marine science and the coast

OSU Extension Specialist to Lead China Trip

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Sam Chan, an Oregon State University Extension invasive species expert, will lead a three-state delegation of invasive species, restoration, and science education and communications experts on an 11-day trip to China this month.

Its aim is to help the Chinese begin to assess the extent of a non-native marine grass invasion that threatens mangrove-dominated coastal forests in that country's Fujian province.

The long-term goal is to forge a relationship between invasive species experts in the United States and China that could help both countries better deal with the threats non-native plants and animals pose to local species and ecosystems – and perhaps to reduce the transport of such organisms via trans-Pacific commerce.

Chan, who works with the OSU-based Oregon Sea Grant program, is an aquatic invasive species expert, watershed education team leader and an assistant professor in watershed health at OSU. He also chairs the education and outreach team of the Oregon Invasive Species Council.

The China venture came about as a result of Chan’s earlier work with Fanglin Tan, a faculty member with the Fujian Academy of Science, the academic science arm of the provincial government's forest service. The two men met in 2001 when Tan was a fellow at the World Forestry Center and Chan – then a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service – held a workshop about invasive species and restoration in riparian areas on the Pacific Northwest coast.

High on their list of mutual concerns were species of spartina, commonly known as cordgrass. Spartina plays an important ecological role in its native habitats, including the east coast of the U.S., but can be highly invasive and damaging to ecosystems outside its native range.

Sometimes planted for erosion control and salt marsh reclamation, or used as animal feed and packing material for oysters, spartina can be a vigorous invader, quickly colonizing estuaries, driving out native plants, and eventually creating islands that block the natural flow of water. Ecologically destructive spartina invasions have occurred on both the west coast of the U.S. and the south coast of China.

The threatened mangroves are salt water-tolerant trees that are the center of complex ecosystems (known as mangrove swamps or forests) along coastal estuaries in much of the world, including the seacoast of China's Fujian province. Adapted to survive in both salt and fresh water, the trees and the systems around them can serve as important buffers to coastal storms and flooding, as well as providing habitat for shellfish and other commercially important species.

Since the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, China has turned its attention to the importance of the Fujian mangrove forests, along with off-shore coral reefs, in protecting its densely populated coastline from similar disasters caused by tsunamis or far more frequent typhoons. Of particular concern is invasion by spartina, which chokes off the normal flow of water vital to the mangrove ecosystems' survival.

The plant's structure – its rhizomes break loose easily and are transported by the water – makes it spread rapidly. The Chinese estimate that as much as 100,000 hectares (nearly 250,000 acres) of mangrove forest are infested by spartina, almost all of it spread by invasion.

Chan's May 16-26 visit is part of a major Chinese initiative to save its remaining mangroves as a protective belt around its coastline and to reduce the threat from invasive species.

"Our goal is to work with the Chinese in sorting through the probable causes of mangrove forest declines, including invasive spartina, and to work cooperatively to develop the best courses of action to protect coastal ecosystems," Chan said.

Accompanying Chan on this initial visit are David Hannaway, an OSU professor of crop science and member of the university's China Initiative Working Group; Merritt Tuttle, a retired official of the National Marine Fisheries Service; Wendy Brown, invasive species manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources' aquatic resources office; Mike Spranger, Florida Sea Grant Extension program leader; and Edward Jahn and James N. Fisher, producer and photographer for Oregon Public Broadcasting's Oregon Field Guide series.

The Chinese government is funding the trip.

While in China, the team will visit several local forestry bureaus, meet with local officials, tour and observe estuaries and wetlands – both intact and spartina-infested – and will give formal presentations on the potential for ecosystem management and restoration. Chan hopes the trip will result in future collaboration on estuarine wetland restoration, spartina control and related research and public education issues.

"This is an opportunity for members of our team, for OSU and for the Chinese government to work on invasive species as a global issue, and not just a problem caused by organisms transported here from the other side of the ocean," said Chan. "Both of our countries face similar ecologic, economic and health problems from invasive species. We both have concerns about tsunamis and other natural disasters.

“The opportunity to discuss our common problems could allow us to work together seeking comprehensive solutions."

