OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

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

Species identified from the Japanese dock that washed ashore

NEWPORT, Ore. – As scientists continue identifying the organisms attached to a floating dock from the 2011 Japanese tsunami that came ashore at Agate Beach just north of Newport, Ore., earlier this month they also are casting a wary eye to the future and what other potential invasive species may arrive.

“The floating dock can be considered a wakeup call that conveniently arrived on the beach within five miles of a leading marine science center,” said Jessica Miller, an Oregon State University marine ecologist who was one of the first scientists to examine the organisms. “This provides us with a spectacular opportunity to understand the overall invasion process and the risks associated with tsunami debris fields to come.”

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is leading the state’s response to the invasive species threat and coordinating with OSU, state and federal agencies and other partners. ODFW has established a website http://www.dfw.state.or.us/conservationstrategy/invasive_species.asp that keeps the public, scientists and the media informed about best practices for disposing of debris with organisms on it.

The Oregon Invasive Species Council has a hotline for reporting suspected invasive species at 1-866-INVADER.

Miller and colleague John Chapman, who work out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, have identified as many as 50 different organisms from the dock, which has definitively been linked to Japan. They are still trying to identify and catalog some of the remaining species.

The fear, researchers say, is the species that arrive on debris from Japan may colonize along the West Coast, which has been most vulnerable to invasive species brought here in the ballast water of ships, as well as by other mechanisms. Tsunami debris is an undocumented, if not new threat for invasives.

“Among the living organisms that we have identified from the dock are some that could aggressively invade local marine environments and threaten native species,” said Chapman an OSU aquatic invasive species specialist from the university’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “The real question is how many of these organisms may have left the dock before it was beached.”

Chapman said some of the species that have the most potential for successful invasion are the Northern Pacific seastar (Asterias amurensis), the Japanese shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus), and a species of brown algae (Undaria pinnatifida), which had covered the dock, which was 66 feet long, 19 feet wide and seven feet high.

Gayle Hansen, an OSU botany and plant pathology specialist, is working with Hiroshi Kawai from Kobe University in Japan on further identification of algal species, and the OSU scientists are also working with Jim Carlton of Williams College to find taxonomic experts to help with identification.

Other organisms aboard the dock include at least eight species of mollusk, an anemone, a sponge, an oyster, a solitary tunicate, a granular claw crab, three or more species of amphipods, four or more species of barnacles and worms, bryozoans, a European blue mussel known as Mytilus galloprovincialis, and a sea urchin.

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center has created a website that has photos of some of the identified species, It can be found at http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/floatingdock

Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer who specializes in currents, says the dock that arrived at Agate Beach could have landed elsewhere if it had reached nearshore waters a few weeks earlier or later. The key, he said, is how seasonal winds create currents.

“Summertime winds come from the north and push currents south,” Barth said. “Because the Earth is rotating, that pushes things away from the shore and may keep some debris out at sea for a while. But when these northerly winds reverse and become southerly – or just relax and weaken – the surface flow is back on shore and that will bring debris with it.

“After about mid-October, coastal currents will reverse and flow to the north,” Barth added, “so at that point, we can expect more debris to land in Washington and British Columbia.”

Barth said there are some areas of the coast – including near Coos Bay and Winchester Bay – where currents sweep close to shore and may attract more debris. Conversely, he said, debris can get caught in an offshore “convergence zone” and drift hundreds of miles up the coastline before beaching.

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Jessica Miller, 541-867-0381

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New deglaciation data opens door for earlier First Americans migration

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study of  lake sediment cores from Sanak Island in the western Gulf of Alaska suggests that deglaciation there from the last Ice Age took place as much as1,500 to 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, opening the door for earlier coastal migration models for the Americas.

The Sanak Island Biocomplexity Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, also concluded that the maximum thickness of the ice sheet in the Sanak Island region during the last glacial maximum was 70 meters – or about half that previously projected – suggesting that deglaciation could have happened more rapidly than earlier models predicted.

Results of the study were just published in the professional journal, Quaternary Science Reviews.

