OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

New study finds major differences in motions of volcanic “hotspots”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The movement of tectonic plates over a volcanic hotspot typically results in a narrow chain of seamounts, such as the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Trail. This hotspot trail is fed by a deep-mantle plume, which scientists believe drifted 15 degrees southward over millions of years because of a Pacific Ocean-wide “mantle wind.”

But a new study that analyzes the Louisville hotspot in the southern Pacific Ocean found very little drift of its mantle plume, suggesting it is moving independently of its Hawaiian counterpart, and not as part of a large-scale mantle wind.

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation through the International Ocean Drilling Program, were published today in Nature Geoscience.

“This is only the second major hotspot system that has been fully analyzed and it finally gives us something to compare to the Hawaiian hotspot,” said Anthony Koppers, an Oregon State University marine geologist and lead author on the study. “It appears that there is no global mantle wind, which means the whole of the Pacific mantle doesn’t move in a synchronous way.”

“The Earth is a unique planet because of its plate tectonics and there is much we still do not understand about the dynamic processes happening in its deep interior,” added Koppers, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “We’re just starting to document how some of these major volcanic chains formed, and how their mantle sources moved over geological time.”

In 2003, a study by Robert Duncan of OSU and John Tarduno of the University of Rochester concluded that the Hawaiian Islands had drifted 1,600 to 1,800 kilometers from north to south – in a direction and at a speed that wasn’t consistent with the movement of the tectonic plate. Most of the drift occurred 50 million to 80 million years ago. They attributed it to the mantle wind or the influence of a nearby mid-ocean spreading center that can capture a plume and divert it from its track.

It has taken nearly a decade for scientists to analyze a second volcanic hotspot, Koppers said, because the logistics of such a study are daunting. To analyze and date the volcanoes, the researchers had to drill through as much as 1,400 meters of hard basement rock located some 1-2 kilometers beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean in the Southern Hemisphere.

“It was,” said Koppers, “a record for the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.”

What the researchers found was that the Louisville hotspot between 50 million to 70 million years ago drifted very little from its original location – perhaps only 3 degrees from north to south. The reason, Koppers speculates, is that there were no adjacent mid-ocean spreading centers located to the north of the Louisville hotspot to pull its mantle plume off course.

Koppers specializes in the study of how the inner Earth moves. He was able to date the volcanoes’ ages by looking at the argon isotope ratios of gas trapped within the rocks. He and his colleagues found that the Louisville and Hawaiian chains formed new volcanoes every one million to three million years.

“What is interesting is after a time, the mantle wind more or less disappeared for Hawaii,” Koppers said. “Most of the drift took place during the first 30 million years then it looks like the hotspot moved far enough away from the spreading center to lose that influence. When we looked at the Louisville movement over the last 50 million years, it seems very similar to that of Hawaii during the same period.”

Koppers said the researchers hope to next study the Walvis Ridge volcanic chain in the Atlantic Ocean off South Africa – another long-lived seamount trail, but in another ocean.

“This is fundamental yet important research because it is becoming apparent that no one theory explains the formation of all of Earth’s 125,000 or so seamounts,” Koppers said.

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Anthony Koppers, 541-737-5425

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1. November, 2012 Anthony Koppers interview: http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ncs/media/Anthony-Koppers-Interview.mov

2. B-roll from Louisville expedition: http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ncs/media/Anthony-Koppers-B-Roll.mov

Oregon volunteers needed to gather precipitation data

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A statewide network that uses Oregon citizens to collect local data on rain, snow and even hail is seeking a new wave of volunteers.

Coordinated by the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University, the program is part of the national Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS. This national initiative has volunteers in every state who collect and report precipitation data, providing scientists with important data that supplements that which comes from existing weather stations.

Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at OSU, works with the Oregon volunteers, who number about 300. She would like to greatly expand that number.

