On land, the process is fairly straightforward. A farmer plants a crop, nurtures it through a growing period, then harvests and sells it. At sea, things are infinitely more complex.
"The ocean is a big black box that we know so little about," says Lavern Weber, director of Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center. "In most terrestrial agriculture, you grow one crop in one plot. In the ocean, everything grows everywhere. It is very complex and interactive, and we don't know the answers."
Even though the ocean comprises more than 70 percent of the earth's surface, very little is known about what really goes on in its murky depths. "When you pull thousands of tons of fish out of the water, you aren't sure what it does to the other species left behind," says Weber. And what about viruses that kill fish and bacteria that make their texture soft? Or the effect of commercial fishing on the ocean?
The questions persist and the search for answers consumes Weber's time and that of other scientists at the center's headquarters in Newport and at the OSU Seafoods Laboratory in Astoria. These two facilities make up the newest branch in OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station system. It's called the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station (COMES). The mission of the station is to conduct research that leads to better understanding, conservation, utilization and management of Oregon's marine resources. The knowledge gained in the lab and field is then disseminated via articles, publications, workshops and meetings.
"We have learned from the agriculture community the value of close cooperation between scientists and industry," says Gil Sylvia, who took over the job of COMES superintendent from Weber in December 1997. "We can borrow from that model, but there are differences. Because the fishing industry exploits wild and publicly owned resources, it must deal with a federal and state management system that limits catches. It's not like agriculture or a forest."
Sylvia's task is to coordinate the research of eight scientists, and other research associates. These same researchers work collaboratively with specialists from the Oregon Sea Grant program and other agencies headquartered at the center. He also acts as liaison with user groups who benefit from the research, like fishermen and processors. Next year Ed Kolbe, a COMES faculty member, will begin working with the new Food Innovation Center in Portland to improve both product quality and food handling to meet consumer needs.
The Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station was established in 1988 at the suggestion of George Keller, then OSU's vice president for research, and Thayne Dutson, dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. Soon local fishermen went to Salem to lobby for it and the legislature appropriated funding the next year. OSU merged positions in the Departments of Fisheries and Wildlife and Food Science and Technology to create COMES. Weber also credits the late Bill Wick, former director of OSU's Sea Grant program, and local fishermen Barry Fisher and Terry Thompson (now a member of the Oregon Legislature), for help in putting together the original proposal and lobbying for its enactment.
Nothing better exemplifies the cooperative idea behind COMES than the work carried out by one of its key components: the OSU Seafoods Laboratory in Astoria. Although it has been operating since 1938, the laboratory had always functioned as a distant-and at times under-funded-arm of the OSU Department of Food Science and Technology. The link to COMES in 1989 gave the lab a new lease on life.
"We were a poor cousin to the campus department," says Michael T. Morrissey, director. "There was even talk of shutting the lab down. With the creation of COMES, there was the decision to fold us into it. Geographically and politically, it made sense, by linking two parts of the coast concerned with solving problems of one industry. We had done good work in the past, but being a part of a new experiment station could allow us to address the current needs of the coastal communities."
Joining the experiment station system was followed in 1997 by the move from a decrepit building on the Astoria docks to a new 21,000 square foot, $3.2 million facility funded by state and federal money. That was followed last year by the opening of the adjacent 9,500 square foot Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center, which OSU leases to a non-profit agency to run workshops and demonstrations on seafood preparation.
"Our responsibility is to be at the leading edge-in processing, food quality, product development," continues Morrissey. "We take on opportunities as they present themselves, especially as they apply to industry. There is no question, being out here with industry, away from campus, we have a better appreciation of what we and the fishing industry can and cannot do. It's a two-way street. If you help them, they will help you. We transfer the knowledge gained in the research lab to industry."
This transfer of knowledge is well illustrated by the story of surimi, a fish paste made from whiting and used as raw material to make a variety of fish products. For years, Pacific whiting caught in Oregon waters was transferred and sold to Russian, Polish and Korean factory ships at sea. In 1991, domestic catcher/processing vessels began competing in the harvesting and processing of this resource. OSU scientists worked with state agencies and industry to demonstrate that a shore-based industry could produce and market quality Pacific whiting products. As a result, today whiting is one of Oregon's most valuable fisheries.
