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Sea star wasting expands, new recommendations emerge

Posted by: | October 31, 2014 Comments Off |


Purple starfish afflicted with sea star wasting near Newpor, OR

Purple starfish afflicted with sea star wasting near Newport, OR Photo courtesy of Sheanna Steingass, oregonbeachcomber.com

Sea stars continue to waste and die along the US West Coast, and while researchers aren’t yet certain what’s causing the outbreak to spread, they’re beginning to suspect a combination of increased water temperatures that weaken the animals and leave them vulnerable to infection from opportunistic bacteria and parasites.

Dubbed Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SSWS) the condition emerged in patches nearly a year ago, and by June had become serious enough that scientists convened in Newport to discuss what they were seeing, what was known and what remained to be learned.  Since that meeting, the disease has spread both north into Alaska and south to Baja California.

“The expansion up into Alaska is really problematic because the California current comes across the northern part of Vancouver Island and then down, and this has jumped into a whole other current system,” explained Steve Rumrill, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Rumrill and his colleague Dr. Tim Miller-Morgan, an aquatic veterinarian with Oregon Sea Grant, have been busy drafting documents that synthesize what is known about the outbreak. They summarized those documents at the recent State of the Coast conference in Florence. The papers underline key issues and research recommendations for continued monitoring, studies about pathology, investigation of ecological impacts, handling of captive animals and outreach programs. Recommendations include creating uniform signage and information displays for the public, and establishing a database for scientists to post observations about the disease in their areas.

The outbreak’s cause remains elusive. While some institutions are documenting what appears to be an infectious trend among stars, pathologists have been unable to find evidence of a specific infectious agent.

“Many of the pathologists are saying that there is no evidence of an infectious agent,” Miller-Morgan said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t one. But when they are looking at slides, they aren’t seeing any evidence that would traditionally be associated with an infectious process.”

They have found a variety of bacteria and parasites associated with infected stars, however. This supports the leading theory that some initial cause—whether pathogenic or environmental—deteriorates the stars outer layer, exposing them to secondary invaders. Increases in water temperature appear to be a significant factor in the syndrome, but the exact role that plays has yet to be determined.

“We have identified new areas and directions that need more research, and we have added more questions to the pile,” said Miller-Morgan. “The other thing is that there really is an impetus now to get together more regularly.”

On the bright side, field biologists have recently observed relatively large numbers of juvenile sea stars in a wide variety of tidal zones along the west coast.

“It is encouraging that the juvenile sea stars are beginning to emerge,” said Rumrill.  “Juveniles have become a prominent component of the remaining populations at several sites, and the mixed groups of tiny and middle-sized stars may be an indicator of multiple recruitment events.  However, it is not clear what role these new juveniles will pay in the overall recovery of sea star communities.”

The outbreak is gaining national attention since reports of a similar outbreak on the East Coast.  Marine animal health experts from both coasts will meet at an upcoming Fish Health Conference in South Carolina to discuss parallels in the syndrome. Rumrill and Miller-Morgan also plan another West Coast symposium to share what researchers and aquarists are learning about the syndrome and what might be done in response.

For more information, or to assist with a citizen science project, visit the Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring website.

under: Oregon Sea Grant

Contest enlists students, teachers to stop invasives

Posted by: | October 28, 2014 Comments Off |

Media ContestOregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Invasive Species Council are enlisting high school students and teachers across Oregon in a multimedia art contest, “Don’t Let It Loose,” urging classrooms to avoid releasing school pets and lab animals into the wild.

Winning student artists and their teachers will receive prizes of up to $400 in each of two categories: static images, and moving media including videos, animations and motion graphics. In particular, organizers are encouraging entries that can be translated into mobile apps and other new technology.

Entries will be judged on how well they convey the “Don’t Let It Loose” message, their visual effectiveness (is the message memorable? Does it compel action?), universal appeal (is the message clear to everyone, regardless of age, language or education level?) and originality.

The contest ties in with an ongoing educational campaign created by Sea Grant’s Watershed and Invasive Species Education (WISE) program, which works to bring invasive species education into the classroom via teacher training, lesson plans and classroom activity guides. The program focuses in part on the perils of turning non-native classroom animals loose in the environment, where they can out-compete native species and become major pests. The program got a boost last year from Oregon cartoonist Jan Eliot, whose popular syndicated cartoon “Stone Soup” featured a storyline about the issue, and who permitted Sea Grant to use her cartoon image in its education campaigns.