The study, led by Nicole Misarti of Oregon State University, is important because it suggests that the possible coastal migration of people from Asia into North America and South America – popularly known as “First Americans” studies – could have begun as much as two millennia earlier than the generally accepted date of ice retreat in this area, which was 15,000 years before present.

Well-established archaeology sites at Monte Verde, Chile, and Huaca Prieta, Peru, date back 14,000 to 14,200 years ago, giving little time for expansion if humans had not come to the Americas until 15,000 years before present – as many models suggest.

The massive ice sheets that covered this part of the Earth during the last Ice Age would have prevented widespread migration into the Americas, most archaeologists believe.

“It is important to note that we did not find any archaeological evidence documenting earlier entrance into the continent,” said Misarti, a post-doctoral researcher in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “But we did collect cores from widespread places on the island and determined the lake’s age of origin based on 22 radiocarbon dates that clearly document that the retreat of the Alaska Peninsula Glacier Complex was earlier than previously thought.”

“Glaciers would have retreated sufficiently so as to not hinder the movement of humans along the southern edge of the Bering land bridge as early as almost 17,000 years ago,” added Misarti, who recently accepted a faculty position at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Interestingly, the study began as a way to examine the abundance of ancient salmon runs in the region. As the researchers began examining core samples from Sanak Island lakes looking for evidence of salmon remains, however, they began getting radiocarbon dates much earlier than they had expected. These dates were based on the organic material in the sediments, which was from terrestrial plant macrofossils indicating the region was ice-free earlier than believed.

The researchers were surprised to find the lakes ranged in age from 16,500 to 17,000 years ago.

A third factor influencing the find came from pollen, Misarti said.

“We found a full contingent of pollen that indicated dry tundra vegetation by 16,300 years ago,” she said. “That would have been a viable landscape for people to survive on, or move through. It wasn’t just bare ice and rock.”

The Sanak Island site is remote, about 700 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, and about 40 miles from the coast of the western Alaska Peninsula, where the ice sheets may have been thicker and longer lasting, Misarti pointed out. “The region wasn’t one big glacial complex,” she said. “The ice was thinner and the glaciers retreated earlier.”

Other studies have shown that warmer sea surface temperatures may have preceded the early retreat of the Alaska Peninsula Glacier Complex (APGC), which may have supported productive coastal ecosystems.

Wrote the researchers in their article: “While not proving that first Americans migrated along this corridor, these latest data from Sanak Island show that human migration across this portion of the coastal landscape was unimpeded by the APGC after 17 (thousand years before present), with a viable terrestrial landscape in place by 16.3 (thousand years before present), well before the earliest accepted sites in the Americas were inhabited.”

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Nicole Misarti, 541-737-2065

Undersea volcano gave off signals before eruption in 2011

NEWPORT, Ore. – A team of scientists that last year created waves by correctly forecasting the 2011 eruption of Axial Seamount years in advance now says that the undersea volcano located some 250 miles off the Oregon coast gave off clear signals just hours before its impending eruption.

The researchers’ documentation of inflation of the undersea volcano from gradual magma intrusion over a period of years led to the long-term eruption forecast. But new analyses using data from underwater hydrophones also show an abrupt spike in seismic energy about 2.6 hours before the eruption started, which the scientists say could lead to short-term forecasting of undersea volcanoes in the future.

They also say that Axial could erupt again – as soon as 2018 – based on the cyclic pattern of ground deformation measurements from bottom pressure recorders.

Results of the research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), are being published this week in three separate articles in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Bill Chadwick, an Oregon State University geologist and lead author on one of the papers, said the link between seismicity, seafloor deformation and the intrusion of magma has never been demonstrated at a submarine volcano, and the multiple methods of observation provide fascinating new insights.

“Axial Seamount is unique in that it is one of the few places in the world where a long-term monitoring record exists at an undersea volcano – and we can now make sense of its patterns,” said Chadwick, who works out of Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “We’ve been studying the site for years and the uplift of the seafloor has been gradual and steady beginning in about 2000, two years after it last erupted.

