marine science and the coast

Harmful algal blooms increase; researchers seek warning signs

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Harmful algal blooms that have closed shellfish harvests in the Pacific Northwest and caused "red tides" elsewhere appear to be increasing, scientists say, and the likely suspects are global climate change and increased human impact in coastal zones.

One recent bloom has significantly elevated levels of a toxin called domoic acid in Oregon razor clams, prompting a statewide harvest closure that has been in effect all summer. This follows several other regional closures over the past 2-3 years. Humans who consume shellfish with high levels of domoic acid may suffer vomiting, diarrhea, disorientation and memory loss; in severe cases, domoic acid can result in comas and even death.

Two Oregon scientists - one from Oregon State University and the other from the University of Oregon - are trying to identify these toxic blooms as they occur by combining satellite imagery and physical data in a project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

They believe that certain areas, including the Heceta Bank off the central Oregon coast, may act as "incubators" for generating the blooms of Pseudonitzschia, a phytoplankton species that can turn toxic, creating domoic acid. When consumed by shellfish, it accumulates in their tissues.

"Historically, the first warning sign we get for these toxic blooms is when domoic acid shows up during routine testing of razor clams and other shellfish - and by then it's a done deal," said Peter Strutton, an assistant professor in OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, and co-principal investigator of the study. "Unlike the phytoplankton species that causes red tides off Florida, the blooms off Oregon don't have characteristic pigment that makes them easily visible.

"But we think that we can combine satellite data on chlorophyll levels and ocean conditions to eventually detect these blooms as they develop and provide an early warning system for coastal managers, health officials, and commercial and recreational fishers," Strutton added.

A number of different phytoplankton species bloom regularly off the Pacific Northwest coast and, in fact, are important in feeding the marine food chain. But a breakdown in the metabolic process of Pseudonitzschia - possibly triggered through stress - creates domoic acid, according to Michelle Wood, a professor of biology at the University of Oregon and co-PI on the study.

Wood said it is possible that a symbiotic interaction between the diatoms and certain species of marine bacteria enable, or enhance, the production of toxins. It may also influence the level of toxicity in a bloom, she added.

"Clams and other shellfish take in the toxins when they filter water and the toxin level can vary for a number of reasons," Wood said. "The diatoms that produce domoic acid seem to produce less when they are growing rapidly than when they have used up the nutrients in the water and become stressed physiologically. So as each phytoplankton bloom progresses, there is potential for water masses to break off and carry populations of diatoms at different stages of growth onto shore."

The researchers have combed through data over the last 10 years from the Oregon shellfish monitoring program conducted by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. They are comparing recorded levels of toxicity in razor clams, mussels and other shellfish with archival satellite data showing sea surface temperatures and "ocean color" - chlorophyll levels and rates of fluorescence - in the same regions that the shellfish testing took place.

Strutton says they hope to find an optical signature for potential blooms, and during the next two years visit those areas at peak times to sample the water and drag nets through the surface ocean to measure phytoplankton abundance and toxicity levels.

One area of interest is the Heceta Bank, which the researchers believe is similar to the Juan de Fuca eddy off northern Washington - a known "hot spot" for harmful algal blooms. The Heceta Bank bulges out off the Oregon coast, and the shallow water there creates an eddy effect that appears to send a steady flux of nutrients to the surface, triggering the algal blooms.

"Harmful algal blooms are the negative side of coastal upwelling," Strutton said. "There is growing evidence that these blooms have been increasing over the last 20 years and not only are becoming more frequent, but more intense and with longer duration. We also are starting to record toxic events in places that haven't had them, so there is a concern that they may be spreading.

"The spreading could be caused by the transport of phytoplankton in the ballast water of ships," he added.

Strutton said global climate change leading to warmer ocean waters is one theory behind the increasing incidents of harmful algal blooms. Human activity, including the release of nutrients into the oceans from agriculture fertilizers that leech into river systems, may also be a cause.

"Every spring there is an algal bloom in the Pacific from San Diego, Calif., to Vancouver, B.C., that is a result of warming spring temperatures, upwelling and the general ocean-atmosphere interaction," Strutton said. "Often one species of phytoplankton will dominate, and we need to identify when it is Pseudonitzschia so we can create an early warning system."

Wood said the lag time from onset of an algal bloom to significant toxicity in shellfish may be a few days depending on how "hot" - or full of toxin-producing cells - the water is. The effects can linger.