For details about the contest, which has a March 15, 2015 deadline, visit the OISC Website.


under: invasive species, k-12 teachers, STEM education

Students debate wave energy at coastal conference

Posted by: | October 27, 2014 Comments Off |

FLORENCE – Oregon State University Fisheries and Wildlife students exchanged arguments about whether wave energy should be supported in Oregon at last weekend’s State of the Coast conference – and  every statement had to to be backed by a scientific source.

“We are trying to emphasize critical thinking skills,” said professor Scott Heppell,  who taught the debate class. “This is not about memorizing facts, but to learn how to objectively evaluate the evidence available for any given natural resource issue and come to a rational conclusion.”

Fisheries and Wildlife students debate wave energy in Oregon at the State of the Coast Conference.

The eight students were randomly assigned to one side of the issue in class regardless of their personal opinion, and tasked with finding ways to support their arguments. The two teams of four sat at adjacent conference tables on the Florence Events Center theatre stage. Heppell started the session off with an overview of the issue to the audience of about 60 conference attendees.

The debate was part of a new conference format intended to reach a broader audience. Heppell’s wife and fellow professor, Selina, organized the student participation at the conference.

Team Yes hit the ground running with data suggesting that wave energy would significantly reduce Oregon’s reliance on coal and natural gas. Jordan Ellison, one of the undergraduate students on the team, reinforced the science with an economic incentive.

“Wave energy is expected to produce thousands of engineering jobs, as well as business for the coastal communities,” she said.

Following a strong opening by their opponents, Team No retaliated with dollars and cents. Estimates vary, but the cost of one facility would be upwards of $300 million, they said.

Team Yes also made a case for establishing marine reserves  around the devices and asserted that the structure would be beneficial to marine organisms. Team No shot back with concerns about disrupted migration patterns, and an overall lack of knowledge as to how these impacts would actually play out.

“We think the ecological and economic costs of these structures outweighs the benefit,” said Michelle Huppert, a member of Team No, in her closing argument. “Really what we need is more research on the marine environment before we make these costly decisions.”

While there was no clear winner in the debate, Huppert’s view was recently corroborated by Ocean Power Technology’s decision to withdraw its support for wave energy in Oregon, citing the exorbitant cost.

OSU scientists deploy wave energy test device

OSU scientists deploy wave energy test device

Research on the environmental and economic impacts are still ongoing at OSU, however, and organizers hoped the debate would help both students and community members understand the issue as renewable resources continue to gain popularity.

“Most of these questions aren’t science question; they are societal questions,” Heppell said following the debate. “Science can answer the question: ‘if we want to have wave energy, what are the expected outcomes?’”

Both teams said the exercise taught them to look at problems objectively. The future of wave energy on the Oregon coast is uncertain, but critical thinking skills will benefit these students as they tackle other marine issues throughout their careers.


under: conferences, Oregon Sea Grant, wave energy

State of the Coast Draws 200 Coastal Stakeholders

Posted by: | October 27, 2014 Comments Off |

Sea Grant director Shelby Walker opens 2014 State of the Coast FLORENCE – Roughly 200 people from around Oregon came together on Saturday at Oregon Sea Grant’s State of the Coast conference to discuss ocean change and adaption. The conference, at the Florence Events Center, began with a welcome from Oregon Sea Grant’s director, Shelby Walker, and 9th District State Representative, Caddy McKeown. The keynote speaker was author Paul Greenberg, who informed the “fishy crowd” about the inspiration behind his best-selling books, “Four Fish” and “American Catch.” Among the audience were students from Oregon State University and University of Oregon, along with professors, scientists, representatives from NOAA, Oregon Parks and Recreation. the Nature Conservancy, and legislators. This year’s conference was the 10th annual of what used to be called the Heceta Head Coastal Conference. Unlike previous years, multiple break-out sessions characterized State of the Coast, a change that was met with positive feedback from participants. The morning was filled with “stage-setting talks” focused on changes the coast has experienced in the past several decades. A new component of the conference focused on food concerns, a theme reflected in a presentation by Newport’s Local Ocean restaurant owner Laura Anderson as well as in break-out sessions. The event offered students an opportunity to share their marine-related research. Student researchers from the OSU Marine Resource Management and the U of O School of Law programs presented their poster projects to attendees who helped judge the content. The categories were effectiveness in communicating research, accessibility of the information presented, and overall design for reaching a general and diverse audience. Keynote speaker Paul Greenberg speaks with State of the Coast attendee The afternoon allowed attendees to choose break-out sessions based on their interests. These included seafood cooking demos, a student debate on wave and wind energy by the OSU Fisheries and Wildlife department, a hands-on educational session on oysters, and a discussion of the sea star wasting syndrome that is sweeping the west coast, among others. State of the Coast was filled with multi-faceted learning, networking, and cooperative exchange between Oregon’s coastal stakeholders. The one-day conference was concluded by 5th District State Senator Arnie Roblan, whose remarks highlighted the importance of addressing coastal change. “We have a major need to better understand the environment we live in,” Roblan said. “This is a place where local people and the entire coast can come to learn about coastal issues.”

