OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

Public invited behind doors of HMSC April 14 for Marine Science Day

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center will open its doors a bit wider on Saturday, April 14, when the Newport facility hosts its first Marine Science Day.

The free public event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will feature scientists and educators from OSU, federal and state agencies, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and the new NOAA Marine Operations Center-Pacific. It is a rare opportunity for the public to go behind the scenes of one of the nation’s leading marine science and education facilities.

Oregon First Lady Cylvia Hayes will speak briefly at 3 p.m. in the auditorium, along with OSU Vice President for Research Richard Spinrad. Bruce Mate, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, will follow with a presentation showcasing the center’s pioneering role in tracking whales by satellite.

“Marine Science Day will be fun and engaging for people of all ages,” said Maryann Bozza, program manager for the Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Visitors will wind through the campus, getting a true behind-the-scenes experience with an unparalleled opportunity to learn directly from marine scientists.”

“The diverse science conducted at the facility reaches from local coastlines and estuaries to the depths of the world’s oceans,” she added, “and in scale from microbes on the seafloor to undersea volcanoes and the whales that swim over them.”

Visitors can meet Pearl, the Visitor Center’s new octopus; observe a sea turtle necropsy; and meet fisheries scientists and geologists whose research is described in center exhibits. The public also can participate in self-guided tours through the facility’s marine research labs, library and classrooms, where scientists will have interactive exhibits explaining their research.

Among the highlights:

  • Hear volcanoes erupt and whales ‘sing’ in an audio display by NOAA and OSU researchers using undersea hydrophones;
  • Learn how researchers are supporting sustainable fisheries through innovative, collaborative research;
  • Collect biological data from fish, plankton and even a shrimp parasite through hands-on experimentation;
  • Explore novel oceangoing and ocean floor instrument platforms and meet the scientists who designed them.

Visitors may also take guided tours of HMSC’s seawater facilities and ornamental fish laboratory. More information, including program and special events, is available at hmsc.oregonstate.edu

The event will showcase OSU’s unique partnership with state and federal agencies, which makes the Hatfield Marine Science Center a national leader for marine research and education, according to director George Boehlert.

“OSU’s Newport campus is known for a diversity of research and the expertise of its scientists, which offer unique opportunities in education and outreach,” Boehlert said. “Visitors to Marine Science Day will get a sense of the innovation and synergy that makes the Hatfield Marine Science Center unique.”

Collaborative research partners that share the campus with OSU labs include six federal and state agencies: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and NOAA Research, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Most Marine Science Day exhibits and activities will be indoors, although visitors are advised to dress for the weather as portions of tours, paths between buildings and some exhibits will be outdoors.

The OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center is located at 2030 S.E. Marine Science Drive in Newport, just south of the Highway 101 bridge over Yaquina Bay. For more information, see hmsc.oregonstate.edu. Accommodation requests related to a disability should be made to the HMSC Director's Office, 541-867-0234 or by email to maryann.bozza@oregonstate.edu.

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Maryann Bozza, 541-867-0234

 

Task force recommends reducing global harvest of “forage fish”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A task force that conducted one of the most comprehensive analyses of global “forage fish” populations issued its report this week, which strongly recommends implementing more conservative catch limits for these crucial prey species.

The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force calls for the harvest reduction of sardines, anchovies and other forage fish so that they can continue to serve as critical prey for larger species, including salmon, cod and tuna, as well as for dolphins, whales, penguins and seabirds.

The report concludes that the fish are “twice as valuable in the water as in a net.”

“Forage fish are essential components of marine ecosystems,” said Selina Heppell, an Oregon State University fisheries ecologist and one of the authors on the report. “The status and importance of each species can be difficult to evaluate because many of them migrate long distances and they can fluctuate dramatically in abundance.

“There also are regional differences in how the fisheries are managed and the relative health of the population,” added Heppell, who is an associate professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “The West Coast sardine fishery, for example, is carefully monitored. They have a ‘harvest control rule’ that sets the harvest at about 10 percent of the overall stock, and when the population gets below a certain level, they stop fishing.

