marine science and the coast

Marine seaweed can detoxify organic pollutants

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Researchers have discovered that marine seaweeds have a remarkable and previously unknown capacity to detoxify serious organic pollutants such as TNT or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and they may therefore be able to play an important role in protecting the ecological health of marine life.

The studies, conducted by scientists from the College of Engineering at Oregon State University and the Marine Science Center at Northeastern University, were presented today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The findings may have important implications for seafood safety, since some of the marine organisms most at risk from these toxins are marine invertebrates such as clams, shrimp, oysters or crab that tend to "bioaccumulate" them. One possibility, the researchers say, might be to plant appropriate seaweeds as a protective buffer around areas being used in aquaculture.

"We found that certain red seaweeds had an intrinsic ability to detoxify TNT that was 5-10 times faster than any known terrestrial plant," said Greg Rorrer, a professor of chemical engineering at OSU. "Marine seaweeds have a more efficient uptake mechanism than even terrestrial aquatic plants to at least neutralize organic pollutants."

The researchers call this process "phycoremediation," derived from phykos, a Greek word for seaweed.

The studies, which are supported by the Office of Naval Research and the Oregon Sea Grant Program, are of particular interest in the case of trinitrotoluene, or TNT, because of unexploded bombs or military shells found in some places around the world's oceans. There is a general concern these shells could potentially corrode.

"It's important to know how corals, fisheries and plant life might respond to exposure to TNT or other toxins," Rorrer said.

The study is looking at not just TNT, which is commonly found in munitions, but at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as naphthalene, benzopyrene and other PAHs that are sometimes associated with the use of motorcraft or other causes.

Ongoing studies found that marine seaweeds processed toxins to a much less harmful form, and in a way that did not appear to harm the seaweed. The biochemistry involved, they say, is similar to that found in many land organisms, but more powerful and effective. Until now, the capability of marine seaweeds to deal with these toxins had never before been demonstrated.

It's unclear yet whether similar plants can be identified, the researchers said, that will perform this function in terrestrial fresh waters, such as streams or lakes.

These research outcomes should lead to the development of new bioremediation technologies that use seaweed in engineered systems to remove organic contaminants from the marine environment, the scientists said.

Studies to create genetically engineered seaweeds that perform these functions even better are also promising, the researchers said.

Media Contact: 

Greg Rorrer, 541-737-3370

"Invasion of the Habitat Snatchers" opens at OSU's HMSC

NEWPORT - It sounds scary and surprising - like some B-movie - and that's part of the message of a new exhibit now open at the Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center.

But unlike a B-movie, "Invasion of the Habitat Snatchers" is not science fiction.

It's all about those sneaky and very real aquatic pests, from Asian clams to zebra mussels, which are emerging as a major environmental threat. These aquatic invaders permanently alter habitats, harm native fish and wildlife, and lead to billions of dollars in costs to society.

The European green crab and Atlantic cordgrass have already arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and species such as the Chinese mitten crab pose a nearby threat.

Given the many pathways of aquatic species introduction, public education is critical for limiting new invasions and rapidly detecting recent arrivals, said Jon Luke, exhibit developer at the HMSC Visitor Center.

"The exhibit's primary goal is to foster an understanding of how invasive species enter and affect new environments, the factors that influence an invader's success, and how each of us can prevent future invasions," Luke said.

Visitors to the exhibit will be engaged by a mix of live displays, video and hands-on activities. They will have a close-up view of ballast water "hitchhikers," learn about invasion risks at "The Wheel of Misfortune," or take on the role of an aquatic invader in an interactive survival game.

The exhibit is the second new installation that the Visitor Center has opened in recent months. It joins the World of Wet Pets, where new displays and aquaria filled with ornamental fish deepen visitors' appreciation of this popular hobby.

The Visitor Center is now open on its winter schedule, Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Memorial Day. It is managed by Oregon Sea Grant, a marine research, education, and outreach program based at OSU.


Jon Luke, 541-867-0357


CORVALLIS, Ore. - The type of devastating tsunami that struck the southern coast of Asia is entirely possible in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, but might not cause as much loss of life there because of better warning systems, according to experts at Oregon State University.

