marine science and the coast

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.”

Story By: 

Angel White, 541-737-6397

Multimedia Downloads

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.”

Story By: 

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.”

Story By: 

Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

Multimedia Downloads

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.

Story By: 

Nancee Hunter, 541-867-0357

OSU prof named deputy head of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University oceanographer Kelly Falkner will leave the university after 19 years to take a leadership position with the National Science Foundation, where she will be the new deputy head of the Office of Polar Programs.

A professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Falkner will begin her new role with NSF on Jan. 3.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, because I’ve had a great career at OSU and I’ll miss my excellent colleagues, the students, and the supportive staff here,” Falkner said. “But I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to take my polar interests into broader community service.”

Falkner is familiar with the National Science Foundation. In 2007, she took a two-year leave from OSU to serve as the agency’s first program director for integrated Antarctic research. Her stint was so successful, her NSF colleagues named a glacier after her. “Falkner Glacier” is an east-flowing valley glacier stretching four miles long through the Mountaineer Range in Victoria Land.

The irony is that Falkner hardly had any experience with Antarctica when she took the assignment. Most of her work centered around the Arctic, where she has spent much of her career studying how various sources of water entering the Arctic contribute to ocean circulation – and how changing circulation patterns relate to the other major environmental changes in the north.

She also has coordinated OSU contributions to the NSF-funded North Pole Environmental Observatory for several years.

In her new role, Falkner will join the NSF Office of Polar Programs, which manages and initiates the agency’s funding for basic research and operational support in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The office supports individual investigators, as well as research teams and United States participation in multi-national projects.

“Kelly brings enormous talent, insight and energy to everything she does and all of us here at COAS will miss her – as a scientist, teacher, leader and colleague,” said Mark Abbott, dean of OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “But the nation will be gaining a leader in an important area of research – how the polar regions are connected with the rest of the planet. We know she will do well.”

OSU faculty have taken on a variety of leadership positions with federal agencies in recent years, most notably when zoologist Jane Lubchenco was named administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year. Among the OSU oceanographers in leadership positions are:

  • Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) is a member of the National Science Board;
  • Michael Freilich, a COAS professor, is director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA;
  • Timothy J. Cowles, COAS professor, is program director for the Ocean Observatories Initiative, the National Science Foundation’s signature research project on climate change;
  • Jim McManus, COAS professor, recently served as associate program director of the chemical oceanography program at the National Science Foundation.

And Kelly Benoit-Bird, an associate professor in COAS, received a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – popularly known as a “Genius Award.”

Story By: 

Kelly Falkner, 541-737-3625

OSU’s Bruce Mate joins Russian scientists to track endangered whale

NEWPORT, Ore. – A team of scientists from Russia and the United States has successfully tagged and is tracking by satellite a whale from one of the world’s most endangered populations – a western gray whale off the coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

There are only about 130 western gray whales left, scientists say, and only about 30-35 of them are mature, reproductively active females. The project is important because although the whales’ feeding grounds in the Russian Far East are known, details of their migration routes and breeding grounds are not.

This is the first time an individual whale from a critically endangered species has been tagged and tracked using telemetry, according to Greg Donovan, head of science for the International Whaling Commission (IWC) based in Cambridge, U.K., which is coordinating the project.

“Tremendous care was taken to select a healthy adult male,” Donovan said. “Although the risks associated with such tagging are minimal, we wanted to take absolutely no chances with females or young animals. The information we expect to get from this study is vital to international conservation efforts to preserve this population, as is the collaboration between governments, international organizations, international scientists, industry and other stakeholders.”

The tagged whale, known as “Flex,” has been seen regularly in the Sakhalin area in summer since it was photographed as a calf in 1997. The team has been following its movements via satellite with data beamed from the transmitting tag.

The tagging component was led by Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and a pioneer in the use of satellites to track whales since the late 1970s.

“Not a lot is known about western gray whales, so finding out where they migrate to breed and calve will be a tremendous step forward,” said Mate, whose 37-year OSU career has taken him around the world to study threatened and endangered whales.

The scientific expedition was led by Vladimir Vertyankin, of the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evoluation of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who has more than 35 years of experience with marine mammal research in the region. Other team members include Grigory Tsidulko of the Severtsov Institute and Amanda Bradford from the University of Washington, both of whom have studied western gray whales for years.

The telemetry program was developed in conjunction with an international team of experts from the International Whaling Commission and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and carried out under a permit granted to the Severtsov Institute.

