marine science and the coast

OSU alumnus Warren Washington honored with Medal of Science

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Warren Washington, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and a graduate of Oregon State University, is one of 10 persons named today by President Obama to receive the National Medal of Science.

Washington has a bachelor’s degree in physics (1958) and a master’s degree in meteorology (1960) from OSU. He will return to campus this Nov. 3, when he is a scheduled speaker in a Memorial Union Program Council series on diversity. He also will deliver the keynote speech on Nov. 4 in Portland for the Urban League of Portland's Equal Opportunity Day dinner.

One of OSU’s most distinguished alumni, Washington, who was born in Portland in 1936, has spent his entire career with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and developed an international reputation for his work, according to Mark Abbott, dean of Oregon State’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

“Warren Washington has been one of the leading lights of modern-day climate modeling,” Abbott said. “He has been a world leader for more than 40 years in the study of the Earth’s climate.”

Washington also served as chairman of the National Science Board and completed two terms. He was nominated by both President Clinton and President (George W.) Bush.

The National Medal of Science was created in 1959 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, it recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering.

In 2006, Washington received an honorary doctorate from OSU and also delivered its June commencement address.

The 10 recipients of the medal include:

  • Yakir Aharonov, Chapman University
  • Stephen J. Benkovic, Pennsylvania State University
  • Esther M. Conwell, University of Rochester
  • Marye Anne Fox, University of California San Diego
  • Susan L. Lindquist, Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Mortimer Mishkin, National Institutes of Health
  • David B. Mumford, Brown University
  • Stanley B. Prusiner, University of California San Francisco
  • Warren M. Washington, National Center for Atmospheric Research
  • Amnon Yariv, California Institute of Technology
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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

Scientists plan rapid assessment survey of Oregon estuaries

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists from the United States, Canada, Japan and Russia will conduct a “rapid assessment survey” of three Oregon estuaries next week, looking for invasive species such as the marine tunicate, Didemnum vexillum, found earlier this year in Coos Bay and Winchester Bay.

These scientists are here a week before for the annual conference of the International North Pacific Marine Science Organization, which is called PICES. It will meet Oct. 22-31 in Portland.

Nations hosting this conference also host cooperative on-site surveys for introduced species, conducted by scientists from participating countries, according to George Boehlert, director of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and one of two United States members on the PICES governing board.

“It provides an opportunity to train scientists on surveying techniques, assess local estuaries for potential problems, and share information on common invasive species,” Boehlert said. “Many of the non-indigenous species on the West Coast originated in Asia, so the opportunity to work with scientists from Japan, Russia and elsewhere is highly beneficial.”

OSU scientist John Chapman, an aquatic invasive species specialist at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), and Thomas Therriault of Fisheries and Oceans in Nanaimo, British Columbia, are coordinating the Oct. 17-21 surveys. The surveys will include Yaquina Bay in Newport; Winchester Bay near Reedsport; Coos Bay; and a 300,000-gallon seawater tank at the HMSC.

Funding for the project will be provided by PICES through a contribution from the Japanese government, which has granted $500,000 to the organization for studies on invasive species and harmful algal blooms. Additional support is being provided by Oregon Sea Grant, a marine science program based at OSU.

This will be the first rapid assessment survey conducted through PICES in North America and also will be the first organized survey of this kind of the Oregon coast, Chapman said. Similar surveys were done prior to PICES conferences in China in 2008 and South Korea in 2009.

The scientists will sample both native and non-indigenous algae and animal species from floats, rocks and pilings, and from previously deployed “settling plates.” Volunteer divers will assist with the collections from sub-tidal areas. Still photos and video images of the collected specimens will be useful in comparing the species to those around the world – and identifying their origin, conference organizers say.

A new project for logging genetic information on different species collected will provide baseline data needed to ensure more continued international research on these invading species.

Preliminary findings from the surveys will be reported at a working group meeting at the PICES conference in Portland Oct. 23-24; final results will be reported at the 2011 PICES meeting in Russia, and will be posted online at the OSU Scholars Archive.