OSU is home to the Tsunami Wave Basin at the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, one of the world's leading research facilities to study tsunamis and understand their behavior, catastrophic effects and possible ways to reduce the destruction they can cause.

As the death tolls rises into the tens of thousands in Asia and the number of homeless above one million, OSU experts say many of the same forces that caused this disaster are at work elsewhere on the Pacific Ocean "ring of fire," one of the most active tectonic and volcanic regions of the world.

This clearly includes the West Coast of the U.S. and particularly the Pacific Northwest, which sits near the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Experts believe, in fact, that it was a subduction zone earthquake of magnitude 9 - almost identical in power to the sub-sea earthquake that struck Asia on Monday - that caused a massive tsunami around the year 1700 that caused damage as far away as Japan. And the great Alaska earthquake in 1964 caused waves that swept down the Northwest coast, causing deaths in Oregon and northern California.

"The loss of human lives from this latest tsunami is staggering," said Harry Yeh, an internationally recognized tsunami expert and the Edwards Professor of ocean engineering at OSU. "We have to ask, 'why?' Clearly, they didn't have the same kinds of warning systems that we have on the West Coast of the U.S. That is why the research that we do here is so important. As tragic as the event is, it also represents a learning opportunity and we have a responsibility to learn from it what we can.

"We didn't learn what we could have from the Alaska event," Yeh added, "because we didn't have the instrumentation we have today, and we didn't have the knowledge base. The tsunami event this weekend also happened during the daytime, so there are a lot of pictures and video of the devastation, which will help the research effort. Most of the other recent major events happened at night."

Robert Yeats, professor emeritus of geosciences at OSU, agrees that the reason for the great loss of life in Sri Lanka, India, and other Asian countries was the lack of a tsunami warning system.

"That much loss of life wouldn't happen here for either a local or distant tsunami because of warning systems operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with laboratories in Newport and Seattle," Yeats said. "NOAA would record the earthquake on seismographs and issue bulletins about the progress of a tsunami. Deep-ocean buoys off the Aleutian Islands and Cascadia would also record the passage of tsunami waves in the open ocean."

For a tsunami caused by a Cascadia earthquake, people on the coast would have about 15 minutes to get to high ground, Yeats said. Emergency managers of coastal counties have told residents about planning escape routes from a tsunami, and schools in Seaside, Ore. have had tsunami evacuation drills. Some coastal communities also give warnings through a siren for those vacationers who aren't keeping up with the news. Visitors to the coast should look for the blue and white tsunami warning signs on Highway 101 and some beach areas. Research on tsunamis is being greatly enhanced by the new Tsunami Wave Basin at OSU, a $4.8 million facility with advanced technology built with the support of the National Science Foundation. It allows scientists from anywhere in the world to conduct experiments and monitor results. It also helps them learn about how tsunamis behave in different types of ocean terrain and what effects they might have once they reach land, said Dan Cox, an associate professor of engineering who directs the facility.

"The underlying goal of all we are doing is to ultimately reduce the loss of lives," Cox said. "We've had a number of scientists from Japan and throughout the United States checking in with us already, and we expect more from around the world.

"We're not working alone," Cox added. "Much of our work is in collaboration with NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, and the support of the National Science Foundation has been critical. They've funded the construction of the facility during the past four years, and will support the operation and maintenance of it for the next 10 years."

Is it possible that a tsunami will strike the U.S. during that time? Experts are not sure.

"In the Pacific Northwest, there is no way to tell whether the next Cascadia earthquake will strike tomorrow or 100 years from now," Yeats said. "We must prepare for the worst case scenario, both in tsunami escape preparations and in not building in potential tsunami inundation zones."

One of Yeats' colleagues is Chris Goldfinger, who has spent years studying the Cascadia subduction zone. Goldfinger says that in the last 10,000 years, there have been 19 major earthquakes in the zone that runs from northern California to Vancouver Island.

"There are only a few places in the world with a pattern long enough that we can study," he said, "and one of them is Cascadia. We cannot accurately predict earthquakes, so we have to look to the past for patterns."

