marine science and the coast

OSU Awaits House Decision on Offshore Ocean Observing System Appropriation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon’s long-awaited offshore ocean observing system has moved one step closer to reality after the U.S. Senate Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittee, which approved its 2007 spending bill, proposed $2 million for the project.

Oregon State University will operate the project, known as the Oregon Coastal Ocean Observing System, or OrCOOS, which would provide some of the first coordinated “real time” oceanographic data from Oregon’s coastal waters.

The bill still needs to pass through the senate floor, and then go to conference with the U.S. House of Representatives – likely in December.

Scientific data from ocean observations is recorded through many different projects, but it lacks coordination and timeliness, said Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU. Establishing OrCOOS would provide real time data that would benefit not only scientists, Abbott pointed out, but also the state’s commercial and recreational fishing fleets, the Coast Guard and other marine operations, natural resource managers, students and educators, and others.

“The model is the National Weather Service, which collects data from a variety of different sources and makes is available broadly to a variety of users,” Abbott said. “The real time data we would receive from wave observations and forecasts, for example, will be of use to recreational boaters trying to determine when to cross the bar, and to the Coast Guard to estimate where a ship will drift in the ocean after it has lost its power.

“It’s something that will benefit the state of Oregon – and it’s long overdue,” Abbott said.

U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith has been an advocate for the ocean observing system and helped steer last year’s initial funding of $450,000 for the project. A team of scientists led by OSU oceanographer Jack Barth used the funding to develop a new research buoy that will be moored off Heceta Bank along the central Oregon coast.

The sophisticated instrumentation aboard the buoy will measure chlorophyll levels in the water that indicate biological productivity; dissolved oxygen that relates to hypoxia or “dead zones,” temperature, salinity and current velocity. Above water, the buoy will take a full meteorological scan, measuring air temperature, wind speed and solar radiation.

The above-water portion of the buoy is even fenced to prevent sea lions from lounging on – and potentially sinking – the buoy.

“The Heceta Bank is one of the most important locations along the coast because it deflects the waters flowing from the north and creates a quiet pool of water that serves as an incubator for the phytoplankton that feed the marine food web,” Barth said. “That’s also the location of the most intense hypoxia events and ‘dead zones.’

“Oregon is situated at a point where changes in the atmospheric Jet Stream have a major impact on the local weather conditions and the ocean’s response to them.”

Barth said the $2 million appropriation under consideration in Congress would be used to develop two additional buoy systems – one that would be deployed off the Columbia River and the other off Coos Bay.

“That would give us tremendous coverage of the entire Oregon coast,” he said.

The funding also would help the scientists design models that will predict ocean conditions based on their observations and analyses of data from the buoys and other sources, and create user-information systems for fishermen, recreational boaters, and others.

Story By: 

Mark Abbott,

Scientists Team with Fishermen and Use Genetics to Trace Origins of Ocean Chinook

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University scientists are teaming with commercial fishermen on a new research effort to rapidly identify the home river basin of Chinook salmon found in the Pacific Ocean using genetic testing.

Their goal is to learn more about offshore schooling behavior and stock composition of salmon and ultimately to prevent coast-wide fishing closures. The closures aim to protect weak stocks like those of the Klamath River basin that may constrain an otherwise healthy fishery.

Funded by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and managed by the Oregon Salmon Commission, the pilot project is called the Cooperative Research for Oregon’s Ocean Salmon, or CROOS. Already it is paying dividends.

During the June 4 opener, fishermen caught Chinook salmon off the Oregon coast between Newport and Florence and OSU scientists were able to positively match the DNA from the fins of 71 of the fish to establish their origin from river systems in California, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska.

An ongoing project coordinated and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration involving 10 labs from California to Alaska – including OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport – has identified unique genetic profiles for 110 different salmon populations based on their home river basin. Scientists and resource managers previously were unable to identify stock composition of both wild and hatchery fish originating from the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska.

Project leaders say that this new technology allows scientists to assess the origin of an individual fish with remarkable accuracy.

“This was the key for us to utilize the technology,” said Michael Banks, an OSU geneticist and director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, a joint Oregon State-NOAA research collaborative. “Having a bank of DNA profiles allows us to approach ‘real-time’ identification of fish. What used to take months, or even years, we’ve been able to pare down to about 48 hours.”

During the June field testing, participating fishermen caught Chinook salmon off the Oregon coast between Newport and Florence and collected a fin-clip from each fish for DNA analysis. OSU scientists were able to match genetic profiles of fish from river systems as far south as Battle Creek in California, and from as far north as the Babine River in Alaska.

Traditional efforts to identify the origin of ocean-caught salmon came from coded wire tags inserted into the snouts of a small percentage of hatchery fish. Those tags were useful for determining broad-scale distributions of stocks caught in fisheries, but revealed only the origin of select tagged fish. The time and location of these tagged fish also have been too general – reported by week and catch area.

The coded wire tag data weren’t usually available until several months after the season ends.

Using DNA testing, however, will allow the scientists to rapidly assess the origin of any Chinook salmon caught off the West Coast – not just coded wire-tagged hatchery fish – and identify with about 95 percent accuracy its home river system. In theory, researchers say, they could test several salmon in schools from different locations to see what percentage of them originate from a weak run.

“This could lead to the introduction of some degree of in-season harvest management,” said Gil Sylvia, an OSU economist and superintendent of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station. “Having accurate information could lead to reducing access to some stocks in certain areas at certain times. But it is just as likely that it could result in decisions to open areas of the coast where higher concentrations of harvestable fish populations are.”

The researchers will compare their genetic assessment with coded wire-tagged fish to test the efficacy of the project.

Many of Oregon’s commercial fishermen, who have been shut down from pursuing their livelihood this summer, say they are excited by the research.