Media Contact: 

Sam Chan,

Big, old, "oily" fish key to restoring groundfish stocks

CORVALLIS - Recent studies have found that large, old and oily groundfish are significantly more important than their younger counterparts in maintaining healthy marine fish stocks - the larvae from their eggs better resist starvation and have a much greater chance of survival.

These same big, old fish are also routinely sought by fisherman, scientists say, and the age decline in fish populations helps to explain the collapsing fisheries off the Pacific Northwest coast.

Other research also indicated that many fish populations up and down the coast are essentially distinct, and fish from one area don't intermingle as much as had been assumed with fish from elsewhere.

These combined problems might be most effectively addressed with a diverse network of marine protected areas, said scientists at Oregon State University.

The findings were recently summarized in an article in Fisheries, a professional journal.

"We've known for a long time that bigger fish produce more eggs, that we might need to have numerous smaller females to produce as many eggs as one larger fish," said Mark Hixon, an OSU professor of zoology. "Modern fish management is based on this assumption. But we've also assumed that one fish egg is just as good as another, and the newest studies are showing that's just not the case."

New studies by OSU researcher Steven Berkeley, who is now at the University of California-Santa Cruz, have shown that eggs from very old fish have much larger oil globules in their yolk, giving the larvae that develop from these eggs a chance to grow faster and survive starvation longer. Older fish also spawn earlier, which sometimes better coordinates larval birth with peak food availability.

A marine ecosystem routinely has more than 99 percent mortality of fish larvae due to predation, starvation and fluctuating ocean conditions. So anything that helps young larvae pass through their most vulnerable lifestyle stages can significantly increase their chance of survival, scientists say.

"In some cases, it appears that almost all of the surviving larvae have come from large, old, fat fish," Hixon said. "For effective replenishment of our groundfish stocks, these older fish may be essential. But with the fish management systems we now have in place, fish of this age range may represent far less than 5 percent of the total population of a species."

Black rockfish, for instance, can begin to reproduce at about five years of age, but need to be about 12 years old with heavier amounts of fat before they can produce the type of "oily" eggs that may have increased survival chances. Larvae from the oldest fish can survive starvation 2.5 times as long as those of the youngest, and grow three times as fast on the same diet. Similar findings have been made with other species.

For a fish, surviving to adulthood is not easy. But after that, the natural dangers decline.

In a natural system, old fish actually have an extremely low rate of mortality compared to their younger counterparts, and a disproportionately higher level of body lipids - they get fat. Young fish are comparatively lean. And fishing pressure works exactly to the opposite of most natural mortality agents.

During a period of intense fishing off the Oregon coast from 1996 to 1999, the average age of mature female black rockfish declined from 9.5 to 6.5 years - in a fish species that has a maximum lifespan of about 50 years. Soon after, many fisheries were in serious decline.

Genetic studies by OSU researcher Michael Banks and his graduate students have also shown that there are many unique fishery stocks up and down the coast that do not interbreed, meaning that a collapse of a fishery in one location may not be easily corrected by migrating fish from other areas.

There are few easy remedies to this problem, Hixon said.

Complete closure of fishing or extremely low fishing quotas would be one approach, but this has economic repercussions and is often not acceptable to the public, he said. A "catch and release" requirement for large, older fish is not practical for most groundfish species, because their swim bladder often ruptures or other trauma occurs when they are brought to the surface, and they die anyway.

"Given the demand to have a sustainable fishery and the biological constraints of most marine groundfish species, the option that seems to make the most sense is marine reserves," Hixon said.

A well-devised network of marine reserves, Berkeley, Hixon and colleagues said in their report, would allow a much higher population of large, old fish within those reserves, a higher level of larvae survival, and provide the ability of reserves to help replenish other marine areas nearby. If properly located, reserves might also address the distinct nature of groundfish populations in different geographic locations, they said.

Exactly that type of "seeding" effect has now been documented with some populations in the Georges Bank off the East Coast, Hixon said, which had huge closures in the mid-1990s due to collapsing fisheries.

"As we come to better understand the biology of these fish populations and what may have led to their dramatic decline, more and more people are realizing the role that selected reserves could play in addressing some of these problems," Hixon said. "They offer some benefits that frankly cannot be found with any other management option."