Yeh said the weekend's earthquake and tsunami were grim reminders that our planet's natural forces are constantly at work - even if we forget about them.

"There is such a long period between tsunamis that people tend to forget how dangerous they are, and how devastating their impacts can be," Yeh said. "People in this country forgot about hurricanes for several years before Hurricane Hugo, and this year's series of storms focused people's attention on them again. The lag time for tsunamis is even greater. But the threat is still very real, as we learned."

Media Contact: 

Harry Yeh, 541-737-8057

New system can measure productivity of oceans

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers at Oregon State University, NASA and other institutions announced today the discovery of a method to determine from outer space the productivity of marine phytoplankton - a breakthrough that may provide a new understanding of life in the world's oceans.

Phytoplankton are the incredibly abundant microscopic plant forms that provide the basis for most of the marine food chain, half the oxygen in our atmosphere and ultimately much of the life on Earth. They have rapid growth rates and are constantly being produced and consumed in huge amounts - but until now, it was impossible to determine their rate of growth on any broad, useful scale.

The new findings, which were developed with funding from NASA and the National Science Foundation, have been published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles, a professional journal. A group of scientists also explained the new study today in a national teleconference.

"The new information on phytoplankton growth rates and biomass will greatly advance our understanding of the Earth's oceans," said Michael Behrenfeld, a research professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at OSU.

"We don't have the satellite technology available yet to fully take advantage of this new approach," he said. "But ultimately this system should have a great potential to effectively monitor phytoplankton productivity and understand the physical and chemical forces that drive it."

Although too tiny to see, phytoplankton have a net annual production that's comparable to the total amount of terrestrial plant life on Earth, scientists say. They produce about 50-65 billion tons of organic matter each year, and in the process absorb carbon dioxide and pour oxygen into the atmosphere.

Their abundance dictates the location and health of most marine fisheries. They play a critical role in marine water quality issues, can help regulate climate, are affected by climate, and are responsible for red tides and other harmful algal blooms. The very basis of sustainable ecological systems is almost impossible to understand without a good grasp of phytoplankton productivity, and its implications for global climate change.

Behrenfeld is an expert on phytoplankton, and has studied them from their molecular and metabolic pathways to their measurement from outer space.

"It was only in the late 1800s that we even realized these tiny plants formed the base of the marine food web," Behrenfeld said. "By the 1950s, we had figured out how to accurately measure their production and use observations of chlorophyll to determine their biomass. But until now, we've never been able to measure their rate of production over large areas."

That production can be enormous, and highly variable. Phytoplankton biomass can double in as little as one day, and it's routine for the entire mass of phytoplankton in an area to either be consumed by other life forms or die and sink to the ocean bottom in less than a week.

"Obviously, there's a very tight coupling between phytoplankton production and its consumption or death," said Emmanuel Boss at the University of Maine, a co-author on the paper. "So it's almost impossible to really understand what's going on in the oceans without understanding that rate of production. Now we have a way to do that."

The researchers accomplished this by moving beyond the old standard for monitoring phytoplankton, the observation of chlorophyll.

"The growth rate of phytoplankton can change dramatically based on such factors as water temperature, nutrients and light," Behrenfeld said. "And it's the growth rate of phytoplankton we have to know, to really take the pulse of the oceans. That's the missing piece of the puzzle."

The new approach is based on the premise that the 'greenness' in phytoplankton - its level of pigmentation per cell - is a reflection of its growth rate, said David Siegel of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the third author on the paper. The researchers have discovered a means to measure phytoplankton biomass from ocean light scattering properties and infer growth rates from simultaneous measurements of how green the individual phytoplankton are, all from outer space.

The mathematics behind this approach, the researchers say, is conceptually similar to technology that's used in a home supply or paint store when someone brings in a color chip and wants to "match" the paint color. A computer analysis is done that determines the final color of the paint, factors in the base colors used to produce it and then determines the original formula needed to reproduce the paint chip.

To fully use this approach, new satellite systems will be necessary that can more accurately determine both the color and brightness of marine waters, Behrenfeld said. He and colleagues are already working on a satellite concept to do that called ORCA, or Ocean Radiometer for Carbon Assessment.