“We don’t have as many invasive species in Oregon estuaries as they do in a port like San Francisco, for example, which has so much shipping traffic,” Boehlert noted. “Nevertheless, these invasive species have the potential to disrupt natural ecosystems and can be costly to contain.”

Among recent invasive species issues in Oregon estuaries have been marine tunicates, which can suffocate bottom-dwelling organisms and foul equipment; a parasitic isopod that is killing mud shrimp up and down the West Coast and thereby reducing potential food sources for juvenile salmon; and green crabs that prey on prized estuary clams.

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George Boehlert, 541-867-0211

New Sea Grant Extension leader takes office Oct. 4

CORVALLIS, Ore. – David Hansen, a former Extension program leader at the University of Delaware, is the new program leader for Oregon Sea Grant Extension at Oregon State University. Hansen’s appointment begins Oct. 4.

He succeeds Jay Rasmussen, who retired earlier this year after serving in the position for 14 years.

Sea Grant Director Stephen Brandt called Hansen “a first-rate choice to lead Sea Grant Extension at a time when time when coastal stakeholders need our services most.

“He brings both the scientific and academic background and the practical experience to help us achieve our goals of using sound science to create a more informed and engaged society around issues important to our coast, our region and our nation,” Brandt said.

Hansen will oversee a marine Extension program including agents, specialists and educators located on campus and on the Oregon coast from Astoria to Gold Beach, working in fields ranging from watershed restoration and fisheries policy to invasive species, climate change and tsunami preparedness. The Oregon Sea Grant program at OSU is one of the largest and most highly regarded of its kind among the 30 Sea Grant programs nationwide.

Hansen will also serve on the Sea Grant leadership team, which coordinates an integrated program of ocean and coastal outreach, education, research and communications. 

The new program leader was educated at the Iowa State, where he earned a master’s degree in forest biology and a Ph.D. in soil science and water resources. He has spent four years as an assistant professor of soil and environmental quality at University of Delaware, and since 2008 has also directed Delaware's Extension  Agriculture and Natural Resources program.

During a recent visit to OSU, Hansen emphasized the need to build strong teams and forge broad coalitions – inside and outside the university – to deepen Sea Grant Extension's “diversity of expertise,” particularly in tight fiscal times.

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Stephen Brandt, 541-737-3396

Climate change conference to explore ocean impacts and policy

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A one-day symposium in Eugene will bring together policy experts and marine scientists – an important step in exploring how climate change impacts on the world’s oceans may necessitate new policies and management approaches.

The free public symposium will be held at the University of Oregon’s Knight Law Center (Room 175) on Friday, Sept. 10, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. More information on the event, including registration, is available online

Oregon State University oceanographer Jack Barth will moderate the morning panel that will outline some of the oceans’ responses to climate change. Other panels on community impacts and policy issues will follow in the afternoon.

“The ocean scientific community would really like to see more focus on the oceans in international discussions concerning climate change,” Barth said. “Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol were atmospheric-centric when it comes to looking at climate change impacts, mitigation and policy needs.”

Barth is a principal investigator with PISCO, the Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans. The multi-institution research initiative coordinated by OSU is a co-sponsor of the symposium, along with the University of Oregon Law School, the UO Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, and the OSU Foundation.

A key question that the conference will address is whether the impacts of climate change on the oceans will be sufficiently mitigated by atmosphere-related policies, or if specific policies need to be developed to protect the world’s oceans.

“The discussion on ocean impacts rarely goes beyond the simplistic, which is to say that as the planet warms, sea level will rise,” said Barth, who is a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “But there are a number of other issues out there including ocean acidification, decreasing dissolved oxygen levels, increasing wave heights and vulnerable marine ecosystems.

“There also is a growing need for marine spatial planning and siting, which has major implications for the Pacific Northwest, as we wrestle with maintaining fisheries while trying to accommodate wave energy, marine reserves and other needs,” Barth added.

Francis Chan, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Zoology, will present a report on changing ocean chemistry, and discuss the extent of the 2010 “hypoxia season” off the Oregon coast. One of the newest twists is how increasingly acidified water is being driven into Oregon bays during the summer upwelling season and affecting oyster-growing operations.