"Mussels lose their toxicity very quickly, in a matter of days," Wood said, "but razor clams incorporate the toxin in their tissue and remain toxic for weeks - even when they are no longer consuming toxin-producing food."

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Pete Strutton, 541-737-2065

OSU oceanographer heads to Gulf to study hurricane aftermath

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Hurricane Katrina left a swath of destruction along the Gulf Coast landscape, and now a team of scientists is heading to the Gulf of Mexico to see what effects the storm may have had on the water quality, biology and sediment deposits in the shallow coastal waters.

Researchers from several institutions will take part in a series of cruises aboard different research vessels as part of a major interagency effort to mobilize the scientific community to study the aftermath of one of the country's most devastating natural disasters. Their projects, which began this week, are federally funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense.

Oregon State University chemical oceanographer Miguel Goni leaves for Louisiana this week to study the effects of Katrina on sediment deposits. Goni, who has spent much of the last eight years researching sediment in Gulf waters off the Mississippi delta, says sediment often shifts during storms, but the immense tidal surge of Katrina has the potential to create major changes in "an unnatural system."

"Human engineering has completely changed the delta and the Mississippi River, in fact, drains into an area of the Gulf that it probably wouldn't, left to its own devices," Goni said. "Since those human activities began, we've annually seen sediments about 2-3 centimeters deep build up in the spring when the river has its highest discharge, and then wash out to deeper water during winter storms."

"When Hurricane Lili hit the Louisiana coast in 2002, there was a very large shift of sediments into areas not normally affected," Goni added. "We saw deposits of between one and 30 centimeters of very fine sediment in areas that don't really see that kind of activity. And Lili was a category-2 storm that pales compared to Katrina."

As a result of their cyclonic wind circulation, hurricanes such as Katrina often bring sediments onto shore on the east side of the storm's eye, while they transport them offshore on the west side, said Goni, who is an associate professor in OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

"The larger, coarser sediments are left on shore, while the smaller, finer material is washed out to sea," he said. "This offshore transport can help the sub-aqueous part of the delta grow."

The sediment shifts are of concern to the shrimp industry, Goni says, although Gulf Coast shrimp historically have weathered sediment changes because they thrive in the soft, muddy bottom. But the shrimp also depend on algal matter for food, and the region has been struck by several hypoxia events, creating a "dead zone" that virtually snuffs out all marine life.

"In a complex ecosystem, any change in the environment is a cause for concern," Goni said.

Shifting sediments may alter currents and contribute to additional algal blooms. When these blooms die off, the organisms sink to the bottom and suck the oxygen out of the water column, suffocating shellfish, fish and other life forms.

Goni said the sediment also may bury oil pipelines and communication cables - and though they may not damage them, the layers of silt make it difficult to access and repair them.

"One of the things we're looking at with the sediment, in addition to its volume and location, is its composition," he said. "We can tell if the organic matter in the sediments is natural or if it is petroleum-based, which could indicate that some of the underwater pipes may have been damaged and are leaking."

Both the oil pipelines and communication cables are in more danger from underwater landslides that may occur as sediment is washed out into the deeper Gulf waters of the Mississippi Canyon.

Goni said it is sometimes hard for people from other regions to visualize the Gulf of Mexico, which has shallow coastal waters that "really feel the impact of storms." Goni and his colleagues estimated that Hurricane Lili dropped more sediment into those waters than the entire output of the nearby Atchafalaya River did for an entire year.

"Much of the broad shelf west of the Mississippi delta is very shallow, with water depths of five to 20 meters," Goni said. "I've been out there when there have been two-meter waves and the entire ocean turns chocolate brown. Hurricane Katrina had a six-meter surge and even larger waves. The impact on the seafloor must be immense."

Goni will join other researchers aboard the Cape Hatteras, which is the research vessel of Duke University, for a series of projects that will examine water quality, pollutants, navigation hazards, and the marine food chain, as well as the area's sediment deposits.

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Miguel Goni, 541-737-0578

OSU scientists identify, track huge 'internal' waves

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Waves the height of a 10-story building regularly propagate into the north Pacific from the mouth of the Columbia River, but you won't find big-wave surfers riding them. These waves propagate beneath the ocean surface, carrying near-surface organisms and chemicals halfway to the ocean floor.