“I started fishing in 1970 and this is the most optimistic I’ve been about any kind of research relating to salmon,” said Paul Merz, who fishes out of Charleston. “I’m still a cynic when it comes to management decisions. But this is the science that has been missing in all of the policy arguments – and it’s something where you can see the immediate results.”

Jeff Feldner, a fisherman from Logsden, Ore., said that seasons are designed to minimize the impact on the weakest runs.

“The problem,” he pointed out, “is that we haven’t known enough about the fish that are out there. Using information gathered over the summer to help predict where the fish will be next year doesn’t help the fishermen. We haven’t had a way of knowing in ‘real time’ where the fish are and where they’ve come from. Now we do.”

The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board has funded this pilot study for one year with a $586,391 grant, which will allow 50 Oregon commercial vessels to make a total of 200 fishing trips, and allow the scientists to run 2,000 DNA samples. As many as 90 vessel owners have expressed an interest in participating.

“We need additional funding to continue the research,” said Nancy Fitzpatrick, lead administrator of Project CROOS and an employee of the Oregon Salmon Commission. “One year just begins to give you information, but it isn’t enough to determine all you need to know about salmon. Fish have fins, as they say, and they tend to move from one location to another.

“Where you find them one year isn’t necessarily where you’ll find them the next.”

Fitzpatrick says any changes in how the oceans are managed for salmon would come from the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a regional council with members from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, that recommends fishery management measures to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The OSU researchers are keeping track of the salmon through an onboard electronic traceability system developed by the university over the past several years. This innovative barcode system allows commercial fishermen to log the location, date and time of the capture, as well as onboard handling techniques, for every fish captured. Each fish harvested by a participant receives a metal tag with a unique number and bar-code. A website under construction will eventually allow a consumer to access basic information about the salmon: where and when it was harvested, by whom, and from which river it originated.

Eventually, such a tool may play a major role in marketing, according to Michael Morrissey, director of the OSU Seafood Laboratory in Astoria, and a principal investigator in the CROOS project.

“By identifying the river system through genetics, and being able to accurately label a fish as ‘wild,’ the potential exists for fishermen to brand their product and increase the value to consumers,” Morrissey said. “One such example is Copper River salmon, which often command twice the market price of similar fish, because of the attributes attached to it.”

As part of the study, local salmon processors and buyers are returning some of the heads from the specially marked fish to the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center, where scientists will conduct tests on their otoliths. Otoliths are crystalline structures located in the inner ear and act like growth rings in trees, recording not only age, but chemical elements that provide clues to the environment in which the fish lived.

Some of the fish stomachs will be retained by participating fishermen and given to scientists to reveal clues about the salmon’s diet, including how the proportion of baitfish consumed might vary by season and between areas. The fishermen involved in the project will contribute data on oceanographic conditions where the fish were caught, including depth and temperature. Some of the fishermen participating in the project say they are fascinated by the science and hope it will help them locate fish more effectively, as well as keep the season opened.

“Every year, it seems like the challenges for commercial fishermen keep getting worse with restricted limits followed by complete closures,” Merz said. “A lot of fishermen have packed it in. But this project gives me some hope. If it works the way it seems like it can, and if management is adjusted accordingly – and that’s a big if – then it might be enough to keep me going. If not, I’ll be looking for a new line of work and get on with my life.”

More information on this project is available at www.projectCROOS.com


Story By: 

Michael Banks,

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Chinook graph

This map depicts the origins of some of the fish caught during the June 4 salmon opener off the Oregon coast. The pie chart shows that a majority of the fish originated from California waters, with few bound for the Klamath basin.

‘Dead Zone’ Causing a Wave of Death Off Oregon Coast

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The most severe low-oxygen ocean conditions ever observed on the West Coast of the United States have turned parts of the seafloor off Oregon into a carpet of dead Dungeness crabs and rotting sea worms, a new survey shows. Virtually all of the fish appear to have fled the area.

Scientists, who this week had been looking for signs of the end of this “dead zone,” have instead found even more extreme drops in oxygen along the seafloor. This is by far the worst such event since the phenomenon was first identified in 2002, according to researchers at Oregon State University. Levels of dissolved oxygen are approaching zero in some locations.

“We saw a crab graveyard and no fish the entire day,” said Jane Lubchenco, the Valley Professor of Marine Biology at OSU. “Thousands and thousands of dead crab and molts were littering the ocean floor, many sea stars were dead, and the fish have either left the area or have died and been washed away.

“Seeing so much carnage on the video screens was shocking and depressing,” she said.

OSU scientists with the university-based Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, in collaboration with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, used a remotely operated underwater vehicle this week to document the magnitude of the biological impacts and continue oxygen sampling. This recent low-oxygen event began about a month ago, and its effects are now obvious.

Any level of dissolved oxygen below 1.4 milliliters per liter is considered hypoxic for most marine life. In the latest findings from one area off Cape Perpetua on the central Oregon coast, surveys showed 0.5 milliliters per liter in 45 feet of water; 0.08 in 90 feet; and 0.14 at 150 feet depth. These are levels 10-30 times lower than normal. In one extreme measurement, the oxygen level was 0.05, or close to zero. Oxygen levels that low have never before been measured off the U.S. West Coast.

“Some of the worst conditions are now approaching what we call anoxia, or the absence of oxygen,” said Francis Chan, a marine ecologist with OSU and PISCO. “This can lead to a whole different set of chemical reactions, things like the production of hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas. It’s hard to tell just how much mortality, year after year, these systems are going to be able to take.”

One of the areas sampled is a rocky reef not far from Yachats, Ore. Ordinarily it’s prime rockfish habitat, swarming with black rockfish, ling cod, kelp greenling, and canary rockfish, and the seafloor crawls with large populations of Dungeness crab, sea stars, sea anemones and other marine life.