“The national organization was begun in 1997 in Fort Collins, Colo., after they had a major localized storm there, but other areas in the city only received modest amounts of rain,” Dello said. “People thought, ‘how can that happen?’ It illustrates how fickle weather data can be. It can rain an inch in one location, and be completely dry a couple of miles away.

“That’s why we need more volunteers to report on local events,” Dello pointed out. “It will provide us much more accurate data, which leads to better precipitation maps and over the long haul, more accurate forecasting.”

CoCoRaHS volunteers must buy a rain gauge for about $27 plus shipping, watch a short training video, and report as frequently as possible the amount of rainfall and snowfall in their area. Interested persons should go to the CoCoRaHS website at http://www.cocorahs.org/ to sign up.

Dello said Oregon needs more volunteers throughout the state, but especially in eastern and southern Oregon, along the Oregon coast, in the foothills of the Coast Range and Cascades, and in areas just outside of cities that have a bit of elevation change.

“Elevation change is important because that can be a factor in how much precipitation falls,” Dello said. “We are trying to work out an arrangement with Oregon wineries, because many vineyards are in those exact locations and people are working there every day. They would be a great resource.”

Ironically, Dello said, one area of the greatest need is in and around Corvallis.

Dello said the work is easy, the rain gauges provide accurate information, and it can be a good family or educational activity.

“I think it would be a great activity for middle school or high school kids, with a bit of supervision from parents,” Dello said. “We’d also love to have retirees, or anyone who cares about the weather. The data will really be useful in better understanding Oregon weather.”

Weather-lovers can learn more about Oregon’s fickle weather by following Dello on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/orclimatesvc

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Kathie Dello, 541-737-8927

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Origin of life expert to present Condon Lecture at OSU

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Geophysical Laboratory, will present the 2012 Thomas Condon Lecture on Thursday, Nov. 1, at Oregon State University.

The free public lecture, which is designed for a non-specialist audience, is titled "Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins." It begins at 7:30 p.m. in Austin Auditorium of the LaSells Stewart Center on campus, located at 26th Street and Western Boulevard in Corvallis.

Hazen also is the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University. His research encompasses the origins of life and emergence of pre-biotic chemical complexity. Topics of particular interest include the interactions between minerals and organic molecules and how the living and non-living parts of Earth have co-evolved through time.

After receiving bachelor and master’s degrees at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Hazen earned a Ph.D. in mineralogy and crystallography from Harvard University in 1975.

Hazen will also give a more technical presentation on the topic “Mineral Evolution: The Co-Evolution of the Geosphere and Biosphere” in the George Moore Lecture. That event will begin at noon on Friday, Nov. 2, in Gilbert Hall Room 124. It is sponsored by the OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and the OSU Research Office.

The Thomas Condon Lecture, named after a pioneer of Oregon geology, helps to interpret significant scientific research for non-scientists.

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Rick Colwell, 541-737-5220

Pacific albacore carry barely detectable fingerprints of Fukushima disaster

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Samples of albacore tuna caught off the West Coast of the United States show minute traces of radiation that can be traced to the Fukushima reactor disaster, according to an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The radiation levels in fish analyzed to date are far below anything that would pose a risk to humans who consume the fish, the research team emphasized. The findings are preliminary; additional fish remain to be tested.

But the findings could reveal new information about where Pacific albacore travel during their migratory lives – and how what happens in one part of the ocean can affect the food web thousands of miles away.

The team has collected and tested fish caught off the U.S. West Coast both before and after the devastating March 2011 Japanese tsunami and subsequent release of radioactive material into the ocean by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor.

“We're still processing new fish, but so far the radiation we're detecting is far below the level of   concern for human safety,” said Delvan Neville, a graduate researcher with OSU's Radiation Health Physics program and a co-investigator on the project.

People are constantly exposed to radiation from the natural environment, Neville pointed out. “To increase their normal annual dosage of radiation by just 1 percent, a person would have to eat more than 4,000 pounds of the highest (radiation) level albacore we've seen.”