Media Contact: 

Mark Hixon, 541-737-5364

Preparation key to Northwest surviving a tsunami disaster

CORVALLIS - For a preview of a tremendous earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific Northwest, take a look at Southeast Asia's recent disaster, an Oregon State University natural hazards expert said.

"Geologically-speaking, Sumatra is directly analogous to the Oregon Coast," said Jim Good, an OSU professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences and director of OSU's Marine Resource Management Program.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Cascadia Subduction zone, a 600-mile long underwater fault zone that runs from Cape Mendocino in California to central British Columbia, is a virtual twin to the 600-mile long fault that snapped recently offshore in Indonesia.

"We could expect a similar 600-mile long and 50-mile wide break zone here; they are very similar regions," said Good, who spent more than 15 years with OSU's Oregon Sea Grant in coastal hazards management, including work on reducing earthquake and tsunami hazards in Pacific Northwest ports and harbors.

"Earthquakes and tsunamis pose significant threats to Pacific Northwest coastal port and harbor communities," Good said. "We have done as good a job in hazard preparedness as any coastal state in the U.S., but we have to continue to educate people and improve all aspects of readiness.

"This is the absolute, ultimate, teachable moment," Good said. "But that education work needs to be sustained into the future too, and that is the real challenge.

A large earthquake along the coast could trigger multiple landslides, knock-out utilities such as power and telephone services, as well as buckle roadways and runways. A subsequent tsunami, which could hit the coast in as little as 15 minutes following a local quake, could build waves topping 30 feet hitting the coast at speeds of 20 miles per hour or more.

In some onshore areas, primarily along the northern Oregon Coast, the land could drop two to three feet, increasing the risk from high water, while in other areas, there could be a rise in elevation.

The walls of water could threaten the coast for eight hours or more, with some of the larger waves actually occurring hours after the first wave hits the shore, Good said. In addition to damaging structures and other improvements, the flood of seawater could have profound effects on the natural environment, destroying habitat for marine and land plants and animals.

As the water rushes back to sea, logs, rocks, beams, even materials such as oil, fuel and other toxic debris could rush back with it, causing further damage. Dock facilities, bridges, ships and boats, as well as coastal developments could sustain significant damage and the chance of loss of life is high.

"Think of the video footage you've seen on TV recently," Good said. "That's what it could be like here."

While scientists and emergency managers are already planning a "Tsunami Summit" this spring to build on progress already made on earthquake and tsunami science and readiness, researchers and community leaders shouldn't delay work to continue to improve safety in the coastal regions, he said.

"What needs to be done is to take stock of the progress that has been made, based on earlier recommendations, see what work remains to be done, and get to work."

Good said a great deal of progress has already been made along the Oregon coast. Tsunami hazard zones, evacuation routes and safe gathering spots are clearly marked by distinctive blue and white signs. Government, business and local residents have worked to craft recommendations to save lives and limit property loss, including warning systems, critical facility relocation, structural retrofitting, and emergency operations plans targeted for specific sectors of the community.

On a statewide level, the Oregon legislature will do doubt be taking another look at tsunami preparations, Good said. For example, state officials will analyze the failed 2003 bill drafted by Springfield legislator Sen. Bill Morrisette.

That proposal, Senate Bill 650, would have required the Oregon Office of Emergency Management to enhance the region's tsunami warning information and evacuation plans, requiring lodging facilities to provide information on tsunami hazards and response to their guests.

"Inherent problems lie in minimizing the risk on one hand, and hyping it on the other," Good said. "Keeping the 'scare factor' down, while at the same time keeping up awareness and readiness is an ongoing challenge."

While geologic records document that 300 years ago there was a great earthquake where huge tsunamis slammed into the Pacific Northwest coast, no researcher can say when another disaster will strike - whether in the next hour or the next 1,000 years.

"It's just human nature. It's difficult to get excited about something that might happen 1,000 years into the future. Although I never quite made Eagle Scout, I do remember the motto - 'be prepared.' We can do that."



Jim Good, 541-737-1339

"Sea Legs" author Kathleen Crane to speak at OSU

CORVALLIS - A prominent oceanographer who began her academic career at Oregon State University returns to campus Jan. 18 as a guest speaker in the John Byrne Lecture Series.