This week, it is covered in dead and rotting crabs, the fish are gone, and worms that ordinarily burrow into the soft sediments have died and are floating on the bottom.

The water just off the bottom is filled with a massive amount of what researchers call “marine snow” – fragments of dead pieces of marine life, mostly jellyfish and other invertebrates. As this dead material decays, it is colonized by bacteria that further suck any remaining oxygen out of the water.

“We can’t be sure what happened to all the fish, but it’s clear they are gone,” Lubchenco said. “We are receiving anecdotal reports of rockfish in very shallow waters where they ordinarily are not found. It’s likely those areas have higher oxygen levels.”

The massive phytoplankton bloom that has contributed to this dead zone has turned large areas of the ocean off Oregon a dirty chocolate brown, the OSU researchers said.

Scientists observed similar but not identical problems in other areas. Some had fewer dead crabs, but still no fish. In one area off Waldport, Ore., that’s known for good fishing and crabbing, there were no fish and almost no live crabs.

The exact geographic scope of the problem is unknown, but this year for the first time it has also been observed in waters off the Washington coast as well as Oregon. Due to its intensity, scientists say it’s virtually certain to have affected marine life in areas beyond those they have actually documented.

This is the fifth year in a row a dead zone has developed off the Oregon Coast, but none of the previous events were of this magnitude, and they have varied somewhat in their causes and effects. Earlier this year, strong upwelling winds allowed a low-oxygen pool of deep water to build up. That pool has now come closer to shore and is suffocating marine life on a massive scale.

Some strong southerly winds might help push the low-oxygen water further out to sea and reduce the biological impacts, Lubchenco said. The current weather forecast, however, is for just the opposite to occur and for the dead zone event to continue.

There are no seafood safety issues that consumers need to be concerned about, OSU experts say. Only live crabs and other fresh seafood are processed for sale.

Researchers from OSU, PISCO and other state and federal agencies are developing a better understanding of how these dead zone events can occur on a local basis. But it’s still unclear why the problem has become an annual event.

Ordinarily, north winds drive ocean currents that provide nutrients to the productive food webs and fisheries of the Pacific Northwest. These crucial currents can also carry naturally low oxygen waters shoreward, setting the stage for dead zone events. Changes in wind patterns can disrupt the balance between productive food webs and dead zones.

This breakdown does not appear to be linked to ocean cycles such as El Niño or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Extreme and unusual fluctuations in wind patterns and ocean currents are consistent with the predicted impacts of some global climate change models, scientists say, but they cannot yet directly link these events to climate change or global warming.


Jane Lubchenco,

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hypoxia research

Hal Weeks, a researcher with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, worked on OSU's research vessel Elahka on Aug. 8 with a remote operated underwater vehicle to document the dead zone that is plaguing the region.

Scientists: Oregon’s Ocean Upwelling Fueled by Jet Stream, Sub-Arctic and River Flow

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of nearly 60 scientists, which just wrapped up a five-year study of the ocean circulation, biology and chemistry off the Oregon coast, has discovered a new cycle of activity in the Jet Stream that has a major influence on upwelling and ocean productivity.

The Coastal Ocean Advances in Shelf Transport program, or COAST, was led by researchers at Oregon State University.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study also found that Oregon has a unique upwelling system with processes that can reduce the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, when those same processes are altered by changes in atmospheric or oceanic conditions, the result can be the onset of hypoxia, or oxygen-starved water that leads to marine die-offs and “dead zones” in the ocean.

“One of the things we’ve discovered is a new time scale of atmospheric activity somewhere between the weather bands that change every 2-5 days and the summer-winter seasonal adjustments,” said Jack Barth, a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and a principal investigator on the project.

“It seems that every 30 days or so, the Jet Stream ‘wobbles’ and it changes the entire pattern of winds and the ocean’s response to them,” Barth said. “The central Oregon coast is affected by weather systems tracking along the Jet Stream, and when it moves to the north, we tend to get good upwelling. When it moves to the south, the upwelling goes bad.”

In 2005, Barth said, the Jet Stream migrated southward and caused a delay in the upwelling, leading to unusual ocean conditions. These “wobbles” in the Jet Stream change the ocean temperature, can accelerate or reduce upwelling and nutrient-enrichment, and ultimately affect the production of phytoplankton, which feed the marine food web.

What causes these changes in the Jet Stream isn’t fully understood, the OSU researchers say. One strong influence on the Jet Stream is the enormous mountains in Asia.

The Heceta Bank off the coast between Newport and Florence exerts a major influence on Oregon’s coastal ocean. It protrudes into the Pacific Ocean and deflects the north-south currents, creating a quiet area that serves as a natural incubator for plankton. Slight shifts in the winds, however, could lead to overproduction and hypoxia, or on the other hand, insufficient upwelling to feed the food chain.

Not coincidentally, the part of the northeast Pacific Ocean most affected by dead zones has been the central Oregon coast.

Further complicating the upwelling picture, the researchers discovered, is the influence of sub-Arctic waters that flow south into the near-shore region off Oregon. The OSU scientists monitored these waters over the past five years and discovered some interesting variations, said Pat Wheeler, an Oregon State oceanographer and a principal investigator on the study.

“In 2002, for example, there were a number of storms in the Gulf of Alaska and the flow of sub-Arctic water down our coastline was highly elevated in nutrients,” Wheeler said. “That led to a four-fold increase in phytoplankton production that year and after they fell to the seafloor, bacterial degradation sucked all of the oxygen out of the water. That was the first year that scientists began observing and monitoring a string of hypoxia events leading to ‘dead zones.’”

Wheeler and her colleagues also measured the influence of Oregon’s small coastal rivers on nutrients in the coastal zone. They discovered that Oregon’s rainfall ultimately feeds nutrients into the ocean by elevating these small coastal rivers and naturally leaching iron from the rocks in the streams.