“Those are the kinds of regulations that may need to be adopted in other parts of the world.”

Funded by the Lenfest Ocean Program, the task force is comprised of 13 scientists from the United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and France. They include researchers who have studied forage fish, as well as their predators, including larger fish, seabirds and marine mammals.

The task force reviewed forage fisheries worldwide and conducted analyses of 82 marine ecosystem models. It concluded that these small schooling fish are a crucial link in marine food webs because they consume phytoplankton and in turn are preyed upon by a variety of animals that may switch from one forage fish species to another, depending on relative abundance.

In computer model simulations, reduced harvest of forage fish led to persistence of top predators, and more fish for fisheries.

The harvest of these forage fish has increased with demand, as they are used not only for food – from canned sardines to anchovies on pizza – but primarily for fish meal and fish oil to feed farmed fish, pigs and chickens. They also are used as nutritional supplements for people.

“Traditionally, we have been managing fisheries for forage species in a manner that cannot sustain the food webs, or some of the industries they support,” said Ellen K. Pikitch of Stony Brook University in New York, who led the task force. “As three-fourths of marine ecosystems in our study have predators highly dependent on forage fish, it is economically and biologically imperative that we develop smarter management for these small but significant species.”

The report estimates that forage fish worldwide generate $5.6 billion as direct catch, but contribute more than double that - $11.3 billion – by serving as food for other commercially important fish.

Oregon State’s Heppell said conservative management is particularly important because these forage fish are subject to major fluctuations. Sardines almost completely disappeared from the northern California Current System for about 30 years then reappeared during the 1980s. By the 1990s, sardines were again harvested and their numbers peaked around 2000, but have begun dropping again.

Likewise, eulachon smelt once filled many Northwest rivers and have largely disappeared, she noted.

"There has been a growing concern by commercial and recreational fishing groups about the status of forage fish, because they are so important to their livelihood,” said Heppell, who is on the science team of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages West Coast fisheries.

“This report underscores the need for ecosystem-based management because the success of forage fish is important for dozens of other species that we care about,” she added.

The report is called “Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a Crucial Link in Ocean Food Webs.” More information on the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force is available at: http://www.oceanconservationscience.org/foragefish/

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Selina Heppell, 541-737-9039

Scientists still following far-ranging Varvara as Russian whale returns

NEWPORT, Ore. – After visiting three different lagoons in the Pacific Ocean side of Baja Mexico, a rare western gray whale named “Varvara” is migrating up the West Coast – presumably en route to her home range near Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

The Mexican lagoons are known calving and breeding grounds for eastern gray whales and Varvara may have gone there in search of a partner, scientists say.

“She did not calve for sure, or she would have stayed in one place for four to eight weeks because the calves need to gain strength, coordination and blubber – for fuel and insulation,” said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. “More likely, she would have been breeding this year and spent time around three areas where that activity is commonly seen.”

By Friday, the 9-year-old female was near the Washington/Canadian border, traveling northward at a rate of up to 100 miles a day.

There is “great interest” in Varvara’s journey in Tofino, the whale watching hub on the west coast of Vancouver Island, according to Jim Darling of the Pacific Wildlife Foundation, who has studied whale populations for years.

“Many have been following each update on Varvara since she passed on her southward trek last January,” Darling said. “Among the many things Varvara and Flex have taught us is the potential for intermingling between the western and eastern gray whales – not only on breeding grounds, but during migrations and spring feeding aggregations along the way.”

The public can follow the travels of Varvara online at: http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2011

The long-distance journey of Varvara – which means Barbara in Russian – is critical because this is the first time scientists have documented that critically endangered western gray whales travel to Baja Mexico, where eastern gray whales frequent. Western gray whales are thought to be genetically distinct from their more populous cousins that are common up and down the West Coast, but Varvara clearly was mingling with eastern gray whales.

Mate said there are only about 130 western gray whales in the world and the behavior of Varvara has significant ecological and management implications.