Morrissey strengthened the lab's surimi research capability by hiring Haejung An, a seafood biotechnologist, and Jae Park, an expert in making surimi. Their early research concentrated on how long whiting could be out of the water and remain usable, and the flesh temperature needed to make high-quality surimi. Early findings indicated that good surimi came with the care and attention given to post-catch time and temperature. This brought about changes in the way fishermen catch the fish. "The Pacific whiting story is a real success," says Morrissey. "It got us on our feet."
Research on surimi and surimi-based seafood continues. Park conducts an annual surimi school in Astoria, attracting 70 people from industry here and abroad who pay $500 each to learn how to make better surimi products. The school creates important industry linkages for the Seafoods Laboratory in Oregon and throughout the world. He has also held two such schools in Thailand and another in France.
The use of Pacific whiting for surimi has created other opportunities in by-product utilization. Park has begun a research program using whiting wastes for the production of fish sauce, a condiment commonly used throughout Southeast Asia. "Preliminary runs show good potential," he says, "and one day you may be flavoring your rice-vegetable dish with whiting fish sauce."
To Sylvia, the whiting story serves as a good example of the kind of interdisciplinary cooperation he is seeking in all of COMES work. He and Morrissey have collaborated on management of the resource in such areas as product quality, harvest impacts, product price and product utilization. "This kind of interdisciplinary work is a great strength of COMES," he says. "It allows us to put all the pieces together."
Here's a look at some of the marine experiment station's other efforts:
Seafood Quality and Safety
In her research, Haejung An focuses on seafood quality and safety. In one study, she is looking at ways to inhibit the activity of protease, enzymes that tend to soften the texture of fish. Soft texture is the most detrimental factor in the marketing of fish, according to An. As a result, seafood consumption in the United States traditionally has been limited to popular species like tuna, cod, snapper and salmon-all of them with firm texture and bland taste.
"A lot of fish are underutilized because they are infected with organisms which, while harmless, make texture softer," she says. She is trying to develop a food additive to treat fish like whiting and flounder now considered undesirable. "If the fish are treated before freezing and cooking, the additive will inactivate the protease enzyme and avoid the tissue-softening problem."
An is also studying histamine, a toxicant produced by the mishandling of fish. Histamine induces a series of allergic reactions in humans. Once it is formed in fish by bacteria, histamine cannot be removed or destroyed by cooking, freezing or processing. She studied the problem and discovered the best way to control histamine is to prevent it from forming by keeping fish cold after harvest. She plans to use these results to see if albacore has some sort of anti-microbial substance to prevent bacterial growth.
It is just this kind of value-added activity that Morrissey is always looking for. "If we can add to the value of a raw material like fish," he says, "it will lead to new processing techniques. Some research shows results the next month, others are five years down the road."
If Gil Sylvia echoes Morrissey's view of the value of the state's newest and most unique experiment station, he is also sometimes bedeviled by the sheer enormity of the task he and others have been given. "The resource is limited by natural constraints," says the affable economist. "We need to understand these biological constraints while attempting to maximize potential benefits for the West Coast and Oregon. We are transitioning from a pioneering era to one in which we need to sustain marine resources."
That kind of pressure may create the very research opportunities scientists are always seeking. COMES staff members in Newport are currently engaged in a great variety of activities.
Can an abalone industry be developed in Oregon? Fisheries professor Chris Langdon is trying to find out by growing these creatures in tanks on a diet of red seaweed. If he and co-workers are successful, the payoff could be big. From 75 to 80 percent of the abalone produced in the United States is sold in Asia, where the Japanese pay more than $70 a pound for it. Their success would also mark the return of an industry that was all but destroyed in the Columbus Day storm of 1962 when pounding waves wiped out the kelp beds where the abalone normally grow.
In another project directed by Langdon, about 300 families of Pacific oysters have been produced at the Marine Science Center since 1997. These families have been planted along the West Coast from Prince William Sound, Alaska, to Tomales Bay, California. The best performing families will be used as broodstock to produce subsequent generations. Each year selected broodstock will be given to the West Coast oyster industry to improve their production.