Among the other speakers at the conference are:

  • Mary Ruckelshaus, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, who will discuss climate change impacts on oceans and humans;
  • Julia Parrish, University of Washington, the effects of climate change on the marine food web and upper trophic levels;
  • Meg Caldwell, the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University, will give the keynote talk at lunch on “Climate Change Policy for the Oceans: When Scientists and Lawyers Talk.”
  • David Freestone, the George Washington School of Law, on international law and ocean impacts of climate change;
  • Maxine Burkett, the University of Hawaii, climate-induced migration.

Richard Hildreth, a UO professor of law and the Morse Resident Scholar, will present concluding remarks at the symposium.

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Jack Barth, 541-737-1607

Bounty offered for crab tags turned in by Sept. 1

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon Sea Grant is asking crab fishermen to keep a watchful eye out for Dungeness crabs with tags on their legs – and to forward any tags they've collected to the program by Sept. 1.

The Oregon State University-based program has been working with the Oregon Wave Energy Trust and the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission on a study looking at the movement of Dungeness crabs on the Oregon coast. In October and November of 2009, scientists tagged 3,000 legal-sized male crabs and placed tags on their back right legs.

Dungeness crab fishermen from both the commercial and recreational fleets have been returning tags since that December. More than 800 tags have already been returned, and the researchers are hoping to wrap up the study. Rewards of $20 will be given for each tag returned before this Sept. 1. The project will also hold a drawing in early September for $1,000.

“If you have a tag, please return it as soon as possible to claim your reward,” said Kaety Hildenbrand, Oregon Sea Grant Extension agent in Newport, who is helping coordinate the tag collection.

To participate in this study and claim the reward, remove the tag from the crab and write down the location, depth and date the crab was found; the tag number; your name, address and phone number; and include your signature.

Mail this information and the tag to Oregon Dungeness Crab Study; 29 S.E. 2nd St., Newport, OR 97365.

If you have questions, call 541-574-6537, ext. 18.

Story By: 

Amanda Gladics, 541-207-4463

Glow-in-the-dark shrimp? Don’t fret, say seafood safety experts…

NEWPORT, Ore. – Some Oregonians who recently purchased pink shrimp at the coast or at large retail stores have called Oregon State University’s Lincoln County Extension Office over the past few days to report a rather unusual trait.

Their seafood was glowing in the dark.

What sounds other-worldly is actually surprisingly common, according to Kaety Hildenbrand, an OSU Sea Grant Extension specialist who works with coastal fishing communities. Marine bacteria can cause glowing or luminescence when they grow on seafood products – a trait that may be exacerbated by the adding of salt during processing.

The important thing to remember, she said, is that “glowing” seafood does not present a food safety problem, nor does it reflect mishandling during processing.

“This is a situation that pops up on occasion and this seems to be a banner year for glowing seafood,” she said. “One person turned her lights off to watch a movie and her shrimp salad started to glow. Another man left his pink shrimp on the counter to thaw, and when he got up, it was glowing in the sink.

“People are calling to ask about safety and we’re assuring them there’s nothing wrong with their seafood,” she added. “I’ve even seen glow-in-the-dark salmon before.”

One reason many people haven’t seen luminescent seafood is that they rarely prepare cooked shrimp, crabmeat and other products in the dark. According to the University of California Sea Grant Extension program, there are numerous marine bacteria that can cause luminescence, including Alternomonas hanedai, Photobacterium phosphoreum, P. leiognathi, Vibrio fischeri, V. harveyi, V. logei and V. splendidus. Some can grow at refrigerator temperatures – especially on seafood products where salt has been added during processing.

Such bacterial growth is normal, said OSU Sea Grant Extension specialist Jeff Feldner, a former commercial fisherman.

“These occurrences actually have gone on for years,” he said, “and there haven’t been reports of illness from luminous marine bacteria.”

The OSU Extension specialists suggest consumers keep cooked seafood products chilled at temperatures as close to 32 degrees as possible, and to consume these products within a day or two of purchase.