Neville will present the team's preliminary findings on Oct. 27 at the Heceta Head Coastal Conference in Florence. Richard Brodeur, the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center biologist who serves as lead investigator on the project, reported the same findings to the recent annual meeting of  PICES, the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, in Japan. The researchers also plan scientific journal articles.

The OSU team's findings are consistent with those of California researchers who announced in May that they had found traces of Fukushima-linked radionuclides in bluefin tuna caught off the California coast. The bluefin news came as a surprise to the scientific and regulatory community. Shortly after the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and reactor disaster, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and NOAA jointly expressed “high confidence” in the safety of U.S. seafood products, suggesting it was unlikely that migratory fish such as tuna would be contaminated to “significantly elevated radiation levels.”

Relying on agency statements, fisheries organizations such as the Oregon Albacore Commission predicted that 2-to-5-year-old albacore, a mainstay of the U.S. troll and pole fishery, would be unaffected because their migration patterns do not take them through the waters where the radiation leak occurred.

But scientists differ on the details of albacore migration and behavior. Some suggest that not all albacore follow the same migration routes between western Pacific waters and feeding grounds off the U.S. West Coast. Some believe North Pacific albacore may even comprise two separate sub-stocks with different migratory paths.

That's one of the questions Jason Phillips, then a graduate fisheries researcher in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, was investigating with support from Oregon Sea Grant, when the 2011 disaster struck Japan. He wondered whether the radiation released by the Fukushima nuclear plant could be used as a “natural tag” to help unravel some of the questions about fish migration. He put together a pilot study, but soon found he needed more fish samples – and access to additional equipment for detecting and measuring extremely low levels of radiation.

Brodeur, the NOAA biologist overseeing Phillips' research, introduced him to Neville, a graduate student in OSU's Radiation Health Physics program who was looking for Ph.D. research topics – and who had access to the specialized instruments needed to analyze the albacore samples for the type of radionuclides released by the Japanese reactor. He also obtained a modest NOAA grant to support the research.

The researchers first identified two Fukushima-linked isotopes – Cesium-137 (Cs-137) and Cesium-134 (Cs-134) – this July, in samples of fish caught and frozen in 2011.

This particular combination of radioactive isotopes is produced by fission in nuclear reactors, and less commonly, nuclear weapons. Cs-134, in particular, is considered key to the Fukushima nuclear “fingerprint” because it decays very rapidly, with a half-life of just more than two years. While Cs-137, which persists for decades in the environment, could come from other possible sources, scientists say, the Cs-134 could only have come from the Fukushima reactors.

But the team needed more evidence to support the radioactivity findings. Phillips spent this summer collecting more fish at sea, off Oregon and Washington, as well as from scientists, fishermen and other sources along the West Coast. Neville ran more tests, validating his methods against freeze-dried fish standards tested by dozens of labs – and got the same results. They also shared fish samples with the Washington state Office of Radiation Protection, where radiation health physicist Lynn Albin is analyzing them as an additional check. 

As more fish were tested, the results were consistent with the initial findings: No Cs-134 in fish caught before the disaster, but traces of the isotope in a significant number of fish caught since.

“This is what we've seen after testing about 70 pounds of tuna,” Neville said. “When you've run one or two samples, you can't really say much about the population you're testing yet. When you've run five or six, you could make some guesses. When you're up to, at this time, 18 samples and everything has fallen fairly neatly into two groups of results, you can start to make some predictions about that population.

“What we can say is that we have detected Cs-134 in fish thousands of miles from where that Cs-134 came from, and over a year since it was released,” Neville added. “It's very interesting scientifically, and it can tell us more about tuna migration and what happens to radioactive releases, but it's nowhere near enough to be concerned about food safety.”

Jason Phillips, whose fisheries research launched the investigation, says it will take more work to unravel the mysteries of albacore migration.

“We are finding evidence that the albacore caught in Oregon and Washington in the summer have spent the winter in different locations in the North Pacific,” he said. “But other researchers have been trying to figure out how albacore migrate for decades. We need to increase the number of fish and locations we test before we can start getting at the bigger questions.”

