marine science and the coast

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

OSU scientist receives prestigious NSF career award

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An Oregon State University atmospheric scientist has received a prestigious National Science Foundation “Career Award” designed to support emerging influential scholars and educators who will become 21st century leaders.

Christoph Thomas, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, was selected for the honor, which is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for new faculty members.

During the next five years, Thomas will receive approximately $736,000 from the NSF to support his research on the relationship between plant canopies – such as forests and crops – and the lower atmosphere. The air exchange between these environments plays an important role in the transport of heat, moisture, momentum and trace gases, he says, but the “generally weak canopy flows are poorly understood.

“They have a significant impact on weather, air and water quality, and how we measure the growth rates of forests and crops.”

Thomas plans to monitor the exchange by creating “a disco in the forest.”

During the next several months, the OSU scientist and his “Biomicrometeorology Group” will install a network of sensors at the Botany and Plant Pathology Lab east of Corvallis that will measure wind speed, wind direction, air temperature, humidity and barometric pressure at multiple locations simultaneously. Then they will release machine-generated fog, illuminated with lasers, to directly visualize how air moves through the plant canopy.

The “disco” sounds will come from acoustic remote sensing that will be used to determine wind direction and speed in the air layer above the canopy – up to several hundred meters above ground.

“Combining all of these different sensing techniques is unique and will provide direct measurements of the spatial structure of the flow that hasn’t been observed before,” noted Thomas, who also has an adjunct appointment in OSU’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “We’ll also install instrumentation at other sites, both less and more complex, to see how transport takes place in different canopy environments.”

Thomas will work with graduate students, an Oregon K-12 high school teacher, and several colleagues on the studies. The project will include a teaching component, site visits by science classes, and a new graduate-level field course for students in atmospheric sciences, forestry, engineering and agricultural sciences.

Among the goals of the project:

  • Creating better models of air transport that will lead to better large-scale weather and climate models;
  • Reducing uncertainty in projections of carbon and energy budgets;
  • Improving the ability to predict water availability in forests.

Thomas joined the OSU faculty in fall of 2008, after spending two years as a post-doctoral researcher in the university’s Department of Forest Science. Much of his work was with OSU professors Bev Law and Larry Mahrt, who direct the AmeriFlux project monitoring network in North and South America.

A native of Germany, Thomas received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

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Chris Thomas, 541-737-7690

Abrupt shift to summer masks record-setting dampness of early June

CORVALLIS, Ore. – For the second consecutive year, the weather in Oregon has made an abrupt shift to summer-like conditions, turning off the rainfall spigot almost overnight and putting the record-setting sogginess of early June firmly in the rearview mirror.

Or at least, we can hope.

“What happens in spring doesn’t necessarily correlate to what will happen in the summer, so it’s difficult to say whether we’re in for a long dry spell, or whether the rains will return,” said Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Service office at Oregon State University. “But it has been interesting to watch how abruptly we’ve gone from spring-like to summer-like weather the past couple of years.”

Mote says weather-watchers shouldn’t look for deep meaning in such conditions. Rainy springs and abrupt shifts to summer are certainly not unprecedented, he pointed out.

“One unusual thing about this year is how quickly we’ve transitioned out of the El Niño event,” Mote said. “It gave us pretty dry conditions in January and February, and then we slammed into this pattern of wet weather. Right now, according to NOAA, we are on a La Nina watch. It would be somewhat unusual to go from El Niño conditions to a La Niña event so quickly.”

If La Niña does indeed settle in, it may not affect summer weather, Mote said, but likely would make for a cooler and wetter winter.

All of the El Niño/La Niña observation doesn’t change the fact that 2010 was one of the wettest late springs on record – and, in fact, it WAS the wettest spring on record at the Portland Airport. Portland set an all-time record for rainfall in the month, with 4.27 inches, topping the previous record of 4.06 inches set in 1984, according to Tyree Wilde, a meteorologist with NOAA’s National Weather Service in Portland.