Oregon State University scientists who identified and documented how these waves emerge from the edge of a river plume reported their findings today in the journal Nature.

For years, scientists, sailors and commercial fishers have known about these waves because they induce currents near the sea surface that cause visible surface slicks and changes in surface roughness and color. However, the prevailing school of thought was that they were caused by currents pushing deep-sea water over rugged topography of the ocean floor. And in many cases around the world, that does happen.

But on the northern Oregon coast, these waves emerge when fresh water is forced from the mouth of the Columbia River with the outgoing tide, the researchers say. Since the fresh water is also lighter, it spreads over the surface of the coastal waters; its signature can be seen over tens of miles from aircraft or satellite. The interface between the fresher, surface waters and saltier deep waters forms a wave guide upon which large-amplitude waves propagate.

"The waves form at the edge, or `front' of the freshwater river plume," said Jonathan D. Nash, an assistant professor in OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author of the Nature study. "The front is a region of convergence. It accumulates flotsam and plankton, and as it turns out, is also where wave energy can be generated and stored. The waves are released and propagate into the Pacific because they travel faster than the river's advancing freshwater front."

Some of these internal waves propagate back toward the Oregon coast where they may break as they shoal and mix with near-shore water. Scientists don't yet know all of the impacts of these waves.

"The internal displacement of water from these waves is huge," said James N. Moum, an oceanography professor at OSU and co-author of the study. "Yet, the surface expression is very subtle. Although a 20-meter internal wave may cause a tiny 2-centimeter 'bulge' on the surface, the surface slicks and whitecaps can be seen easily by pilots, showing up as long lines in the water stretching as much as 100 kilometers.

"Fishermen have long known about these waves because dolphins and birds hunt along the wave fronts where plankton and fish accumulate," Moum added. "There is tremendous force associated with these waves and the currents can reach 1-2 miles per hour. Fishing trawlers will notice the effects when the surface currents pull their boats in one direction, yet their nets are going in another."

Satellite imagery clearly shows the plumes of the Columbia River and other large rivers around the world as a major influence on the near-shore waters. But those images are generated only once every two days and fail to show the mechanisms creating these internal waves, Nash pointed out.

"In hindsight, it seems obvious that river systems like the Columbia can create them," Nash said.

Recognition of exactly how the waves are generated was made possible by new profiling instruments that measure water temperature, salinity, turbulence, biological fluorescence and sediment concentration every 1-2 minutes. These instruments were developed by a team of OSU engineers, led by Moum. Teamed with ship-mounted acoustics to track the waves' vertical displacement and velocity structure, the scientists can track water within the ocean and identify its characteristics and movement.

Nash and Moum, together with graduate student Levi Kilcher, will continue their studies by examining the importance of tide strength, river flow rates, and seasonal water temperatures and winds. Their study, funded by the National Science Foundation, is part of a larger project called River Influences in Shelf Ecosystems.

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Jonathan Nash, 541-737-4573

New system to provide better view of marine biology

CORVALLIS - Researchers at Oregon State University have created a "benthic terrain modeler," software that can be used with a geographic information system to provide a significant new way of describing the ocean sea floor and the fish and other marine species that probably live there.

Short of making dives or direct observations in submersibles, this system may allow ocean managers to develop a better understanding of the biology of large ocean areas, scientists say. It is attracting considerable interest from state and federal marine management agencies.

"This should be a fairly important advance in improving our understanding of marine habitat," said Dawn Wright, an OSU professor of geosciences. "It could be used anywhere in the world, given ocean floor data of sufficient detail, to inform studies of where certain types of fish and other species are likely to be congregating."

The system might be of value off the Oregon coast to characterize the biology and productivity of different areas, information that could be invaluable in study of the marine "reserves" being considered there. It's already being used in areas ranging from California to Ireland and American Samoa.

There's a reasonable amount of bathymetric data about ocean depth already available, Wright said. This software system takes that detail to create images of seafloor roughness, peaks, valleys and slopes, and combine that with known information about the area's marine biology obtained through dives, remote cameras or other approaches.

The result is a reasonably accurate and detailed biological description of the life that should, and usually is, found in a particular area, researchers say.

"Many nations are getting much more interested in understanding and protecting the biological diversity in their oceans," Wright said. "This is essential to sustaining fisheries, protecting against species extinction, and just understanding the ocean resource. But the oceans are so vast, and often unexplored, that we don't have good information on the biological nature of large areas."