“Clearly the experience of Varvara, and Flex before her, demonstrates that western gray whales can and do come over to the eastern Pacific,” Mate said. “Whether this suggests that they are not a distinct population or that we underestimated their range isn’t yet clear.”

Last year, American and Russian scientists teamed up to follow “Flex,” a 13-year-old western gray whale that journeyed across the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean to Vancouver Island and down to Oregon before the tag finally quit working. The scientists returned to Sakhalin Island last fall to tag a half-dozen western gray whales and this time one of the tags, on Varvara, lasted all the way through her journey to the Sea of Cortez and is still transmitting – some 8,000 miles later.

“The average tag survives 123 days,” said Mate, who works out of OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center, “and this one is still working. Hopefully it will last so we can see if Varvara takes the same route back to Russia, or travels through different waters.”

In the 1970s, western gray whales were thought to have gone extinct, but a small aggregation was discovered by Russian scientists off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored by Russian and U.S. scientists since the 1990s. Eastern gray whales likewise were decimated by whaling and listed as endangered, but conservation efforts led to a recovery and, at 18,000 strong, they have been delisted.

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Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

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Varvara
Varvara returns north

Scientists document first consumption of abundant life form, Archaea

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists has documented for the first time that animals can and do consume Archaea – a type of single-celled microorganism thought to be among the most abundant life forms on Earth.

Archaea that consume the greenhouse gas methane were in turn eaten by worms living at deep-sea cold seeps off Costa Rica and the West Coast of the United States. Archaea perform many key ecosystem services including being involved with nitrogen cycling, and they are known to be the main mechanism by which marine methane is kept out of the atmosphere.

The finding of this new study adds a wrinkle to scientific understand of greenhouse gas cycles. Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, have been published online in the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal, a subsidiary of the journal Nature.

“This opens up a new avenue of research,” said Andrew Thurber, a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “Archaea weren’t even discovered until 1977, and were thought to be rare and unimportant, but we are beginning to realize that they not only are abundant, but they have roles that have not fully been appreciated.”

Archaea are considered one of the three “domains of life” on Earth, along with bacteria and eukaryota (plants and animals). Despite their abundance, no member of the Archaea domain has been known to be part of a food web.

One of the basic questions scientists have asked is whether this life form could act as a food source for animals. To answer this, the researchers performed a laboratory study during which they fed two types of Archaea to the worms, as well as meals of bacteria, spinach or rice, and the worms thrived on all of the food sources, growing at the same rate.

“That showed us that Archaea can be a viable food source for at least some animals,” Thurber pointed out. 

Thurber and his colleagues initially were looking at biological life forms at a cold seep in the deep ocean off Costa Rica, when they opened up a rock and found worms living within the crevices. They found that the worms had been feeding on Archaea, which had, in turn, been consuming methane. They were able to trace the isotopic signature of the methane from the Archaea to the worms.

From what they learned from the Costa Rican study, the scientists also discovered that worms of the same family as those found in the rocks consume methane-munching Archaea at cold seeps off northern California and at Hydrate Ridge off the central Oregon coast, west of Newport. The researchers think the family of worms, the Dorvilleids, uses its teeth to scrape the Archaea off rocks.

The consumption of Archaea by grazers, a process coined “archivory” by Thurber in the article, is particularly interesting because the only way it could be documented was by tracing the isotopic biomarkers from the methane. When the researchers attempted to trace consumption of Archaea through lipid types and other mechanisms, they failed because the chemicals and proteins broke down within the worms.

“It could be that many other animals are consuming Archaea but we haven’t been able to detect it,” pointed out Thurber, who did much of the research as a doctoral candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  “We still haven’t found the right technique to identify animals that eat Archaea that don’t rely on methane, but now we know to look.

“Hopefully, this will open up a lot of new research,” Thurber added, “and provide a greater understanding of how the world works.”

The deep ocean sequesters vast amounts of methane and researchers believe that Archaea consume a majority of it before it reaches the water column. The role of Archaea consumers now will have to be taken into effect, Thurber said.