However, in studies already done, the scientists have demonstrated that carbon-based values are considerably higher in tropical oceans, show greater seasonality at middle and high latitudes, and illustrate important differences in the formation and demise of regional algal blooms. Researchers anticipate a fundamental change in how they can model and observe carbon cycling in the global oceans.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A national news media teleconference on these findings will take place Thursday, Feb. 10, at 10 a.m. PST. To participate, reporters can dial toll free to (888) 396-9926. The pass code is PLANKTON. For more information and digital images that can be used to illustrate this story, visit the NASA website at http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/plankton.html .

Media Contact: 

Michael Behrenfeld, 541-737-5289

Tsunami survivor, OSU wave researchers to speak

CORVALLIS - An Oregon man who lived through the Asian tsunami while on a small island off the coast of Thailand will share his survival story at Oregon State University on Thursday, Feb. 10.

David Schreiber, who lives in Beaverton and Thailand, said he hopes telling his story will help the world better understand what the Thai people and others went through during and after the tsunami. He also hopes his presentation will underscore the importance of tsunami-related research being done at OSU and other places.

The presentation, "A Tsunami Survivor's Story," is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by the OSU College of Engineering's Kiewit Center for Infrastructure and Transportation, and begins at 7 p.m. at Gillfillan Auditorium on the OSU campus.

Schreiber will be joined by a panel of OSU researchers who are helping develop better tsunami early-warning systems, safer evacuations procedures, and improved bridge and building designs at the O. H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, which is a part of the OSU College of Engineering.

Schreiber, his wife and a friend were on a day trip to a Thai island when the tsunami struck. The operator of the small boat that brought them to the island perished in the tsunami, after warning Schreiber a massive wave was coming.

Schreiber will show a short video he shot during two return trips to the island several days later.

Dan Cox, OSU ocean engineering professor and director of the O. H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, will moderate the discussion and describe how a $4.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation enabled the OSU College of Engineering to construct the Tsunami Wave Basin, the world's largest and most-wired facility specifically designed for tsunami research.

Cox testified last week before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which is hearing testimony about the Tsunami Preparedness Act of 2005 and the U.S. Tsunami Warning System bill.

Cox will be joined by OSU civil engineering professor Harry Yeh, an internationally renowned tsunami expert who just returned from a site visit to a tsunami-ravaged region of India. Yeh will help field technical questions.

Seating is limited. For more information, contact the Kiewit Center for Infrastructure and Transportation at (541) 737-4273.


Daniel Cox, 541-737-3631

OSU prof testifies about tsunami research before Congress

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Oregon State University ocean engineering professor Daniel Cox testified Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which is hearing testimony about the Tsunami Preparedness Act of 2005 and the U.S. Tsunami Warning System bill. He appeared at the request of U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, a member of the committee.

Congress is looking into ways to expand the nation's tsunami early-warning system currently in place along the Pacific coast, and how the U.S. can be better prepared to respond to future tsunamis.

Cox described the value of the National Science Foundation's recent $4.8 million in funding that enabled the OSU College of Engineering to construct the Tsunami Wave Basin, the world's largest and most-wired facility specifically designed for tsunami research.

Research at the OSU facility will lead to development of more effective tsunami early-warning systems, safer evacuation routes and procedures, and better designs for buildings and bridges, Cox said.

Employing a programmable wavemaker at one end, the Tsunami Wave Basin is capable of generating a solitary wave, while researchers observe how the wave impacts contoured terrain installed in the basin, he said. On this terrain, researchers place models of coastal infrastructure, such as bridges and buildings, instrumented with sensors to measure the impact of the wave or debris. Researchers anywhere in the world can participate in tsunami experiments at OSU in real-time via the internet.

Cox is director of the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, which houses the Tsunami Wave Basin as well as the longest wave flume in North America.

Following the Dec. 26 tsunami in Asia, Cox and his OSU colleagues, including tsunami expert Harry Yeh, Chris Goldfinger of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, and geosciences professor Robert Yeats, have responded to intense international media interest, and were featured in news stories by CNN, the New York Times, National Geographic, the Today Show, and others. The wave lab's website has seen a 10-fold increase in traffic since the Asian tsunami hit.

