marine science and the coast

Scientists’ study of Antarctic seals may lead to insights on aging

NEWPORT, Ore. – A team of scientists has just returned from McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, where they have been analyzing the diving and oxygen-carrying capacity of aging Weddell seals in a study that may shed new light on aging and possible protective mechanisms.

The study is unusual because its focus is on older animals and how they retain their ability to hunt for food and reproduce despite a lifetime of seemingly debilitating physical exertion.

“Weddell seals have well-known compensatory mechanisms that allow them to routinely swim underwater while holding their breaths for 30 minutes to an hour,” said Markus Horning, a researcher with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University and principal investigator on the study. “Such diving behavior is likely to result in periodic hypoxia – or low levels of oxygen – in some tissues, especially swimming muscles.

“When a mammal’s system is suddenly re-oxygenated after hypoxia, it is likely to create high levels of reactive oxygen species that are implicated in aging and can cause damage to cells, as happens to mountain climbers and other extreme athletes,” Horning added.

Since diving animals routinely experience reoxygenation when breathing at the surface following a dive, the researchers expected to find that Weddell seals would exhibit fairly rapid aging. But few such signs appeared.

“Older seals appear to be diving quite well and have no trouble feeding or reproducing,” Horning said. “Their only apparent sign of aging was some wear and tear on their teeth. If aging occurs, then it will happen at the level of organs and tissues, while the whole organism still remains quite functional.”

Horning said these findings suggest that Weddell seals have a compensatory or protective mechanism – either physiological or behavioral – that reduces the impact of possible oxidative stress.

This was the first of two field seasons for the researchers in the study, funded by the National Science Foundation. Horning, who also is an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU, worked with co-principal investigator Jo-Ann Mellish, from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

McMurdo Sound Weddell seals are an ideal species for this aging study, Horning says, because almost all of them have been tagged, documented and identified as individuals by researchers since the 1970s and the ages of those individuals are well-established. An added benefit is that this particular group of seals rarely strays beyond the sound, sealed in by the sea ice, creating a natural laboratory.

During the recent December 2006 field study, the researchers collected small blood and muscle samples from seals. They also applied recording devices to the seals’ fur to monitor their diving depth, swimming speed and flipper movement, while also recording electro-cardiograms (EKGs). They were able to determine how long these large seals – which weigh 500 to 1,300 pounds – would maintain their dives, how frequently they summoned up bursts of energy, and what their recovery rate was from an exerting dive.

What they discovered was a fascinating physiological response by the seals. When diving, the animals reduced the flow of blood to many of their organs including their skin, liver and kidneys, while keeping their hearts, brains and swimming muscles supplied with blood and oxygen. They reduced their heart rate from about 100 beats per minute down to 40 beats – and sometimes as low as five per minute – to adjust blood output from the heart to this reduced circuit.

“This ability demonstrates the remarkable capacity of seals to manipulate their physiology and metabolism, and to adjust to extreme circumstances,” Horning said. “One of our next steps is to compare how older animals adapt their blood flow and heart rate and compare it to younger animals. That may be one area where the older seals may exhibit compensatory mechanism to reduce the impact of reduced muscle performance.”

The scientists theorize that the seals’ compensatory process could come in a couple of different ways. One possibility is that their “plasticity,” or range of physical behavior, is so wide that efficient dives fit within their physical abilities – even with declining muscle performance at an advanced age. Or they could have highly active anti-oxidant enzymes, or “scavenging systems,” that remove the reactive oxygen species as they form, reducing oxidative stress and slowing the decline in muscle performance.

“It’s also possible there is a combination of both ideas,” Horning said. “They may have a wide behavioral plasticity and physiological protective mechanisms to reduce the damage.”

If the seals do have enzyme-powered scavenging systems that help them compensate, it could have implications for understanding how humans might deal with oxidative stress and related aging.

Horning says the study should also help researchers fine-tune population models for different marine mammal species in addition to Weddell seals. Many of the current models, he says, may not accurately reflect the continuing role of aging adults.

“A lot of these seals are 25 to 30 years old,” Horning said, “and they are still actively hunting for food and reproducing and showing little negative effect.”

Story By: 

Markus Horning,

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Markus Horning (left) checks the gums of a Weddell seal as part of a National Science Foundation-funded study on aging, while other researchers draw blood samples and prepare for other tests. The seal recovered rapidly and was released. (photo courtesy of Oregon State University)

Part of the research team leaves a Weddell seal to recover and focuses on removing equipment and other gear before the ice melts. (photo by Markus Horning, OSU)

Markus Horning
Markus Horning

Public Forums on Marine Reserves Set in Eight Coastal Communities

CORVALLIS, OR. – A series of “listening and learning” forums in eight communities up and down the Oregon coast this month will seek to gather a wide range of interests and viewpoints surrounding the issue of marine reserves.