“We’re not yet sure of the implications,” said Thurber, who is affiliated with OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “But Archaea are found in many different places, from estuaries to the deep sea, so it is possible that they fit into food webs beyond the cold seeps where we documented the process.”

Other authors on the paper include Lisa Levin of Scripps, and Victoria Orphan and Jeffrey Marlow of the California Institute of Technology.

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Andrew Thurber, 541-737-8251

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Archaea-eating worm

 

Archaea rock

Rock where worms, Archaea were found

Study: Endangered Antarctic blue whales show surprising genetic diversity

NEWPORT, Ore. – More than 99 percent of Antarctic blue whales were killed by commercial whalers during the 20th century, but the first circumpolar genetic study of these critically endangered whales has found a surprisingly high level of diversity among the surviving population of some 2,200 individuals.

That, says lead author Angela Sremba of Oregon State University, may bode well for their future recovery.

Results of the study have just been published in the open-access journal, PLoS ONE. As part of the study, the researchers examined 218 biopsy samples collected from living Antarctic blue whales throughout the Southern Ocean from 1990 to 2009, through a project coordinated by the International Whaling Commission.

The genetic survey revealed a “surprisingly high” level of diversity that may help the population slowly rebound from its catastrophic decimation by whalers.

“Fewer than 400 Antarctic blue whales were thought to have survived when this population was protected from commercial hunting in 1966,” noted Sremba, who conducted the research as part of her master’s degree with the Marine Mammal Institute at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.  “But the exploitation period, though intense, was brief in terms of years, so the whales’ long lifespans and overlapping generations may have helped retain the diversity.”

“In fact,” she added, “some of the Antarctic blue whales that survived the genetic bottleneck may still be alive today.”

Prior to whaling Antarctic blue whales were thought to number about 250,000 individuals – a total that dwindled to fewer than 400 animals by 1972 when blue whales were last killed by illegal Soviet whaling. Blue whales are thought to be the largest animals ever to have lived on Earth, said OSU’s Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute and an author on the study – and the Antarctic blue whales were even larger than their cousins in other oceans.

“These animals are very long-lived – maybe 70 to 100 years – and they can grow to a length of more than 100 feet and weigh more than 330,000 pounds,” he said. “There is a jawbone in a museum in South Africa that takes up most of the lobby. This is one reason they were so intensively exploited; they were the most valuable whales to hunt.”

Despite their history of exploitation, little is known about modern-day movements of Antarctic blue whales, which are considered a separate subspecies – differing in size and habitat use – from the smaller “pygmy” blue whales, which live in more temperate regions of the Southern Hemisphere.

Through “microsatellite genotyping,” or DNA fingerprinting, the PLoS ONE study was able to track some of the movements of individual Antarctic blue whales.

“We documented one female that traveled from one side of Antarctica to the other – a minimum distance of more than 6,650 kilometers over a period of four years,” said Sremba, who is now continuing her studies as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU. “It is the first documentation of individual movements by Antarctic blue whales since the end of the commercial whaling era.”

Baker said the long distance movement of a few individuals was “somewhat surprising” in comparison to the evidence for genetic differences between areas of the Southern Ocean. On one hand, it is apparent that individual Antarctic blue whales are capable of traveling enormous distances in search of food.

“On the other hand,” Baker said, “there seems to be some fidelity to the same feeding grounds as a result of a calf’s early experience with its mother. This ‘maternally directed’ fidelity to migratory destinations seems to be widespread among great whales.”

There is much, however, which scientists still don’t know about Antarctic blue whales, Baker pointed out.

“This is a poorly understood species of whales, despite its history of exploitation,” Baker said. “Only now are we developing the technology to study such a small number of whales spread across such a vast habitat.”

The biopsy samples were collected during more than two decades of research cruises supervised by the International Whaling Commission, and with international scientists joining research vessels from the Japanese Ministry of Fisheries.

Now that their population is slowly recovering, future studies may focus on Antarctic blue whales’ migration patterns, and the locations of their breeding and calving grounds.