"The collaborative research we're doing here at Oregon State University will directly save lives when another tsunami hits in the future," said Ron Adams, dean of the OSU College of Engineering. "This is what excellent engineering is all about: solving complex problems through innovation. In this case, it's about saving lives."


Daniel Cox, 541-737-3631

Oregon moving to center of wave energy development

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Significant advances in university research and other studies in the past two years are pointing toward Oregon as the possible epicenter of wave energy development in the United States.

This may lead to a major initiative to expand a technology that is now in its engineering infancy, and tap the constant heave of the oceans for a new era of clean, affordable and renewable electrical power.

Electrical engineers at Oregon State University have pioneered the development of technologies to take advantage of wave power in ways that are reliable, maintainable and able to survive a hostile ocean environment. The OSU College of Engineering also has a host of other facilities that would make it an ideal site for more advanced research.

Last fall, the Electric Power Research Institute finished a study which concluded that a site off Reedsport, Ore., would be the optimal location in the entire nation to develop a wave energy test and demonstration facility.

And on Wednesday, EPRI and the Oregon Department of Energy will meet in Portland, Ore., to bring together potential partners in this field to explore the future of wave energy development in the U.S.

At that meeting, OSU officials will present their vision for a U.S. Ocean Energy Research and Demonstration Center based in Oregon, which they believe could move this promising technology from a laboratory concept to a major contributor to the nation's energy needs. The center would evaluate existing wave energy systems and help create, test and implement new ones.

"The world's oceans are an extremely promising source of clean energy," said Annette von Jouanne, an OSU professor of electrical engineering. "The technology is still in experimental stages, but we've made enough progress in the past couple years that it's time to start planning a working research and demonstration facility. And the new EPRI study indicates that a site off the central Oregon coast is probably the best place in the country to do that."

The Reedsport site, experts say, has a combination of good wave action, an appropriate undersea terrain, and the presence of existing marine access and terrestrial electric transmission lines that would facilitate the creation of a test center.

OSU, in addition, has the highest-power energy systems laboratory of any university in the nation, a proximity to the Reedsport site, one of the leading research programs on ocean energy in the country, and the unique capabilities of the university's O. H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, including a 340-foot-long wave flume and the world's largest tsunami wave basin.

Compared to other forms of renewable energy production such as wind turbines, the development of ocean and wave energy has barely begun. But there are some operating systems in Europe, and the theoretical potential of this clean, inexhaustible form of energy is enormous - experts estimate that 0.2 percent of the ocean's untapped energy could power the entire world.

"The development of wave energy right now is probably 15-20 years behind wind energy, which is just now starting to achieve some optimal production technologies," said Alan Wallace, the co-principal investigator at OSU on these projects, and a professor of electrical engineering.

"And just like wind energy, these systems will be more expensive at first, and then the cost will come down and become very competitive," Wallace said. "But this is really groundbreaking research that can be of enormous value to society, and it's amazing all of the people who want to get involved."

The list of potential collaborators is long, von Jouanne said, but already includes the Oregon Department of Energy, EPRI, the Bonneville Power Administration, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, National Science Foundation, the Oregon Sea Grant Program, U.S. Department of Energy, Lincoln County Public Utility District, and U.S. Navy. Not to mention students from all over the world who are contacting the OSU engineers, hoping to join in research on the energy technology of the future.

"The Oregon Department of Energy is interested in the potential for wave energy in Oregon, which may prove to be a viable resource for clean, renewable energy," said Justin Klure, senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Energy. "At the upcoming meeting, we'll discuss the current state of wave energy technology, and coordinate with those individuals who may play a role in bringing a demonstration project to Oregon.

"There is much to discuss, including the costs of a demonstration project, the permitting and siting issues, the need for collaborative research, and other challenges."

There are multiple ways to tap the energy of the ocean, including its tides, thermal features and salinity. But wave energy appears to be the most promising and closest to commercial production. In recent studies, OSU has already created three prototypes of devices that could be used to harness wave energy - a permanent magnet linear generator, a permanent magnet rack and pinion gearbox, and a contactless direct drive generator buoy.