“The iron that is deposited into the waters offshore actually helps fertilize the waters and promotes biological activity months later,” she said. In contrast, the waters off California have limited iron, the researchers say, because there aren’t as many coastal rivers pumping fresh water into the ocean.

The COAST program was funded through a $9 million grant from the NSF and drew experts in ocean biology, chemistry and physics from OSU, the University of North Carolina, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. One focus of their research was the study of east-west movement of water.

While the north-south currents are widely known, less is understand about the mechanisms that move water from Oregon’s coast line to deeper water and vice versa, the researchers said. During the COAST project, they were able to observe how phytoplankton decomposed, fell to the ocean floor, and were swept out to the deep ocean by water moving in a westerly direction.

That process also serves to lower atmospheric carbon dioxide, which the plankton draw down and use to bloom, by depositing it into the deep ocean.

“When decomposing phytoplankton are respired over the shelf, instead of being transported offshore, we get low oxygen conditions, or hypoxia,” Barth said. “And the CO2 can go right back into the atmosphere. But when the system works, and the phytoplankton take the carbon dioxide into the deep ocean, it makes the central Oregon coast a net sink for atmospheric CO2.”

Using their expanded knowledge and an emerging ocean observing network to develop predictive models is the next phase of the research, the OSU scientists say.

Story By: 

Jack Barth,

‘Library of the Earth’ at OSU May Hold Clues to Environmental Mysteries

CORVALLIS, Ore. – To the uninformed observer, the 14,000-plus meters of ocean sediment stored in PVC pipe and housed in a refrigerated warehouse on the edge of the Oregon State University campus looks like so much gray goo.

But within those core samples, taken from oceans all over the world during the past 35 years, may reside the keys to understanding oceanic “dead zones,” the frequency of catastrophic earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, historic triggers to rapid global climate change, and even the origins of life.

Scientific interest in the repository, which has been funded by the National Science Foundation, is exploding, according to Nicklas G. Pisias, a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, who directs the laboratory.

“It’s one of our hidden tourist attractions on the OSU campus,” said Pisias, with a laugh. “Every year, quite a number of researchers from around the country visit the lab to conduct research on the core samples. And we ship out many more samples to scientists around the world.”

The coring program receives little publicity but is highly valued by scientists. The college has two full-time technicians who work with researchers from OSU, as well as from other universities and agencies, and supervise coring operations aboard ship during research cruises. The job is technical and presents a logistical headache. During a typical sampling cruise, OSU technicians Dale Hubbard and Chris Moser bring 100,000 pounds of gear to sea, shipped to port in a pair of containers about the size of a typical railroad freight car.

Cores, up to 25 meters in length, are usually cut in 1.5 meter sections and sent back to the OSU Core Lab, where they are cut in half, photographed and preserved. Most are stored on site because other universities lack adequate facilities and the technical know-how to preserve the samples, Pisias said.

What scientists discover in those samples continually surprises, enlightens and sometimes mystifies the scientific community.

“Two years ago, we were coring in the south Pacific and found a huge area that had absolutely no sediment,” Pisias said. “The ocean floor there is very old, yet we couldn’t find a centimeter of sediment. And no one knew such an area existed. There is something unusual going on there with ocean currents and undersea processes that needs to be explored.”

This summer evidence was unveiled by OSU researchers Jane Lubchenco, Francis Chan and others outlining the worsening case of hypoxia off the Oregon coast. It is the fifth consecutive year that oxygen levels in waters off the central Oregon coast were sufficiently low to kill off marine life. Those waters did, in fact, contain some of the lowest oxygen levels directly observed by scientists and bordered on “anoxia,” or complete oxygen deprivation.

But indirect evidence of past anoxia can be found in the OSU Core Lab, according to Pisias. Core samples from northern California show layers of lamination that are indicators of anoxia, where there has been no biological activity for a period of years, even decades.

“What’s important to note is that those core samples weren’t taken for the purpose of studying anoxia,” he pointed out. “It was a completely different research project. It shows the value of retaining and archiving these core samples because they provide a unique history of Earth through a variety of different scientific lenses.”

OSU marine geologist Chris Goldfinger uses the lab to study core samples from throughout the Pacific Ocean that contain coarse particles called “turbidites,” which accumulate during earthquake events. By comparing age and distribution of these turbidites, he has been able to put together a timeline of major seismic events in the Pacific Northwest that suggests the region has had 23 major earthquakes during the past 10,000 years – and may be due for another in the magnitude 9.0 range.

“The lab is like a library of the Earth,” Goldfinger said. “Some of the evidence for great earthquakes in Cascadia was collected in the late 1960s – at about the time plate tectonics was discovered. More than 20 years later, it was realized that the cores contained a record of these huge earthquakes.”

There are more than 5,600 cores in the OSU lab. Each has been cut in half, with one half used for scientific study and the other for archival purposes. During the first year, only a project’s principal investigator may work on the core sample. In year two, other scientists from that institution or project may have access. After that, it falls into scientific “public domain,” Pisias said.

To make the cores last longer, small samples are cut off and shipped to research labs for more detailed analysis. During the past three years, OSU shipped out more than 45,000 samples to 96 investigators in 11 different countries. The research supported by the core lab is varied.

“Some of the work is seismic, while other studies look at the deep biosphere – including studies of bacteria that may provide clues about the origin of life – as well as climate change, and continental margins,” Pisias said. “We also have a special section for Arctic research.”

The oldest sediment samples date back 40 million years. Cores from other areas, like off the Columbia River, are much younger because the sediment piles up so quickly. To the uninformed observer, they look suspiciously alike.

Scientists like Pisias and others, however, can read the gray goo like a Grisham novel.