“But the rate of inflation from magma went from gradual to rapid about 4-5 months before the eruption,” added Chadwick. “It expanded at roughly triple the rate, giving a clue that the next eruption was coming.”

Bob Dziak, an Oregon State University marine geologist, had previously deployed hydrophones on Axial that monitor sound waves for seismic activity. During a four-year period prior to the 2011 eruption, there was a gradual buildup in the number of small earthquakes (roughly magnitude 2.0), but little increase in the overall “seismic energy” resulting from those earthquakes.

That began to change a few hours before the April 6, 2011, eruption, said Dziak, who also is lead author on one of the Nature Geoscience articles.

“The hydrophones picked up the signal of literally thousands of small earthquakes within a few minutes, which we traced to magma rising from within the volcano and breaking through the crust,” Dziak said. “As the magma ascends, it forces its way through cracks and creates a burst of earthquake activity that intensifies as it gets closer to the surface.

“Using seismic analysis, we were able to clearly see how the magma ascends within the volcano about two hours before the eruption,” Dziak said. “Whether the seismic energy signal preceding the eruption is unique to Axial or may be replicated at other volcanoes isn’t yet clear – but it gives scientists an excellent base from which to begin.”

The researchers also used a one-of-a-kind robotic submersible to bounce sound waves off the seafloor from an altitude of 50 meters, mapping the topography of Axial Seamount both before and after the 2011 eruption at a one-meter horizontal resolution. These before-and-after surveys allowed geologists to clearly distinguish the 2011 lava flows from the many previous flows in the area.

MBARI researchers used three kinds of sonar to map the seafloor around Axial, and the detailed images show lava flows as thin as eight inches, and as thick as 450 feet.

“These autonomous underwater vehicle-generated maps allowed us, for the first time, to comprehensively map the thickness and extent of lava flows from a deep-ocean submarine in high resolution,” said David Caress, an MBARI engineer and lead author on one of the Nature Geoscience articles. “These new observations allow us to unambiguously differentiate between old and new lava flows, locate fissures from which these flows emerged, and identify fine-scale features formed as the lava flowed and cooled.”

The researchers also used shipboard sonar data to map a second, thicker lava flow about 30 kilometers south of the main flow – also a likely result of the 2011 eruption.

Knowing the events leading up to the eruption – and the extent of the lava flows – is important because over the next few years researchers will be installing many new instruments and underwater cables around Axial Seamount as part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative. These new instruments will greatly increase scientists’ ability to monitor the ocean and seafloor off of the Pacific Northwest.

“Now that we know some of the long-term and short-term signals that precede eruptions at Axial, we can monitor the seamount for accelerated seismicity and inflation,” said OSU’s Dziak. “The entire suite of instruments will be deployed as part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative in the next few years – including new sensors, samplers and cameras – and next time they will be able to catch the volcano in the act.”

The scientists also observed and documented newly formed hydrothermal vents with associated biological activity, Chadwick said. 

“We saw snowblower vents that were spewing out nutrients so fast that the microbes were going crazy,” he pointed out. “Combining these biological observations with our knowledge of the ground deformation, seismicity and lava distribution from the 2011 eruption will further help us connect underwater volcanic activity with the life it supports.”

Scientists from Columbia University, the University of Washington, North Carolina State University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz also participated in the project and were co-authors on the Nature Geoscience articles.

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Bill Chadwick, 541-867-0179

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MBARI map of Axial

MBARI map of lava

 


Boca vent
Snowblower vent

 

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Undersea hydrophone


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Hydrophone buried by lava

Floating dock from Japan carries potential invasive species

NEWPORT, Ore. – When debris from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan began making its way toward the West Coast of the United States, there were fears of possible radiation and chemical contamination as well as costly cleanup.

But a floating dock that unexpectedly washed ashore in Newport this week and has been traced back to the Japanese disaster has brought with it a completely different threat – invasive species.

Scientists at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center said the cement float contains about 13 pounds of organisms per square foot. Already they have gathered samples of 4-6 species of barnacles, starfish, urchins, anemones, amphipods, worms, mussels, limpets, snails, solitary tunicates and algae – and there are dozens of species overall.