Kathleen Crane, who received her B.A. in geology at OSU in 1973, will speak about the culture of ocean exploration in America in an illustrated lecture, free and open to the public. The lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Construction and Engineering Auditorium of LaSells Stewart Center, located at 26th Street and Western Boulevard in Corvallis.

Crane, who is program manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Arctic Research Office, has had a varied career in oceanography over the last 30 years, conducting research from the hot springs at the bottom of the ocean to the frigid waters of the Arctic to the search for the Titanic.

She tells the tales in her 2003 memoir, "Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Oceanographer."

"My experiences as a woman in oceanography during the Cold War were in many ways unique," she writes. "These experiences molded me and of course molded others in the field."

One review of the book noted that Crane comes across as "a vibrant woman, an explorer, teacher and mother, who traverses between disparate worlds with an uncanny sense of balance."

The "disparate worlds" in the book include academic turf battles and run-ins with the FBI and latter-day KGB.

Crane will give an informal talk and sign copies of her book in the Valley Library, Willamette Room, at 1 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 19. That event is sponsored by the library, the OSU Bookstore, and the OSU Women's Center.

The John Byrne Lecture Series is named for a distinguished oceanographer who was president of OSU and NOAA administrator. The lectures were begun in 1998 by the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and Oregon Sea Grant stimulate broad interest in marine and atmospheric sciences issues, particularly on themes of resources, policy and communicating science.


Dawn Wright, 541-737-1229


CORVALLIS, Ore. - The newest studies on the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of the Pacific Northwest have identified a "clustering" of great earthquakes of the type that would cause a major tsunami, yielding a historical record with two distinct implications - one that's good, the other not.

According to scientists at Oregon State University, this subduction zone has just experienced a cluster of four massive earthquakes during the past 1,600 years, and if historical trends continue, this cluster could be over and the zone may already have entered a long quiet period of 500 to 1,000 years, which appears to be common following a cluster of earthquake events.

Alternatively, the current cluster of earthquakes may have one or more events left in it - some clusters within the past 10,000 years have had clusters of up to five events - and within a cluster, the average time interval between earthquakes is 300 years. Since the last major Cascadia earthquake occurred in the year 1700, the next event may well be imminent.

"The Cascadia Subduction Zone has the longest recorded data about its earthquakes of any major fault in the world," said Chris Goldfinger, an associate professor of marine geology at OSU and one of the leading experts on this fault zone. "So we know quite a bit about the periodicity of this fault zone and what to expect. But the key point we don't know is whether the current cluster of earthquake activity is over yet, or does it have another event left in it."

The two most recent major earthquakes on this fault occurred in the year 1700 and approximately the year 1500, Goldfinger said. Those two events were only 200 years apart, and it's now been 305 years since the last one. From this perspective, there's some reason to believe the next major earthquake could happen soon.

As the death toll and catastrophic destruction from the East Asia earthquake of last Monday continues to mount, more and more attention is turning to the local version of that geologic setting - the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

According to Goldfinger, there are only two places in the United States with active subduction zones, or major areas where one of the Earth's great plates are being subducted, or forced underneath the other. One is in Alaska, the site of the great earthquake of 1964. The other is the Cascadia zone, a 600-mile long fault zone that runs from Cape Mendocino in California to Vancouver Island in southern British Columbia.

Major studies have been done on this fault zone, many of them at OSU, and they have identified 19-21 major earthquake events during the past 10,000 years. During at least 17 of these events, the entire fault zone appears to have ruptured at once, causing an earthquake around magnitude 9, and major tsunamis.

"There's some variation in intensity, the last event in 1700 appeared to be about average," Goldfinger said. "To track these events we use radiocarbon dating of deposits of sand called turbidites, which come from marine landslides. These deep-sea cores give us a pretty accurate picture of when and where an earthquake event happened."

According to Goldfinger, there are remarkable geologic parallels between what just happened in East Asia and what could happen in the Pacific Northwest. The Asian event happened where the India plate was being subducted beneath the Burma microplate, and it ruptured - for the first time since 1833 - along a 600-mile front that is just about the same length as the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

That earthquake happened as the Indian plate moved towards the northeast beneath Asia, just like the Juan de Fuca plate is in the Pacific Northwest before it disappears beneath the North American plate.

