards and photographs, and they attract tourists who like to see them while scuba diving. In addition to that cultural benefit, the fish have an ecological role; they are a keystone species that influences the structure of reef communities and promotes coral health.

Scientists estimate that 60 to 80 percent of historic Nassau grouper aggregations have been wiped out from over-fishing. Those populations are slow to rebuild. Groupers don’t reach maturity until four to eight years of age, and juveniles are subject to predation by invasive lionfish and other species.

That’s what makes the protection of remaining aggregation sites important, Heppell said.

“Since protections were established in the Cayman Islands, we’ve seen evidence of increasing numbers of fish from diver survey, mark-and-recapture data, and video laser observations that document more juveniles,” Heppell said. “Sustaining that aggregation site is critical.”

“Ultimately, it is a cultural decision on managing the population,” Heppell added. “Is a fish worth more one time on a dinner plate, or being seen a hundred different times by diving tourists?”

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Scott Heppell, 541-737-1086

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Nassau grouper
Nassau grouper

Cayman Islands study
Brice Semmens of NOAA (left) and Scott Heppell, OSU

Oregon teens to compete in annual Salmon Bowl competition

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Fourteen teams from Northwest high schools will test their knowledge of marine sciences this Saturday, Feb. 26, during the annual Salmon Bowl competition at Oregon State University.

In this event, high school teens compete to see who knows the most about ocean-dwelling organisms, undersea earthquakes and volcanoes, tsunamis, marine biology, hypoxia and other oceanography-related topics.

The four- and five-student teams will compete for a chance to represent the region at the 14th annual National Ocean Sciences Bowl this spring in Texas. The national competition is a program developed by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership to raise student interest in ocean sciences as a potential field of study and a career choice.

About 100 volunteers, including faculty, staff and students in the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, will help host the event.

“The Salmon Bowl is a fun way to encourage student interest in the marine sciences, and to get students to think about what may happen in the future,” said Jenna Halsey, a COAS graduate student who helps coordinate the event.

The public is invited to watch the round-robin, single-elimination event, which will be held on the OSU campus from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Burt Hall, Wilkinson Hall and Gilfillan Auditorium. All three facilities are located roughly at 26th Street and Monroe in Corvallis. Admission is free.

Neah-Kah-Nie High School, which has won the Salmon Bowl a record nine times, will return to defend its title. The school’s “A” team went on to finish sixth at nationals last year.

Competing teams include:

  • Astoria High School (three teams)
  • Benson Polytechnic, Portland (three teams)
  • Crater Renaissance Academy
  • Crater Academy of Natural Sciences
  • McMinnville High School (two teams)
  • Neah-Kah-Nie High School, Rockaway Beach (two teams)
  • Oregon Coast Aquarium (a team from Newport-area high schools)
  • Salmon Creek
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OSU expanding fleet of offshore gliders as part of ocean observatory

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University oceanographers deployed their first undersea glider in 2005 and in the past five years, their small fleet of data-gathering autonomous vehicles has logged more than 43,000 kilometers – a distance that would more than circumnavigate the globe.

That fleet is set to expand, opening the door for a new wave of oceanic research that will greatly enhance scientific understanding of issues ranging from climate change to hypoxia and “dead zones.”

The university’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences has been operating as many as nine gliders during the past year, a number that will grow to 21 by 2012 through funding from the national Ocean Observatories Initiative.

Three years ago, OSU was selected as one of the lead institutions for the OOI, a $387 million National Science Foundation-funded project to study the world’s oceans and their relationship to climate variability. One component of that project is to create a coastal observatory off the Northwest coast that will use moorings, buoys and gliders to better observe and monitor the ocean.

The gliders have revolutionized the study of the ocean off the Pacific Northwest, scientists say.

“In more than half a century of work, OSU scientists have recorded about 4,000 profiles of the near-shore from ships,” said Jack Barth, an Oregon State professor of oceanography and one of the lead scientists for the Ocean Observatories Initiative. “During the past five years, our gliders have logged more than 156,000 profiles – nearly 40 times what six decades of shipboard studies have provided.

“That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it,” Barth added. “Each year alone, we log more profiles than have ever been recorded via ship off Newport. And the beauty of gliders is that the data is continual. They record 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather or how rough the sea is.”

The glider project led by Barth and fellow oceanographer Kipp Shearman is featured in a special marine science issue of Terra, OSU’s research magazine. It is online at: http://oregonstate.edu/terra/ and offers stories on marine reserves, ocean acidification and the Gulf of Mexico. A two-page info-graphic presents 10 examples of ocean observing systems used by West Coast scientists.

OSU’s glider fleet represents a significant investment. Each of the undersea gliders costs between $100,000 and $200,000. The machines can be programmed to run for 3-5 weeks, from near-shore to the continental slope, and every six hours they rise to the surface and transmit data to OSU computers via satellite.

The data they collect informs scientists on conditions including El Niño and La Niña, hypoxia and resulting “dead zones,” harmful algal blooms and others.

In addition to recording ocean temperatures, salinity and dissolved oxygen levels, the newest gliders will use acoustics to measure water velocity. “For the first time,” Barth said, “we will be able to nearly simultaneously map ocean currents – from the surface to the bottom of the ocean – and detect just where these underwater ‘rivers’ run.”

OSU scientists are excited about sharing their data – in near real-time – with researchers, fishermen and the public.

“The fishermen we’ve talked to are intensely interested in the data we will generate,” Barth pointed out “Crabbers don’t want to put their pots into areas that have strong bottom currents, nor do trawlers want to contend with strong drifts. The findings will also be important for ecologists studying larval dispersal of marine animals.”

Technology is advancing so rapidly, Barth says, that the gliders will carry new instruments as early as the next year or two.

“We’re putting hydrophones onto the moorings, for example, and there’s no reason why we can’t put them onto the gliders and listen for marine mammals or fish that have been tagged with transmitters,” he said.

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Jack Barth, 541-737-1607

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Glider on Elakha
Glider launch from the R/V Elakha


Glider launch
OSU glider technician Justin Brodersen

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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