“There are core samples we have from the middle of the ocean, where it’s a biological desert, but you can tell immediately where they’re from because they contain tiny bits of red clay,” Pisias said. “It’s carried in by the wind and drops to the ocean floor. It’s all you’ll find there.”

Story By: 

Nick Pisias,

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Ocean Core Samples

Technicians aboard The Healy, a Coast Guard icebreaker and researcher vessel, prepare the coring rig for deployment.

Ocean Core Samples

After retrieving a sediment core, researchers must secure the sample before shipping it to the OSU laboratory.

Ocean Core Samples

A core is retrieved from the ocean floor.

Ocean Core Samples

Researchers aboard The Healy secure a sediment core from the Arctic Ocean.

Nick Pisias

Nick Pisias, a professor of oceanography and director of the OSU core laboratory, with some of the 5,000-plus samples stored in the lab.

Bobbi Conard

Bobbi Conard, a long-time technician in the lab, prepares a sediment core for storage.

Ocean Core Samples Map

A map of where the core samples were taken.

Undersea Gliders Making Waves as Valuable New Tool in Marine Research

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Pacific Ocean constantly throws challenges in the face of marine scientists, from hypoxia-caused marine “dead zones” to unusual patterns of ocean upwelling that have changed the migratory behavior of Pacific Northwest salmon.

But Oregon State University researchers are making use of a new tool that is better helping them understand the world’s vast oceans – undersea gliders that patrol the waters of our coasts and record critical data. These gliders differ from other autonomous underwater vehicles – or AUVs – because they lack propellers or tethers.

In fact, other than their deployment and pickup, they don’t even require an accompanying vessel.

“The technology is pretty incredible,” said Jack Barth, a professor of oceanography at OSU. “We can literally program them to run underwater for three to five weeks, cruising from near-shore to over the continental slope and back while taking all kinds of sophisticated measurements.

“And every six hours, the glider will pop up to the surface and call in to a computer at our lab via satellite phone and send home the data,” Barth added.

The gliders are about seven feet long, weigh about a hundred pounds, and carry two computers, several oceanographic sensors, communications equipment and batteries for power. But the propulsion system is the key. The gliders are propelled by buoyancy changes, rather than by a propeller, which lessens the overall energy consumption. By displacing seawater, the gliders increase their volume and become more buoyant. Or they can decrease their volume and become heavier, sinking lower in the water.

Small wings on the gliders translate some of that vertical motion into forward motion, Barth pointed out.

“It’s much like a sailplane in the atmosphere,” he said. “Our gliders can go back and forth over a 90-kilometer transect across the continental shelf in about a week, moving at about a half a nautical mile per hour. Their value in research is enormous – and will continue to grow.”

Kipp Shearman, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, says the gliders can dive to a maximum depth of about 200 meters – perfect for studying Oregon’s near-shore waters. They are typically faster and more maneuverable than their deep-ocean cousins, which can stay at sea for 3-6 months and dive to 1,000 meters.

Shearman and Barth are among a small group of researchers worldwide using this new technology.

“Our gliders can also ‘dead-reckon’ their position while they are underwater – steering to a desired point much like a captain would pilot a boat,” Shearman said. “And since the gliders are fixed with a GPS system, we can estimate ocean currents by calculating the difference between the dead-reckoned position and the GPS fix.”

These gliders cost about $100,000 – primarily because of the sophisticated instrumentation that measures such things as chlorophyll concentrations from phytoplankton, the amount of suspended particles in the water, temperature, salinity, and oxygen concentrations that help monitor hypoxia.

Such undertakings used to require a research vessel, complete with researchers and crew at an average cost of about $20,000 a day.

“In five weeks you’ve saved $600,000,” Barth said. “And no one gets seasick.”

The OSU researchers recover and deploy the gliders from the university’s 54-foot research ship, the R/V Elakha, but have used smaller vessels as well. This year, there is a single glider in the ocean off Newport, Ore., operating around the clock. Next year, there will be up to four gliders patrolling off the Oregon coast from the Columbia River to the California border, silently collecting invaluable oceanographic data.

"This is the future of observing the ocean,” Shearman said. “There will always be a need for ships, but there will come a time when gliders are deployed throughout the world's oceans because they are tremendously cost-efficient and they can crank out critical data 24/7 that scientists need to address issues ranging from climate change to dead zones.”

Story By: 

Jack Barth,

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Autonomous underwater glider

Autonomous underwater glider operated by Oregon State University is capable of measuring physical and biological properties of the upper ocean. (Photo by Jack Barth, Oregon State University)


Changes in buoyancy make the glider move up and down while the wings allow the vehicle to move forward. Satellite cell phone and GPS antennae are contained in the tail fin. (Photo by Jack Barth, Oregon State University)


Assistant Professor R. Kipp Shearman and summer student Alexandra Cwalina prepare a glider for deployment off Newport, Ore. (Photo by Tristan Peery, OSU)

glider recovery

OSU researchers recover glider ‘bob’ after a three-week mission off Newport, Ore. (Photo by Susan Holmes, OSU)

OSU to Study Influence of Columbia River, Climate Change and Humans on Ocean

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers will study the interaction of the massive Columbia River plume with the Pacific Ocean off the Pacific Northwest coast as part of a major grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a center that will be run by three Northwest institutions.

As part of that research, OSU scientists will also investigate how climate change propagates through the ocean to coastal and river ecosystems.

Plans for the new NSF Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction were announced Tuesday (Aug. 29) in Portland. Oregon Health & Science University is the lead institution, with partners OSU and the University of Washington. The $19 million grant will create one of the first two NSF centers to focus on marine research. OSU also is part of the other NSF center, headed by the University of Hawaii, which will study marine microbes.