The May-June combined rainfall record also fell this year, as Portland logged 8.95 inches, breaking the old mark of 7.47 inches, also set in 1984.

“All records for the Portland Airport go back to 1940,” Wilde said, “so these are historic records with 70 years of data.”

Not only was this spring wet, it wasn’t particularly warm – even by Oregon standards. The thermometer at the Portland Airport didn’t reach 80 degrees for the first time in 2010 until June 12 – the latest such reading ever. The previous record of June 9 was set in 1991.

Portland wasn’t alone in its cool, wet weather, according to Kathie Dello, a research assistant with the Oregon Climate Service office, which is in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. Corvallis, Eugene, Salem and Pendleton all reached their monthly average for rainfall by June 4, and though these cities didn’t set records for the month, they were among the highest rainfall totals recorded.

“It was the third wettest June for Pendleton, seventh for Eugene and eighth for Corvallis,” Dello said. “But several places set records for one-day rainfall in June – on either June 2 or June 3 – which shows how wet it was during the early part of the month.”

Among the one-day records:

  • Corvallis had .75 inches of rain on June 2, breaking the previous record that day of .44 inches, set in 2006;
  • Pendleton had .84 inches on June 2, breaking the record of .65 inches (1971);
  • Eugene had .78 inches on June 2, breaking the record of .48 inches (1958); Eugene also set a record for June 3 with .63 inches, topping the old mark of .45 inches set in 1977;
  • Salem had 1.03 inches on June 2, breaking the record of .44 inches (1988); it also set a record for June 3 with .55 inches, surpassing that day’s previous record of .52 inches set in 2008;
  • Hood River had .67 inches on June 2, breaking the record of .35 inches (2006);
  • McMinnville had .57 inches on June 2, breaking the record of .47 inches (1988);
  • Burns logged .50 inches on June 2, breaking its old record of .32 that day (1947).

There was an upside to the wet, cool spring, according to Mote, who is a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

“In February, we had some perilously low snowpack levels and it didn’t appear that we had time to recover,” Mote said. “It was of particular concern because we were in an El Niño year, so late snow didn’t seem likely. Low snowpack levels late in winter can create very low flows in many streams and rivers during the summer.

“But much like in 2005, we got some late, heavy snowfall and the situation improved dramatically.”

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Philip Mote, 541-737-5694

Study finds homebound Adélie penguins adaptable to change

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Adélie penguins live a long time, have a high survival rate, and as adults breed in the same location where they were raised as young, but when a change in their environment becomes severe enough, they aren’t afraid to get out of Dodge and raise their own offspring elsewhere.

In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy, scientists document how the grounding of two enormous icebergs caused sufficient disruption to the lives of penguin colonies living on islands in the Ross Sea to force them to move to different locations to breed.

While this doesn’t sound like a startling response, such behavioral adaptation among Adélie penguins, which are notoriously philopatric – or bound to their own birthplace when it comes to breeding – had only rarely been documented. It provides evidence about how these birds coped with past environmental change – and may cope with changes in the future.

“The study shows that the Adélie penguins have the capacity to radically alter their patterns – and that is welcome news,” said Katie Dugger, an Oregon State University wildlife biologist and lead author on the study. “Obviously, they dealt with the advance of ice sheets in the past and thus have the ability to adjust to climate change in the future. Now we have some idea about how they do this.”

Dugger and her colleagues had been studying Adélie penguins in the southwestern Ross Sea for several years as part of a long-term research project funded by the National Science Foundation when two large icebergs sheared off the Ross Ice Shelf in March of 2000 and lodged against Ross Island. In addition to forming a physical barrier, it also kept sea ice from breaking up in the southwest Ross Sea during some years.

This effectively cut off the population of penguins living at one of four study colonies (Cape Royds) from having easy access to the open ocean.