“This float is an island unlike any transoceanic debris we have ever seen,” said John Chapman, an OSU marine invasive species specialist. “Drifting boats lack such dense fouling communities, and few of these species are already on this coast. Nearly all of the species we’ve looked at were established on the float before the tsunami; few came after it was at sea.”

Chapman said it was “mind-boggling” how these organisms survived their trek across the Pacific Ocean. The low productivity of open-ocean waters should have starved at least some of the organisms, he said.

“It is as if the float drifted over here by hugging the coasts, but that is of course impossible,” Chapman said. “Life on the open ocean, while drifting, may be more gentle for these organisms than we initially suspected. Invertebrates can survive for months without food and the most abundant algae species may not have had the normal compliment of herbivores. Still, it is surprising.”

Jessica Miller, an Oregon State University marine ecologist, said that a brown algae (Undaria pinnatifida), commonly called wakame, was present across most of the dock – and plainly stood out when she examined it in the fading evening light. She said the algae is native to the western Pacific Ocean in Asia, and has invaded several regions including southern California. The species identification was confirmed by OSU phycologist Gayle Hansen.

“To my knowledge it has not been reported north of Monterey, Calif., so this is something we need to watch out for,” Miller said.

Miller said the plan developed by the state through the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon State Parks is to scrape the dock and to bag all of the biological material to minimize potential spread of non-native species. But there is no way of telling if any of the organisms that hitchhiked aboard the float from Japan have already disembarked in nearshore waters.

“We have no evidence so far that anything from this float has established on our shores,” said Chapman. “That will take time. However, we are vulnerable. One new introduced species is discovered in Yaquina Bay, only two miles away, every year. We hope that none of these species we are finding on this float will be among the new discoveries in years to come.”

The possibilities are many, according to Miller.

“Among the organisms we found are small shore crabs similar to our Hemigrapsus that look like the same genus, but may be a different species,” Miller said. “There were also one or more species of oysters and small clam chitons, as well as limpets, small snails, numerous mussels, a sea star, and an assortment of worms.”

Invasive marine species are a problem on the West Coast, where they usually are introduced via ballast water from ships. OSU’s Chapman is well aware of the issue; for several years he has studied a parasitic isopod called Griffen’s isopod that has infested mud shrimp in estuaries from California to Vancouver Island, decimating their populations.

In 2010, an aggressive invasive tunicate was found in Winchester Bay and Coos Bay along the southern Oregon coast. Known as Didemnum vexillum, the tunicate is on the state’s most dangerous species list and is both an ecological and economic threat because of its ability to spread and choke out native marine communities, according to OSU’s Sam Chan, who chairs the Oregon Invasive Species Council.

It is difficult to assess how much of a threat the organisms on the newly arrived float may present, the researchers say. As future debris arrives, it may carry additional species, they point out. However, this dock may be unique in that it represents debris that has been submerged in Japan and had a well-developed subtidal community. This may be relatively rare, given the amount of debris that entered the ocean, the researchers say.

“Floating objects from near Sendai can drift around that coast for a while before getting into the Kuroshio current and then getting transported to the eastern Pacific,” Chapman said. The researchers hope to secure funding to go to Japan and sample similar floats and compare the biological life on them with that on the transoceanic dock.

The scientists say the arrival of the dock is also a sobering reminder of the tragedy that occurred last year, which cost thousands of lives.

“We have to remember that this dock, and the organisms that arrived on it, are here as a result of a great human tragedy,” Miller said. “We respect that and have profound sympathy for those who have suffered, and are still suffering.”

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John Chapman, 541-867-0235

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japanese dock

Scientists hope OSU whale-tracking data can reduce accidental deaths

NEWPORT, Ore. – A multi-agency team of scientists has launched a project to reduce the number of whales killed from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing nets by identifying high-risk areas along the West Coast of the United States.

The WhaleWatch project will use data from the tagging and satellite monitoring of more than 300 whales, conducted by researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, and combine it with environmental data and human activities to look for areas where whales and ships are most likely to intersect – and when it is most likely to occur.