The forums, starting in North Bend on Feb. 18, are being organized by Oregon Sea Grant, a marine research and outreach program based at Oregon State University, at the request of the state's Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC).

As defined by OPAC, marine reserves are areas of the ocean closed to fishing and other extractive activities "in order to conserve marine habitats and biodiversity to provide reference areas for research and monitoring." Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has asked OPAC to come up with a set of recommendations for establishing fewer “than 10 marine reserves – large enough for scientific testing but small enough to avoid economic or social impacts such as the loss of significant fishing opportunities.”

OPAC members asked Sea Grant to conduct the community outreach process because of the program's 40-year history of engaging with coastal communities on issues as wide-ranging as fisheries management, coastal hazards and regional research planning.

The forums are intended to engage coastal communities and ocean users, share scientific and local knowledge, and show people how they can continue to be involved in the process of nominating potential sites for marine reserves.

Forums will be moderated by Ginny Goblirsch, a long-time Sea Grant Extension agent with both professional and personal background in the fishing community. Goblirsch, who lives in Newport, was brought out of retirement to coordinate the outreach effort.

Scientific background on marine reserves will be presented by Patty Burke, marine resources manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Selina Heppell, a faculty researcher with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Participants will hear “what and why” background about marine reserves, receive copies of material OPAC intends to use to make its recommendations, and meet others with whom they may continue working on the issue after the forums.

Targeted participants include:

• Commercial, charter, and recreational fishermen;

• Seafood industry and fishing support services;

• Port commissioners and managers;

• Community conservation leaders;

• Coastal recreation interests;

• Local government and staff;

• The public at large.

Those planning to attend the two-hour forums are encouraged to prepare in advance by visiting http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/outreach/reserves.html and reading the background documents provided there by OPAC. Print versions of the documents will also be available at the offices of local ports.

To ensure that their knowledge, ideas and perspectives are considered in the decision-making process, participants are also urged to bring written comments to turn in at the forums.

All forums will take place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the following dates and places:

• Feb. 18: North Bend Community Center, 2222 Broadway, North Bend

• Feb. 20: Garibaldi City Hall, 107 6th St., Garibaldi

• Feb. 21: Newport City Hall, 169 SW Coast Hwy, Newport

• Feb. 22: Florence Events Center, 715 Quince St., Florence

• Feb. 26: Port of Umpqua, 364 N 4th St., Reedsport

• Feb. 27: Chetco Grange Community Center, 97895 Shopping Center Ave, Harbor

• Feb. 28: Port Orford City Hall, 555 W 20th, Port Orford

• Feb. 29: Warrenton Community Center, 170 SW 3rd St, Warrenton

Residents of surrounding communities are encouraged to attend the forum nearest to them.

Sea Grant is under a mid-March OPAC deadline to conduct these and other listening and engagement activities and deliver an interim outreach report to the Kulongoski, OPAC, and state agencies involved in the marine reserves process. One possible outcome could be the formation of local nearshore working groups to further study the issue and, if they choose, nominate areas in their regions as potential marine reserves.

For more information, contact Ginny Goblirsch at 541-737-8002, or by e-mail to marinereserves@oregonstate.edu

Story By: 

Ginny Goblirsch,

Low-Oxygen Events Unprecedented, Disrupt Ocean Ecosystem

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A review of all available ocean data records concludes that the low-oxygen events that have plagued the Pacific Northwest coast since 2002 are unprecedented in the five decades prior to that, and may well be linked to the stronger, persistent winds that are expected to occur with global warming.

In a new study to be published Friday in the journal Science, researchers from Oregon State University outline a “potential for rapid reorganization” in basic marine ecosystems and the climatic forces that drive them – and suggest that these low-oxygen, or “hypoxic” events are now more likely to be the rule rather than the exception.

“In this part of the marine environment, we may have crossed a tipping point,” said Jane Lubchenco, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at OSU, and the lead scientist for PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans.

“Levels of oxygen in the summertime have suddenly become much lower than levels in the previous 50 years,” Lubchenco said. “And 2006 broke all records, with parts of the shallow shelf actually becoming anoxic, meaning that they lacked oxygen altogether. We’ve never seen that before.”

The rapid and disturbing shift of ocean conditions in what has traditionally been one of the world’s more productive marine areas – what’s called the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem – has garnered much attention in recent years, also raising questions about whether it has happened before, and what is causing it.