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

OSU scientists simulate wave conditions to determine value of wetland vegetation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Coastal wetland vegetation may reduce shoreline erosion and sediment deposition by dampening the energy and power of incoming waves and storm surge, according to new research under way at Oregon State University.

The work is unprecedented and information created from it will allow for an increased understanding of ecological services associated with wetland habitat.

In the United States today 60 percent of the population lives within 50 miles of coastline and growth in these areas is expected to continue. That will put pressure on maintaining wetlands at the water-land interface – a landscape, which if healthy, has the capability of mitigating impacts of both natural and man-made disaster on the greater environment and human communities.

“Being able to quantify additional ecological services for wetlands whose value for fish and wildlife habitat is already well-documented provides further incentive to maintain and manage coastal wetlands,” said Dennis Albert, an Oregon State University professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Land use planning and coastal resource management benefit directly from a better understanding of the role wetlands and plant communities play in protecting our homes, communities and aquatic habitat.”

Together with Dan Cox, an OSU professor in the College of Engineering, Albert is leading a National Science Foundation-funded project to conduct ecological modeling of emergent vegetation for sustaining wetlands in high wave energy coastal environments. The project focuses on improving scientific understanding of wave attenuation and sediment deposition in the near-shore, wetland environment.

The OSU researchers are also studying plant survival under different wave patterns and strengths, and the ability of the plants to recover after storm damage.  

Taking place in the large wave flume at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at OSU, the study is the first of its kind to document the response of wetland plant beds taken from coastal environments to simulated waves.

The flume is 104 meters long, 3.6 meters wide and 4.6 meters deep. In use since 1972, it is the largest facility in North America used for coastal research. Beginning in the spring of 2009, Albert collected and cultivated Schoenoplectus pungens, commonly called threesquare bulrush, in 12 eight-foot-long planters. The planters were combined into three 32-foot long parallel beds of vegetation that were placed in the flume in early July 2010.

Students and researchers from OSU, Louisiana State University, Harvey Mudd College, Kyoto University (Japan), and Seoul National University are measuring the effects of the plants on waves of varying height and velocity. Early results show that the height of the wave, which is also a measurement of the energy contained within the wave, is reduced by more than two-thirds as it passes through the vegetation.

Future experiments will measure the amount of incoming sediment trapped by the vegetation and the ability of the plants to survive waves of differing characteristics.

“The lack of control in the field making it exceedingly difficult to quantify what’s occurring,” said Cox, a professor in the OSU’s School of Civil and Construction Engineering. “By using the large wave flume, we can introduce live plants into a controlled environment at prototype-scale where we can document their response, and then test their reactions to different variables and conditions.”

Coastal environments are increasingly prone to modification, both by humans and by nature, the researchers note.  An example of the ability of wetlands to buffer storm damage was observed during hurricanes Katrina and Rita when earthen levees that were fronted by wetlands experienced less damage during the storms and therefore required less post-storm repair.

The development of strategies to protect wetlands and other ecologically important systems has been recognized for more than a decade. However, the difficulty of conducting research in the coastal wetland environment had created numerous challenges for scientists and policy makers. As a result, the services provided by coastal wetlands, including wave-energy reduction and erosion control, sediment and nutrient accumulation, and habitat functions that support commercial and sport fish, shellfish, and water fowl, as well as overall biological diversity, have not been regularly incorporated into economic and development models.

“We’ve understood many of the values of coastal wetlands for some time, but this is one of our first opportunities to accurately measure the amount of wave energy reduction and sediment accumulation that occurs because of the plants,” said Albert, whose research has focused on coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes for more than 20 years.

“Energy reduction and sediment collection benefit both the organisms within the wetlands, and the human community who live at the margins of the wetlands and depend partially on fish and other organisms of the marsh for their livelihood.”


Dennis Albert, 541-737-7557

Rapidly growing murre colony draws interest of scientists – and predators

NEWPORT, Ore. – A rapidly growing colony of common murres at Yaquina Head near Newport has drawn the attention of predators – both expected and unexpected – as well as of scientists, who say the bird is an “indicator species” that can provide vital information about climate change.