under: conferences, Oregon Sea Grant

State of the Coast conference coming Oct. 25

Posted by: | October 1, 2014 Comments Off |

State of the CoastStudents in the marine sciences and related fields have until Oct. 10 to submit posters for the 2014 State of the Coast conference, taking place Oct. 25 at the Florence Events Center in Florence, on the southern Oregon coast.

State of the Coast – formerly known as the Heceta Head Coastal Conference – invites everyone from scientists to students to industry to citizens to learn, network, and engage in the current and future state of Oregon’s marine environment. The one day conference, organized by Oregon Sea Grant, includes informative talks on current marine science and policy: El Niño, Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, Coastal Energy, Local Food on the Coast, Hazards, and more.

Join us for seafood cooking demos, hands-on learning, and fun.

The student poster session is a dedicated time when conference participants can view posters and interact with student scientists as they explain their marine-related research and results. This is a chance for students to showcase their research, gain professional experience, and network.

Oregon Sea Grant invites posters from advanced undergraduates (juniors or seniors), recent graduates and graduate students. Poster submissions are welcomed in any discipline related to issues and opportunities facing the marine environment: biology, anthropology, law, engineering, policy, chemistry, business, ecology, environmental science, management, and more!

Posters will be judged by conference participants on their effectiveness in communicating research, accessibility of the information presented, and overall design for reaching a general and diverse audience. Prizes will be awarded to the top posters.

For more information on poster submissions: http://www.stateofthecoast.com/student-posters/

Registration is $35, $25 for students and includes lunch. For more information and registration visit http://www.stateofthecoast.com/

under: conferences, Oregon Sea Grant

Floating transponders track tsunami debris path

Posted by: | September 29, 2014 Comments Off |

Japanese transponderCORVALLIS, Ore. – Northwest anglers venturing out into the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of salmon and other fish this fall may scoop up something unusual into their nets – instruments known as transponders, released from Japan to track the movement of marine debris in ocean currents.

About the size of a 2-liter soda bottle, the instruments were intentionally set adrift from different ports off Japan in 2011-12 after the massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Researchers from Tattori University for Environmental Studies in Japan have been collaborating with Oregon State University, Oregon Sea Grant, and the NOAA Marine Debris Program on the project http://www.kankyo-u.ac.jp/research/sri/field/002/results/trackinginfo.

Their goal is to track the movement of debris via ocean currents and help determine the path and timing of the debris from the 2011 disaster. An estimated 1.5 million tons of debris was washed out to sea and it is expected to continue drifting ashore along the West Coast of the United States for several years, according to Sam Chan, a watershed health specialist with Oregon State University Extension and Oregon Sea Grant who has been working with the Japanese and NOAA on marine debris research and outreach since the 2011 earthquake.

These transponders only have a battery life of about 30 months and then they no longer communicate their location,” Chan said. “So the only way to find out where they end up is to physically find them and report their location. That’s why we need the help of fishermen, beachcombers and other coastal visitors.

These bottles contain transmitters and they are not a hazardous device,” Chan added. “If you find something that looks like an orange soda bottle with a short antenna, we’d certainly like your help in turning it in.”

Persons who find a transponder are asked to photograph it if possible, and report the location of their find to Chan at Samuel.Chan@oregonstate.edu; or to the NOAA Marine Debris Program regional coordinator in their area at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/contact-us. They will provide shipping instructions to persons who find the transponders so that the instruments can be returned to the research team.

Learn more

under: marine debris, Oregon Sea Grant, research

Oregon citizens become coastal scientists

Posted by: | September 22, 2014 Comments Off |

You don’t need a degree to be scientist. For more than 30 years, the number of citizen scientists has been steadily increasing along the Oregon Coast as part of an effort to engage people of all ages in scientific activities.

These diligent volunteers work on projects stretching from one-time learning events like a school sampling trip, to long-term data monitoring such as monthly beach surveys.

“There is a range of citizen science,” said Shawn Rowe, an Oregon Sea Grant (OSG) researcher studying citizen science. “Some you go collect data as monitoring projects such as sea stars or bird counts. On the other end of spectrum is a collaborative effort where [volunteers] help design research” – and even write up the results.

Citizen scientist Ralph Breitenstein teaches students about different sampling methods in the Yaquina Bay.