“Some of these birds had to walk up to 70 kilometers in some years just to get to the open water,” Dugger pointed out. “Under normal conditions, Adélie penguins return to the nest every two to four days to feed their young. The addition of a long walk increased the time it took adults to get food, which didn’t bode well for the survivability of the nests.”

Though moving to a new colony for breeding has rarely been documented among Adélie penguins, scientists have suspected such behavior takes place because genetic tests on individuals from different colonies show more homogeneity than if distinct colonies had no intermixing.

Still, such behavior is rare and perhaps episodic, and the scientists plan to evaluate the breeding success of the penguins that have relocated, said Dugger, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. They also have many birds banded as chicks and are in the process of trying to understand how the iceberg affected movements of birds before their first breeding season, which happens between  three and seven years of age.

“There are definite long-term benefits to staying in one place,” Dugger said. “You learn the food resources, you know the nesting resources, you interact with the same neighbors – even in sub-colonies within the larger colony. To abandon all that requires a significant stressor, such as a change to the environment. But if the change is big enough, the penguins will move.”

Other authors on the study include David Ainley, H.T. Harvey and Associates of Los Gatos, Calif; Phil Lyver and Kerry Barton, Landcare Research of New Zealand; and Grant Ballard, of PRBO Conservation Science in Petaluma, Calif., and the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

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Katie Dugger, 541-737-2473

Researchers seek squid-sighting reports

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists tracking the northward migration of Humboldt squid into Oregon's offshore waters are enlisting commercial fishermen to help them keep count of these tentacled predators – and what they're eating.

Led by marine fisheries ecologist Selina Heppell, a professor in Oregon State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and graduate student Sarikka Attoe, the team is attempting to learn more about the squid, whose historic range has followed the Humboldt current in the eastern Pacific waters from the southernmost tip of South America to California.

Since 2002, the squid – Dosidicus gigas, also known as the jumbo squid – have been found in increasing numbers in the waters off Oregon, Washington and as far north as Alaska. Normally deep-diving, the animals are turning up in shallower coastal waters, sometimes in very large numbers. Aggressive feeders, they are known for swarming feeding frenzies when they come upon prey (usually small fish, crustaceans and other squid).

With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through Oregon Sea Grant, Heppell is attempting to map the distribution of catches of jumbo squid off the Oregon coast, identify correlations between squid catch and oceanographic variables, and determine what the squid are eating as they pass through Oregon's offshore waters – particularly whether they're dining on such commercially fished species as hake and salmon.

To aid in that effort, the researchers are asking fishermen to report sightings of the squid, including information about where they were seen (using GPS coordinates), approximate numbers of squid, and whether fishing was going on when the squid were seen.

Graduate research assistant Attoe has visited ports up and down the coast to explain the project to fishing groups and distribute waterproof posters and fliers promoting what she's dubbed “SQuID CSI,” an online reporting form at the Heppell Lab’s Web site,  http://oregonstate.edu/heppell/reportsquid.html .

Fishermen are also encouraged to collect samples of the squid for dissection by scientists to analyze what the animals are eating.

“Understanding the spread of jumbo squid and their potential role in the ecosystem is a top priority for scientists, managers, and fishermen on our coast,” said Heppell. “By working collaboratively with the fishing community, we're hoping to both broaden our ability to gather data, and increase public awareness about changes affecting ocean ecosystems.”

For more information about the project, contact SQuIDCSI@gmail.com.

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Selina Heppell, 541-737-9039

OSU scientist part of team assessing fish health after Gulf spill

CORVALLIS, Ore. –  An Oregon State University researcher who leads the Oregon Sea Grant program will take part on a rapid response team studying how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is affecting fish and other marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Science Foundation announced Friday that the team, including OSU’s Stephen Brandt, will receive $200,000 to support a week-long research cruise this September to collect data about the conditions of fish in the northern Gulf. The new information will be compared with baseline data the team has recorded in multiple cruises of the same region dating back to 2003.