Some systems are very complex, and more vulnerable than others to the vagaries of severe ocean conditions. One of the most promising "direct drive" systems being studied at OSU is essentially a buoy that just moves up and down with large ocean swells, anchored about one or two miles offshore in more than 100 feet of water.

"What you want are nice, gradual, repetitive ocean swells," Wallace said. "Inside the buoy, this causes electrical coils to move through a magnetic field, inducing a voltage and creating electricity."

With this type of system, it would be possible to crank the buoy beneath the ocean surface to survive severe storm conditions or tsunamis, von Jouanne said.

The OSU engineers say that a buoy about 12 feet wide and 12 feet tall, rolling up and down in the ocean swells could produce 250 kilowatts per unit - a modest-sized network of about 200 such buoys could power the business district of downtown Portland. And the winter, the period of highest wave energy electrical production, also coincides with peak electricity demands in the Pacific Northwest.

"One of the other extremely promising possibilities with wave energy is the ability to scale these systems either up or down in size, whatever you need to fit the electrical demand," von Jouanne said. "Small systems could even be used with individual boats at anchor to generate their own electricity."

"We haven't even begun to figure out all of the potential uses of wave energy," she said. "But wherever this takes us, we believe that Oregon can and should be the national leader."


Media Contact: 

Annette von Jouanne, 541-737-0831

OSU to Release “Reuben” Back into Pacific Ocean on May 22

NEWPORT, Ore. – One of the most popular denizens of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center will bid farewell on Tuesday, May 22, when staff members release the giant Pacific octopus known as “Reuben” back into the ocean.

Reuben will leave his tank at the Newport facility’s Visitors Center at 11 a.m. and travel with his handlers to the south jetty of Yaquina Bay, where he will be released at about 11:30 a.m.

“Thousands of Oregon children and adults became more interested in the Pacific Ocean and its environment and inhabitants each year because of the Visitors Center, and Reuben is usually the first live creature they see,” said Bill Hanshumaker, a public marine education specialist at the OSU center. “We’ll miss him, but he should be happy in his new home.”

Reuben actually used to be known as “Ruby,” until he reached breeding age and began developing a hectocotylus, which is a modified tentacle male octopuses use to deliver sperm to females. It isn’t necessarily easy to identify the gender of a young octopus, Hanshumaker pointed out.

The HMSC Visitors Center has had an octopus greeting visitors for years. The staff typically tries to acquire a young, 4- to 5-pound giant Pacific octopus and keep it in captivity for 1-2 years, then release it before it reaches full breeding age. The giant Pacific octopus usually lives about 3-5 years and can grow to weights of about 100 pounds as adults. The largest Pacific octopus ever recorded was more than 31 feet from tentacle tip to tip and topped the scales at 598 pounds.

On average, the giant Pacific octopus has 240 suckers in two rows on each arm, for a total of 1,920 suckers per individual. If it uses all of its suckers at once, an octopus can generate a pulling strength of more than 700 pounds, Hanshumaker pointed out.

Fans of Reuben don’t have to worry about his tank being empty for long. HMSC Visitor Center staff members already have a replacement in quarantine. Dubbed “Wecoma,” it was named after the OSU research ship of the same name since crew members caught and donated the octopus.

No word yet on whether Wecoma is a girl or boy.

Media Contact: 

Bill Hanshumaker,

Salmon Tracking Program Begins Second Season, Expands to California

NEWPORT, Ore. – A successful pilot program launched last year that used genetics to determine the river origin of Chinook salmon caught off Oregon’s central coast will begin its second season this month and expand to the entire coast off Oregon as well as to northern California waters.

The hope is to discover more about the distribution of salmon in the ocean so that fisheries managers can make in-season decisions and allow the harvest of healthy stocks while mitigating the harvest of weakened runs. The ultimate goal is to avoid shutting down the entire coastal fishery – as happened in 2006 to protect weakened runs from the Klamath River, say Oregon State University researchers who are leading the study.

“Every piece of the project that we experimented with last year worked,” said Gil Sylvia, director of OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station and a co-principal investigator on the project. “We have the protocols down. We know we can identify with a high degree of certainty the origin of wild or hatchery fish caught offshore – and do it within roughly 24 hours.