An estimated 50,000 murres use the conveniently located rocks just offshore from the Yaquina Lighthouse, where viewing platforms offer close-up views for tourists as well as researchers.

Rob Suryan, an Oregon State University seabird ecologist, is leading a multi-year study of the birds that is gathering information on their reproductive success, diet and foraging activities. Murres are deep-diving birds that descend up to 500 feet below the surface to target herring, smelt, anchovies, sand lances and juvenile rockfish – the same diet as many fish species including salmon, halibut and adult rockfish.

Their survival and reproductive success is closely tied to ocean conditions and when biological productivity is good – from plankton, to copepods, to small fish – life is usually good for the murres. But Suryan and his colleagues from OSU, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have found murre survival can be influenced by predators as well as by prey.

Throughout the breeding season, bald eagles would perch on two wind-battered fir trees on the edge of Yaquina Head and then swoop down to grab adult murres. As the other murres scattered, gulls would rush in and scoop up the murre eggs, Suryan said.

“Our field crew also recently observed an immature brown pelican land on Flattop Rock and run through the colony flapping its wings,” Suryan said. “As it zigzagged through the colony, it ate 10 common murre chicks and chased away many of the adults, allowing the gulls to come in and go through their egg-stealing routine.

“Who would have thought that a pelican, of all things, would devour 10 young murres in a matter of seconds?”

Scientists say studies like this are particularly important because murres are an indicator species that may be one of the first seabirds to demonstrate negative impacts of climate change. One of the first visible signs of poor ocean productivity, Suryan noted, is the presence of seabird carcasses on local beaches. And although the central Oregon coast is one of the most monitored ocean regions in the world, upper trophic-level species like seabirds are not often included in long-term monitoring programs.

The seabirds at Yaquina Head, however, are ideally located and the data that Suryan and his colleagues are gathering can easily be coupled with OSU-gathered data on oceanographic conditions, allowing integrated food web studies.

Though the murre population at Yaquina Head may be one of the largest on the West Coast, these colonies can disappear rapidly, said Suryan, who is an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU, working out of the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

In the late 1980s, surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed there were some 12,000 murres each in colonies at Yaquina Head and several miles north at Gull Rock near Otter Crest. Over the past couple of decades, the Gull Rock colony declined and was eventually abandoned, while the Yaquina Head colony has greatly expanded. Suryan speculates that predation by eagles and egg-robbing gulls may have forced the murres to move from Gull Rock to Yaquina Head.

“Seabirds are usually faithful to nesting sites,” he said, “but if they have consistent failure to produce young, they will move. But we don’t really know if their overall numbers are increasing or decreasing until we get more yearly data and monitor reproductive success.”

Suryan said murres spend most of the year at sea and return to land in early spring to establish a colony. The females typically lay a single egg some time in May or June, and by early August, both adults and young murres will leave the colony and return to sea. Scientists are trying to learn more about what kind of nesting success rate is necessary to maintain the murre population – while factoring in predation rates and availability of forage fishes.

“It’s incredibly complex,” Suryan said, “but these birds can help tell us how a variety of marine life may be responding to ocean conditions as they change.”

As part of the study, students from OSU and other universities – part of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program – staff the platforms on Yaquina Head from which they monitor how many birds lay eggs, the rate of predation, and even what kind of fish the adults are feeding their young. That dietary information is then compared with stomach contents of commercially caught salmon, halibut and rockfish from Newport-based boats.

Amanda J. Gladics, a master’s student at OSU in the Marine Resource Management program, said preliminary data suggests an overlap in the diets of the birds and fish.

“We’re working directly with commercial and sport fishermen on the project, who share the stomachs of the fish they catch so we can analyze them,” said Gladics, who is from Beaverton, Ore. “We’ve found a lot of juvenile rockfish in the salmon and adult rockfish stomachs, and they’re being observed as an important part of the murres’ diet, too.

“We don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions yet,” she added, “but we would expect in years when particular prey species are abundant, the forage fish predators that we study would have more similar diets, and the opposite would be true in years of low food abundance.”