Vyatcheslav Rozhnov, deputy director of the Severtsov Institute, who advances satellite telemetry in Russian, concurred. “Finding the migration routes and winter grounds of this critically endangered population will allow range states to develop or improve effective measures to protect the whales,” Rozhnov said.

The field team embarked on its expedition in late August to the remote Sakhalin Island region to locate and tag whales. Logistical challenges and bad weather conspired to thwart their efforts, even though some 25 males were sighted and approached. Finally, on the last day of the expedition, the team managed to tag “Flex,” whose movements have since been tracked via satellite on a daily basis.

“The conditions were particularly difficult because of the weather,” said Valentin Ilyashenko, of the A.N. Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, who is the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission. “The team had to cope with the remnants of two typhoons and several smaller storms. But the perseverance of the entire group and the international collaboration – especially between U.S. and Russian scientists in the field – has really paid off.

“We should learn new things about these endangered whales that will help national and international efforts to better protect these whales,” Ilyashenko added.

The western North Pacific population of gray whales was greatly reduced 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.

Mate and his colleagues say there is evidence of a “fragile recovery.” Individual animals can be recognized and identified by sex through photographs and genetic information. However, Sakhalin Island also 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 and by heavy ship traffic.

Project team members are hopeful that the transmitter will continue tracking “Flex” for up to a year.

“What we really hope to discover is where these whales migrate to breed and calve,” pointed out Finn Larsen, program officer for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “It would be nice to have a full year of data, but it is these first 3-4 months that are probably the most critical.”

The project represents a major international collaboration between the International Whaling Commission, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.

Funding for the expedition was provided by Exxon Neftegas Ltd. (ENL) and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company, which have sponsored a western gray whale monitoring program off Sakhalin Island since 1997.

Story By: 

Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

Multimedia Downloads

Western Gray Whale - Sakhalin Island, Russia
"Flex" shown off Sakhalin Island.

Water issues, extreme weather among concerns in assessment report

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In the not-too-distant future, Oregon will face summer water shortages, an increase in wildfire risk, more extreme weather events, new environmental responses to climate change and myriad economic challenges – and opportunities, according to the first Oregon Climate Assessment Report, released today.

Written by some 70 authors from universities, state and federal agencies and other groups, the report was produced by the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, an Oregon University System entity housed at Oregon State University.

The legislatively mandated report was delivered today to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Sen. President Peter Courtney, and House Speaker Dave Hunt. The 400-plus page report is available online at: www.occri.net/ocar.

“Oregon faces some significant challenges because of a changing climate and this report synthesizes some of the best available science to gain a glimpse of our future,” said Philip W. Mote, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at Oregon State who directs OCCRI. “Having said that, there are some clear gaps in our research knowledge that must be addressed – especially the economic impacts of climate change – if we are to help communities, businesses and organizations better prepare for the future.”

Kathie Dello, a research associate with the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, coordinated production of the report with the help of nine lead authors and peer-review panels.

The report examines the potential social, physical and biological responses to an Oregon climate that may increase in average temperature from 0.2 to 1.0 degrees Fahrenheit per decade through the 21st century, the authors note. A key variable to these and other changes are global greenhouse gas emissions that will influence Oregon’s future climate.

“The key ‘drivers’ of emissions are population, consumption and the emission intensity of the economy,” Dello said.

Oregon’s supply of fresh water may be one of the most critical components of climate change. A compilation of different climate models suggests that the state’s average summer precipitation will decline by about 14 percent by the year 2080, but the impacts will vary over time and space, said Heejun Chang, a Portland State University geographer and hydrologist who led the section on freshwater resources.

“In terms of water supply, some lower Willamette River sub-basins – including the Tualatin, Clackamas and Molalla rivers, where population is growing – are more vulnerable to climate change,” Chang pointed out. “And with reduced summer precipitation, summer flow is projected to decline in the Western Cascade regions, which in turn will increase stream temperatures and further stress cold-water fish species.

“The warming by itself makes both floods and droughts likely to occur more frequently in the future,” Chang added. “If you couple hydroclimate and transportation models, it shows that winter floods might occur more frequently, which may damage regional transportation systems in urban areas and landslide-prone areas.”

The Oregon Climate Assessment Report is partly modeled on similar reports produced in Washington and California, but covers new ground, including greater emphasis on the marine environment, on fish and wildlife, and on human dimensions, Mote said.