“Now our goals are to learn whether Klamath stocks are aggregated within a specific area at a certain time, and whether there are differences in the catch composition close to shore and outside of six miles,” he added.

Dubbed Project CROOS (Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon), the effort is a unique collaboration among scientists, commercial fishermen and fisheries managers. The 2006 pilot study was funded by a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and coordinated by the Oregon Salmon Commission and researchers at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

During the field studies, 72 Oregon fishing vessels took part and provided 2,567 viable tissue samples from fresh-caught salmon to an OSU genetics laboratory in Newport, Ore. Of that total, OSU geneticists were able to assign a probability of 90 percent or more in determining river origin to 2,097 fish – meaning they could determine with a high degree of certainty the hatchery, river basin, or coastal region of origin of about four out of every five fish.

Confirmation for their protocol came from traditional research methods, pointed out Michael Banks, an OSU geneticist and co-principal investigator on the study.

“Thirty-one of the fish had coded wire tags attached, listing their hatchery of origin,” Banks said. “We ran our genetic profile on the tissue samples without knowing what the coded wire tags said and correctly identified the hatchery of origin for all 31 fish. That’s pretty good confirmation that the testing works.”

The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board has provided another grant, totaling $590,000, for the 2007 work, which will run from Astoria to Brookings encompassing all four of Oregon’s offshore salmon regions. A portion of the grant will fund an expected 70-90 fishermen who will provide fins and other tissue samples to the OSU researchers, who hope to analyze more than 9,000 samples this year.

“The challenge is to figure out how to corral the fishermen into the right areas at the right time so that we can collect an estimated 1 percent sample of the stock at a given time,” Banks said. “We’re aiming for 200 samples every week, in all four regions.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service is providing another $400,000 to help offset costs of participating fishermen and the genetic testing of the samples at the OSU laboratory in Newport and in two NMFS laboratories. This funding will help support the new research in California, which is establishing its own pilot study this year based on the Oregon model.

During a four-week period beginning this week, the California Salmon Council hopes to collect about 1,600 tissue samples provided by 16 California fishermen who are working the waters north and south of Point Arena, according to David Goldenberg, CEO of the council.

“The goals are very similar to what Oregon is trying to accomplish with the Klamath River runs, but we’re a year behind,” Goldenberg said. “This is a pilot project for us, to get the kinks worked out, get the sampling procedures under our belts, and to hopefully secure federal funding for next year. We’d like to involve 100 to 150 boats next year.

“The other objective is to spread the word among the fleet that this research is not something to be afraid of,” Goldenberg added.

In Oregon, the fishing industry has gotten the message loud and clear and welcome the research, Sylvia said. Many of the fishermen are particularly interested in some of the oceanographic data the researchers gathered last year, using buoys and programmable undersea gliders to determine the ocean’s temperature, salinity, chlorophyll level and dissolved oxygen content in the areas the fish were caught.

“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, one of the project’s fisherman 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.”

Two other new initiatives will be part of Project CROOS in 2007, according to Sylvia. The OSU researchers will work with fishery managers to create a trial management simulation model for ocean salmon fishing.

“Before the science can realistically lead to new management protocols, we need to start thinking about the logistics of such a system,” Sylvia said. “Right now, we don’t even know all of the questions to ask. But if we start looking at such a management system – even in its roughest form – some of the challenges and opportunities will become clear.”

A second development will be the creation of a 24-hour website that will be part of the decision-making model. But it also will include a variety of data accessible to fishermen, and information about fresh-caught individual salmon that will be available to consumers.

“Think about going into a seafood market in Portland, or in New York City, for that matter, and buying a salmon caught off Oregon, and tracking down the day it was caught, the location, and the river of origin,” Sylvia said. “Then you can click on another link and read about the fishing vessel that caught the salmon, and the crew that works the boat.

“Some of the fishermen are as excited about the marketing potential of the research as they are with the management potential,” he added.

The researchers hope to have the new website operational by late summer.