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Delvan Neville, 480-907-8629

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Researcher Delvan Neville labels containers of albacore tuna

Delvan Neville

Heceta Head Coastal Conference set Oct. 26-27

FLORENCE, Ore. – Global connections across the Pacific Ocean in science, economics and policies – and how these things affect Oregon's ocean – are the focus of the eighth annual Heceta Head Coastal Conference, Oct. 26-27 at the Florence Events Center.

Scientists, policy-makers and community leaders – including Oregon first lady Cylvia Hayes and Oregon State University marine mammal specialist Bruce Mate – will address the theme “Oregon's Oceans: Bringing the High Seas Home” during the two-day conference, which is open to the public.

Hayes will kick off the conference with a dinner speech on “Healthy Ocean, Healthy Economy, Healthy Oregon” at 5 p.m. Friday.

Saturday's talks and panels include a number of OSU researchers, including oceanographer Jack Barth, marine zoologist Francis Chan, sociologist Flaxen Conway, and fisheries ecologist Jessica Miller. Also speaking will be Oregon Rep. Arnie Roblan and representatives of the Pacific Shellfish Growers' Association, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission on topics ranging from the migration of albacore tuna to the challenges and opportunities facing Oregon's coastal communities to the international laws governing use of the oceans.

The afternoon will include panel discussions on hypoxia and ocean acidification in the Pacific, and tsunami debris.

Mate, chair of the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, will close out the conference with a keynote speech on whale migrations and critical habitats.

Registration is $25 for Friday's dinner and $35 ($25 for students) for Saturday's sessions, including lunch. For registration and other details, including information about discounted overnight lodging in Florence, visit http:www.hecetaheadconference.org

The conference is organized by Heceta Head Coastal Conference, Inc. in partnership with Oregon Sea Grant.

 

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Jamie Doyle, 541-572-5263 ext. 288

OSU to co-host meeting in Tillamook on ocean acidification, low oxygen

TILLAMOOK, Ore. – A public forum on Tuesday, Oct. 23, in Tillamook will explore the current and potential future impacts of two emerging phenomena along the Oregon coast – increasing ocean acidity and seasonal incidence of low-oxygen waters, or “hypoxia.”

A series of speakers will present the latest research at the free community event, “Demystifying Coastal Hypoxia & Ocean Acidification,” which begins at 6:30 p.m. at Tillamook Bay Community College Room 214/215. A panel discussion will follow, focusing on what individuals, communities, government agencies and others can do to reduce and manage potential impacts of ocean acidification and hypoxia, both globally and locally.

The event is particularly timely, organizers say, as the fishing industry, agencies and scientists are expressing increasing alarm at the trend of more acidic ocean waters that have less oxygen to support marine life. The effects already are being felt in Oregon, where acidic, low-oxygen seawater contributed to the death of a substantial fraction of the young oysters produced by the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery near Tillamook.

Oregon is a prime location at which to study these threats, scientists say, and the public will have an opportunity to learn more about them at the forum.

Hosted by the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans program led by Oregon State University, the forum will feature researchers from OSU, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is supported by Oregon Sea Grant.

More information on the event is available at: http://www.piscoweb.org/node/522

Speakers and panelists include Francis Chan and Jack Barth of OSU, who have documented and explained increasing hypoxia events off Oregon; Burke Hales and George Waldbusser of OSU, who have helped Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery offset the effects of acidic and hypoxic water that had been killing juvenile oysters; Alan Barton, manager of the Whiskey Creek hatchery; Steve Rumrill, the head of ODFW’s shellfish program, Waldo Wakefield of NOAA, who studies how environmental factors like hypoxia influence fish abundance and distribution; and others.

Tillamook Bay Community College is located at 4301 3rd St. in Tillamook.

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Joe Tyburczy, 541-231-9780

OSU to lead project exploring ocean’s response to increasing acidification

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A West Coast network of researchers has received a grant of nearly $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation to analyze the ecological and biological response to ocean acidification in the California Current System.