The project will involve scientists from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as Oregon State.

Bruce Mate, director of the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, has led tagging studies of numerous populations of seven whale species over the past three decades. The tags can last anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year, and provide scientists with details about migration routes, feeding areas, frequency of diving and other activities.

“We hope that the study shows any propensities for risk where there is strong overlap between whale migration routes and anthropogenic activities,” said Mate, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. “We know, for example, that the West Santa Barbara Channel off California is a place where blue whales feed and it is right in the middle of shipping lanes to the Los Angeles harbor.

“Identifying the seasonal trends, as well as the geographical movement, may help policymakers find ways to better protect the whales,” Mate added. “We’re just trying to provide the science.”

Project leader Helen Bailey, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said a number of recent net entanglements involving gray whales off California illustrates the need for the research, which is being funded by a variety of agencies and organizations.

“A first step in reducing these threats to whales is to have a better understanding of where the whales go,” Bailey said. “We will be analyzing the largest satellite tracking dataset for large North Pacific whales from Oregon State University, and combining it with satellite-derived environmental data.”

Mate has seen first-hand the results of whales’ interactions with ships. In 2007, he tagged a number of blue whales off the southern California coast during a project featured in a 2009 National Geographic Channel documentary, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale.” During the three months surrounding the field work, five blue whales were struck by ships in the immediate area and died.

“That was really sobering,” Mate said. “To see that kind of an impact on one species, in a small geographic area, really demonstrated how at-risk some species may be – and how difficult it may be for struggling populations of whales to recover.”

Mate and his colleagues at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., are pioneers in the use of satellites to monitor tagged whales. They most recently tracked a western gray whale named Varvara from Russia’s Sakhalin Island all the way to the breeding grounds of Mexico – and back.

As technology has improved, so has the ability to track whales during their entire migration routes.

“When we first started,” Mate recalled, “we were lucky if the tags lasted more than a month. Whales can be tough on tags, and the Pacific Ocean can be a rugged place. Now we routinely deploy tags that usually last for three or more months and show us where the whales seasonally feed, breed and birth their calves – and it is that ability to monitor through the seasons that is so important.”

The tag used by the researchers that has lasted the longest reached 620 days, on a sperm whale.

The WhaleWatch project is being funded by NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the Pacific Predators Program, NOAA, OSU, and the Office of Naval Research.

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Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

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California Blue Whale

Study finds prey distribution, not biomass, key to marine food chain

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has found that each step of the marine food chain is clearly controlled by the trophic level below it – and the driving factor influencing that relationship is not the abundance of prey, but how that prey is distributed.

The importance of the spatial pattern of resources – sometimes called “patchiness” – is gaining new appreciation from ecologists, who are finding the overall abundance of food less important than its density and ease of access to it.

Results of the study are being published this week in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

Kelly Benoit-Bird, an Oregon State University oceanographer and lead author on the study, said patchiness is not a new concept, but one that has gained acceptance as sophisticated technologies have evolved to track relationships among marine species.

“The spatial patterns of the resource ultimately determine how the ecosystem functions,” said Benoit-Bird, who received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2010. “In the past, ecologists primarily used biomass as the determining factor for understanding the food chain, and the story was always rather muddled. We used to think that the size and abundance of prey was what mattered most.

“But patchiness is not only ubiquitous in marine systems, it ultimately dictates the behavior of many animals and their relationships to the environment,” she added.

Benoit-Bird specializes in the relationship of different species in marine ecosystems. In one study in the Bering Sea, she and her colleagues were estimating the abundance of krill, an important food resource for many species. Closer examination through the use of acoustics, however, found that the distribution of krill was not at all uniform – which the researchers say explained why two colonies of fur seals and seabirds were faring poorly, but a third was healthy.

“The amount of food near the third colony was not abundant,” she said, “but what was there was sufficiently dense – and at the right depth – that made it more accessible for predation than the krill near the other two colonies.”

