marine science and the coast

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

OSU scientists to study effects of acidification on shellfish

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University will begin delving into the impacts of ocean acidification on shellfish, launching two National Science Foundation-funded projects that will explore the marine organisms’ physiological responses to corrosive ocean water.

In one study, OSU scientists are seeking to determine the threshold at which oysters, clams and mussels – including those that are commercially important – become adversely affected by acidification. Principal investigator George Waldbusser of OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and his colleagues also will explore the mechanisms through which those impacts occur.

“We’ll be developing a novel experimental approach to tease apart just what component of acidification is actually affecting the organism,” Waldbusser said. “For example, decreased pH may affect the internal acid-base balance of an organism, but the correlated decrease in calcium carbonate saturation state may also alter the stability of their mineral shells.

“Scientists know very little, to date, about specific modes of action triggered by acidification,” he added.

Waldbusser received a four-year grant of nearly $2 million from NSF to lead the project. He will work with Burke Hales and Brian Haley from the university’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, and Chris Langdon, who directs the Molluscan Broodstock Program at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

They will develop their experimental system at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which has a large seawater system that makes such research possible.

OSU received a second three-year, $2 million grant from NSF to lead a seven-institution project to monitor ocean chemistry in the California Current System and look at how two marine species – sea urchins and mussels – respond in the wild to different ocean chemistry.

This project is being coordinated through the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, or PISCO, an OSU-based marine research consortium. Principal investigator Bruce Menge and colleagues from multiple institutions will study urchins and mussels at two sites in Oregon and six sites in California, taking advantage of the differing levels of acidification along the West Coast.

The researchers theorize that these organisms have adapted over time to variations in the ocean chemistry, but the increase in carbon dioxide may be pushing their limit.

“They already may be close to their acclimatization or adaptational capacity,” Menge pointed out, “and thus may have limited ability to respond to additional increases in CO2. For the first time, we will be able to examine the genetics and ecology of these key organisms to see how populations that span over a thousand miles of coastline are coping with changes in ocean chemistry.”

Increasing ocean acidification is a major global concern. Previous OSU research, led by Hales, found that seawater being upwelled from the deep ocean may have last been exposed to the atmosphere some 50 years ago and that its already-high levels of carbon dioxide portend more corrosive oceans in the future.

Their ongoing research also found that the upwelled water is influencing Oregon estuaries, where concern about acidic water has prompted oyster hatcheries to alter their protocols. For example, the Whiskey Creek Hatchery is now drawing water into its tanks during relaxed upwelling periods, or in the afternoon, when acidity levels are lower due to increased photosynthesis.

Story By: 

George Waldbusser, 541-737-8964

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
Story By: 

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.

Story By: 

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.

Story By: 

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.

Story By: 

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.

Story By: 

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