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Research at the edge of the Pacific

Research at the edge of the Pacific
Portraits of marine studies from the College of Ag Sciences

The College of Agricultural Sciences might not be the first place you’d expect to find world-class marine research. But here it is. For more than 75 years, our researchers have lived and worked on the Oregon Coast, creating opportunities for coastal communities and economies. Our scientists lead the world in understanding marine systems, from the smallest phytoplankton to the largest mammals on earth.

The following portraits highlight a few of the people who have built this distinction for the College of Agricultural Sciences. Many of our scientists who have blazed this trail are now passing the baton to the next generation of extraordinary scientists. This portrait gallery celebrates the College’s future as well as its legacy of marine research.

Bruce Mate
whale research pioneer

Bruce Mate

Many whale species were almost wiped out in the 19th and 20th centuries. We continue to lose individual whales in ship collisions and, recently, from starvation as ocean conditions change. Yet, we have so much more to learn from them, in terms of ocean health, human health, and climate change. We need to understand their role in all of this. (Photo by Andy Cripe, Gazette-Times.)

For more than 40 years, I’ve tracked whales in every ocean on earth. Over time, we’ve developed the use of satellite-monitored radio tags and sensors to measure ever more precise information about the largest animals on earth.

Our radio tags revealed where these animals migrate to feed and to breed, sending out signals over several months and thousands of miles: “beep, beep, beep, here I am!” Now, we’ve developed sensors that record what’s happening between those beeps—second-by-second behavior of whales, including their location, dive durations, depths, and accelerations. From these data, we can track a sperm whale as it dives a mile down then suddenly lunges toward a giant squid; and we can track the sudden switch of humpback behavior from highly variable dives feeding in southeast Alaska to a steady, arrow- straight migration to Hawaii for breeding.

What I used to love most about this work was the thrill of being on the ocean in the presence of such magnificent animals. I gave up going to sea a few years ago due to age and “mileage.” But I mentored well, and now have great people who are doing a wonderful job of what I used to love to do. Now what I love most is sharing our discoveries with other people and securing the future of the Marine Mammal Institute with the help of likeminded friends. To that end, my wife Mary Lou and I have committed $800,000 as an endowed estate gift to support graduate students at the Institute to continue this conservation-oriented work in perpetuity.

It is important work. Whales are part of the intricate clockwork of nature. You can change the size of some parts, and the system can adjust; but if you rip out a gear, the clock stops. The Marine Mammal Institute has grown into a consortium of many disciplines, with people from many places, working together to make sure that Nature’s clock keeps running on time.

Leigh Torres
marine mammal behavioral ecologist

Leigh Torres

Using a drone has given us a new perspective on whale behavior that we couldn’t get from our traditional, horizontal view from a boat. Now that we can fly above them and look down through the water column, we’re seeing more of what the whales are doing underwater. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

I’ve always been interested in marine mammals and how they make a living in the ocean. Whales are mammals, like us, but they live in a completely different environment. It’s fascinating to me, trying to figure out how they do it.

Whales are very acoustically active. They use sound to navigate, to communicate, to find food and mates. And the louder it gets in the ocean, the harder it is for them to hear and communicate. Think of what it’s like to be at a rock concert. Now imagine that concert was in your kitchen. It would eventually stress you out! And the more stress that you’re under, the more your immune system can be compromised. The same is true for whales.

Ocean noise has been rising for the past several decades, mostly due to huge shipping tankers crossing the oceans, seismic survey exploration, and Navy sonar. And as more and faster ships are introduced, that noise will continue to increase, as well as other impacts on the marine environment, which could affect whales in a multitude of ways.

OSU marine ecologist Leigh Torres talks to National Geographic about a mother blue whale nursing her calf and shares rare drone footage.

Currently, we’re studying the foraging behavior of gray whales—how they forage, where they forage, and how different human impacts like ocean noise, vessel activity, or fishing gear might impact their behavior and health. By understanding whales’ normal behavior and stress levels, we can recognize how these human impacts are affecting the whales and where it might be critical to implement management strategies. Every day we go out on the ocean, we see something new or learn something new about these animals.

Steven Dundas
coastal environmental economist

Steven Dundas

We rely heavily on our coastal environments for a variety of things—where we get our food, where we live, where we recreate. Beginning to understand the value of those services is a first step in designing policies that balance our economic needs and environmental concerns. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

We put incredible pressure on our coasts through development and food production. Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population resides in coastal counties, and many commercial operations are dependent on coastal and marine environments. To preserve coastal ecosystems, we need to understand the full benefits and costs of our actions.