What happened in Asia may give a vivid demonstration of the geologic future of the Pacific Northwest. For hundreds of years, these subduction zone plates remain locked, releasing little of their tension. The plate which is being subducted is forced down, while the plate above bulges upwards. Then, in a few minutes of violence every few centuries, the forces are released. The upper plate moves seaward, and a massive tsunami can be produced along with catastrophic destruction from earthquake shaking.

"In the case of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, you could have an area of ocean sea floor that's 50 miles wide and 500-600 miles long suddenly snap back up, causing a huge tsunami," Goldfinger said. "At the same time, we could expect some parts of the upper, or North American plate to sink one to two meters. These are massive tectonic events. Subduction zones produce the most powerful earthquakes and tsunamis in the world."

The question, Goldfinger says, is not whether or not the Cascadia Subduction Zone will break again. It's when. And that's where the study of past events may shed light on the present.

Following are the earthquake events on this fault zone during the past 9,800 years:

  • Oldest recorded earthquake, 9,800 years before present
  • 800-year gap with no major earthquakes
  • Three earthquake events, 8,300 to 9,000 years before present
  • 700-year gap with no major earthquakes
  • Five earthquake events, 5,700 to 7,600 years before present
  • 1,000 year gap with no major earthquakes
  • Two earthquake events, 3,900 to 4,700 years before present
  • 500-year gap with no major earthquakes
  • Three earthquake events, 2,500 to 3,400 years before present
  • 700- to 900-year gap with no major earthquakes
  • Four earthquake events from 1,600 years before present to today

"We're going to continue to study the geology of these events and identify the patterns and likelihood of future events as best we can," Goldfinger said. "A few things are clear. There are clusters of earthquake events on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and there are big gaps. And we're either in a cluster right now or at the end of one."

"Whether the current cluster is over yet, we just don't know," he said. "One possibility is that we could be done with this cluster and looking at a period of many hundreds of years before the next earthquake."

"The other distinct possibility is we could still be in a cluster of events. If that's the case, the average time interval between earthquakes within a cluster is already up. We would be due just about any day."

Media Contact: 

Chris Goldfinger, 541-737-5214

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center to Host Earth Day Events

NEWPORT, Ore. – Four researchers from Oregon State University will discuss issues related to climate change during a series of Earth Day presentations on Saturday, April 21, at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The lectures, which are free and open to the public, will be held in the Hennings Auditorium of HMSC’s Visitor’s Center.

Karen Shell, from OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, will speak on “Uncertainty and Climate Change.” Her talk begins at 10:30 a.m.

At 12:30 p.m., Mark Hixon, a professor of zoology, will discuss “Ocean Warming: Threats to the Pacific Northwest.”

Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences and an expert on glaciers and polar ice, will give a lecture on “Ice and Sea Level Changes: Where Are We Headed?” that begins at 1:30 p.m.

Jeffrey Shaman, from the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, will blend his studies of human health and atmospheric sciences in a talk called “Change, Human Health and Local Ecology.” It begins at 3 p.m.

For more information, contact Bill Hanshumaker of OSU Extension Sea Grant, at 541-867-0167. He is the public marine education specialist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Media Contact: 

Bill Hanshumaker,

OSU Oceanographers to Study at the North Pole for Clues to Arctic, Global Circulation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists, including two oceanographers from Oregon State University, will explore the frigid waters beneath the North Pole this April for clues to the circulation patterns of the Arctic Ocean.

The project is particularly important, researchers say, because fresh water from the Arctic – via melting ice or continental runoff – has a major influence on the circulation of other oceans, including the Atlantic and Pacific.

“The Arctic is an extremely sensitive valve that regulates heat exchange and the deep circulation of the world’s oceans,” said Robert Collier, a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “Yet we don’t really know a lot about how the upper 1,000 meters of the Arctic Ocean circulates. These kinds of observations are critical to better understanding how the oceans may respond to global climate change.”

Collier will join OSU doctoral student Matt Alkire on the project, which will take them to “Barneo,” a remote outpost operated by a Russian logistics team just a handful of kilometers from the North Pole. There, from their tent camp, the researchers will travel by small plane to some 30 sites around the North Pole where they will land, drill holes in the ice, and take a series of measurements down to a depth of 1,000 meters.