The ability to use acoustics to track animal behavior underwater is opening new avenues to researchers.  During their study in the Bering Sea, Benoit-Bird and her colleagues discovered that they could also use sonar to plot the dives of thick-billed murres, which would plunge up to 200 meters below the surface in search of the krill.

Although the krill were spread throughout the water column, the murres ended up focusing on areas where the patches of krill were the densest.

“The murres are amazingly good at diving right down to the best patches,” Benoit-Bird pointed out. “We don’t know just how they are able to identify them, but 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have known that they had that ability. Now we can use high-frequency sound waves to look at krill, different frequencies to look at murres, and still others to look at squid, dolphins and other animals.

“And everywhere we’ve looked the same pattern occurs,” she added. “It is the distribution of food, not the biomass, which is important.”

An associate professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, Benoit-Bird has received young investigator or early career awards from the Office of Naval Research, the White House and the American Geophysical Union. She also has received honors from the Acoustical Society of America, which has used her as a model scientist in publications aimed at middle school students.

Her work has taken her around the world, including Hawaii where she has used acoustics to study the sophisticated feeding behavior of spinner dolphins. Those studies, she says, helped lead to new revelations about the importance of patchiness.

Ocean physics in the region results in long, thin layers of phytoplankton that may stretch for miles, but are only a few inches thick and a few meters below the surface. Benoit-Bird and her colleagues discovered a layer of zooplankton – tiny animals that feed on the plankton – treading water a meter below to be near the food source. Next up in the food chain were micronekton, larger pelagic fish and crustaceans that would spend the day 600 to 1,000 meters beneath the surface, then come up to the continental shelf at night to target the zooplankton. And the spinner dolphins would emerge at night, where they could reach the depth of the micronekton.

“The phytoplankton were responding to ocean physics,” Benoit-Bird said, “but all of the others in the food chain were targeting their prey by focusing on the densest patches. We got to the point where we could predict with 70 percent accuracy where the dolphins would show up based just on the phytoplankton density – without even considering the zooplankton and micronekton distribution.”

Ocean “patchiness” is not a new concept, Benoit-Bird reiterated, but may have been under-appreciated in importance.

“If you’re a murre that is diving a hundred meters below the surface to find food, you want to maximize the payoff for all of the energy you’re expending,” Benoit-Bird said. “Now we need more research to determine how different species are able to determine where the best patches are.”

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Kelly Benoit-Bird, 541-737-2063

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Dolphins circling prey
Prey density is key

OSU unveils new seafloor mapping of Oregon’s nearshore ocean

CORVALLIS, Ore. – After more than two years of intense field work and digital cartography, researchers have unveiled new maps of the seafloor off Oregon that cover more than half of the state’s territorial waters – a collaborative project that will provide new data for scientists, marine spatial planners, and the fishing industry.

The most immediate benefit will be improved tsunami inundation modeling for the Oregon coast, according to Chris Goldfinger, director of the Active Tectonics and Seafloor Mapping Laboratory at Oregon State University, who led much of the field work.

“Understanding the nature of Oregon’s Territorial Sea is critical to sustaining sport and commercial fisheries, coastal tourism, the future of wave energy, and a range of other ocean-derived ecosystem services valued by Oregonians,” Goldfinger said. “The most immediate focus, though, is the threat posed by a major tsunami.

“Knowing what lies beneath the surface of coastal waters will allow much more accurate predictions of how a tsunami will propagate as it comes ashore,” he added. “We’ve also found and mapped a number of unknown reefs and other new features we’re just starting to investigate, now that the processing work is done.”

The mapping project was a collaborative effort of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, David Evans and Associations, and Fugro. It was funded by NOAA and the Oregon Department of State Lands.

Goldfinger said the applications for the data are numerous. Scientists will be better able to match near-shore biological studies with undersea terrain; planners will be able to make better decisions on siting marine reserves and wave energy test beds; and commercial and recreational fishermen will be able to locate reefs, rockpiles and sandy-bottomed areas with greater efficiency.

“Prior to this, most people used nautical charts,” Goldfinger said. “They would provide the depth of the water, the distance off shore, and in some cases, a bit about the ocean floor – whether it might be mud, rock or sand. Through this project, we’ve been able to map more than half of Oregon’s state waters in a much more comprehensive way.”

