The mighty Pacific Ocean has shown its power—and its vulnerability—in a variety of recent studies by Oregon State University.
Almost overshadowed in the publicity over this year’s restrictions on ocean salmon fishing has been the long-running debate about the merits of wild fish versus hatchery-raised fish. Nowhere is this issue more hotly debated than at the Oregon coast.
At the Oregon Hatchery Research Center, OSU researchers are studying the differences between wild and hatchery salmon and trout. “These are among the most fundamental questions in evolutionary developmental biology, investigating the contributions of genes, the environment, and their interactions,” said director David Noakes.
“Almost everyone has an opinion about the distinctions between hatchery and wild fish, despite a lack of critical evidence,” Noakes said. Hatchery fish may be exposed to artificial selection and domestication, whereas wild fish are exposed to natural selection and a variety of environmental conditions.
At the Hatchery Research Center, a collaborative effort between OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, researchers are able to conduct controlled experiments to test these ideas. “We’re investigating how differences in genes and environments can produce differences between the types of fish,” he said.
New studies outlining rising mercury levels in albacore tuna triggered safety advisories about the dangers of consuming tuna, swordfish, and other fish, especially by young children and pregnant women. But those same agencies offering warnings—the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration—also say that all segments of the population should eat a variety of seafood twice a week.
“The consensus is that the benefits of eating seafood far outweigh any risks,” said Michael Morrissey, director of OSU’s Seafood Laboratory in Astoria. “And the news is even better for Oregon residents. Troll-caught tuna harvested off the Pacific Northwest have lower levels of mercury than larger fish caught elsewhere and used in well-known national brands of canned tuna.” In addition, Morrissey said, many of the local canneries in Oregon coastal communities are processing locally caught tuna in ways that preserve more of the healthy omega-3 oils.
The summer of 2006 was a good one for tuna, which feasted upon huge swarms of baitfish offshore. The baitfish were drawn by strong upwelling of nutrient-rich waters, which fueled phytoplankton blooms and the rest of the marine food chain. Although it seemed to be a banner year for the Pacific Ocean’s productivity, all was not right with the plumbing.
Constant upwelling continued the productivity throughout the summer and after the marine organisms died, or were consumed, they sank to the bottom of the ocean and sucked the oxygen out of the deeper areas, literally starving crabs and other marine life. It was the fifth consecutive year that hypoxia created “dead zones,” but the summer of 2006 created some of the lowest oxygen contents ever recorded in Pacific Northwest waters.
Jane Lubchenco, the Valley Professor of Marine Biology at OSU, led several oceanographic expeditions to investigate the causes and tally the damage.
“Thousands of dead crab and molts were littering the ocean floor; many sea stars were dead; and the fish had either left the area or had died and been washed away,” Lubchenco said, after one research cruise this summer. “Seeing so much carnage was depressing.”
Are the dead zones a natural occurrence or a response to global climate change? Certainly the Pacific has suffered from seasonal low oxygen in the past, but five consecutive years may push the envelope of the “natural occurrence” argument. There is some suggestion that our consumption of fossil fuels is sufficiently warming the planet and bringing carbon into the ocean systems to trigger more phytoplankton blooms that are suffocating the waters. The answers, agree many scientists, lie in more widespread observations of our oceans.
Last year, a team led by OSU oceanographer Jack Barth assembled a new research buoy and moored it off the Heceta Bank, marking the first step in the launch of the Oregon Coastal Ocean Observing System, designed to provide some of the first “real time” oceanographic data from Oregon’s coastal waters. The federally funded project is modeled after the National Weather Service, which collects data from a variety of sources and makes it available broadly to many users. These sophisticated research buoys log water and air temperatures, salinity, wind speed, chlorophyll levels that measure biological productivity, and the oxygen content in the water, which can reveal the presence of dead zones.
In addition, Barth and colleague Kipp Shearman are collaborating with researchers at OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station to deploy remotely operated gliders to collect oceanographic measurements from fishing grounds. These two initiatives, combined with shipboard data from other research cruises, promise to provide scientists with the multifaceted data they need to better understand how the complex ocean system works.
The motion of the ocean is the focus of work by OSU engineer Annette von Jouanne and others working to develop a direct-drive buoy technology that will convert the power in ocean waves into electrical energy capable of powering homes and businesses along the Oregon coast.
The College of Engineering Wave Energy team is researching new designs for direct-drive wave energy generators. They are developing a plan for a National Wave Energy Research and Demonstration Center in Oregon and working with the Oregon Department of Energy to promote Oregon as the site of the nation’s first commercial wave energy park.