This is the fourth year of the OSU-led study, with funding from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and additional support from the National Science Foundation through the REU program. It continues the work begun by Julia Parrish from the University of Washington who conducted studies of murres in the area from 1998 to 2002.

“Scientists studying ocean or atmospheric conditions can look at ice cores or sediment cores and reconstruct the past,” Suryan said. “With birds, we can’t do that, so it’s important to establish a longer time series of data that will begin to show us how these birds respond to their environment and to predation.”

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Rob Suryan, 541-867-0223

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Yaquina eagle with murre


Yaquina Head

New study shows importance of February upwelling to fish, seabirds

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists have long known that wind-driven “upwelling” during the spring and summer along the Pacific Coast is critical for bringing deep, nutrient-rich water to the surface and fertilizing plankton blooms that form the base of the marine food web.

But a new study suggests that mini-pulses of upwelling that occur in February may be just as important in creating ideal ocean conditions in the California Current system for species from rockfish to seabirds.

“These small pulses of upwelling may kick-start the production cycle and extend the growing season,” said Bryan Black, an Oregon State University researcher based at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “We’ve found amazing synchrony in the growth rates of fish and reproductive success of seabirds – and both of these top-level predators corroborate the importance of February upwelling.”

Black’s latest study, comparing rockfish growth with seabird reproductive success, was published this month in NRC Research Press.

Black is a dendrochronologist, who applies tree-ring dating techniques to the study of marine organisms. Many long-lived fish accumulate analogous annual growth rings in their otoliths – or ear bones – allowing scientists to estimate their age. Many clams and other bivalves also lay down rings on their shells.

In addition to estimating age, scientists also can compare the size of the rings and tell something about the environmental conditions that year. Generally, large growth rings – whether on a clam, in a tree, or on a fish otolith – means that conditions were good.

“You can’t look at the rings on a single clam or tree and draw any significant conclusions,” Black said. “But when you examine dozens of individuals, and compare them with other species, the results are amazing.”

In his latest study, Black teamed with seabird ecologist Bill Sydeman at the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research, and NOAA researchers Steven Bograd, Isaac Schroeder and Peter Lawson to compare growth-ring chronologies of splitnose rockfish (Sebastes diploproa) and yelloweye rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus) with egg-laying dates and fledgling success of two species of seabirds – common murres and Cassin’s auklets.

Focusing on the years from 1972 through 1994, they found that when sufficient February upwelling occurs, growth rings were much more likely to be wide in the fish, and reproductive success high for the seabirds.

The team also found that over the past 60 years, wintertime upwelling was distinct from spring/summer upwelling.

“Statistically, they’re completely unrelated,” Black said. “And that’s important because some biological processes, like rockfish growth and seabird reproductive success, are ‘tuned’ to winter climate and will show different patterns from biological processes ‘tuned’ to summer climate.

“In short,” Black added, “seasonality is critical to understanding climate response.”

The next step in the team’s research is to collaborate with terrestrial ecologists to show similar climate responses on land.

“Already we see that high-elevation tree-ring chronologies in the Cascades relate surprisingly well to rockfish growth and seabird reproductive success,” Black said. “All of that is due to their sensitivity to climate in the winter – a time of the year when the ocean and atmosphere are particularly well-coupled.”

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Bryan Black, 541-867-0283

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rockfish otolith
Cross-section of rockfish otolith.

February upwelling

Harmful algal blooms on rise globally, but Oregon monitoring at risk

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists are moving closer to being able to predict when blooms of phytoplankton will turn toxic and prompt closures of shellfish harvesting along the coast to protect the public from domoic acid and other health threats.

But the funding that has supported a unique collaborative research and monitoring effort among several agencies will soon run out, leaving future monitoring of “harmful algal blooms” in Oregon in jeopardy.

“We’re moving closer toward having a predictive model, but we won’t get there until we have more people on the ground – counting phytoplankton, doing the toxin analysis, and monitoring the clams and mussels themselves,” said Angelicque “Angel” White, a biological oceanographer at Oregon State University and a principal investigator in a five-year study of harmful algal blooms.