“People keep asking us, ‘Is this situation really all that different or not?’” Lubchenco said. “Now we have the answer to that question, and it’s an unequivocal ‘yes.’ The low oxygen levels we’ve measured in the last six years are abnormally low for our system. We haven’t seen conditions like this in many, many decades, and now with varying intensity we’ve seen them in each of the last six summers.”

In these events, water oxygen levels have repeatedly reached hypoxic levels, below which most marine animals suffocate or are severely stressed if they cannot escape the area. If oxygen levels drop to zero, most animals die. The massive 2006 event covered at least 3,000 square kilometers, lasted for four months, and occupied up to 80 percent of the water column in shallow shelf areas, the report said. Fish either died or fled these areas, thousands of crabs died, and marine seafloor life that could not move faced almost total mortality. Recovery has been slow.

It’s less certain why this is happening, but the events are completely consistent with global climate change, the OSU researchers say.

“There have always been unusual weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and changes in wind patterns,” said Jack Barth, an OSU professor of physical oceanography and a lead scientist with PISCO. “So it’s difficult to prove that any one event is caused by global warming. Having said that, we expect global warming to generally cause stronger and more persistent winds. These winds contribute to the hypoxic events by increasing plankton production and holding low-oxygen water on the continental shelf for longer periods.

“At this point,” Barth added, “I’d be surprised if this trend towards hypoxic events didn’t continue.”

Francis Chan, a marine ecologist with OSU and PISCO, conducted a survey of all known records of oxygen levels on the Oregon continental shelf over the last 60 years, with measurements taken by research cruises and ocean-going vessels from more than 3,000 stations.

“The data make it pretty clear that the recent conditions are unprecedented during any period that has been measured,” Chan said. “We’re now seeing very low-oxygen water, lasting for long periods, and closer to shore than at any time in more than 50 years.”

That long period of time included several El Nino and La Nina events, possible suspects in any change of Pacific Ocean conditions, and also shifts in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, another player in near-term climate trends. None of those appeared to have any correlation to the hypoxic events.

Hypoxic conditions in ocean waters – often popularly called “dead zones” – are usually associated with serious nitrate loads or other nutrient pollution, such as in the Gulf of Mexico or Chesapeake Bay. Pollution-caused hypoxic zones are found with much less frequency in regions where significant upwelling occurs – a process that is usually beneficial to productive marine food webs.

“Coastal upwelling ecosystems occupy only about 1 percent of the ocean surface area, but they produce about 20 percent of global fishery production,” Lubchenco said. “These areas have historically been highly productive. The appearance or increase in severity of hypoxia in these ecosystems would be cause for concern.”

Some other areas of the world bear more similarity to the recent situation off the Pacific Northwest, such as the Benguela Current off South Africa and Humboldt Current off Chile. They historically have had hypoxic conditions before – which may be getting worse.

“The Namibian system in the past decade seems to be seeing lower oxygen levels and more frequent hypoxic events than it had previously,” Barth said. “Historically it has even more extreme upwelling than we have in the Pacific Northwest, and more frequent marine life die-offs.”

A concern, researchers say, is whether that system is a harbinger of the future for the Pacific Northwest.

Editor’s Note: Digital photographs to illustrate this story can be obtained at the PISCO web site at http://www.piscoweb.org/outreach/topics/hypoxia.


Story By: 

Francis Chan,

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AAAS Panel: Climate Change Creating Major Impacts on World’s Oceans

BOSTON, Mass. – Climate change is rapidly transforming the world’s oceans by increasing the temperature and acidity of seawater, and altering atmospheric and oceanic circulation, reported a panel of scientists this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston.

“The vastness of our oceans may have engendered a sense of complacency about potential impacts from global climate change,” said Jane Lubchenco, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Chair of Marine Biology at Oregon State University, who moderated the panel. “The world’s oceans are undergoing profound physical, chemical and biological changes whose impacts are just beginning to be felt.”

Panelist Gretchen Hofmann, a molecular physiologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes the situation as “multiple jeopardy.”

“Ocean ecosystems are facing new stresses and new combinations of stress,” Hofmann said. “The water is warmer, circulation patterns are changing in unpredictable ways, and oceans are becoming acidic.”

Rising greenhouse gas emissions are warming the world’s oceans and providing yet a new threat to coral reefs, which already are among the most threatened of all marine ecosystems, the panelists say. Even modest warming of a degree or two above normal maximum temperatures can cause a breakdown in the relationship between corals and their symbiotic algae, zooxanthellae, said Nancy Knowlton, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian Institution.