The new system was tested this summer in studies at American Samoa, examining the marine biology on some coral reefs endangered by invasive species, human pollution and hurricanes. The projected results were tested and proven to be highly accurate by direct undersea monitoring.

The research has been supported by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. More information and a free copy are available from http://www.csc.noaa.gov/products/btm


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Dawn Wright, 541-737-1229

Zebrafish may hold key to improved cancer research

CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new study has confirmed that research done with zebrafish may be able to play a critical role in learning about the genetic basis of cancer and the mutations that can lead to it - and identified one gene in particular, B-myb, whose function is essential to preventing tumors.

The findings were published in a professional journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by researchers from Oregon State University and two Boston hospitals, the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Children's Hospital.

The research also indicates that zebrafish may be a key to faster, less expensive studies on cancer and carcinogens, as well as a tool to lower the cost for drug development, OSU experts said.

The first comprehensive cancer research studies using this small, striped tropical fish were begun at OSU over 10 years ago, and the species has become an important tool in medical research programs around the world.

"It's increasingly clear that in zebrafish we have an animal model that is inexpensive, easy to work with and extremely useful for study of human cancers," said Jan Spitsbergen, a fish pathologist in OSU's Center for Fish Disease Research. "We've now proven that most of the carcinogens that affect humans are also active in zebrafish and can lead to the same types of cancer, whether it's in the brain, blood, reproductive organs or elsewhere."

The newest finding about the gene B-myb is especially compelling, said Spitsbergen. The B-myb gene has been conserved through hundreds of millions of years of divergent evolution in species ranging from worms to fruit flies, fish and humans.

When it functions normally, B-myb appropriately regulates cell proliferation. When it becomes mutated, either through genetic predisposition or environmental influences, the formation of tumors can dramatically increase, scientists say. The gene appears to be particularly relevant to human leukemias.

OSU's fish disease research programs date back several decades, and the university first developed the rainbow trout as a useful model for cancer research. Those studies, among others, helped to determine that aflatoxin contaminants that can be found in some foods are a powerful carcinogen - and are still a major cause of liver cancer in some developing nations.

Zebrafish, however, are a fascinating species because the fish embryos are literally transparent and can be directly observed at early developmental stages better than almost any other animal species. They had been used for years in studying everything from the immune system to cardiovascular disease and skeletal development. In the mid-1990s, OSU researchers began the use of zebrafish in cancer research.

OSU scientists conducted studies on a wide variety of carcinogens and a complete histologic examination of all major organs, the first work of that type. In recent years collaboration has also been extensive with colleagues at the University of Oregon, where the federally funded Zebrafish International Resource Center archives, propagates and distributes the many mutant lines of zebrafish now developed worldwide to aid research on specific genes in development and disease.

This research has proven that the mechanism of cancer prevention in fish is remarkably similar to that of humans, including the genes involved.

"Zebrafish are now changing the face of cancer research," Spitsbergen said. "They can be managed in a laboratory almost anywhere, they reproduce quickly, lend themselves well to genetic manipulation, can efficiently test high numbers of possible drug therapies, and might tell you in three months what it would take two years to find out with other animal models."

"This low cost, efficient research should speed up drug development, save many millions of dollars and help lead to new cancer therapies."

Using zebrafish, OSU has extensively studied two groups of carcinogens, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, and nitrosamines. Both of these groups can be produced by normal living activities, ranging from preserved foods to smoking and use of wood stoves. University researchers have also been active in studies on dioxin and PCBs, both concerns in the process of carcinogenesis.

"With zebrafish as a model we should be able to better determine what types and levels of environmental carcinogens are a real health concern," Spitsbergen said. "And we should also be able to rapidly test and develop new approaches to treat cancer."

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Jan Spitsbergen, 541-737-5055

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Zebrafish are helping move cancer research forward

OSU Recognized for Coral Reef Research

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The chilly coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest are quite a distance from the closest tropical coral reef, but Oregon State University research programs on these threatened ecosystems have been recognized as among the best in both the United States and the world.

One of OSU’s scientists involved in studies of coral reef ecology, Mark Hixon, was also cited as the leading expert in the Western Hemisphere and third in the world, based on journal publications that were most often cited for their scientific significance. Overall, OSU coral reef research programs ranked sixth in the U.S. and eighth globally.