“The goal is to be able to identify potential risks earlier – before they actually show up in the shellfish,” she added.

Razor clam harvesting was closed last week in Oregon from Bandon to Tillamook because of high levels of domoic acid – which White and her colleagues anticipated based on cell counts of harmful algal blooms.

At least parts of the Oregon coast are closed to shellfish harvesting almost every year, White said, and incidents of harmful algal blooms are on the rise globally. “In addition to being a health concern, it’s an economic factor as well,” White said. “These closures can cost coastal communities millions of dollars of lost income.”

A closure of razor clam harvests in 2003 of beaches in Clatsop County alone cost local communities an estimated $4.8 million in lost revenue.

Phytoplankton blooms are a normal ocean process, critical to maintaining the productive marine food web off the Pacific Northwest coast. Spring and summer winds bring up cold, deep water that is nutrient-rich to the ocean surface in a process called “upwelling.” When that water is exposed to sunlight, it creates blooms of phytoplankton. These tiny plants are a source of food for zooplankton and other marine creatures, which in turn are feasted upon by larger animals.

But certain species of phytoplankton have the ability to produce toxins that can be harmful to humans. One called Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, which bio-accumulates in the tissues of razor clams and mussels and can cause illness, and even death in humans. Another species, Alexandrium, produces saxitoxin, which can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning if ingested.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Agriculture test clams, mussels and other shellfish for domoic acid accumulation. Scientists from OSU and the University of Oregon work with ODFW on monitoring the phytoplankton blooms and checking for toxicity. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center contributes offshore phytoplankton sampling. Their work is funded through NOAA’s national “Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Bloom,” or MERHAB program.

“We’ve made it work,” said Bill Peterson, a biologist with the NOAA lab in Newport. “The five years of NOAA (MERHAB) funding allowed us to ramp up the monitoring of shellfish and plankton to a workable level, but Oregon still lags behind California and Washington when it comes to monitoring harmful algal blooms. They’re a lot farther ahead on figuring these things out.”

The collaborators’ NOAA funding, a total of $2.3 million in grants, will run out in another 18 months and anticipated state funding for the successful pilot program remains uncertain.

In their remaining time, the scientists will try to learn more about what causes certain phytoplankton blooms to become toxic, how long it takes for that toxicity to build up in the shellfish and what role ocean conditions like temperature, salinity and acidification may play.

“Phytoplankton toxicity is highly variable,” said Matthew Hunter, the ODFW shellfish and estuary project leader. “It can accumulate in razor clams in as little as a week’s time, or it can take several weeks – and we don’t yet know why there’s a difference. At the same time, the toxic phytoplankton may comprise only about 5 percent of the overall plankton biomass at any one time.

“There’s a lot still to discover,” he added, “but hopefully we can learn enough to create some kind of forecasting model that will change our sampling time frame and provide more warning when domoic acid, for example, may be becoming a problem.”

Marc Suddleson, who manages NOAA’s MERHAB program, said the investment in this academic/state/federal collaboration is designed to act as seed funding until local support can continue the effort.

“Hopefully, Oregon will adopt this proven pilot monitoring program and benefit from the early warning of toxic algal events it provides, helping to reduce their threat to public health and to safeguard valuable state recreational shellfisheries,” Suddleson said. “This program can help Oregon and NOAA advance mutual interests in improving harmful algal bloom monitoring and prediction for the entire Pacific coast.”

White agrees that Oregon needs to create and fund a formal monitoring effort that looks at toxin levels in both phytoplankton and shellfish. A network of volunteers could be utilized to gather water samples, she pointed out, but “our collaboration has demonstrated that a trained technician to identify toxicity is vital.”

“Oregon is bringing up the rear along the West Coast when it comes to addressing harmful algal blooms,” White said. “Considering the human health and economic issues associated with domoic acid and paralytic shellfish poisoning, and the fact that these toxic blooms are on the rise, I’m not sure that’s a place we want to be.”

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Angel White, 541-737-6397