Funds come from the NSF's RAPID program, which supports quick-response research into the effects of natural and man-made disasters and other urgent situations.

Brandt, the director of the Oregon Sea Grant program at OSU, is an oceanographer and freshwater scientist with a long history of studying fish ecology around the world, including the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and the Adriatic Sea. Before coming to OSU in 2009, he was director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Michigan.

He is part of a research team that has conducted seven research cruises in the northern Gulf of Mexico since 2003, collecting detailed data about temperature, salinity, oxygen, phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish, and analyzing the effects of human activity on marine fish ecology.

The result is what Brandt calls “an extremely valuable data set” to compare the possible effects of the BP oil spill on the pelagic ecosystem of the northern Gulf of Mexico. The team also plans to make its historical data available to other Gulf researchers via the NSF's Biological and Chemical Oceanography Database.

“We're proposing to conduct the new cruise in September because that's the same time of year when we conducted our previous studies,” Brandt said. “That will allow us to compare the new data with comparable periods from past years, which should give us a good picture of how the spill is affecting the marine environment.”

The NSF grant will support a seven-day research cruise in early September to conduct high-resolution mapping of hydrography, oxygen, plankton and fish in the northern Gulf, both in the area west of the Mississippi Delta where they can compare results to data gathered in their earlier studies, and also in the region east of the Mississippi, where more oil from the spill is believed to be moving.

Brandt, along with Cynthia Sellinger of OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, and Sarah Kolesar of Oregon Sea Grant, will be responsible for analyzing fish data collected during the cruise. His co-investigators are zooplankton specialists Michael Roman and James J. Pierson of the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory, and plankton ecologist David G. Kimmel of Eastern Carolina University. The team also hopes to employ a number of student research assistants through the NSF's Experience for Undergraduates program.

The cruise would employ the research vessel Pelican, operated by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, as well as a towed unit known as a Scanfish, equipped with sensors that can measure oxygen, chlorophyll, oil and plankton in the water. The researchers also plan to conduct fish and plankton trawls to count marine organisms and sample the fishes' stomach contents, and will coordinate with researchers on other vessels to produce a comprehensive picture of the state of marine life in the north gulf and how it has been affected by the oil spill and recovery efforts.

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Stephen D. Brandt, 541-737-3396

Invasive “tunicate” appears in Oregon’s coastal waters

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An aggressive, invasive aquatic organism that is on the state’s most dangerous species list has been discovered in both Winchester Bay and Coos Bay, and scientists say this “colonial tunicate” – Didemnum vexillum – has serious economic and environmental implications.

Its propensity to foul surfaces of boats, fishing nets, water intakes, docks and buoys could make it costly to control, and its ability to smother shellfish beds and sensitive marine environments threatens other marine life.

“This is not a welcome addition to our bays and now the clock is ticking,” said Sam Chan, an invasive species specialist from Oregon State University and chair of the Oregon Invasive Species Council. “The fouling potential from tunicate invasions can be severe, given its ability to reproduce asexually by budding, or breaking off as fragments, and through sexual reproduction where tadpoles emerge, swim and attach themselves to surfaces to form new colonies.

Didemnum vexillum was found in Puget Sound several years ago and the expense for treating this invasive species can be quite high,” added Chan, who is affiliated with the OSU-based Oregon Sea Grant Extension program. “So it is important to determine how widespread the invasion may be.”

A team of scientific divers, coordinated by the Oregon Coast Aquarium, will begin looking in Newport’s Yaquina Bay – and perhaps other locations – for colonies of Didemnum vexillum.

The Didemnum invertebrates were first discovered in Winchester Bay, and later in Coos Bay. They are native to Japan and can live from the estuary to the continental shelf. In calm water, colonies may grow in long, beard-like expanses on substrates such as docks, mooring lines, boat hulls and aquaculture infrastructure.