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Angela Sremba, 541-867-0384

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Antarctic blue whale

Lessons for the Northwest: Japanese death toll could have been worse…

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An estimated 20,000 people died or are missing after a massive earthquake-induced tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, yet some 200,000 people were in the inundation zone at the time.

The fact that 90 percent of the coastal region’s residents and visitors evacuated effectively is a tribute to planning and community drills, said Patrick Corcoran, an Oregon State University education and outreach specialist, who just returned from a disaster symposium at United Nations University in Japan.

If the same magnitude earthquake and tsunami hits the Pacific Northwest, he said, the death toll will be much higher because of the lack of comparable preparation. That 90 percent rate could be the number of victims, not survivors.

“Our human nature is not tuned in to long-term threats and 300-year-cycle disasters,” Corcoran said. “It takes a big cultural shift to go from not thinking about an earthquake and tsunami to really and truly expecting one.”

Although some Oregon communities have been proactive, most are so overwhelmed meeting immediate needs that tsunami preparedness is not a priority.

“The small size of Oregon coastal communities relative to the magnitude of the hazard also plays a role,” Corcoran said. “Expecting these small communities to prepare for a level of safety for seasonal homeowners and visitors from throughout the state would be somewhat akin to Portland hosting the Olympic Games. They couldn’t do it alone.”

“To be fair, the Japanese have been dealing with this threat for hundreds of years and it has been on our minds for a decade or so,” he added. “But we had better start taking the eventuality of an earthquake and tsunami a lot more seriously.”

A Sea Grant Extension specialist, Corcoran has worked for several years with Oregon coastal communities on earthquake and tsunami preparedness, as well as resilience to major storms and other natural hazards. He recently toured several communities in Japan that had been ravaged by the tsunami, most of which had been completely destroyed below the tsunami inundation line.

“What was striking,” Corcoran noted, “is how intact the homes and schools were just above that elevation. There was a clear line of safety. If you got above it, you were safe. If you didn’t, you weren’t. It wasn’t that far for most people – you just had to know where the line was and get to it. And most of them did.”

Japanese officials, in talking about rebuilding the village, are considering new approaches to development. Industrial, commercial and other non-residential buildings might be concentrated in the most vulnerable areas while homes, schools, hospitals and other crucial services would be located either out of the inundation zone or closer to high ground.

“That is the kind of planning the Pacific Northwest needs to consider,” Corcoran said. “It isn’t economically feasible to immediately shift our hospitals and nursing homes. But over a period of years or decades, when new facilities are being considered, preference might be given to sites at high elevations.

“A vast majority of the fatalities in Japan were among the elderly and a good portion of the others were family members and emergency personnel who went in after them when they realized they hadn’t been evacuated. Traffic jams cost lives.”

Corcoran said state and local agencies in Oregon have begun taking action, including producing new evacuation maps and improving communication and incident command plans.

“As good as our local emergency officials are, they will be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the circumstances,” Corcoran said. “Preparation must begin with the individual, then focus on mutual aid among neighbors, and finally on public aid and assistance. Businesses, too, must support the safety of their employees and customers.”

There are several examples of coastal communities preparing for an earthquake and tsunami.

  • Cannon Beach has commissioned evacuation maps and inundation models, hired a community preparedness coordinator, explored a vertical evacuation structure, and is looking into caching supplies at evacuation sites;
  • The Seaside School District is studying relocating all of its schools on a common campus outside the inundation zone;
  • OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport has increased its educational efforts on earthquakes and tsunamis, and held evacuation drills for employees.

“The question,” Corcoran said, “is whether we are preparing at a level commensurate with the risk.”

Communities and individuals can prepare for natural disasters by understanding that they eventually will happen. Once you accept that, Corcoran said, preparation becomes second nature. Identify areas of high ground near your home, work and recreation areas. Work to make them accessible. Then conduct practice drills on how to get to them.

“Our society tends to be dismissive of drills,” Corcoran said. “They are silly, they are embarrassing and it’s usually raining. The only people who actually do drills are high schools and nursing homes because they are required to. But drills save lives, as they learned in Japan.”