How do fish viruses kill their victims? Under the direction of OSU microbiologist Paul Reno, graduate student Kyoung Chul Park has been evaluating how substances present in fish serum affect virus growth. He has determined that serum from rainbow trout, coho salmon and chinook salmon possess a natural characteristic, called an inhibitor, that can inactivate a virus. Oddly, neither brook trout nor Pacific herring have the same quality in their serum. Future research will examine the relationship between virulence and resistance to inhibitors.
Reno is also guiding graduate student Hamdi Ogut in laboratory experiments with viral and bacterial pathogens of salmon and trout to find the factors that cause these disease-producing organisms to spread in fish populations and whether this causes disease.
How does the age of a fish affect its reproductive potential? Fisheries senior research assistant Steven Berkeley is trying to find out in several research projects. In one, Berkeley and graduate student Steve Bobko conducted both laboratory experiments and field studies to determine if the time of spawning or material age has anything to do with the higher survival rate of offspring of older fish.
Results of the first year's work indicated that young fish spawn later in the year than older fish and these young fish produce very few surviving juveniles. Further, the offspring of older females had a higher lipid content, suggesting that these fish are healthier. This is significant because fishing has caused a reduction in the proportion of older fish in the population. He plans to continue experiments to determine whether the larvae of older fish survive longer.
Fisheries professor Dave Sampson is studying humans on the ocean, rather than fish. When fishermen set sail, how do they decide what to do when they've crossed the bar and are ready to head for the open sea? Sampson is trying to find out. "How do they organize their trips?" he asks. "Do they turn left or right? How far do they go? What kinds of nets do they use? They make a whole series of decisions based on factors like fish prices, weather, their past experiences and regulations."
In research funded by Sea Grant, Sampson is studying 11 years' worth of trawl fishermen's log books to find out. He hopes to develop a model for how such fishing strategies are determined.
Sampson also conducts stock assessment studies for the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife to figure out if current methods of fish counting are correct. These counts are important because they are used to determine total allowable harvest for various groundfish species. This, in turn, determines the livelihood of fishermen. His research could lead to new ways of dealing with this controversial subject.
One possibility is the system of transferable quotas. Under it, annual quotas of fish could be broken into shares and assigned to individuals or auctioned off. Such an approach could mean less discarding of fish at sea when, for example, a fisherman catches 12,000 pounds but is allowed only 10,000 pounds. Under current rules, the extra 2,000 pounds would have to be thrown overboard.
The work of marine mammalogist Bruce Mate in tagging whales is also funded, in part, by COMES (for more information, see Oregon's Agricultural Progress, Fall/Winter 1998).
Gil Sylvia's own research efforts focus on seafood marketing, fisheries management and policy, and aquaculture-based tourism. He spends a great deal of his time now managing COMES, which operates on a budget of about $450,000 in Newport, with an additional $450,000 administered by Morrissey in Astoria. Another $1.5 million in research funding comes in from various sources for specific projects.
Sylvia considers the interdisciplinary approach the experiment station takes as its greatest strength. "It links scientists in different fields to solve problems through research," he says. "We must open up ourselves to all publics and all issues and use our experts and combine our expertise. Our advantage is that we're not as narrow as a typical academic department. We can address together what we couldn't address alone."
To that end, COMES is aided greatly by its advisory board of three people from the fishing industry, three from fish processing, two from the community, and one environmentalist. "It gives us a direct connection to real problems," Silvia says, "and means that we are much better collaboratively at anticipating future problems and opportunities than we would be if we acted independently."
For Gil Sylvia, the work is just beginning. "We walk that tightrope between management, the university, industry and public policy. We confer with all of them. I'm excited about the challenging task."
But all the good scientists in the world will never be able to unlock all the mysteries of the natural laboratory in which they work. Says Lavern Weber, "About the sea we know so little-for example, the first steps in life cycles. Even a beaker scooped out of the ocean contains a lot of life. But this is the kind of thing a university does best."