They will run continuous water sampling profiles, collecting data on temperature, salinity, water chemistry and oxygen levels; and they will collect water samples to analyze chemical “tracers” that reveal the source of the water.

Kelly Falkner, an OSU professor of oceanography, helped establish this observatory effort and has made several trips to the North Pole over the past years. She is on an assignment from OSU to the National Science Foundation, where she is interim director for NSF’s Antarctic Ocean and Climate Science program, coinciding with the International Polar Year.

“The International Polar Year is significant because the scientific community can learn a great deal about these integrated systems when everyone focuses on them at one time, pooling our limited resources,” Collier said. “The last equivalent was the International Geophysical Year, which brought long-lasting significant changes in our knowledge about the Earth.

“Our knowledge of the poles and their integration with global earth systems should increase greatly through this and partner projects,” he added.

The temperature near the outpost this week was minus-18 degrees (F), with steady 30-mile-per-hour winds.

But there is more to the weather than meets the eye, the scientists say. During the last couple of decades, the atmospheric pressure and winds over the Arctic and North Atlantic have shifted, causing changes in ocean circulation and source waters. Scientists are still unsure if those shifts are due to global climate change or natural cycles.

“We’ve never observed these large changes before, partly due to the difficulty of working in this region,” Collier said.

Alkire’s research suggests that the distribution of source waters in the Arctic may be returning to their more traditional pattern, responding to the change in atmospheric conditions under way. The degree to which these changes are natural cycles, or human-influenced, is literally and figuratively up in the air.

“This underscores the importance of long-term observatories throughout the world’s oceans,” Collier pointed out. The research is part of the North Pole Environmental Observatory, a project supported by the National Science Foundation.

Collier said the research also is important to gain more insights into the role the Arctic Ocean plays in sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. High-latitude waters pull in anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere, and the currents transport it to the deep oceans.

“The Arctic plays a critical role in controlling the transport of atmospheric gases into the deep oceans, and although we know the basic mechanisms, there is much we don’t know about the details of how the machinery works,” Collier said.

Interested persons can follow the scientists and field programs online at: http://psc.apl.washington.edu/northpole/NP2007Reports.html

Media Contact: 

Bob Collier,

NOAA Researcher to Lecture at OSU on Ocean C0² and Acidificatio

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Christopher Sabine, a leading researcher from the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, will give a free public lecture on Friday, Jan. 11, at Oregon State University that outlines ocean carbon dioxide uptake and the increasing acidification of the world’s oceans.

The event is part of “Frontiers,” a visiting scholar series sponsored by OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

Sabine’s lecture, which begins at 4 p.m. in Gilfillan Auditorium on the OSU campus, is titled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Ocean Uptake of Atmospheric CO2, Ocean Acidification, and the Future Global Carbon Cycle.”

Sabine works at the PMEL lab operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His research focuses on the air-sea exchange of carbon dioxide at the ocean surface, and the overall global carbon exchange.

While at OSU, Sabine will give a more technical lecture aimed at faculty and graduate students. That talk, on Thursday, Jan. 10, begins at 1 p.m. in Burt Hall Room 193. It is titled “High-resolution Ocean and Atmospheric pCO² Time-series Measurements from Open Ocean and Coastal Moorings.”

Media Contact: 

Zanna Chase,

Saving Nemo: Researchers Hope to Reduce Mortality in Marine Ornamental Fish

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers are working to help more aquarium fish survive the often hazardous journey from where they’re collected until they arrive in pet shops and home aquaria.

The result may not only be healthier fish and happier pet owners, but significant environmental and economic benefits.

Jerry Heidel, director of OSU’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, and Tim Miller-Morgan, an OSU veterinarian with the Oregon Sea Grant Extension, have partnered with Hollywood Aquariums in Lake Oswego and Sea Dwelling Creatures, Inc., a Los Angeles-based fish importer and distributor, in the project funded by Oregon Sea Grant.