Oregon State University is the lead institution on the project, which also includes researchers from the University of California, Davis; Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of Hawaii, Manoa; and University of California, Santa Barbara.

The researchers will focus much of their attention on a mussel, Mytilus californianus, a widespread component of the rocky intertidal zone and an important test subject for understanding ocean chemistry changes. Their previous research found that the growth, survival and shell strength of the mussel larvae are significantly affected in a negative way by elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean water.

“We know that increasing ocean acidification has the potential to threaten the viability of mussels and other shellfish,” said Bruce Menge, a distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State and principal investigator on the project. “In this new effort, we will explore when negative impacts begin to occur and how the organisms actually respond in different environments, whether localized or large-scale.”

The researchers will conduct field and laboratory experiments across a network of 10 near-shore ocean acidification monitoring sites that span 1,400 kilometers of the coastline. By combining experiments with a sensor network that will continuously measure ocean pH changes, the researchers will be able to examine the sensitivity and potential resilience to ocean acidification among mussel populations that are spread along much of the West Coast of the United States.

Co-principal investigators on the project include Jack Barth, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and Francis Chan, an ecologist in the OSU College of Science.

Menge, Barth and Chan are principal investigators with PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, which also is a multi-institution research effort led by Oregon State. During the past several years, they have documented and helped explain increasing incidence of hypoxia, or low-oxygen water, in the near-shore ocean off Oregon, which has led to biological “dead zones.”

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Bruce Menge, 541-737-5358

OSU, City of Newport plan for exhibit featuring piece of tsunami dock

NEWPORT, Ore. – A section from a huge dock that ripped loose from its moorings in the northern Japanese city of Misawa during the massive earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011 will become part of an exhibit in Newport, Ore., just a few miles from where it washed ashore in early June of this year.

The dock, which became an instant tourist attraction for several weeks, has since been dismantled. But a piece of the huge structure has been saved and will be on display at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center by early next year.

The City of Newport is providing initial funding for the project and Mayor Mark McConnell hopes donations will fill the gaps. When finished, the dock section will be mounted outside of the HMSC Visitor Center, accompanied by educational signage as well as a memorial plaque. The exhibit is being developed by Oregon Sea Grant, which manages the Visitor Center, and will serve as the start of an eventual interpretive trail built along the tsunami evacuation route from the OSU center to higher ground.

“That would certainly be fitting,” said McConnell, who visited Sendai, Japan, last summer. “The devastation we saw in Japan was incredible. You realize when you see it first-hand that you can’t plan or build for an event of that magnitude, but you can prepare for it by educating yourself about the risks and creating strategies for safe evacuation.

“The exhibit will be a reminder that the tragedy in Japan could just as easily happen here,” he added.

Shawn Rowe, an OSU free-choice learning specialist based at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, said the focus of the planned exhibit’s educational effort will be on tsunami awareness, the risk of invasive species from the tsunami debris, and how the dock got here in the first place.

“It is a good opportunity to broaden public awareness about such issues,” said Rowe, who works for Oregon Sea Grant. “This was a unique event. Certainly, materials float over from Japan quite often. But rarely, if ever, have we seen a confluence of circumstances that led to the dock arriving in Newport, Ore.”

Fishing floats, logs and debris arrive on the West Coast from Asia with some regularity, but rarely does a structure this large that had been anchored for years in an inlet in Japan – and thus accumulating local seaweeds and organisms – rip loose and journey across the ocean.

“What was surprising to us is that so many of the plants and animals that were attached to the dock survived the 15-month journey across the Pacific Ocean,” said Jessica Miller, an OSU marine ecologist who has studied the dozens of plant and animal species on the dock. “What we don’t yet know is whether these species have established themselves in local waters with the potential to become invasive.”

Mark Farley, who manages the HMSC Visitor Center, said the dock section will be delivered to Newport in the next few weeks, and work on the foundation for the display and signage will continue into the early part of 2013.