Oregon’s Territorial Sea extends three nautical miles from the coast and comprises about 950 square nautical miles. The researchers have created numerous different habitat maps covering 55 percent of those waters, which show distinction between fine, medium and coarse sands; display rocky outcrops; and have contour lines, not unlike a terrestrial topographic map.

Some of the mapping was done aboard the Pacific Storm, an OSU ship operated by the university’s Marine Mammal Institute. The project also utilized commercial fishing boats during their off-season.

More information about the project, as well as the maps and data, are available at: http://activetectonics.coas.oregonstate.edu/state_waters.htm

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Chris Goldfinger, 541-737-5214

Hatchery, OSU scientists link ocean acidification to larval oyster failure

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have definitively linked an increase in ocean acidification to the collapse of oyster seed production at a commercial oyster hatchery in Oregon, where larval growth had declined to a level considered by the owners to be “non-economically viable.”

A study by the researchers found that elevated seawater carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, resulting in more corrosive ocean water, inhibited the larval oysters from developing their shells and growing at a pace that would make commercial production cost-effective. As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, this may serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for other ocean acidification impacts on shellfish, the scientists say.

Results of the research have just been published in the journal, Limnology and Oceanography.

“This is one of the first times that we have been able to show how ocean acidification affects oyster larval development at a critical life stage,” said Burke Hales, an OSU chemical oceanographer and co-author on the study. “The predicted rise of atmospheric CO2 in the next two to three decades may push oyster larval growth past the break-even point in terms of production.”

The owners of Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery at Oregon’s Netarts Bay began experiencing a decline in oyster seed production several years ago, and looked at potential causes including low oxygen and pathogenic bacteria. Alan Barton, who works at the hatchery and is an author on the journal article, was able to eliminate those potential causes and shifted his focus to acidification.

Barton sent samples to OSU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory for analysis. Their ensuing study clearly linked the production failures to the CO2 levels in the water in which the larval oysters are spawned and spend the first 24 hours of their lives, the critical time when they develop from fertilized eggs to swimming larvae, and build their initial shells.

“The early growth stage for oysters is particularly sensitive to the carbonate chemistry of the water,” said George Waldbusser, a benthic ecologist in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “As the water becomes more acidified, it affects the formation of calcium carbonate, the mineral of which the shell material consists. As the CO2 goes up, the mineral stability goes down, ultimately leading to reduced growth or mortality.”

Commercial oyster production on the West Coast of North America generates more than $100 million in gross sales annually, generating economic activity of some $273 million. The industry has depended since the 1970s on oyster hatcheries for a steady supply of the seed used by growers. From 2007 to 2010, major hatcheries supplying the seed for West Coast oyster growers suffered persistent production failures.

The wild stocks of non-hatchery oysters simultaneously showed low recruitment, putting additional strain on limited seed supply.

Hales said Netarts Bay, where the Whiskey Creek hatchery is located, experiences a wide range of chemistry fluctuations. The OSU researchers say hatchery operators may be able to adapt their operations to take advantage of periods when water quality is at its highest.

“In addition to the impact of seasonal upwelling, the water chemistry changes with the tidal cycle, and with the time of day,” Hales said. “Afternoon sunlight, for example, promotes photosynthesis in the bay and that production can absorb some of the carbon dioxide and lower the corrosiveness of the water.”

A previous study co-authored by Hales found the water that is being upwelled in the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast has been kept at depth away from the surface for about 50 years – meaning it was last exposed to the atmosphere a half-century ago, when carbon dioxide levels were much lower. “Since atmospheric CO2 levels have risen significantly in the past half-century, it means that the water that will be upwelled in the future will become increasingly be more corrosive,” Hales said.

The OSU researchers also found that larval oysters showed delayed response to the water chemistry, which may cast new light on other experiments looking at the impacts of acidification on shellfish. In their study, they found that larval oysters raised in water that was acidic, but non-lethal, had significantly less growth in later stages of their life.