Citizen scientist Ralph Breitenstein teaches students about different sampling methods in the Yaquina Bay.

OSG citizen science projects include programs such as StreamWebs—where K-12 students adopt a stream site to study—and supporting the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST)—where volunteers monitor dead birds on west coast beaches. Moreover, individuals such as Ralph Breitenstein have even taken on independent research projects at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Rowe’s research is two-fold: First, he is looking at what motivates citizens to become scientists. Second, he is analyzing what aspects of citizen science projects are effective. Rowe says there is a tendency to create new programs rather than improve existing ones.

“You may have 5 or 6 groups in one area measuring water quality or marine debris and they might all be using different protocols,” Rowe explained. “We are looking at what we can do besides just running another program.”

The biggest obstacle for any citizen science project is data reliability. COASST, for example, has more than 800 volunteers ranging in age from nine to 90 all conducting the same research. To ensure the data is useful, they have rigorous protocols on top of a five-hour training for volunteers.

“All of the COASST data are collected in the same fashion,” said Jane Dolliver. “There are set beach lengths. You never alter your pattern and you don’t change it up. All of those data—because they are collected the same way across all of the sites—can be compared.”

COASST’s data is regularly used by both state and federal agencies. While many citizen science projects strive for that level of data reliability, others, such as StreamWebs, exist simply to engage students in science.

“That’s the education philosophy now,” said Vicki Osis, who served as OSG Marine Education Specialist from 1971-2002. “When it comes to research, it’s often repetitive tasks, but it does give them a taste of what it is like to do science. You have to gather your data and analyze it.”

OSG’s first attempt to engage citizens was the Seatauqua program in the late 1970s. These free, non-credit courses did not involve monitoring, but they connected non-scientists to science through topics such as tidepooling and beach safety. Osis built upon the success of these classes by integrating the content into school visits, where she also had students conduct water quality monitoring. More than 30 years later, OSG and the Oregon Coast Community College are resurrecting the Seatauqua program.

Since OSG was established in 1971, the number of citizen scientists on the coast has grown steadily. What started with free classes has expanded to include student sampling, bird surveys, water quality monitoring and much more. As these programs continue, researchers like Rowe are helping increase both their effectiveness and longevity.

Below is a list of current citizen science projects connected to Oregon Sea Grant:

  • Oregon Sea Grant (OSG) supports the COASST program, which has hundreds of volunteers from Alaska to Southern California monitoring coastal conditions and checking for dead birds. OSG researcher Shawn Rowe is helping identify what motivates volunteers to participate and stay on for long periods of time. http://depts.washington.edu/coasst/
  • StreamWebs is a monitoring program aimed at K-12 students. The project gets students into nature and allows them track changes to an area over time by graphing data from past studies at the same site.  http://www.streamwebs.org/
  • With Sea Star Wasting Syndrome afflicting west coast echinoderms, citizen science monitoring has been put in place to detect exactly where the outbreak is occurring. http://www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/index-logo.html
  • Ralph Breitenstein is a citizen scientist at Hatfield who has devoted five years conducting research on invasive species in Newport’s Yaquina Bay. He has published his work in a scientific journal along with giving presentations. http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/visitor/get-involved/volunteers-speak
  • The Seatauqua courses—though not strictly citizen science—are being revived after 30 years and offer a way for non-scientists to further their understanding of coastal and marine resources. http://oregoncoastcc.org/seatauqua
under: Oregon Sea Grant

Pet supplies in shop windowScientists have long been aware of the potential environment impacts from using and disposing of the array of products we use to keep ourselves healthy, clean and smelling nice.

Now a new concern is emerging – improper disposal of pet care products and pills.

Dog shampoos, heartworm medicine, flea and tick sprays, and a plethora of prescription and over-the-counter medicines increasingly are finding their way into landfills and waterways, where they can threaten the health of local watersheds. An estimated 68 percent of American households have at least one pet, illustrating the potential scope of the problem.

How bad is that problem? No one really knows, according to Sam Chan, Oregon Sea Grant’s watershed health expert.

But Chan and his colleagues aim to find out. They are launching a national online survey of both pet owners and veterinary care professionals to determine how aware that educated pet owners are of the issue, what is being communicated, and how they dispose of “pharmaceutical and personal care products” (PPCPs) for both themselves and their pets. Pet owners are encouraged to participate in the survey, which will run through Dec. 15. 2014.