“Our hope is to have the exhibit open to the public by the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami next March,” Farley said.

For more information on donating to the Japanese dock exhibit at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, go to: http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/visitor/get-involved/donate, or call Mark Farley at 541-867-0276.

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Shawn Rowe, 541-867-0190

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Program to monitor harmful algal blooms to end next month

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A federally funded program that has provided Oregon with an early warning system for harmful algal blooms will end next month.

For the past five years, researchers at Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (with collaborators from the University of Oregon) have monitored phytoplankton blooms off the Oregon coast, and conducted toxin analyses of the different species. When toxin levels rose, they could alert the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which stepped up its sampling of clams and mussels to protect the public from domoic acid and paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Begun in 2007, the five-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs out at the end of August. The Oregon Department of Agriculture will continue sampling clams, mussels and other shellfish for bioaccumulation of toxins, but the early warning system will be gone.

“The Oregon Department of Agriculture does an excellent job of analyzing shellfish for toxins, but the concern is there is no way to know that we have a problem until the toxins are already in the clams and mussels,” said Angelicque “Angel” White, an OSU oceanographer and principal investigator on the grant. “It is a shame to close beaches after Oregonians have already harvested and eaten their catch.”

On July 6, the Oregon Department of Agriculture closed much of the central Oregon coast to mussel harvests due to elevated levels of paralytic shellfish toxins. The closure was based on an alert from phytoplankton monitoring funded by the NOAA grant.

The NOAA grant was aimed at creating a model of predicting harmful algal blooms and developing a program to alert local authorities. “The NOAA mission is to fund such programs for a period of time, find something that works, and then turn it over to the state,” White said. None of the state agencies, however, have stepped up to support early monitoring efforts based on phytoplankton counts.

White, who is a faculty member in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, said the phytoplankton monitoring could continue with a trained person working half-time, with a modest amount of equipment. “It amounts to little more than a microscope, a bucket, time and a bit of experience so that you know what you’re looking for,” she said.

“For a state that values tourism and recreation – and the dollars they bring – this really seems like low-hanging fruit,” White added.

Marc Suddleson, a NOAA harmful algal bloom program manager, said his agency provides funding to pilot “innovative harmful algal bloom solutions such as the Oregon early warning program” because HAB problems are affecting every United States coastal region, and to aid state agencies that are financially constrained. But state funding is needed to sustain the monitoring improvements, Suddleson said.

“The Oregon team has repeatedly demonstrated that better monitoring can give state and local officials an early warning, but the challenging budget climate facing Oregon state agencies makes its future uncertain,” Suddleson said.

Phytoplankton blooms are a normal ocean process, critical to maintaining a productive marine food web off the Oregon coast. Spring and summer winds bring deep, nutrient-rich water to the surface - a process called “upwelling.” When that water is exposed to sunlight, it creates phytoplankton blooms, tiny plants that are a food source for zooplankton and other creatures, which in turn become prey for 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 and mussels and can cause illness, and even death in humans. Another species, Alexandrium, produces saxitoxin, which can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning if ingested.

“Pseudo-nitzschia is harder to predict and is involved in all kinds of biological witchcraft,” White said. “Some cells are toxic and some are not – even in the same patch of water. We don’t yet understand what turns them on or off. But we can tell when they become toxic at a dangerous level.

“Alexandrium, on the other hand, is a charismatic little dinoflagellate that likes warmer, calmer water,” she added. “They usually make up a small percentage of the total plankton population, but they’re reliably toxic. So if you scoop some ocean water into a bucket, and you actually see increases in their cell numbers, you can be pretty sure the chances for paralytic shellfish poisoning go up.

“That’s as cheap, easy and reliable an early warning system as you could ask for.”

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Angel White, 541-737-6397

Coastal visitors may encounter whales – but what kind are they likely to be?

NEWPORT, Ore. – For the past several weeks, gray whales that spent the spring breeding or calving in the waters off Mexico have been arriving in the Pacific Northwest to feed for the summer and fall, including areas along the Oregon coast.