Increases in ocean temperatures and acidification likely will further disrupt marine ecosystems and could lead to more near-shore hypoxia and so-called “dead zones,” harmful algal blooms, invasive species, and challenges for shellfish and other sea creatures, the report concluded. Oregon’s coastal region also will be subjected to more intense storms and higher waves, creating a greater risk of flooding.

“One unique aspect of this report is the contribution by OSU oceanographers who have led near-shore studies for more than 40 years that have resulted in a remarkably well-sampled coastal region,” Mote said. “There are few places in the world that have such a rich database on coastal oceans.”

Other conclusions in the report:

  • The global mean sea level is expected to rise an estimated one meter by the year 2100, but the rate of sea level rise will surpass the vertical land movement taking place through geological processes along the Oregon coast by the mid-21st century;
  • Also by the mid-21st century, Cascade snowpacks are projected to be less than half of what they were in the 20th century, with lower-elevation snowpacks most vulnerable;
  • Irrigation demands will increase as the climate warms, the authors say. However, warmer weather may created extended growing seasons and greater yields for some crops and opportunities for new crops or varietals;
  • Drawing on research from the University of Washington, the authors say that wildfire is projected to increase in all forest types in the coming decades because of warmer, drier summers and an increase in fuel. “Large fires could become more common in western Oregon forests,” the report concludes.

The authors say the largest data gap facing Oregon decision-makers is economic research. Some preliminary studies, based on individual sectors such as Oregon’s ski industry, have been started, Mote said, but large-scale “macro-economics” research is lacking.

“We know that Oregon’s low-elevation ski resorts will be affected first by changes in precipitation,” Mote said, “and economists could quantify how much they will lose with each week of a shorter ski season. What is missing is detailed analysis of the pros and cons of climate change for the whole of Oregon. If we manufacture fewer parkas, do we make more swimsuits? As we lose some crops, do we grow others?

“Oregon also needs a more detailed look at its infrastructure needs,” he added. “If we have more coastal flooding, for example, how many communities have adequate water and sewage treatment facilities? Adequate road systems?  Those are the kinds of questions that need to be asked next.”

The report includes lead and contributing authors from OSU, PSU, University of Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Agriculture and others.

Story By: 

Philip Mote, 541-737-5694

Survey of Maui’s dolphins off New Zealand finds genetic surprise

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The future survival of the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin, which is found only off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, may have gotten a boost from the discovery of two Hector’s dolphins among its sparse population.

The more plentiful Hector’s dolphins are found off the South Island of New Zealand but individuals are thought to remain within a limited home range for most of their lifetime. However, genetic analysis of 26 “Maui’s dolphins” by scientists at the University of Auckland and Oregon State University found that two of these individuals were actually Hector’s dolphins, likely originating from the west coast of the South Island.

The discovery is important, scientists say, because previous studies indicate the remaining population of only about 100 Maui’s dolphins has low genetic diversity. The threat of “in-breeding depression” has been a source of concern to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, which conducted the surveys earlier this year.

“The potential for introduction of new genetic diversity through even occasional mating with Hector’s dolphins is likely to be good for the long-term survival of the Maui’s dolphin,” said Rochelle Constantine, a lecturer with the University of Auckland who presented the results at the meeting of the New Zealand Ecological Society today (Nov. 23) in Dunedin, N.Z.

Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, said that limited interbreeding between the two subspecies “might be the best chance of survival for the Maui’s dolphin.”

“Human activity has contributed to isolating these populations through a reduction in the range of Maui’s dolphins,” said Baker, an internationally recognized cetacean expert who coordinated the genetic analysis of the dolphins. “And further isolation is likely to reduce genetic diversity, without occasional genetic interchange with the more abundant Hector’s dolphins.”

The two Hector’s dolphins found with the Maui’s dolphins were both females, Baker pointed out.

The Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) is the world’s smallest dolphin at about five feet in length and weighing about 110 pounds. They are usually found close to shore in pods of several dolphins and only occasionally range further offshore. Females are not sexually mature until seven to nine years of age and they produce just one calf every two to four years, making population increases a slow process.

“It was quite a surprise to discover the Hector’s dolphins that far north because they were thought to remain quite close to their place of birth most of their lives,” said Becca Hamner, a Ph.D. student from Oregon State University who works with Baker. “This is almost certainly a rare dispersal event, as none of our previous samples of Maui’s dolphins showed evidence of hybridization.