The report was just made in an analysis of the field of coral reef ecology, surveying 5,060 authors from 1,644 institutions in 103 countries over a 10-year period, made by the Thomson Institute for Science Information. The top two research institutions in this field are in Australia, home of the world’s largest coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef.

Other leading institutions in the United States include the Smithsonian Institution, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of North Carolina, University of Miami and University of Hawaii.

Research papers in coral reef ecology address such environmental issues as overfishing, global warming, human impacts, population change in reef organisms, ecological modeling and reef geology.

“Many Oregonians don’t understand the relevance of coral reefs to our state,” Hixon said. “In fact, coral reefs are the source of important medicines, and their ongoing demise is a strong warning of the effects of global warming. They are also outdoor laboratories for answering fundamental questions about sea life, such as what specifically causes the birth and death rates of marine fish to vary.”

Coral reefs, found in shallow, tropical marine waters, are renowned for their beauty and often form the basis for major tourist industries. They support an extraordinary level of biodiversity, including over 4,000 species of fish and everything from sponges to spiny lobsters and sea snakes. But threats from pollution, overfishing, ocean acidification and other environmental issues have caused serious concerns, and led to significant research, monitoring and protection initiatives.

In the past few decades, about 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs have died, and it’s estimated that an additional 40 percent are at risk.

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Mark Hixon,

For Salmon and Human Communities, “Resilience” Emerging as Key Concept

CORVALLIS, Ore. - In a world in which instability, whether driven by people or nature, seems to be increasing, “resilience” is emerging as a key concept – a desirable characteristic of both natural and human systems and communities. Scientists define resilience as the ability to tolerate or recover from disturbance.

In the Pacific Northwest, researchers who specialize in salmon have begun to examine the problem of long-term salmon persistence in the region through the lens of resilience. They say that the traditional focus on maintaining production and harvest – which has long dominated discussion of salmon – has diverted attention from the more fundamental concern about the fish’s ability to withstand disturbances and persist.

According to Dan Bottom, a salmon biologist with NOAA Fisheries and a courtesy professor at Oregon State University, “the problem with the way we've managed fisheries in the past is we've tried to force a dynamic system into a static condition that actually, in the long run, makes the system much more unstable.”

“The natural world has adapted to disturbance,” said Bottom, “so, ironically, when you try to stabilize it, for example through raising fish in a hatchery, you make it less stable.”

In the case of hatchery-raised salmon, produced to maintain a stable population size, one consequence is that many of these fish “are not capable of living outside that narrow range of tolerances” in which they were produced in the hatchery.

“Fish raised to a uniform size all released at the same time are likely to be less flexible to the vagaries of nature,” said Bottom. The drive to stabilize populations through artificial production backfires, and to the extent that hatchery production replaces natural re-seeding of salmon habitat in rivers and streams, that population of salmon becomes less resilient to natural disturbances.

“We try to manage natural resources so we can have things nice and predictable,” said Court Smith, an OSU anthropologist who has studied how communities adapt to change. “But we're now facing tremendous changes, in terms of climate, globalization, and other human impacts, so today there are a lot of very dynamic changes going on to which humans have to be really skillful in adapting, and in assisting other organisms, such as salmon, to adapt.”

The Oregon Sea Grant program at OSU has been encouraging development of the resilience concept as it provides another approach to the problem of salmon decline and restoration in the Northwest, said Robert Malouf, program director. Earlier this year, Sea Grant sponsored a conference called Pathways to Resilience that involved more than 125 salmon researchers, social scientists, managers, and policy makers.

Resilience as a goal of salmon management was described by many at the conference as an idea whose time has come. The idea has been gaining currency in both the biological and social sciences since the 1970s, but the approach seems increasingly relevant as both biological and social systems come under stress.

In his keynote address, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber supported such new thinking.

Kitzhaber observed: “Albert Einstein once said ‘You should not use an old map to explore a new world.’ And he was right, because each new generation faces a new world with new challenges--challenges that cannot be met by clinging to the past but only by imagining a different world and a different set of tools through which to build it.”

A theme sounded by many conference speakers was that the old approach to managing salmon has had the unintended effect of leaving both the fish and the human communities dependent on them less resilient.