The new center is important, experts say, because coastal margins are the interface between Northwest rivers and the ocean, and also are places where most people live. As a consequence, coastal margins have become highly stressed by human and natural influences.

“The Pacific Northwest is a great test-bed for climate change studies because of the natural processes like El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, as well as human-induced changes, such as dams on the Columbia River,” said Jack Barth, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at OSU and the project’s research and education director.

Bruce Menge, a distinguished professor of zoology at OSU, said the new consortium would be a “valuable complement” to the research focus of PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, which Oregon State heads. Both Menge and Barth are co-principal investigators in both research efforts.

“The new consortium should also benefit from PISCO’s policy and outreach activities, which extend across most of the U.S. West Coast,” Menge said.

OSU’s primary contribution to the new NSF research effort will be to study how the Columbia River plume interacts with the Pacific Ocean, and what its physical, chemical and biological impacts are on the ocean environment.

OSU researchers also will look at how climate change affects interactions among the river, ocean and a key coastal margin habitat – rocky shores. “Coastal margin habitats such as rocky intertidal zones have proven to be valuable model systems for detecting the effects of changes in the environment,” Menge said.

Researchers from both the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and the OSU College of Science will study microbial assemblages, phytoplankton blooms and the host of zooplankton species that prey on them in the waters of the coast of Oregon and Washington. These biological communities form the basis of the marine food chain and also are critical components in processes that have led to marine “dead zones” off the Oregon coast, and in sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“It is a complex system and part of our challenge is to overlay the study of that environment with an analysis of the impact of climate change,” Barth said.

The OSU scientists will use moorings, satellites and underwater gliders to observe, monitor and measure the waters off the Northwest coast. They also will create models they hope will offer warnings when the coastal margin’s normal processes go awry.

Their goal is to create predictive models like those for El Niño, Barth said.

“We are to the point where we can predict El Niño events three to five months out,” Barth said, “based on physical measurements of oceanic and atmospheric conditions. Now we’d like to do the same thing for circulation, nutrient fluxes and primary ocean production that dictate the biological response in coastal environments.

“Ideally,” he added, “we could look at the physical processes including winds, currents and temperatures, and predict which plankton species will dominate and whether that will lead to a healthy production of food, or to atypical conditions, including hypoxia and ‘dead zones.’”

Physicists have been able to remotely monitor the physical conditions of the ocean for two decades, Barth said. The NSF grant will test whether the same can be done for biological and ecological research.

In addition to its partnership with OHSU and UW, OSU will work with private industry on the grant, including Intel, which is helping to design the computer-based modeling systems, and Western Environmental Technology Laboratories in Philomath, Ore., which will provide some of the environmental sensors.

The grant also has a strong educational component and OSU will integrate students from its award-winning Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) program into the project. The SMILE program, which focuses on developing science and math skills among minority, rural and low-income middle school and high school students, will work with the researchers to analyze data and explore real-life scenarios based on the results.

“One example might be to study what impact extraction of water from rivers has on the ocean ecosystem,” Barth said. “Another could be how ocean and atmosphere processes affect search and rescue efforts – through higher winds, or more powerful storms that create rougher bar conditions.”

Graduate students will assist with the research and have opportunities to take special courses relating to the project.

Story By: 

Jack Barth,

New Study Shows Importance of Iron in Ocean Productivity, Carbon Uptake

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has found that large segments of the Pacific Ocean lack sufficient iron to trigger healthy phytoplankton growth and the absence of the mineral stresses these microscopic ocean plants, triggering them to produce additional pigments that make ocean productivity appear more robust than it really is.

As a result, past interpretations of satellite chlorophyll data may be inaccurate, the researchers say, and the tropical Pacific Ocean may photosynthesize 1-2 billion tons less atmospheric carbon dioxide than was previously thought. Global ocean carbon uptake is estimated at 50 billion tons, so the reduction in the estimate of the uptake is significant – about 2 to 4 percent.

Results of the study are scheduled to be published tomorrow in the journal Nature.

When stressed by a lack of iron, phytoplankton create additional pigments that fluoresce, or light up, unlike normal pigments, according to lead author Michael J. Behrenfeld, a research scientist in Oregon State University’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. Unfortunately, he added, satellite imagery could not readily distinguish that difference.

“It’s really a fascinating process,” Behrenfeld said. “When phytoplankton species make these extra pigments, they don’t use them right away – they bank them. Then when they get an infusion of iron, they just take off. They don’t have to wait to begin dividing and growing. But that green color wasn’t an indication of health, it was an indication of stress from a lack of iron.”

The study is also important because it looked at the availability of iron throughout the tropical Pacific Ocean instead of small portions of it. Behrenfeld and his colleagues looked at 12 years of fluorescence data taken along 36,000 miles of ship tracks throughout the tropical Pacific. They now have a “fluorescence fingerprint” of which parts of the ocean are iron-stressed, as well as which parts suffer from lack of nitrogen – another key element to ocean productivity.

“Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that come up from the ocean bottom to feed the upper water column,” Behrenfeld said. “Iron, on the other hand, can come from the deep or from the air, but it also enters the ocean through dust deposited by the wind. Windstorms blowing sand and dust off large deserts are a major source of iron for the world’s oceans.

“It’s like dumping a load of Geritol or some other iron supplement into the water.”

Three large areas appear limited by a lack of iron, the researchers say – the southern ocean around Antarctica, the sub-arctic north Pacific below Alaska, and a huge area in the tropical Pacific centered on the equator. With their newfound knowledge of fluorescence, the scientists believe they now can use satellite imagery to identify specific areas that are iron-stressed – and how they respond to changes such as the sudden influx of iron from a windstorm.

“It turns out different places in the ocean are missing different nutrients,” said Robert Sherrell, a scientist from Rutgers University and a co-author on the study. “The new fluorescence technology now allows us to tell which combination of nutrients is stressing the phytoplankton.”