Without zooxanthellae corals appear white, or “bleached,” and grow more slowly. They also are more susceptible to disease and may not reproduce. In 1998 there were worldwide mass bleaching events, Knowlton pointed out, affecting 80 percent of the corals in the Indian Ocean, 20 percent of which died. In 2005, severe bleaching occurred over much of the Caribbean as a result of overly warm water temperatures.

“We have already lost some 80 percent of the reef corals in the Caribbean over the last three decades, and losses in the Pacific Ocean also are widespread and severe,” Knowlton said. “Reefs are like cities, with some parts growing and some parts being destroyed, and only when net growth is positive can reefs persist. These reefs already are under threat to overfishing and local pollution and unless drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is taken soon, these reefs will cease to exist as we know them.”

These same greenhouse gas emissions also are creating dramatic buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is rapidly making the world’s oceans more acidic, said panelist Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Current CO2 levels of 380 parts per million already are 30 percent higher than pre-industrial values and many scientific models predict that those rates will triple by the end of the century under “business as usual” scenarios.

While much of the scientific attention on ocean acidification has looked at the impact of coral reefs, the potential danger to other marine ecosystems is equally severe, Doney said.

“Ocean acidification harms plants and animals that form shells from calcium carbonate,” he said. “Calcifying organisms include not just corals, but many plankton, pteropods (marine snails), clams and oysters, and lobsters. Many of these organisms provide critical food sources or habitats for other organisms and the impact of acidification on food webs and higher trophic levels is not well understood.

“Newly emerging evidence suggests that larval and juvenile fish may also be susceptible to changes in ocean pH levels,” Doney added. “Ocean acidification is rapidly becoming a real problem.”

Michael Behrenfeld, an oceanographer from Oregon State University, is studying relationships between climate and the global activity of ocean plants called phytoplankton.

“Phytoplankton are of tremendous human importance because their photosynthesis yields oxygen for us to breathe and they are the base of the ocean food webs that support our global fisheries,” Behrenfeld said. “Using NASA satellites, we can track changes in phytoplankton on a global basis and what we find is that warming ocean temperatures are linked to decreasing photosynthesis. Satellites are one of the most important tools we have for understanding the link between climate and ocean biology because they provide measurements of the whole planet on a daily basis, which could never be accomplished by ship.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “it is at this very time when we need satellites most that we are facing the end of NASA ocean biology satellites because of budget cutbacks or new priorities. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

“Instead of facing the end of these critical missions and becoming blind to the changes occurring in our oceans,” Behrenfeld said, “we should be building even better ones to see more clearly than we have in the past, and to gauge the potential consequences of climate change on ocean productivity.”

The panelists also called for greater investment in ocean observing systems that would allow scientists to better measure changing in the ocean ecosystem, including large-scale circulation and coastal upwelling systems around the world. Klaus Keller of Penn State University reported on the economic costs and benefits of effective ocean observing systems to detect changes in the north Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.

Jack Barth, an oceanographer at Oregon State University, reported on the hypoxia events that have plagued the Pacific Northwest coast since 2000. These low-oxygen zones in the near-shore are unprecedented over the last five decades of scientific observation and likely linked to stronger, more persistent winds that are expected to occur with global warming. The California Current System provides a case study for similar changes in coastal upwelling zones off South America, southern Africa and northern Africa, Barth said.

“One of the things we’ve observed is how wind patterns have changed and greatly affected upwelling,” Barth said. “Two decades ago, the winds would last for three or four days, and then subside. Now they persist for 20 to 40 days before settling down. This creates significant impacts on upwelling and biological productivity, but these impacts can swing wildly from one extreme to another and have been difficult to predict.”

The AAAS symposium was organized by the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, a multi-university research effort headquartered at Oregon State University and funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Science Foundation and other sources.

Story By: 

Jane Lubchenco,

Interviews Set for Sea Grant Director Candidates

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Marine researchers and other interested parties are invited to sit in on public presentations by four finalists for the position of Oregon Sea Grant director at Oregon State University between now and early April.

Finalists were drawn from a nationwide search for a successor to Robert Malouf, who is retiring after nearly 17 years at the helm of the OSU-based marine research, outreach and education program.

Each of the four candidates will spend two days in interviews and public presentations. On the first day, each will give a presentation to discuss his or her five-year vision for Sea Grant. The presentations, including question-and-answer sessions, will take place the OSU campus in Corvallis, and transmitted via polycom to the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

On the second day of their visits, the candidates will travel to the HMSC for technical presentations. The HMSC seminars will be transmitted to the campus. Both presentations will be recorded.