“Further genetic monitoring will be needed to determine if the new emigrants survive and are able to interbreed with the Maui’s dolphins,” Hamner added.

The DNA analysis was done following collection of small skin samples by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and the University of Auckland. Those samples were compared to a collection of 300 samples from the known range of both Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins around New Zealand.

Funding for the research was provided by the New Zealand Department of Conservation and the United States Marine Mammal Commission.

Story By: 

Scott Baker, 541-272-0560

Multimedia Downloads

Maui's dolphin
Maui's dolphin

Oregon experiencing spike of leptospirosis, sea lion deaths

NEWPORT, Ore. – A sharp increase in the number of sick and dead California sea lions has been reported along the Oregon coast in recent weeks and necropsies conducted on dozens of the animals suggest that many may have died from leptospirosis.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease found in a variety of animal species and can be transmitted to humans, according to Jim Rice, an Oregon State University scientist who coordinates the statewide Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

“We are now getting calls for multiple sick or dead sea lions daily, which is higher than normal,” said Rice, an OSU Marine Mammal Institute researcher who works at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. “The overall number of sea lions also has risen, so it’s difficult to compare mortality rates from year to year, but certainly we’re seeing an increase in animals that test positive for leptospirosis.”

Rice and his colleagues at the stranding network have sent dozens of dead animals to the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. And though not all of the animals have tested positive, many showed clear signs of leptospirosis, which raises concern about human health.

Kathy O’Reilly, who heads the bacterial section of the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, said leptospirosis can be virulent.

“There have been 50 to 100 cases per year in the United States reported to the Centers for Disease Control,” O’Reilly said, “and in 31 percent of the human cases it is traced back to contact with infected rats, and in 30 percent of the cases, it is tracked to infected dogs.”

Dogs can be infected with leptospirosis through contact with stricken seal lions. Rice said coastal visitors should always avoid sea lions on the beach and during outbreaks of leptospirosis should keep their dogs on a leash. The disease can be transmitted by direct contact, or even through contact with damp sand, soil or vegetation contaminated by the urine of infected animals.

Rice said that in 2009, the network had 350 reports of California sea lions stranded on Oregon beaches – either dead or severely ill and presumed to have died. And Oregon is on pace to surpass that total this year, he pointed out.

“Typically, sea lions with leptospirosis are quite emaciated and lethargic,” Rice said. “Those that don’t die on the beach may get washed out to sea and die, or they may move elsewhere. It’s possible that some recover, but these are very sick animals.”

The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network is a collaborative volunteer effort to respond to reports of sick or dead marine mammals – including whales, seals and sea lions – and report data about the strandings to the National Marine Fisheries Service. It is headquartered at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute at the Hatfield Marine Science Center and coordinated by Rice.

Partners in the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network include OSU, Portland State University, the University of Oregon’s Institute for Marine Biology, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon State Police, the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation and others.

Persons seeing dead or sick marine mammals on Oregon beaches are encouraged to call the Oregon State Police 1-800-452-7888.

Story By: 

Jim Rice, 541-867-0446

Multimedia Downloads

Sea Lions

Troubled waters: A fish-eye view of dead zones and oil spills

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Just like oil spills, “dead zones” make news. And they seem to be spreading: Chesapeake Bay, the Oregon coast, Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico. Surprisingly, scientists know little about who wins and who loses when oxygen concentrations drop to near-zero in ocean waters.

At Science Pub Corvallis on Nov. 8, Steve Brandt, director of the Oregon Sea Grant program, will discuss findings from six seasons of subsurface exploration in the low-oxygen waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico. And he’ll share what was different about this year’s cruise, which began after the United States’ largest recorded oil well blow-out was capped in July.

“Recently there has been an alarming increase, in the spatial and temporal extent of low-oxygen conditions in estuarine and coastal waters,” said Brandt. “We call them ‘dead zones’ in the media because we presume there are drastic impacts on living resources such as shrimp and fish.”

In his talk, Brandt will show how low-oxygen conditions, which scientists call “hypoxia,” can affect habitat quality, food webs and growth rates. Some fish, he added, may actually benefit from these conditions.

Science Pub Corvallis begins at 6 p.m. at the Old World Deli, 341 2nd St. in downtown Corvallis. It is free and open to the public. Sponsors include Terra magazine at OSU, the Downtown Corvallis Association and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.


Steve Brandt, 541-737-6200