For example, we know the basic costs of “gray” infrastructure, such as riprap and seawalls, to provide certain levels of flood and storm protection. What if we change our thinking and invest in “green” infrastructure through the restoration of dunes and salt marshes? Such natural infrastructure can provide similar levels of protection and also offer benefits from other ecosystem services that habitat restoration provides.

As an economist, I study public demand for these kinds of environmental goods and services. Through a transdisciplinary NOAA grant, my colleagues and I are using the Oregon Coast as our laboratory, specifically looking at green infrastructure investments in four areas of concern: coastal protection, estuary habitat restoration, dune habitat restoration, and landuse in acute hazard zones (think: tsunami). We quantify the value of environmental changes using tools, such as discrete choice surveys, that elicit what people would be willing to pay for these green infrastructure investments.

Understanding public preferences for coastal ecosystem services in the Pacific Northwest will help us inform policy makers and stakeholders to determine where, when, and how to best invest in natural infrastructure. Communicating our research is key. And if government officials and legislators are interested in our work, I am doing my job.

Gil Sylvia
director of Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station

Gil Sylvia

The complex challenges in fisheries, seafood, and marine resources require new ways of thinking; solutions won’t come from a single discipline. They will require different people with different skill sets, willing to learn from each other. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

I enjoy bringing people together—fishermen, faculty, students, and staff—to address tough problems and awesome opportunities. As director of COMES, I help lead this group of people, together with an advisory board made up of members of industry and the public, in addressing two vital questions—how can we get greater value out of using marine resources, and how do we conserve those resources over time in smart, rational ways? The vital mission of COMES is to integrate the concepts of use and conservation in ways that truly align with the principle of sustainability.

Right now, our faculty are working on over 50 projects. Many of these projects are in collaboration with faculty from other colleges and with members of the fishing and seafood industry, people working and living in our coastal communities. Such a transdisciplinary approach is consistent with goals of the Marine Studies Initiative. Translating work into action that creates value for the people of Oregon—that’s what I find most exciting.

Oregon State has amazing abilities to look at ecosystems with a broad biological and sustainable management perspective, and to take a whole food systems perspective. Those two perspectives have led to a new strategic concept called “Food from the Sea.”

OSU has all the elements needed to address the full range of opportunities and issues in the concept of “Food from the Sea” and create something unique worldwide. We have the Hatfield Marine Science Center, the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, the Astoria Seafood Laboratory, and the Food Innovation Center in Portland. And we have partners on campus and collaborators in the fishing, seafood, and processing industries, as well as chefs, restaurateurs, and retailers.

I like the idea of working collaboratively to get the best ideas on the table, and then pulling teams together to actually put those ideas into action.

Scott Baker
cetacean geneticist

Scott Baker

There will certainly be pressure from some nations to return to whaling. It’s difficult to predict how this might be resolved. I’d like to think that any return to commercial exploitation would not repeat the tragic mistakes of the past. Certainly, science has informed us about those mistakes and can help us correct them. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

Exploitation of whales has a long history—over 1,000 years of commercial whaling—and I think we’re moving from that period of exploitation to a stewardship of these populations. Whale populations are recovering, so their role in the ecosystem is likely to change. How we relate to recovering populations, and how they relate to other marine resources (some of which are in demand by humans, some of which are not) is going to be one of the great challenges of the next few decades.

I’m broadly interested in life history, population dynamics, and conservation genetics of whales and dolphins. Some of my work involves surveys of markets selling whale meat in Japan and Korea, using molecular methods to identify species, particularly protected species.

Fortunately for me, I’m also involved in studies of living dolphins and whales. My work has tended to focus on populations that either were under threat in the past or are under threat today, using genetic tools to estimate both abundance and the difference among populations. As a result of some of that research, there has been a major review of the status of humpback whales worldwide.

We no longer think of humpback whales as a single population worldwide or even within a particular ocean. In fact, distinct populations of whales within oceans differ in their abundance, threats, and history of exploitation. Some populations of humpback whales have shown evidence of strong recovery and will now no longer be considered endangered. This allows us to direct our attention to those that have not shown evidence of recovery.

Interacting with living whales and dolphins in their natural environment is one of the great experiences of my life. We share with them so much of our mammalian heritage, but what makes them special, what makes them truly awe inspiring, is their remarkable evolutionary adaptation to the marine environment.