The gray whales often are visible to coastal visitors from the bluffs along Highway 101, or to ocean fishing enthusiasts pursuing salmon, halibut or other fish. Whale-watching tours available in many coastal ports introduce hundreds of tourists to migrating and resident whales.

But gray whales aren’t the only species of whale that can be seen off Oregon, according to experts at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.

“You can sometimes spot humpback whales and blue whales along the coast, but typically they are further from shore,” said Barb Lagerquist, who does whale research for the institute, located in OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Having said that, people last year got a rare peek at blues and humpbacks within a couple of miles of shore off Depoe Bay.”

During migration, gray whales often travel close to shore, with mothers and calves close together, Lagerquist noted, and it isn’t uncommon to see groups of three to five adults together. There is a small population of gray whales – perhaps 200 or so – that feed off the coasts of northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and southeast Alaska from May to October, rather than migrating to the Arctic. These resident whales are known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group.

“We have already seen some of these animals along the coast this year,” Lagerquist said. “They feed very close to shore in waters depths of less than 20 meters. We recently saw a mother-calf pair inside the tip of the north jetty in Newport’s Yaquina Bay as we were heading out in our boat.”

Less frequent visitors to Oregon waters are minke whales, which are more common off Asia and in the Arctic, but will occasionally venture within a few miles of shore.

How can you tell what kind of whale you’re seeing? Lagerquist said the keys to whale identification are body size, color, the presence or absence of dorsal fins, and the position and shape of the dorsal fins. Most whales seen off Oregon will be grays, she added, especially close to shore.

Here is a link to some photos from OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute: http://bit.ly/Mu5Zm8

Gray whales: Adult gray whales are about 35 to 45 feet in length, and are a mottled gray in color with occasional white spots and white barnacle scars. They usually have patches of barnacles and whale lice on their bodies.

Gray whales don’t have a dorsal fin, but have dorsal “knuckles” – a series of bumps protruding from their back and extending along their tail. “The first knuckle can be quite large and look like a small dorsal fin,” Lagerquist said.

Humpback whales are slightly bigger than grays – about 40 to 50 feet in length – and are dark gray or even black in color. They have very long, narrow “wing-like” pectoral fins, which can be white on the underside. Humpbacks also have a small, stepped dorsal fin.

Humpbacks are very acrobatic, Lagerquist said, and can often be seen breaching, or propelling almost their entire body out of the water – spinning around and landing on their back or side.

Minkes are the smallest baleen whale, at 23 to 33 feet. They are dark gray to black with white bands on the top of their small pectoral fins – sometimes called “white mittens.” They may also haves a pale gray chevron, or swirling pattern, on their back, and they have a prominent falcate dorsal fin. Sightings of these animals close to Northwest shores are rare.

Blue whales are occasionally seen off the coast and are notable because of their massive size, Lagerquist said. These whales can reach lengths of 75 to 85 feet and weight as much as 240,000 pounds. Blue whales are a mottled bluish-gray color and have a small dorsal fin on the back quarter of their body that may be falfcate, pointed or triangular in shape.

Killer whales may also be seen along the Oregon coast, most commonly in spring months during the gray whale mother/calf migration. Killer whales are not technically whales, but rather the largest member of the dolphin family, reaching 20 to 32 feet in length. They have a striking black and white color pattern, with a white eye patch, a white patch extending from underneath up their sides, and a gray “saddle patch” behind their dorsal fin. Adult males have a very tall, triangular dorsal fin; female dorsal fins are falcate.

Lagerquist reminds coastal visitors that all marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and it is illegal to harass them. Vessels or people in the water should not approach whales closer than 100 yards. Violators may be subject to fines and/or imprisonment.

More information on whales is available in publications by Oregon Sea Grant at: http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/sgpubs/collection/marine-animals

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Barb Lagerquist, 541-867-0322

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California Blue Whale
A blue whale off Oregon's coast