“You can count on one hand the number of studies that have been done on what people actively do with the disposal of these products,” Chan said. “PPCPs are used by almost everyone and most wastewater treatment plants are not able to completely deactivate many of the compounds they include.” …

Learn more


under: ecology, environment, Oregon Sea Grant, outreach and engagement, research, social science, water quality

Demystifying modeling

Posted by: | September 15, 2014 Comments Off |

Want to predict the population of a particular whale species 50 years into the future? There’s a model for that. Want to know exactly how much water is moving around one spot of the ocean at any given time? There’s a model for that too.

Modeling has a long history in science, and advancements in technology have significantly improved the capabilities in recent years. Yet, despite our fondness for some new technology – smartphnes, for instance – many people seem to greet scientific models with more skepticism than fascination.

To find out more about modeling and how it can help researchers, Oregon Sea Grant talked with some of the scientists we fund and collaborate with who specialize in modeling.

In its simplest form, a model is a mathematical way of estimating variables that can’t readily be measured in the field.

Selina Hepp3ll teaches teachersWhen laypeople express skepticism or mistrust about models, it may be that they’re nervous or uncertain about the arithmetic.

“Most people don’t think that they can do math,” said Selina Heppell, a Fisheries and Wildlife professor at Oregon State University who specializes in population models. “When in fact they can do math. They use math all of the time although they don’t necessarily realize that they’re doing it.”

Another way to think about a model is as a laboratory experiment where you hold one variable constant and see what happens to the others.

“The point of doing a lab experiment isn’t to know what’s going to happen in the real world, it’s to control factors that you can’t control in the real world so you can see the effect of a couple of variables,” explained Julie Alexander, a postdoctoral researcher studying aquatic invertebrates. “That’s the same goal of a model, to see the effect of variables that you can’t manipulate in the lab.”


If you were a scientist trying to study the presence of particular larvae in Yaquina Bay, you would need information on tides, currents and more. Many of these data can be found in come from existing models, and they are combined with field data to answer research questions.

Moreover, there is a tendency to add additional factors into your system (precipitation, for example) in an attempt to make the model more accurate. In fact, Heppell explains, this approach can make the models less reliable.

“Making a more complicated model adds more parameters which adds more uncertainty,” she said. “That uncertainty can be accounted for, but adding too many details that you don’t know much about can make the model hard to understand and not very useful.”

Each model has its own level of uncertainty based on the data that went into making it. That problem only expands as you combine multiple models with the uncertainty already present in your own data.

To account for this, scientists spend a lot of time analyzing model outputs to ensure the results are reasonable. Microbiology professor Jerri Bartholomew is the lead biologist in her lab studying pathogens, and she constantly checks that the data correlates with her prior knowledge of the species.

“I think transparency is very important. You have to be very honest about what you can say with your model,” she said, adding that her lab also calibrates its models annually against new field data to ensure accuracy.


Technological advancements are improving our ability to reduce uncertainty and run multiple simulations in a short period of time. But new technology does little to help explain models to the general public or decision-makers.

 A large portion of Heppell’s work is reviewing the models used to set fisheries harvest regulations and explaining the outputs to fishermen and coastal leaders. As a modeler, she puts fish life cycle information into equations and simulations to show how various species will be impacted by new policies. She uses Microsoft Excel to help managers see how the model was created and how the outputs change with new information.

“The reason I use Excel is because it’s a platform that everybody has,” she said. “I create modeling tools that I can then give to a manager and they can manipulate it and look at what if this changes and what if that changes.

As models become more widely used in science, it’s important for those who make them know where the data came from, and for those who use them to understand their limitations. Whether field data or computer-generated values are fueling the model, the strength of the source makes all the difference in the usefulness of the model.


Let’s look at a simple model. The link below will take you to an Excel worksheet with information on whale populations. Through this model you can estimate changes in whale abundance over 50 years in the face of changing survival or reproduction affected by stressors like pollution, ship traffic and climate change. By tweaking simple variables such as lifespan and number of offspring, you will be able to see first hand how we can get a sense of the impact our policies have on animals with lifespans as long as your own.

You can find the model here: Modeling Practice

under: fisheries, marine science, Oregon Sea Grant, research

COASTALearning Symposium Oct. 9-10

Posted by: | September 5, 2014 Comments Off |

NEWPORT – Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub are partnering with the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Lincoln County School District to run the annual COASTALearning Symposium in Newport on October 9 and 10.

This professional development event is expected to reach 350 teachers and administrators on the Oregon Coast and focuses on using marine science and coastal natural resources as a context for learning across grades and subjects.  Breakout sessions include topics such as Marine Debris, Fish Habitat and Passage, Ocean Engineering, Watershed Studies, Stewardship Projects, and more.

Learn more:

under: courses, classes and workshops, marine education, ocean literacy, STEM education, symposium

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