A final obstacle for West Coast residents to overcome, Corcoran said, is the feeling that technology will provide the answer.

“Oregon clearly needs to increase its standards for structural design and engineering for public buildings and infrastructure – and that long-term effort is under way,” Corcoran said.  “But we need to devote at least as much attention to educate and train locals and visitors on the basics of evacuation. We need to keep making progress on all fronts.”

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Patrick Corcoran, 503-325-8573

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Corcoran in Japan Corcoran and Japanese memorial Japanese village inundation

Verena Tunnicliffe to deliver OSU “Vents” lecture on March 1

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Verena Tunnicliffe, a University of Victoria marine ecologist and explorer of deep-sea environments, will deliver a free public lecture at Oregon State University on Thursday, March 1, to commemorate OSU’s Hydrothermal Vents Discovery Day.

Tunnicliffe’s lecture is sponsored by the “Frontiers of Science” lecture series.

“Beyond the Mid-Ocean Ridge: Hydrothermalism and Vent Communities on Volcanic Arcs of the Western Pacific,” will provide a biologist’s viewpoint of hydrothermal eruptions in a different part of the ocean than on ridge crests, which are more widely known. Her talk begins at 4 p.m. in Gilfillan Auditorium on the OSU campus.

The lecture marks the 35th anniversary of the discovery of hydrothermal vents on a research cruise to the Galapagos, led by OSU scientist Jack Corliss. That discovery revealed an entire colony of marine creatures – many of which had never been seen before – and launched a new era of oceanographic exploration.

As more hydrothermal vents were documented beyond the ridge crest systems throughout the world oceans, scientists have discovered life-nurturing conditions in volcanic arcs and seamounts that have their own geophysical, chemical and biological features. Life at volcanoes ranges from shallow-water “smokers” to liquid carbon-dioxide vents and pools of molten sulfur.

These will be a focus of the presentation by Tunnicliffe, which is sponsored by OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Tunnicliffe has worked closely with researchers at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, including Bill Chadwick and Susan Merle, on explorations of undersea volcanoes and associated hydrothermal vent colonies. She is a principal investigator with the Canadian Healthy Ocean Network, as well as the director of Ocean Network Canada’s VENUS (Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea) cabled observatory.

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Bob Collier, 541-737-4367

Oregon Sea Grant funds $2 million in ocean and coastal research for 2012-14

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon Sea Grant has committed nearly $2 million to nine research and outreach projects over the next two years, including investigations into hypoxia and ocean acidification, community tsunami preparedness, and the migration and diseases of native salmon.

The competitive awards are funded by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) dollars awarded to the Oregon program as one of the nation's 32 National Sea Grant College Programs.

"This round of funding focuses on projects that speak to Sea Grant's key issue areas and national program goals, as well as OSU's emphasis on promoting healthy ecosystems, economies and people," said Stephen B. Brandt, director of Oregon Sea Grant.

The nine research teams will receive between $76,000 and $90,000 in each of the two grant years. The federal dollars are expected to leverage more than $500,000 in state and foundation matching funds over the grant cycle.

All Sea Grant-supported research is required to include an outreach/public engagement component. Sea Grant Extension and communications faculty collaborate with researchers on that aspect of their work, whether it's enlisting fishermen to help gather marine data, developing publications for targeted audiences or working with communities to develop and improve emergency response plans.

Oregon Sea Grant is also collaborating with three other West Coast Sea Grant programs – Washington, California and Southern California – on two major regional projects. One will apply social science measures to evaluate fisherman-to-consumer direct marketing in coastal communities. The other will attempt to develop a system of measuring and predicting the resilience of coastal communities to climate change. Together, the four Sea Grant programs are contributing $700,000 to those projects over two years.