In addition, each candidate will take part in an open forum at each location to meet people and take questions. All sessions are open to university students, faculty and staff and other interested parties.

The candidates, and their schedules, are:

Michael Harte, a professor in the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU, director of the college's Marine Resource Management Program and an Oregon Sea Grant Extension specialist since 2005.

* Vision Presentation - Monday, Feb. 25, 3 p.m., Burt Hall 193, OSU

* HMSC Open Forum - Tuesday, Feb 26, 1:30 - 3 p.m., Guin Library Seminar Room, HMSC

* Technical Presentation - Tuesday, Feb. 26, 3:30 p.m., Guin Library Seminar Room, HMSC

* OSU Open Forum - Wednesday, Feb 27, 9:30 - 11:30 a.m., Memorial Union 208, OSU

James Berkson, associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences at Virginia Tech, and program leader for the Recruiting, Training and Research Unit at Virginia Tech, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service.

* Vision Presentation - Monday, March 3, 3:30 p.m., Burt Hall 193, OSU

* HMSC Open Forum - Tuesday, March 4, 1:30 - 3:00 p.m., Guin Library Seminar Room, HMSC

* Technical Presentation - Tuesday, March 4, 3:30 p.m., Guin Library Seminar Room, HMSC

* OSU Open Forum - Wednesday, March 5, 9:30 - 11:30 a.m., Memorial Union 208, OSU

Stephen Brandt, director of the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich. He holds adjunct professorships at the School of Natural Resources and in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Michigan.

* Vision Presentation - Monday, March 17, 3:30 p.m., Burt Hall 193, OSU

* HMSC Open Forum - Tuesday, March 18, 1:30 - 3:00 p.m., Guin Library Seminar Room, HMSC

* Technical Presentation - Tuesday, March 18, 3:30 p.m., Guin Library Seminar Room, HMSC

* OSU Open Forum - Wednesday, March 19, 9:30 - 11:30 a.m., Memorial Union 208, OSU

Patricia Burke, manager of the Marine Resources Program for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife since 2002 and ODFW representative on the Oregon Ocean Policy Advisory Council in the Governor’s marine cabinet.

* Vision Presentation - Wednesday, April 2, 3:30 p.m., Burt Hall 193, OSU

* Open Forum - Thursday, April 3, 9 - 10:30 a.m., Guin Library Seminar Room, HMSC

* Technical Presentation - Thursday, April 3, 11 a.m. Guin Library Seminar Room, HMSC

* Open Forum - Friday, April 4, 1 - 2:30 p.m., JPLC Journey Room Memorial Union, OSU

Questions about the candidate selection process may be directed to Rich Holdren

Now in its 40th year, Oregon Sea Grant is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Sea Grant College Program. Oregon Sea Grant distributes more than $2 million biennially in NOAA research funds to Oregon scientists and conducts marine outreach via a network of Sea Grant Extension specialists, on campus and in communities along the Oregon coast.

For more information see http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu.

Story By: 

Rich Holdren,

“Reaching Higher Ground”: Tsunami preparedness videos online

CORVALLIS, Ore. – What would it look like if a 35-foot tsunami smacked Seaside? And how can research and public education help the city and its residents prepare?

These questions are addressed in two new short videos produced by the Oregon Sea Grant program at Oregon State University. The videos are available online at http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/video/

Sea Grant is funding a research project at OSU’s Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, where scientists repeatedly send miniature tsunamis crashing into a scale model of Seaside. The project is led by Dan Cox, director of the Hinsdale lab and professor in OSU’s College of Engineering.

But equally important to Sea Grant is engaging the Seaside community with tsunami preparedness information. While Cox hosted wave lab visits with city officials and emergency response teams, education efforts for Seaside’s citizens were led by Sea Grant’s coastal hazards Extension specialist, Patrick Corcoran.

The work of Cox and Corcoran is highlighted in the videos. The feature video, “Reaching Higher Ground,” describes Seaside’s vulnerability in context of similar earthquake and tsunami events such as those in 1964 in Alaska, and in 2004 in Sumatra.

All three of these regions are located in geologic subduction zones, making them especially vulnerable to tsunami wave damage. An earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone, west of the Oregon coast, is capable of sending that 35-foot wall of water rushing toward Seaside and other cities along the coast.

“Reaching Higher Ground” runs 14 minutes and features interviews with scientists, engineers, tsunami preparedness educators, and coastal residents.  In a second, shorter video, “The 3 Things You Need to Know,” Extension specialist Corcoran offers succinct preparedness steps to take as well as strategies for surviving tsunamis.