In faster currents, Didemnum forms low, undulating mats overgrowing seabeds of pebbles, boulders and jetty rock. The organisms will grow over, and choke clams, oysters, mussels, anemones and other marine creatures by covering their feeding siphons, and can serve as a barrier between bottom-feeding fish and their prey.

What most concerns scientists, Chan said, is that the tunicates’ reproduction cycle begins during the next two months, increasing the chances that colonies will spread. Didemnum is on the list of “100 Worst Invasive Species to Keep out of Oregon.”

Between 2007 and 2009, the Washington State Department of Fish and Game spent $850,000 managing the tunicate invasion in Puget Sound, Chan pointed out.

The Winchester Bay tunicate patch was discovered earlier this year by Lorne Curran and Fritz Batson, while Curran was surveying marine life for the organization, REEF. They spotted the organisms in an area called “the triangle” – an enclosed portion of the lower bay shaped like a wedge of pie. Curran photographed the tunicates, and contacted Chan, who then shared the images with tunicate expert Gretchen Lambert, and others, who confirmed the identification.

On April 26, Curran and several divers from the Oregon Coast Aquarium surveyed nearby Salmon Harbor Marina in Winchester Bay to see if the invasion had spread across the bay – and to their relief, it had not. But that relief was short-lived when they returned to the triangle and found that the tunicate colonies appeared to be thriving.

“It appears that the infestation is growing rapidly,” Curran said. “Where in February I saw mostly one-foot-square colonies, this time I encountered more colonies that were two-foot to three-foot square.” The tunicates were found on both jetty rocks and on some of the mooring lines and “stringers” of an oyster-growing facility in the triangle.

As Chan was working with scientists, community officials and divers on the Winchester Bay discovery, he received word that a second invasion had been discovered by University of Oregon scientist Richard Emlet in the Charleston Boat Basin in Coos Bay. Emlet notified Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish biologist Scott Groth, who contacted Chan.

“Based on the size and morphology of both Didemnum vexillum populations, we think they probably became established at roughly the same time – about two years ago,” Chan said. “The origin is still unclear and we have to be careful not to point fingers.”

Chan said tunicate infestation can be introduced through a variety of vectors, including boats and aquaculture.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is in the final stage of a risk assessment. When completed, recommendations will be made and an action plan developed.

“We’re reviewing the literature for successful eradication projects on rocky outcrops or jetties, but we’re not finding a lot,” said Rick Boatner, ODFW’s aquatic invasive species coordinator. “This is new ground for Oregon, and we’ll have to be creative with our solutions.”

Chan and ODFW officials say the best approach may be to establish a pilot “adaptive learning” control and monitoring project within the triangle in early summer before water temperatures warm enough to trigger the tunicates’ reproductive cycle. Support for such a project may come through an “Invasive Species Control” fund established by the Oregon Legislature and signed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski in 2009. The Oregon Invasive Species Council must declare an emergency to activate this account, Chan said.

Possible methods of eradication include “smothering” the colonies, physically removing them and vacuuming all traces, or applying a vinegar and/or bleach solution. The Oregon Invasive Species Council will hold workshops in affected coastal communities later this spring to inform the public about tunicates before the pilot control project begins.

Vallorie Hodges, dive safety officer for the Oregon Coast Aquarium, said the Winchester Bay tunicates resembled certain species of soft corals.

“The colonies I observed were all of that cream color and had a sort of undulating soft, lobed or folded appearance in some areas,” she said, “while more of a flat mat in others. I saw them not only on the mooring lines (of the oyster facility) but also on the stringers themselves – and on the shellfish.”

Despite their invasive nature and ability to “foul” marine structures, tunicates also are being studied as a natural product for unique compounds that may have biomedical applications.

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Sam Chan, 503-679-4949

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Veterinarians seek causes of human disease using aquatic models

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Recent graduates of veterinary medicine programs are using common fish species to increase medical understanding and develop prevention protocols for some of the world’s most prevalent and least understood diseases – including cancers, infectious diseases and birth defects.