The collaboration allows the researchers to examine causes of mortality at all stages of the supply chain, from the fish capture on tropical coral reefs to purchase by hobbyists. SDC, Inc. provides fish to retailers and aquaria throughout the United States and internationally, including Monterey Bay Aquarium, SeaWorld and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

The marine fish aquarium hobby is growing by approximately 1 percent a year, Miller-Morgan says, faster than any other pet ownership sector. And nearly 99 percent of the fish are caught in the wild, not raised in captivity. Typical mortality rates for the more commonly shipped species range from about 5 percent to 12 percent, according to previous studies conducted by Heidel and Miller-Morgan.

The OSU researchers conducted broad mortality surveys of all fish species imported by SDC, Inc., and in their newest study will focus on a few key species, including the popular green chromis and the false percula clownfish, of “Finding Nemo” fame. The most expensive fish they will study is the Imperator angelfish, which can retail for $200 or more.

Preliminary observations suggest that water quality and handling, rather than parasitic or bacterial infections, are the biggest problems faced by marine fish shipped to the U.S. for the pet trade.

“These animals are hit with multiple stressors throughout the chain of custody, and water quality may be the thing that pushes them over the edge,” said Miller-Morgan.

In particular, Heidel and Miller-Morgan have noted that water in which marine ornamental fish have been shipped typically has low pH – the water is more acidic than normal – and high ammonia levels, both of which can cause stress to the animals.

They also suspect that high carbon dioxide in the water is responsible for some fish deaths. In high concentrations, CO2 can cause acidosis – a condition that limits the amount of oxygen the fish can carry in their blood.

Miller-Morgan traveled with partners from SDC, Inc. to Indonesia in 2005, where they examined exporters’ animal husbandry practices and storage and shipping facilities. He noted that once the fish are collected from a reef, they commonly sit on a boat in water-filled plastic bags for as long as three weeks. The longer a fish is held on the boat, he theorizes, the more likely it is to be stressed if it is eventually shipped.

The first step of the new project is to collect baseline data on fishes’ blood chemistry, comparing fish shipped from the South Pacific to SDC Inc.’s Los Angeles facility with cinnamon clownfish at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport that will serve as control fish. Carl Schreck of OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, an expert in stress response in fishes, will assist with the blood work.

The investigators will also measure water quality and analyze stress during shipping. They expect to recommend measures that exporters can take to reduce shipping stress, most likely through improving water quality and changing fish handling prior to shipping.

Heidel and Miller-Morgan will share the study’s results as widely as possible to the industry.

“We’d like to focus on ‘train the trainer’ efforts by which we can achieve an exponential dissemination of this information,” said Heidel.

The benefits of their findings should be both economic and environmental. Shipping mortality significantly decreases the profit margin of all involved in the process.

“In general, ornamental fish importers’ two biggest business costs are labor, which is fairly fixed, and fish mortalities,” Miller-Morgan pointed out.

In addition, Heidel said “if fewer fish die in transit, the industry won’t have to go back to the reef quite as often to collect more,” thereby lessening the industry’s impact on tropical reef systems.

“Our goal with all of this work is conservation through quality health management,” said Miller-Morgan.


Tim Miller-Morgan,

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center Offers “Flotsam Fest”

NEWPORT, Ore. – The variety of floats, bottles, fishing gear and other souvenirs that wash up on the shores of Oregon beaches – the “flotsam and jetsam” – is the focus of the first one-day Flotsam Fest on Saturday, Jan. 12, at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

The event will feature displays and lectures, as well as an opportunity for beachcombers to bring their finds to the center.

“If you’ve brought home something from the beach and you aren’t sure what it is, bring it on over,” said William Hanshumaker, the center’s public marine education specialist. “We’ll try to identify it for you.”

Beachcombers are often enchanted by that which is thrown up on the shore by relentless Pacific Ocean waves, but some of these materials – like rope from crab pots and balls of fishing line – can be hazardous to wildlife, Hanshumaker pointed out.

Kim Raum-Suyan, a marine mammal biologist from Newport, will address sea lion entanglement in an illustrated talk in the Hennings Auditorium at 11:30 a.m. Raum-Suyan is a contract scientist who works with OSU and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, specializing in research on Steller sea lions.

Skye Moody, author of “Washed Up,” will speak at 1:30 p.m. on flotsam and jetsam, and conduct a book signing.

The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the Flotsam Fest.

Media Contact: 

Bill Hanshumaker,