Oregon Sea Grant, founded in 1968 and based at OSU, supports research, education, and public outreach to help people understand, responsibly use, and conserve ocean and coastal resources.



Patrick Corcoran, 503-325-8573

Public Forum Thursday in Newport to Address Ocean Observation

NEWPORT, Ore. – The importance of ocean observation systems for the central Oregon coast and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest is the focus of a public forum on Thursday, March 13, by researchers from Oregon State University.

The forum, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 7 p.m. in the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Visitor Center.

Jack Barth, Bob Collier and other researchers from OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences will describe the university’s leadership in a new national Ocean Observatories Initiative. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the initiative would create a Pacific Northwest coastal observatory, led by OSU, which would include a series of permanent moorings off the coast, as well as a network of undersea gliders that can be programmed to patrol near-shore waters and collect a variety of important data.

These ocean observing systems are being developed globally to improve weather forecasts, monitor climate change, understand marine resource dynamics and restore healthy ecosystems, promote maritime safety, reduce public health risks, and enable sustained use of ocean and coastal resources, according to Ken Hall, program manager for the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Thursday’s forum is co-sponsored by the Port of Newport and the Yaquina Bay Economic Foundation, a non-profit local community economic development group. Hall said both groups have signaled support for Newport being able to deliver a host of public and private services in support of ocean observing activities in the Pacific Northwest.

"Yaquina Bay is a natural site for these activities," said George Boehlert, director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center. "It has a natural geographic advantage for access to the ocean; the scientific expertise of OSU, the Hatfield Center, and the state and federal agencies in Newport; and public support for development of enhanced port infrastructure.

“Newport's fishing industry cooperates with scientific efforts and makes very good use of the data that will come from ocean observation," he added.

For further information the public forum, contact the Hatfield Marine Science Center at 541-867-0212.


Story By: 

Ken Hall,

Unexpected Nutrient Found Key to Ocean Function

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered what could be a new, limiting nutrient in the world's oceans.

In a publication today in the journal Nature, they report that chemically "reduced" sulfur is a nutrient requirement for SAR11, the smallest free-living cell known and probably the most abundant organism in the seas.

This may be another important step forward in understanding all the factors related to phytoplankton production – what has been called the "Holy Grail" of marine ecology, since phytoplankton are the base of the marine food chain.

If reduced sulfur is sometimes in short enough supply, it could limit growth of SAR11 and any other organism with the same unusual requirement, the scientists said. These results raise the possibility that sulfur may turn out to be as important to some organisms as nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron are already known to be for most marine organisms.

The findings may have implications for everything from understanding ocean ecology to bacterial genetics and global climate function.

SAR 11 was first discovered by OSU researchers in 1990. There is great interest in understanding how this obscure bacteria works, because it dominates microbial life in the oceans and plays a major role in the cycling of carbon on Earth. Although these bacteria may have been thriving for a billion years or more, they have the smallest genetic structure of any independent cell.

That small genetic structure, in fact, may be why SAR 11 has to “borrow” its reduced sulfur as a waste product from other nearby microorganisms.

“This appears to be part of the genomic streamlining that has made SAR 11 such an evolutionary success,” said Steve Giovannoni, a professor of microbiology at OSU. “It’s a very simple, lean machine, and by using sulfur produced by other sources it doesn’t have to expend the energy to reduce this nutrient itself. It may have traded independent function for simplicity and energy efficiency.”

Sulfur in various sulphate chemical combinations is abundant in the oceans. Virtually all other marine life forms, the researchers said, have the genetic and biological capability of “reducing” it to the chemical form they need as a nutrient. SAR 11 can’t do that. Unless something else produces the sulfur in the form it needs, it dies.

“SAR 11 has a very small genome, and some genes that we routinely find in almost every other life form simply aren’t there,” said James Tripp, a research associate at OSU and author of this study. “It had been thought that this gene which reduces sulfur was pretty much universal, but when we looked for it in SAR 11, we couldn’t find it.”

There are no other aerobic organisms known that have this genomic structure, the scientists said.

“This is just really, really unusual,” Giovannoni said. “It also raises the question of what other bacteria and phytoplankton have unsuspected nutrient requirements that we know nothing about.”

The findings are of more than academic interest, researchers say. Even though the basic mechanisms of phytoplankton production in the ocean are known, it’s not really clear what all the factors are that control the process. But that process is essential to marine life, a breathable atmosphere and global climate.

Oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere is largely created and maintained by photosynthesis, in which plants convert sunlight into biological energy through a process that requires chlorophyll. In the oceans, SAR 11 is a partner in this process. It recycles organic carbon, and produces the nutrients needed for the algae that produce about half of the oxygen that enters Earth's atmosphere every day.

The function of SAR 11 may also affect climate in more specific ways. One of the major sources of sulfur used by phytoplankton is referred to as DMSP – it’s the compound that puts the “ocean smell” in salt air, and it’s important in climate models since it helps form clouds that ultimately cause rain. If SAR 11 were not using much of this sulfur compound, it conceivably could have a major effect on cloud formation and ultimately global climate.

“There’s a lot we still need to learn about the basic functions of marine ecology, because they can affect so many other things,” Giovannoni said. “We certainly did not expect sulfur to be so important in this situation. When we look more, there will probably be more surprises.”

This work was supported by grants from the Marine Microbiology Initiative of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.


Story By: 

Steve Giovannoni,

Sea Grant to Deliver Marine Reserves Comments to State Advisors

CORVALLIS, Ore. - A fast-track “listening and learning” process that drew nearly 800 people to meetings on Oregon's coast has produced more than 1,700 separate comments on the question of establishing marine reserves in the state's territorial waters.

The comments are due for delivery next week to the state's Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC), which will use them to help formulate recommendations for addressing Gov. Ted Kulongoski's goal of creating a limited number of marine reserves – areas of the near-shore sea where fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited - off the Oregon coast.

Oregon Sea Grant, a marine research and outreach program based at Oregon State University (OSU), was asked by OPAC to come up with an objective process for presenting information about marine reserves to, and collecting comments from, coastal residents, businesses and interest groups to aid in the council's policy development. The OSU program was given just six weeks to complete the task.

“They came to us because we've done this kind of thing before,” said Flaxen Conway, Sea Grant Extension community outreach specialist who has spent most of her career working with fishing and timber communities on issues related to changing natural-resource economies. The program has a 40-year record of bringing objective methods and processes to discussions of sometimes controversial public policy concerning the ocean and coast.

Conway helped design the outreach effort conducted by Ginny Goblirsch, a veteran Sea Grant Extension agent who was brought out of retirement to help with the project, and Jeff Feldner, Sea Grant Extension fisheries and seafood technology educator. Assisting with technical presentations were Patty Burke, Marine Resources Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Selena Heppell, an associate professor with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Within days after Sea Grant agreed to handle the OPAC outreach effort, Goblirsch and Feldner were traveling up and down the coast talking with “all different types of people” - local government leaders, fishermen, conservationists – to come up with strategies for getting the public involved in a process with such short lead time.

"We asked local people to help us plan the forums so that local expectations could be met," said Goblirsch. "The main concern was that people wanted to know more about the (marine reserves) process, and they needed to feel confident that their views and suggestions would be incorporated into it. People wanted to be heard."

To ensure that all perspectives and interests got a fair shake, the Sea Grant team designed a strict protocol for the way the meetings would be conducted, and how information would be gathered.

“You design meetings based on what you want to get out of them,” said Conway. “I think some people came to ours expecting to be able to stand up to a microphone and speak their minds. The problem with that approach is that those who speak the longest and loudest get heard, but a lot of people won't even pick up the mic. We wanted to make sure everyone's voice got heard, and all their comments were collected and given equal weight.”

To do that, the organizers developed five questions that would be asked in each of eight community meetings:

    What community impacts (cultural, social and economic) should be considered when proposing a marine reserve?
    How can marine reserves benefit, not disrupt, existing economic and recreational uses of the ocean?
    What do communities need in order to be adequately involved in providing recommendations to OPAC for marine reserves?
    One of the reasons cited for establishing marine reserves is the need to create areas of refuge so we can learn more about our nearshore resources including fish stocks and habitat.
    What types of research are needed to better protect and manage our nearshore?
    Are there specific attributes (unique circumstances, places, things) about this region's section of the coast (shore to three miles) that would work or not work for siting a marine reserve?

The questions were posed in February to the 755 people who turned out for meetings in North Bend, Garibaldi, Newport, Florence, Reedsport, Harbor, Port Orford and Warrenton. At each meeting, participants got a short briefing on the history and science of marine reserves – what they are and why they're being considered in Oregon. They were given information about how they could stay involved and informed during the state's decision-making process. They spent the rest of the meetings writing down responses to the five questions, plus general comments on the subject.

In all, the team got back 1,689 comment cards; some people also handed in prepared comments they'd brought to the meetings, and still more arrived by e-mail. The formal comment period ended on March 14.

Back on campus, a group of students was brought on board in early March to enter all comments, in their entirety, into a database that will become part of the outreach report to OPAC.