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences is providing select veterinary school graduates from around the country with broad training in biomedical research relevant to the study of human disease.

The training is not part of traditional curriculums offered in most U.S. veterinary schools, said Robert Tanguay, an OSU associate professor in agricultural sciences and the director of the program. In addition to research experience, trainees who participate in the program have the opportunity to earn advanced graduate degrees.

“We’re taking the skills they have acquired and channeling them toward hypothesis-testing research using powerful aquatic models,” said Tanguay.

The program, which is focused on developing research projects that are applicable to human health, incorporates aquatic research organisms like zebrafish, rainbow trout and medaka to determine the genetic causes of human diseases.

“A surprisingly large number of human diseases can be modeled in fish,” said Tanguay, who also heads the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory at OSU. “With about 80 percent of genes in humans also present in these fish, they present an opportunity to better understand risks to human health.”

The NIH awarded Tanguay about $850,000 to be spread over five years for the initiative.

“The work being done in the program focuses on moving the research from the science bench to the patient bedside,” said Tanguay. “Our group uses the zebrafish model because they’re really similar to us and are vertebrates and offer many unique advantages to rapidly unravel disease mechanisms.”

Zebrafish are small, striped tropical fish often sold in pet stores. They are unique from other animal species in that the embryo of the fish is transparent, allowing for direct observation of the fish at early developmental stages. In addition, like the human genome, the zebrafish genome has been fully sequenced allowing for direct comparison between fish and man at the genetic level.

“There are unique opportunities and challenges in using aquatic models to improve human health,” said Tanguay. “The exponential worldwide increase in the use of these models for biomedical research has led to a significant shortage of qualified scientists who have experience using these powerful tools. Training veterinarians in their use addresses an ever-growing need in the biomedical research community.”


Robert Tanguay, 541-737-6514

OSU scientists to study whale-deterring sounds

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists from Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute will begin a project in December to test whether a low-power acoustic deterrent device can prevent migrating whales from entering a 500-meter-radius area of the near-shore ocean that may eventually contain wave energy platforms and cables.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the project is the first step toward reducing potential risks of wave energy to marine mammals, said Bruce Mate, director of the OSU institute and an internationally recognized expert on whales.

“This won’t answer all of the questions,” Mate said, “but it will give us a better idea if low-level acoustics can be used as a tool to help protect the whales by moving them small distances out of harm’s way.”

In an effort to inform citizens, fishermen and other ocean users about the project, OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center will host a community forum on Wednesday, May 12, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Hennings Auditorium. Speakers will describe the study’s methodology and outline the type and frequency of the sounds that will be used in the project. There will be time for questions and dialogue.

Mate said that many of the concerns voiced about wave energy’s potential impact on whales involve entanglement in cables, but that risk is minimal because the cables would be rigid and have tens of thousands of pounds of pressure on them. However, migrating whales travel at a speed of about four miles an hour and running into a four-inch to six-inch thick cable – or mooring platform – could cause traumatic injury, he pointed out.

“If an acoustic device can successfully reroute whales in a minor way on their migration, the implications go beyond wave energy,” Mate said. “The technology could be used to prevent whales from entering waters with environmental risks, for example, such as oil spills.”

Mate has spent much of his 41-year career studying endangered and threatened whales and pioneered the use of satellite tags to help track marine mammals. His research on different whale species’ migration routes, diving patterns, and breeding and calving locations has greatly enhanced the ability of resource managers to protect the animals.

The four-month pilot project, which begins in late December, will target gray whales, which are the predominant large whale species in Oregon’s near-shore waters. A 2008 study by Mate and Joel Ortega found that 61 percent of migrating gray whales sighted off the coast passed within Oregon’s Territorial Sea, which is within three nautical miles of the shore.