“Traditional harvest management of salmon has focused on taking maximum yields of the dominant life-history types, while conservation has come to focus on so-called ‘critical habitats’ of those same population components,” noted Michael Healey of the University of British Columbia. “This management approach has narrowed significantly the spectrum of life history traits of salmon, and thereby reduced the resilience of salmon.”

“My definition for resilience would be survival,” said Irene Martin of Ilwaco, Wash., an adviser to the board of Salmon for All, a commercial fishing group. “How do families in an occupational group survive from one generation to the next?

“In the 1990s, when the Endangered Species Act listings of salmon on the Columbia River caused fishing seasons to be curtailed,” she noted, “some commercial fishermen invested in other permits, in Alaska – crab permits, shrimp permits, a variety of other permits. So they developed, basically, portfolios of permits in order to survive in their occupation.”

OSU anthropologist Smith said that the concept of resilience has applications far beyond salmon and fishing. “We should all be interested in resilience, because it adds a little different twist to the way we think about things. We have a human system interacting with a biocomplex system; if humans are going to survive over a long period of time, we need to be able to adapt to change and disturbance, rather than trying to make everything stable, as we have with our current policies.”

Highlights of the resilience conference, including Kitzhaber’s speech and video interviews with Bottom, Smith, Martin, Healey, and others, are now online at the Sea Grant program’s website: http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/themes/resilience/index.html


Dan Bottom,

OSU Researchers to Study Effect of Floods on Estuaries Through EPA Grant

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of Oregon State University researchers will use a $620,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the impacts of large sediment deposits on coastal estuaries during winter flood events and to document the recovery of the benthic communities.

The sediment discharge in Northwest rivers appears to be increasing, scientists say, because of an increasing number of intense precipitation events; changes in the landscape through logging, agriculture and development; the evolution of complex river systems into channels; and the drainage of tidal marshes through diking and other human influences that reduce the buffering capacity of natural systems to absorb sediment load.

The OSU researchers will study the impact of increasing sediment loads on worms, clams and small crustaceans – estuarine species that represent important prey for Dungeness crab, fish and seabirds, according to Anthony D’Andrea, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and a co-principal investigator on the study.

“This is the first step in assessing the risks to estuaries posed by extreme rain events in the region,” D’Andrea said. “Muddy, rain-swollen rivers are a signature characteristic of the Pacific Northwest, yet the impact of flood sedimentation events on benthic communities is poorly understood.”

The OSU researchers also will track the response of native and non-indigenous species to sedimentation events to see if this type of disturbance allows non-native species to gain a foothold and thrive at the expense of native species.

D’Andrea and co-principal investigator Rob Wheatcroft will stage their experiment at Netarts Bay near Tillamook because it has no river system and the organisms in the tidal flats have not previously been exposed to constant flooding.

“Studying benthic communities in established flood plains is tricky,” D’Andrea pointed out, “because the resident organisms may already be adapted to flood events and have a quicker recovery. Starting from scratch will give us better baseline data and lead to a more accurate predictive model.”

The researchers will add a layer of fine sediment from local watersheds onto study plots in Netarts Bay in December and compare them with nearby control plots. A subset of those plots will be subjected to a second simulated sedimentation event 40 or 50 days later to see if multiple events have different impacts. December and January are peak rainfall months for Tillamook County, which has seen increasing precipitation problems in recent years.

Between 1910 and 1950, the Wilson River entering Tillamook Bay experienced three total peak runoff events. Since 1960, the Wilson has seen 17 peak events, including six in the 1990s alone. Damage from these floods during a six-year period alone topped $60 million.

Likewise, major sedimentation events have been increasing in Pacific estuaries and sediment deposits of up to 12 centimeters thick have been documented.

This is one of the first major experiments looking at major sedimentation impacts on Northwest estuaries. A pioneering study in New Zealand found that many species die due to initial smothering because of sediment deposition and recovery can take many months, even years.

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Anthony D’Andrea,

Climate-change Outreach Project Funded

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon Sea Grant program at Oregon State University has been awarded special funding to help coastal communities prepare for climate change. The two-year, $290,000 grant is from the Sectoral Applications Research Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Leading the project is Joseph Cone, assistant director of Oregon Sea Grant. The project aims to develop and test a model of public outreach about climate change that may ultimately be used by all the members of the national Sea Grant network. Oregon’s project partner is Maine Sea Grant.