“We've got the comments organized by question and by place,” Conway said. “That will help give the council a sense of both the similarities and differences of opinion in different communities ... Beyond that, and some thematic grouping, we're not doing a lot of analysis or summarizing. That's not our job – the idea isn't for us to do the analysis, it's to get this information to OPAC and have them go through it in detail and use it to make their decisions.”

Sea Grant is due to deliver the outreach report at the March 27 and 28 OPAC meetings in Newport. The full text of the report, including all public comments, is expected to be made publicly available on the Sea Grant web site by Tuesday, March 25, when OPAC is scheduled to meet. More information can be found on Sea Grant's marine reserves outreach page at seagrant.oregonstate.edu/outreach/reserves.html, and on the official state marine reserves site at www.oregonmarinereserves.net.


Story By: 

Flaxen Conway,

Marine Protection Initiatives Attracting Broad National Support

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Experts say in a new federal report that progress is being made nationally in the move towards a system of marine protected areas, diverse stakeholders are involved in a positive dialogue, and an era of integrated marine protection is possible for sustaining fisheries and conserving the cultural and natural heritage of America’s oceans.

Even as some parts of the country – especially Oregon – are facing contentious debates about the need or plans for marine reserves, other parts of the U.S. are moving ahead more steadily with this approach, said Mark Hixon, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and chair of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee.

The committee last month released a compilation of its recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the Interior, Hixon said, with encouraging findings about the developing process for organizing the nation’s marine protected areas into an effective, integrated system.

“This national committee is composed of 30 stakeholders from across the nation, including representatives of groups with vastly different world views,” Hixon said.

“We include commercial and recreational fishermen, social and natural scientists, environmental advocates, state and tribal representatives, and ocean industry people such as oil and recreation experts,” he said. “What’s most important is that, on a federal level, we’re listening to and learning from each other, and are making real progress reaching consensus.”

Among the general conclusions of the report:

    Marine protected areas are fundamental tools for ecosystem-based management, an integrated approach to managing marine resources from the perspective of the entire ocean system, including humans.
    The highest priorities for protection include critical habitat of threatened and endangered species, reproduction and nursery areas of marine species, and cultural and historic resources listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
    Effective leadership will be needed from both the top and bottom to achieve the political will and funding that will be necessary for success.
    Any effective program must have widespread participation and mechanisms to ensure compliance, as well as public education and workable incentives for cooperation.
    The federal government should provide the funding and incentives to help move this process forward, and consider such initiatives as tax breaks or new job training for those who are affected by marine protected areas.

Nationally, Hixon said, there are about 1,600 marine areas that have been identified with some type of geographically specific restriction or regulation. This year, the federal government will identify which of these sites truly qualify as “marine protected areas,” and those sites will be invited to join the national system.

“The seemingly large number of ocean areas with some degree of protection sounds more impressive than it is,” Hixon said. “In reality we have a very loose collection of sites, many with practically no protection or regulations, and very little coordination to accomplish the broader goals of ecosystem-based management.”

However, participants in the federal advisory committee agree that an immediate challenge is to take these existing protected areas and develop ways to integrate them into a more effective network, Hixon said. After that, new additions to the system will be considered, he said.

The group outlined a process for determining which marine protected sites will be most appropriate for the initial national system. They also specified what should be in a workable management plan for marine protected areas; suggested some ways incentives for cooperation might be structured; and reviewed the ecological, social and economic benefits and costs that might be expected.

Hixon believes that intact and resilient ecosystems provided by marine protected areas are the best safeguard against the vagaries of global climate change.

Some states are moving ahead with the concept more quickly than others, Hixon said. California is already establishing a statewide network of marine reserves, Washington has reserves in Puget Sound plus the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and Alaska and Hawaii, along with the East and Gulf Coasts, have a variety of marine protected areas.

According to Hixon, Oregon is lagging the field. Even though it has a comparatively large ocean coastal area and some of the nation’s most important fisheries, it has a single marine reserve in state waters, about one-half square mile at Whale Cove, near Newport. Informal initiatives since the 1980s, and now formal state processes towards establishing marine reserves off Oregon, have remained highly contentious, Hixon said.

“People all over the country are seeing that marine protected areas are a functional tool to help address the multiple, ongoing, and potential threats facing the future of our ocean resources,” Hixon said.

“In some places, there’s still very strong resistance to closing any part of the ocean, for any reason,” he said. “That’s something we just have to work through, using fair and broadly participatory processes that have been successful elsewhere in the country.”

Story By: 

Mark Hixon,