Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station celebrates 25 years
SOUTH BEACH — Thanks to its designation as Oregon’s Land Grant University, Oregon State University has 11 agricultural experiment stations located throughout the state. At these scattered facilities, scientists and students conduct applied research to improve agricultural techniques, conserve natural resources and assist agricultural communities economically. These outposts, often located on former farms with large acreages of land surrounding them, support collaborative research where scientists respond to issues important to the local community.
One of these stations, the first one of its kind in the country, is not like the others. The Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station (COMES), headquartered at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in South Beach and the Seafood Lab in Astoria, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. COMES conducts research on Oregon’s marine resources and coastal ecosystems with the goal of guiding sustainable use of these resources to benefit coastal communities and the whole state, region, and nation.
Gil Sylvia, the director of COMES, explained that, like the other agricultural experiment stations, COMES’ mission is threefold: “We focus on research that will help provide economic benefits, social support, and resource conservation to coastal communities.”
COMES was the brainchild of members of Newport’s fishing industry, who saw how traditional agricultural experiment stations benefitted agrarian communities elsewhere in the state. In the mid-1980s, Newport fisherman Barry Fisher and others approached the director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center, Lavern Weber, about whether a coastal equivalent could be established here, with a focus on fisheries. In 1989, Fisher, Weber, and others got the green light from the university, and ultimately from the state legislature – experiment stations are funded as a line item in the state budget rather than via the university’s budget.
Critical element of early success
Sylvia credits the leadership and vision of both Weber and Fisher for establishing COMES. He recalls Fisher’s larger-than-life persona as being critical to COMES’ early success. “He was intelligent, and he had a vision and a strategy to get things done,” Sylvia said. “When he came into a room, that room changed. He was the commander.”
Once approved, OSU staffed the new station by folding in a few existing faculty positions already located at HMSC, and hiring a few more – Sylvia, an economist, among them. Weber, already the HMSC Director, was also the COMES director at first, before it became clear that a separate COMES director was necessary.
First major project
COMES hit the ground running. Its first major project was working with the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association (OCZMA), the seafood industry, and other partners to develop a shoreside quota allocation for Oregon’s whiting fishery. Prior to their successful initiative, whiting was largely captured and processed at sea by large domestic catcher/processor boats (and before that, by West Coast fishermen who delivered their catch to offshore Soviet processing boats, in a unique joint venture). Oregon fishermen wanted to build processing plants on shore and have the National Marine Fisheries Service give the “first cut” of the whiting quota to vessels who would deliver their catch to these shore-based processors.
Sylvia recalled the very first meeting, facilitated by OCZMA, about this issue. “Barry Fisher said we needed a plan to show that we could process whiting on shore, and the effort needed funding. He put a personal check for $25,000 on the table. We walked out with $150,000. I called it the ‘Fisher Multiplier Effect.’”
That first pot of funding supported multiple projects on whiting marketing and quality, market research, and plans for infrastructure development that, within one year, had laid the groundwork for the shoreside allocation. Whiting is now the largest fishery by volume in Oregon.
Other COMES success stories followed. The experiment station used its mix of expertise and its collaborative approach to develop the albacore fishery in Oregon. Prior to COMES’s focus on albacore, almost all of this delectable species was exported out of the U.S. whole and unprocessed, canned abroad, and then sold back to American markets. COMES conducted research on how to handle the fish properly once it was landed, and conducted extensive market research to establish a local market for the tuna.
Where it’s at today
Today, COMES researchers study salmon genetics, oyster propagation, fish population dynamics, and marine mammal ecology. The Astoria Seafood Lab is a national and international epicenter of research on surimi, the fish protein from which artificial crab and other products are made. COMES researcher Jessica Miller continues to lead the efforts to study the potentially invasive species on the large Japanese dock freed from its moorings by the 2011 tsunami that washed ashore in Newport. All told, COMES includes about a dozen faculty, 40 graduate students, and about 15 staff. More details about COMES research projects can be found on their web site, marineresearch.oregonstate.edu
“The key to COMES’ success is its interdisciplinary work,” Sylvia said. “The problems themselves are interdisciplinary, and so I don’t know another way to approach them.”
The total budget of COMES is about $1 million annually while it brings in about $4 million in grants each year. “The economic impact we’ve had based on our work supporting Oregon fisheries, is probably about $50 million per year,” Sylvia said.
Celebrating 25 years
COMES’ silver anniversary will be celebrated at this year’s Marine Science Day, the annual open house held at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. A room will be dedicated to displays about COMES research, and visitors will be able to take self-guided tours of the salmon genetics laboratory. In addition, the plenary talk of the event will feature Sylvia, fisherman and Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson, and Michael Morrissey, former director of the Astoria Seafood Lab and current director of OSU’s Food Innovation Center in Portland. Their presentation, entitled “A Food Chain of Fisheries Research,” will tell the story of the marine experiment station. The presentation, which will introduced by State Sen. Arnie Roblan, will be at 3 p.m. in the HMSC Visitor Center auditorium.