Behrenfeld said the presence of iron stress in the ocean links phytoplankton to the climate through changes in terrestrial-based dust deposited in the ocean, but it is too early to tell if there is an impact of recent climate change on iron-stressed populations because the satellite data record is too short.

“But now we have the tools to determine that,” he emphasized.

The northern portion of the tropical Pacific is more nitrogen-stressed and doesn’t have the “false greenness,” according to Behrenfeld.

The researchers are creating new models of carbon cycling using NASA satellite imagery which they have calibrated using their ship-based measurements of fluorescence.

The role of the ocean in the global carbon cycle is critical – and nowhere is it more pronounced than the tropical Pacific Ocean. As phytoplankton plants grow, they suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to build new cells.

A better understanding of this carbon cycle is a key to studying global climate change. Iron fertilization of phytoplankton is also a key to a healthy marine food chain.

Both Behrenfeld and Peter Strutton, an assistant professor of oceanography at OSU and a co-author on the Nature paper, have been involved in experiments in which iron is introduced into the ocean in an attempt to boost productivity. Those studies found that introducing iron into small portions of the Pacific did indeed trigger phytoplankton growth, but it wasn’t as robust or as sustained as models predicted.

“It wasn’t the silver bullet that scientists originally hypothesized,” Strutton said. “The carbon export was slower than we thought. It could be the scale was too small, and it could be that the (biological) response was too slow and we didn’t wait long enough.”

Behrenfeld said introducing iron into the ocean system is complex because the mineral isn’t water-soluble and requires repeated infusions.

“When you first do it, there’s an explosion of growth and then it plateaus,” he said. “Then you add a bit more iron, and the phytoplankton respond a bit more. Then you add a third shot, and it triggers some more modest growth. But at the same time you’re promoting phytoplankton growth, the grazers that feed on them come to life because they suddenly have a more abundant food supply.

“So the plankton can disappear as fast as you’ve made them grow.”

Story By: 

Mike Behrenfeld,

American Fisheries Society Publishes Book on “Salmon 2100 Project”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new book of essays from more than 30 salmon scientists, policy analysts and wild salmon advocates suggesting ways to save runs of wild salmon has been published by the American Fisheries Society – and some of the prescriptions are certain to raise a few eyebrows.

The book is an outgrowth of the provocative three-year Salmon 2100 Project, a joint effort between Oregon State University and the Environmental Protection Agency laboratory in Corvallis, Ore.

The no-holds-barred project drew a variety of bold ideas, many of which would be politically or socially unacceptable. Even the authors admit that. But most of the participants say something drastic is needed to save wild salmon because of population increase, habitat loss, climate change and other factors.

“Salmon recovery as currently practiced suffers from a lack of imagination,” write Larry Bailey and Michelle Boshard, of Rural Resource Associates in Tonasket, Wash., in their essay called ‘Follow the Money.’ “Rural landowners and communities cannot be expected to maintain the environmental and cultural heritage of future salmon runs for everyone at their own expense. The best habitat remaining is in the poorest rural areas and surrounds people who can least afford the burden.”

Their solution? Take the same money spent by state and federal agencies on salmon recovery and funnel it into locally controlled efforts that would spend more on salmon and less on bureaucracy.

This is just one of many solutions for saving wild salmon offered by the participants of the Salmon 2100 project. Their conclusions were both grim and hopeful, according to the project leaders. The participants were unanimous in their opinions that present efforts and policies to preserve wild salmon runs would fail. Yet they all felt that wild salmon could be saved – with the right prescriptions.

“Some of the policy options are radical and surely would be difficult to implement – especially those requiring changes in the Endangered Species Act,” said Robert T. Lackey, a senior fisheries biologist with EPA and one of the three project leaders. “But it is important to remember that there are policy options that have a good chance of restoring wild salmon runs to significant, sustainable levels through 2100 and beyond.”

OSU sociologists Denise Lach and Sally Duncan helped lead the project with Lackey, who also is a courtesy professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

A proposal by James Buchal, a Portland attorney, suggests curtailing fishing and putting more resources into hatchery production to boost the number of salmon, then providing incentives for agencies and others to meet sustainability goals. Too much money is spent perpetuating the “salmon bureaucracy,” he argues, which also holds hostage companies generating hydroelectric power.

John H. Michael, Jr., a fisheries biologist from Olympia, Wash., represents a group of participants advocating a “triage” approach, where watersheds are managed for a specific purpose – not conflicting goals of sustainable fish, energy and agriculture.

“In specific areas where the emphasis is electrical generation, irrigation, domestic water supply and high-density human habitation, the result is the functional extinction of some fish stocks,” he writes. “Specific populations will have to be allowed to become extinct in order to ensure that sufficient money, effort and political will is applied to stocks that have a better chance at long-term survival.”

One of the essays, by James T. Martin, former fisheries chief with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and salmon adviser to then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, suggests that current efforts are spread too thin and that salmon restoration should focus more on higher-elevation streams. In short, he says we should write off those rivers and creeks where the chances of success are impossibly high and focus society’s efforts on those waterways where salmon have at least a chance to survive through 2100.

“In some cases,” Martin writes, “…dams will have to be removed or significantly modified to facilitate juvenile downstream migration. In other cases, it may be feasible and preferable to construct small-head fish-sorting dams in the upper ends of reservoirs of the larger hydro facilities…The captured fish can then be trucked or piped around the reservoir and dam to allow migration downstream to the ocean or lower river rearing habitat.”

Ernest Brannon, a professor emeritus from the University of Idaho, suggests the only practical, cost-effective answer to saving salmon is engineering – specifically, creating artificial streams to replace lost habitat.