Media Contact: 

Gil Sylvia,

New Study: DNA Analysis Suggests Under-Reported Kills of Threatened Whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new study analyzing whale meat sold in Korean markets suggests the number of whales being sold for human consumption in the Asian country is much higher than that being reported to the International Whaling Commission – putting threatened populations of coastal minke whales further at risk.

The study, involving numerous researchers led by Scott Baker of Oregon State University, was just published in the journal Molecular Ecology. Baker, who is associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, also is presenting his findings to the International Whaling Commission this week at its annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

Baker and his colleagues conducted 12 surveys at a selection of shops selling whale meat in certain Korean coastal cities from 1999 to 2003 and collected 289 samples. They initially expected to find that many of the cuts of meat they purchased would come from a small number of whales, but when they used DNA profiling or “fingerprinting” they discovered that their 289 samples came from 205 different whales.

Since the government of South Korea reported to the IWC just 458 minke whales killed overall during that five-year period, Baker said, the scientists began to question the accuracy of that reported number.

“We only sampled a portion of the shops selling whale meat, with gaps of several weeks and even months between surveys,” Baker pointed out. “Since the average market ‘half-life’ of whale meat is six weeks, at most, we should have found far fewer individuals – or the number of whales killed is actually much greater than is being reported.”

To estimate the true number of whales in trade, the researchers used a novel model for “capture-recapture” analysis – characterized by DNA profiles from each slice of whale meat – which was developed by one of the co-authors of the study, Justin Cooke at the Center for Ecosystem Management Studies in Gutach, Germany. Although capture-recapture analysis is widely used to estimate the abundance of living whales in the while, it had not previously been used to estimate the number of dead whales available in trade. The analysis uses the frequency of whales found only once in a survey, and those found more than once in the same or later surveys.

The DNA profiling and capture-recapture analysis allowed the researchers to estimate how long an individual whale was available for sale in the markets – a process they compare to the decay of radio-isotopes. Fewer meat products from an individual whale remain on the market with each succeeding week, and their estimate of six weeks for the “half-life” of an individual whale gives future researchers a good idea of how frequently they will need to survey markets.

Whale meat is rarely frozen in Korea. It is usually par-boiled immediately after purchase by wholesalers or retailers and then sold over the next few weeks in thick slices of skin, blubber and meat – usually without refrigeration.

Using their “capture-recapture” model, which is based on statistical probability, the researchers estimate that the true number of minke whales that likely passed through Korean markets from 1999 to 2003 was probably 827 individuals, or nearly twice the number in official reports.

“If the mortality is really twice as great as the number reported to the government and to the International Whaling Commission, it has major implications for the survival of the species,” Baker said. “Researchers who have done sighting surveys of minke whales report difficulty in even locating the whales, and it has been hard to reconcile the small numbers sighted at sea with the numbers reported via bycatch.

“This means that there is no accepted estimate of the total abundance of this population,” Baker added, “but it seems likely that it is small and declining because of the unregulated exploitation.”

The study focused on minke whales in the Sea of Japan known as “J stock.” These genetically distinct whales are found closer to shore than other minke breeds, and were hunted to threatened levels until the IWC passed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

Though it is illegal to directly hunt minke whales in South Korea, those caught in fishing nets can be killed and sold as “bycatch” if officially reported. Economic incentives make such pursuits attractive, said Baker, who pointed out that individual whales are thought to fetch as much as $100,000.

“The obvious question becomes how much of the mortality is caused by incidental bycatch, and how much of it is actually intentional,” Baker said. “Beyond that, if more whales are being killed than reported, why aren’t they being reported? Is it to avoid scrutiny of the practice? Or are there other reasons?”

The exploitation of illegal, unregulated and unreported seafood products is not restricted to minke whales, or even whales in general, nor is it a new dilemma. Scientists estimate that illegal Soviet whaling in the aftermath of World War II claimed about 48,000 humpback whales; the actual number reported was 3,000. Dolphins and other whale species also have been exploited without regulation or reporting in many countries.

“The incentive, obviously, is financial,” Baker said. “The result of under-reporting whale mortality is not simply the decline of the species and their ability to sustain their populations – it is the increasing difficulty the situation creates for protecting these animals.”

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