“The takeaway message here is that the response to poor water quality isn’t always immediate,” said Waldbusser. “In some cases, it took until three weeks after fertilization for the impact from the acidic water to become apparent. Short-term experiments of just a few days may not detect the damage.”

The research has been funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and supported by NOAA and the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Other authors on the journal article include Chris Langdon, of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, and Richard Feely, of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratories.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Burke Hales, 541-737-8121

Multimedia Downloads
Multimedia: 

Whiskey Creek Hatchery Oyster larvae oyster spat

Coastal workshops to address tsunami debris risks

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Organizations on the Oregon coast are partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oregon State University Extension, Oregon Sea Grant, state and local agencies, and conservation groups on a series of community meetings to share information and science about the marine debris left by the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The meetings will take place between April 11 and 20 in coastal communities from Port Orford to Seaside, and inland in Portland and Eugene.

Debris pulled out to sea by the Japanese tsunami last March is gradually riding the Pacific currents toward the West Coast, raising public questions about everything from derelict "ghost" ships to what to expect while beachcombing.  Oceanographers predict that the bulk of the debris could arrive on U.S. shores next year, but no one can yet predict exactly when – or how much. 

“Right now, as a result of the tragic tsunami disaster, Brookings, Ore., is rebuilding, Japan is reeling and the West Coast states are preparing to clean up an unprecedented amount of debris being carried to our coast on the ocean currents,” said Cylvia Hayes, Oregon’s First Lady. “Our oceans connect us and are essential to a healthy environment and economy.

“These workshops are important to helping us effectively deal with the tsunami debris and better protect the health of oceans and coastal communities,” Hayes added.

Oregon non-profit organizations that specialize in caring for the state’s shoreline and coping with litter report an overwhelming volume of requests and questions from their volunteers and the public about the possible arrival of tsunami-related debris.  SOLV, Surfrider Foundation, the CoastWatch program of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, and the Washed Ashore Project are partnering with Oregon Sea Grant Extension to sponsor information sessions featuring staff from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. 

Key speaker will be Nir Barnea, West Coast regional coordinator for NOAA’s marine debris program.  He will describe what is known about the contents and trajectory of the debris and what is being done across the Pacific to prepare for it.

Barnea will be joined by representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, Oregon Health Authority Public Health Division, County Emergency Managers, and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Local waste managers and coastal haulers have also been invited as their experience with marine debris disposal could prove invaluable.

All events are free and open to the public.  After presentations, audience members will have a chance to ask questions about everything from public health to returning any personal valuables that may be found amid the debris.

Here is the tentative list of times and locations for the Japanese tsunami marine debris presentations. 

  • April 11th, Seaside 2-3:30 pm, Seaside Community Center, 1225 Ave A , Seaside
  • April 11, Bay City: 6-7:30 p.m., Bay City Arts Center, 5680 A St.
  • April 12, Pacific City: 10-11:30 a.m., Kiwanda Community Center, 34600 Cape Kiwanda Dr.
  • April 12, Newport: 6-7:30 p.m., Newport City Hall, 169 SW Coast Hwy.
  • April 13, Florence: 10-11:30 a.m., Florence Fire Station,  2625 Hwy 101.
  • April 13, North Bend: 2-3:30 p.m., North Bend Public Library, 1800 Sherman Ave.
  • April 13, Bandon: 6-7:30 p.m., City Council Chamber/City Hall, 555 Highway 101.
  • April 14, Port Orford: 10-11 a.m., American Legion Hall, 421 11th St.
  • April 14, Eugene: 3-4:30 p.m., EWEB Training Center, 500 East 4th Ave N Bldg.
  • April 15, Portland 3:30-5 p.m., Ecotrust Natural Capital Center, 721 NW 9th Ave.
  • April 20, Cannon Beach, time and location TBD

Updated information will be available from www.solv.org.

The groups expect to conduct organizing and education efforts later this year to strengthen their citizen response networks before the expected arrival of the bulk of the debris.

Source: 

Rachael Pecore, SOLV, 503-844-9571, ext. 317