Sea Grant-funded research projects for 2012-2014 are:

  • “An Integrated Engineering-Economic Vulnerability Assessment Tool to Increase Tsunami Preparedness in Rural Coastal Counties.” Young Chen, OSU Agricultural & Resource Economics, $180,202;
  • “Understanding, Forecasting and Communicating the Linkages between Hypoxia and Ocean Acidification in Oregon's Coastal Ocean,” Francis Chan, OSU Zoology, $177,531;
  • “Developing Realistic Metrics of Acidification Stress for Commercially Important Bivalves in Variable Habitats,” George Waldbusser, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences,  $175,137;
  • “Predicting Habitat Quality of Juvenile English Sole and Dungeness Crab in Coastal and Estuarine Nursery Grounds,” Lorenzo Ciannelli, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, $180,112;
  • “Taking Stock of Oregon’s Nearshore Fisheries: Development of Simple Assessment Tools for Better Management,” Selina Heppell, OSU Fisheries & Wildlife, $175,724;
  • “Geomagnetic Imprinting and Homing in Salmon and Steelhead,”David Noakes, OSU Fisheries & Wildlife, $179,270;
  • “Realized and Potential Larval Connectivity along the Oregon Coast,” Harold Batchelder, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, $167,100;
  • “Modeling Myxozoan Disease in Pacific Salmon: Establishing Watershed Models for Predicting Effects of Climate Change,” Jerri Bartholomew, OSU Microbiology, $76,729;
  • “Tides, Freshwater and Winds: Modeling the Impacts of Currents on the Oregon Inner Continental Shelf and Within Yaquina Bay Estuary,” James Lerczak, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, $169,117.

Details about the projects are available at http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/research/current-research

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Stephen B. Brandt, 541-737-3396

"Patchiness” altering perceptions of ocean predators, prey

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists and resource managers have always been interested in how animals in the ocean find their prey and the relative health of marine ecosystems is often judged by the abundance of food for the myriad species living there.

But new studies focusing on ocean “patchiness” suggest that it isn’t just the total amount of prey that is important to predators – it is the density of the food source, and ease of access to it.

Kelly Benoit-Bird, an Oregon State University oceanographer, outlined the importance of this new way of looking at ocean habitats during a keynote talk Wednesday (Feb. 22) at the 2012 Ocean Sciences meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sophisticated new technologies are helping scientists document how predators target prey, from zooplankton feasting on phytoplankton, to dolphins teaming up to devour micronekton, according to Benoit-Bird, who received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.

“We used to think that the size and abundance of prey was what mattered most,” said Benoit-Bird, a marine ecologist who studies relationships among marine species. “But patchiness is ubiquitous in marine systems and ultimately dictates the behavior of many animals and their relationships to the environment. We need to change our way of thinking about how we look at predator-prey relationships.”

Benoit-Bird pointed to a section of the Bering Sea, where her research with collaborators had estimated the abundance of krill. Closer examination through the use of acoustics, however, found that the distribution of krill was not at all uniform – and this may explain 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 accessible to predators.”

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 says, 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
Dense patches of food draw ocean predators

OSU scientist receives prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Angelicque “Angel” White, an oceanographer from Oregon State University, has received a 2012 Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Fellowships were awarded to 126 top young researchers in the United States and Canada. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars identified as rising stars and the next generation of scientific leaders.

“Today’s Sloan Research Fellows are tomorrow’s Nobel Prize winners, said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Sloan Fellowships historically have been awarded in seven fields, including chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, and physics. This year, the foundation expanded to include ocean sciences and awarded eight fellowships in that field, including the one to White.

White is an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences whose work focuses on ocean productivity and phytoplankton physiology. She is a member of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE), and has been active in a collaborative project to monitor harmful algal blooms off the Oregon coast.

She also has studied the Pacific Ocean “garbage patch,” a huge collection of plastic trapped in a gyre off the West Coast, which she has described as problematic, but exaggerated in scale in many media reports.

Sloan Fellowships provide $50,000 over two years for equipment, technical assistance, professional travel, trainee support and other activities supporting the fellow’s research.

A list of the 2012 recipients is available at: www.sloan.org/fellowships/page/21

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Angel White, 541-737-6397