The scientists will place an acoustic device on a mooring just west of Yaquina Head near Newport which will emit a low-pitched one-second “whoop” sound three times a minute during a six-hour stretch each day. The sound energy will be less than 1 percent of sonar emitted from a single fishing boat, the scientists say, but hopefully it will be enough to subtly influence whale movement, Mate said.

“We do not even expect gray whales to react to the sound unless they are within 500 to 750 meters of the mooring location,” Mate said. “We’re not talking about much sound here. Although baleen whales, including grays, don’t have sophisticated sonar, they are good listeners, so we hope it will alert them to be more aware.”

The researchers have applied for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service for the project to test the acoustic devices – the same level of permit required for flying an airplane over the water to count whales, or photographing whales during a ship-based survey.

Mate said the acoustic device would emit one-eighth of one watt, which they hope will make the whales alter their paths about 500 meters from the noise.

Gray whales generally migrate past Yaquina Head twice a year. In December, whales begin heading south toward breeding and calving areas and tend to be farther offshore. They return in two “waves” – singles in March and April, and then north-bound mothers with calves in May, usually within a half mile of shore. The researchers will conduct their north-bound acoustic tests on the single whales and not the mother-calf pairs that travel closer to shore, Mate said.

“Ideally, we’d like to see the whales respond to these pings by moving about 500 meters around the device, which adds just a tiny bit – one hundredth of one percent – to their migration distance,” Mate said.

Story By: 

Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

May 10 Science Pub to explore world of seals and sea lions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Seals, sea lions and other “pinnipeds” are vital cogs in many marine ecosystems, yet they face an uncertain future and threats from fisheries, climate change and marine debris – as well as from other top predators.

While their populations are healthy and near carrying capacity in the Pacific Northwest, populations of seals and sea lions have declined to historically low levels in western Alaska and the Bering Sea.

Markus Horning, a pinniped expert from Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, will discuss the reasons for these differences this Monday, May 10, in a Science Pub presentation at the Old World Deli, 341 S.W. 2nd St. in Corvallis. His talk, “Consummate and Consumed Predators: Threats to Seals and Sea Lions in a Changing Ocean,” begins at 6 p.m.

Science Pub Corvallis is free and open to the public; attendees are encouraged to arrive early, as space and seating are limited.

Pinnipeds are effective marine predators and their consumption of salmon has raised the ire of some Northwest fishing enthusiasts – even though salmon and seals have co-existed for thousands of years. Yet their protected status has also created challenges for resource managers, who must balance the recovery of multiple threatened species.

In his talk, Horning will discuss the roles and impact of research, rescue and rehabilitation programs on these “charismatic, yet difficult to monitor” marine mammals. He also will touch on recent high-profile rescues of sea lions in Florence and Newport that were threatened by entanglement with marine debris.

And he will discuss how climate change, killer whales and other factors affect marine mammals.

One reason for the decline of Steller sea lions in Alaska may be predation. Horning is principal investigator in an ongoing study that uses lifelong monitors implanted inside the sea lions to track the animals’ temperature rates – and provide clues to the cause of their eventual deaths. Preliminary results suggest greater-than-expected predation of these protected marine mammals by orcas.

In another study, Horning is learning more about the extraordinary physical capabilities of Weddell seals in Antarctica. When these seals dive, he says, they have the ability to reduce the flow of blood to many of their organs, including their skin, liver and kidneys, while keeping their hearts, brains and swimming muscles supplied with blood and oxygen. That allows them to reduce their heart rate from about 100 beats per minute to 40 beats – and sometimes as low as five beats per minute – and remain underwater in search of prey.

Horning’s research is funded by NOAA and the National Science Foundation. He is one of the leading scientists affiliated with OSU’s internationally recognized Marine Mammal Institute, which is headquartered at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

For more information on the lecture series, call 541-737-4611 or visit Corvallis Science Pub on Facebook.

Story By: 

Markus Horning, 541-867-0270