Outreach in the two states will be directed toward and involve public and private decision-makers such as city managers, county planners, private developers, bankers, and realtors. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews will be used to determine information needs and strategies. Advisory committees representative of the intended audiences have been formed.

Oregon and Maine have similarities and differences with respect to anticipated climate change effects and the communities and economic interests that will likely be most affected. As a result, collaboration and complementary outreach efforts between the two states are expected to yield insights about critical information needs and effective outreach strategies that may be applicable to other states.

While climate change is grabbing public attention and will be a focus of the project, shorter-term climate variability, over years and decades, is already having an impact on the physical features and habitats of coastal zones. These impacts are worsened by increased development and use of the coast, particularly in low-lying, hazard-prone areas.

Decision-makers and residents need to better understand the challenges of adapting to climate variability locally in order to lessen its effects and make their communities more resilient, Cone said.

Sea Grant Extension faculty will build upon their historic and close ties with coastal communities to lead the outreach efforts. Oregon Sea Grant Extension faculty members involved in the project include Patrick Corcoran, Michael Harte and Shawn Rowe. Nathan Mantua of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group is part of the Oregon team.

Team of Oregon Scientists to Study Harmful Algal Blooms off Coast

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of Oregon scientists has received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to begin monitoring harmful algal blooms off the coast, and responding to these events as they occur.

The five-year, $2.3 million grant will bring together researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a program they hope will better protect the public from two species of toxic algae, and reduce closures of razor clam harvests along the Oregon coast.

The group will work closely with NOAA scientists at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, as well as in Seattle and Monterey, Calif., and with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which tests for toxin levels in coastal shellfish and makes decisions on closures.

“We already have done a lot of the background science that helps us to understand the nature of these harmful algal blooms,” said Peter Strutton, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and one of the lead researchers on the project. “Now the goal is to do a full-out response when these blooms occur and to determine what triggers the toxicity in the phytoplankton.

“Ultimately,” he added, “this should allow us to more rapidly detect when these toxic events occur, and hopefully it will lead to the ability to use satellites to identify and track harmful algal blooms in general.”

Phytoplankton blooms are a normal ocean process, critical to maintaining the productive marine food web off the Pacific Northwest coast. Spring and summer winds bring up cold, deep water that is nutrient-rich to the ocean surface in a process called “upwelling.” When that water is exposed to sunlight, it creates blooms of phytoplankton. These tiny plants are a source of food for zooplankton and other marine creatures, which in turn are feasted upon by larger animals.

But certain species of phytoplankton have the ability to produce toxins that can be harmful to humans. One called Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, which bio-accumulates in the tissues of razor clams, mussels and oysters and causes a syndrome known as amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans. Another species, Alexandrium, produces saxitoxin, which can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning if ingested.

“Clams and other shellfish take in the toxins when they filter water and the toxin level can vary for a number of reasons,” said Michelle Wood, a professor of biology at the University of Oregon and a member of the research team. “Mussels lose their toxicity quickly, in a matter of days. But razor clams incorporate the toxin in their tissue and remain toxic for weeks, even when they are no longer consuming toxin-producing food.”

Razor clam closures due to these harmful toxins come with a cost. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that a domoic acid-related closure of razor clamming at Clatsop Beach alone in 2003 cost local communities an estimated $4.8 million.

“That’s probably a conservative estimate,” said Matt Hunter of ODFW, “but it illustrates the scope of the issue.” Harmful algal blooms have resulted in closures of the entire Oregon coast at times over the past few years, he added.

Of course, not all phytoplankton blooms are toxic, Strutton pointed out, and even the species that are potentially toxic don’t always produce toxins.

“We’re not sure what causes phytoplankton to suddenly become toxic,” he said. “Some scientists believe it may be stress from a lack of nutrients; it also has been suggested that the toxins bond to necessary trace elements such as iron as a way for the phytoplankton to ‘capture’ these nutrients. There has been some work on this off of Washington, which we hope to incorporate into this NOAA study.”

As part of the project, the scientists will use programmed undersea gliders to monitor ocean conditions during harmful algal blooms to determine whether temperature, salinity, chlorophyll levels, oxygen levels or other factors may contribute to toxicity. They also will study coastal currents and winds in an effort to better predict when these toxic blooms may come ashore and affect clams and other shellfish.

More information on the project is available online at: www.coas.oregonstate.edu/habs

Story By: 

Pete Strutton,