Jessica Miller
fisheries ecologist

Jessica Miller

Ultimately, it’s a question of conservation and management. We have to conserve the marine system, as well as the populations that live within it, particularly if we want to be able to harvest them for food. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

A fish’s life history encompasses all the ways a fish makes a living, including everything it needs to complete its life cycle. We look at how current environmental variability and potential future changes in the ocean could affect how fish grow, how they feed, how they move, and how they survive to reproduce. Without putting all these pieces together, we can’t really understand how the environment is affecting the relative abundance of fish populations.

Most of my research focuses on understanding patterns of life-history variation in salmon and marine fish and how that life-history variation affects our ability to conserve and manage these fish. By considering the entire life history, we can begin to understand why some populations do well in some years and not so well in other years, how various populations are connected, and how individual fish disperse and move around the ocean.

One simple tool I use is a light trap, which catches small marine organisms, like fish larvae, that are attracted to light. At night, they enter through the funnels, and then I collect them early in the morning. What I find helps me investigate questions about early life stages, future quantities, and the significance of various oceanographic factors.

The research is particularly relevant because many populations of Pacific salmon are listed under the Endangered Species Act. If we have a solid understanding of the factors that influence their survival, we can do a good job of managing and maintaining them, so they will be able to support recreational and commercial fisheries into the future.

One of the things I enjoy most about being an academic researcher is that I participate in all aspects of the research. I had several jobs in the past where I completed small parts of a research project or participated in only certain steps. With my position at OSU, I have the opportunity to think through the problems and questions and formulate hypotheses and ways to test them. I also work with students and other collaborators in the field and in the lab. I really do enjoy participating in all parts of the process.

Jason Graff
marine phytoplankton researcher

Jason Graff

If we can understand how the annual cycle of the phytoplankton works in the ocean now, it will help us understand how it might change or look different in a future ocean. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

The phytoplankton bloom in the North Atlantic Ocean is similar to the springtime greening of trees on land, with concentrations of microalgae peaking in April or May. Some phytoplankton blooms are so dense that if you compared a glass of seawater from winter to one from late spring, you could see the difference in color with your naked eye. Even when the difference isn’t visible by looking, we can quantify those changes with samples collected at sea or from remote platforms like satellites.

Our current project (NASA’s North Atlantic Aerosol and Marine Ecosystem Study) is focused on understanding what drives this greening of the North Atlantic Ocean every spring. We make biological, physical, and chemical measurements at sea over multiple seasons, not only to observe bloom dynamics, but also to understand how the ocean and atmosphere interact.

Historically in oceanography, we have relied on chlorophyll measurements to make approximations of phytoplankton carbon or biomass. Knowing the true carbon content of phytoplankton, however, gives us a better understanding of ecosystem dynamics. With our advanced technology, we are now able to isolate phytoplankton cells from seawater and directly measure their carbon content.

When I began studying marine phytoplankton and bacteria, my interest was to make the invisible visible—to visualize and quantify cellular interactions at the microscopic level. Now, I have expanded my investigation to include plankton dynamics on annual and global scales. Using new technologies and data analysis, we can investigate phytoplankton processes to better understand and visualize how these microscopic organisms interact with their ocean environment and the overlying atmosphere.

Scarlett Arbuckle
experiential learning coordinator and instructor

Scarlett Arbuckle

A lot of educational experiences have to happen outside of a classroom. We talk a lot about the importance of transformative, experiential learning, but it can’t happen without opportunities like the Marine Team. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

Most of my work flows through a student group called the Marine Team. It’s a collaborative, interdisciplinary, interdepartmental group focused on ensuring that our students are absolutely prepared going into the job market. The reality is that employers are expecting more and more, and we want to make sure that our students get the most hands-on, real-world experiences in the marine field.

Our program is very focused on engaging with the community. For example, we are doing a multi-year project where we collect specimens from charter fishing boats. After the charter crew has filleted the fish for the customer, our students get the leftover fish carcasses for further dissection. They extract the otoliths (ear bones) to learn life history, take out small pieces of muscle tissue for lipid analysis, and remove the gonads to determine the fish’s reproductive stage. But instead of doing all that back in the laboratory, our students dissect the carcasses right on the dock, right next to the charter boat that caught the fish, with people coming up and asking, “What are you doing?” Students learn to explain their work in the context of this whole other, real-world community. They learn that they really need to communicate their science if it’s going to have an impact.

As the students have this opportunity to work among the fishermen and onlookers, they learn skills that they will incorporate into a bigger project. I think it’s really important for students to feel like they are a part of something bigger, that their science has an impact.

I love working with the students! I often carpool with them, back and forth to the coast, which gives me a chance just to talk with them. It’s mentorship on the road. I love seeing students come out of their shells as they develop a little more confidence. Getting to witness the process—to follow students over time—is really rewarding.