“An engineered stream is a concept of creating habitat for salmon and steelhead that replaces lost or degraded habitat resulting from economic development of western North America,” Brannon writes. “Engineered habitat that mimics natural streams, with the additional provisions of controlled flow and nutrient enrichment, can increase production efficiency several fold over unmanaged habitat.”

Jack E. Williams, a Southern Oregon University researcher and member of Trout Unlimited, and Edwin P. Pister, retired official with the California Department of Fish and Game, say the key to saving wild salmon runs lies within each individual. Technology advances and policy decisions are secondary to reducing our growing “ecological footprint” that demands water, energy and other natural resources whose depletion directly or indirectly affects salmon survival.

“Only when the great majority of the populace becomes ecologically literate…can we expect to receive the required political support necessary to affect a behavioral turnaround,” they write. “Brian Czech, in his landmark book, ‘Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train,’ envisions a future where more and more people will understand the folly of perpetual economic growth and will begin to see the conspicuous consumer as a bad citizen.

“This new set of values needs to come sooner than later for wild salmon and their habitats.”

The prescriptions offered by the authors represent their personal views and not those of the institutions and agencies for which they work, the project leaders noted. And though the ideas are fascinating, OSU’s Lach said, they aren’t endorsing any of them.

“We don’t have a dog in this fight,” she said. “The goal of the Salmon 2100 Project was to elicit innovative thinking from people involved with salmon across a wide spectrum. Our personal views don’t enter into it. It is ultimately up to the public to decide on what tradeoffs they are willing to consider that would help save wild salmon.”

Copies of the Salmon 2100 book are available from the American Fisheries Society. Information is available at: http://www.fisheries.org/html/publications/catbooks/x55050C.shtml

Story By: 

Bob Lackey,

Study: Wild Steelhead Reproduce More Successfully Than Hatchery Steelhead

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A 15-year analysis of spawning steelhead in one Oregon fishery has proven what many experts suspected for some time – that after fish from traditional hatcheries migrate to the ocean and return to spawn in natural habitat, they leave far fewer offspring than their wild relatives.

The study used DNA tracking technology of fish breeding in Hood River, and showed that traditional hatchery steelhead produced 60-90 percent fewer surviving adult offspring than wild steelhead.

However, the research also confirmed that fish from modern “supplementation” hatcheries, which begin with eggs from native, wild fish, are about as successful as wild steelhead. These fish can be used to boost the size of native populations without causing obvious genetic harm, at least for one generation.

The findings, by researchers from Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, were just published online in Conservation Biology, a professional journal.

“This provides very compelling data to confirm what we’ve suspected for quite a while, that fish from traditional hatchery operations have a much-reduced ability to reproduce and sustain a wild population,” said Michael Blouin, an OSU associate professor of zoology.

“We’ve essentially created a fish version of white lab mice,” Blouin said. “They are well-adapted to life in the hatchery, but do not perpetuate themselves in a wild environment as successfully as native-born fish. The good news, however, is that reducing the number of generations a stock is passed through the hatchery can greatly increase the fitness of that stock in its natural habitat.”

The historic role of hatcheries was to produce fish for harvest, but a new mission for many hatcheries is to produce breeders to add to dwindling wild populations.

“Our work suggests that first-generation hatchery fish can be used to provide a significant one-time boost to a wild population without apparent damage to the genetics of the wild stock,” Blouin said. “Whether you can continue that on a long-term basis is still unclear. But it seems that at least the first generation of fish produced this way function pretty well.”

Traditional steelhead and salmon hatcheries in Oregon, Blouin said, usually worked with non-native fish that were repeatedly – and purposefully – bred for generations in hatcheries. The offspring of hatchery fish actually made better “domesticated” fish in the hatchery environment, he said, where inadvertent selection for traits like a less aggressive temperament produced stocks that had high egg-to-smolt survival in the hatchery.

However, the genetic characteristics that make good hatchery specimens work against the offspring of those fish when the offspring are born into a competitive and predatory wild environment.

The techniques used in supplementation hatcheries – use of local, wild-born fish for eggs – have been designed specifically to minimize those genetic effects of the hatchery. And it appears that at least on a short-term basis, Blouin said, they can achieve that goal.

To study the issue, researchers used “genetic fingerprinting” techniques to track the pedigrees of fish in Oregon’s Hood River, doing DNA analysis with scales taken from about 15,000 fish since 1991. The relative reproductive success of wild fish and supplementation hatchery fish was compared to fish from traditional hatchery programs, by matching returning adult offspring to their parents that had spawned in the river in years past.

The study found that steelhead from traditional hatcheries had about 10-40 percent the reproductive success of wild fish. By contrast, fish from a supplementation hatchery had reproductive success indistinguishable from wild fish, and crosses between wild fish and supplementation hatchery fish also appeared healthy.

“By tracing the lineage of those fish, we’ve shown pretty clearly that fish from traditional hatcheries do not reproduce as successfully as wild fish, and thus could potentially drag down the health of wild populations by interbreeding with them,” Blouin said. “But in places where we need a short-term boost to a wild population, it also appears that supplementation hatcheries may work well and not cause significant problems.”

Although first-generation supplementation fish were as successful as wild fish, the researchers were hesitant to recommend supplementation as a long-term solution for dwindling wild runs.

“With many generations of supplementation you inevitably start using fish for broodstock that have hatchery ancestors,” Blouin said. “Whether this results in enough domestication to cause problems down the road is still an open question. All we can say for now is that supplementation does not appear to be harmful in the short term.”

The research considered only the genetic background and lineage of the fish, Blouin said, and did not take into account any other environmental or fishery management issues. If a stream or fishery environment is severely altered or degraded, he said, adding supplementation hatchery fish to the system will do little to achieve a self-sustaining wild population.

This research was supported by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Story By: 

Michael Blouin,