Over the Ocean and Under the Bridges: STEM Cruise on the R/V Oceanus

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

From September 22nd through 30th, the GEMM Lab participated in a STEM research cruise aboard the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s (OSU) largest research vessel, which served as a fully-functioning, floating, research laboratory and field station. The STEM cruise focused on integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into hands-on teaching experiences alongside professionals in the marine sciences. The official science crew consisted of high school teachers and students, community college students, and Oregon State University graduate students and professors. As with a usual research cruise, there was ample set-up, data collection, data entry, experimentation, successes, and failures. And because everyone in the science party actively participated in the research process, everyone also experienced these successes, failures, and moments of inspiration.

The science party enjoying the sunset from the aft deck with the Astoria-Megler bridge in the background. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki)

Dr. Leigh Torres, Dr. Rachael Orben, and I were all primarily stationed on flybridge—one deck above the bridge—fully exposed to the elements, at the highest possible location on the ship for best viewing. We scanned the seas in hopes of spotting a blow, a splash, or any sign of a marine mammal or seabird. Beside us, students and teachers donned binoculars and positioned themselves around the mast, with Leigh and I taking a 90-degree swath from the mast—either to starboard or to port. For those who had not been part of marine mammal observations previously, it was a crash course into the peaks and troughs—of both the waves and of the sightings. We emphasized the importance of absence data: knowledge of what is not “there” is equally as important as what is. Fortunately, Leigh chose a course that proved to have surprisingly excellent environmental conditions and amazing sightings. Therefore, we collected a large amount of presence data: data collected when marine mammals or seabirds are present.

High school student, Chris Quashnick Holloway, records a seabird sighting for observer, Dr. Rachael Orben. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

When someone sighted a whale that surfaced regularly, we assessed the conditions: the sea state, the animal’s behavior, the wind conditions, etc. If we deemed them as “good to fly”, our licensed drone pilot and Orange Coast Community College student, Jason, prepared his Phantom 4 drone. While he and Leigh set up drone operations, I and the other science team members maintained a visual on the whale and stayed in constant communication with the bridge via radio. When the drone was ready, and the bridge gave the “all clear”, Jason launched his drone from the aft deck. Then, someone tossed an unassuming, meter-long, wood plank overboard—keeping it attached to the ship with a line. This wood board serves as a calibration tool; the drone flies over it at varying heights as determined by its built-in altimeter. Later, we analyze how many pixels one meter occupied at different heights and can thereby determine the body length of the whale from still images by converting pixel length to a metric unit.

High school student, Alishia Keller, uses binoculars to observe a whale, while PhD student, Alexa Kownacki, radios updates on the whale’s location to the bridge and the aft deck. (Image source: Tracy Crews)

Finally, when the drone is calibrated, I radio the most recent location of our animal. For example, “Blow at 9 o’clock, 250 meters away”. Then, the bridge and I constantly adjust the ship’s speed and location. If the whale “flukes” (dives and exposes the ventral side of its tail), and later resurfaced 500 meters away at our 10 o’clock, I might radio to the bridge to, “turn 60 degrees to port and increase speed to 5 knots”. (See the Hidden Math Lesson below). Jason then positions the drone over the whale, adjusting the camera angle as necessary, and recording high-quality video footage for later analysis. The aerial viewpoint provides major advantages. Whales usually expose about 10 percent of their body above the water’s surface. However, with an aerial vantage point, we can see more of the whale and its surroundings. From here, we can observe behaviors that are otherwise obscured (Torres et al. 2018), and record footage that to help quantify body condition (i.e. lengths and girths). Prior to the batteries running low, Jason returns the drone back to the aft deck, the vessel comes to an idle, and Leigh catches the drone. Throughout these operations, those of us on the flybridge photograph flukes for identification and document any behaviors we observe. Later, we match the whale we sighted to the whale that the drone flew over, and then to prior sightings of this same individual—adding information like body condition or the presence of a calf. I like to think of it as whale detective work. Moreover, it is a team effort; everyone has a critical role in the mission. When it’s all said and done, this noninvasive approach provides life history context to the health and behaviors of the animal.

Drone pilot, Jason Miranda, flying his drone using his handheld ground station on the aft deck. (Photo source: Tracy Crews)

Hidden Math Lesson: The location of 10 o’clock and 60 degrees to port refer to the exact same direction. The bow of the ship is our 12 o’clock with the stern at our 6 o’clock; you always orient yourself in this manner when giving directions. The same goes for a compass measurement in degrees when relating the direction to the boat: the bow is 360/0. An angle measure between two consecutive numbers on a clock is: 360 degrees divided by 12-“hour” markers = 30 degrees. Therefore, 10 o’clock was 0 degrees – (2 “hours”)= 0 degrees- (2*30 degrees)= -60 degrees. A negative degree less than 180 refers to the port side (left).

Killer whale traveling northbound.

Our trip was chalked full of science and graced with cooperative weather conditions. There were more highlights than I could list in a single sitting. We towed zooplankton nets under the night sky while eating ice cream bars; we sang together at sunset and watched the atmospheric phenomena: the green flash; we witnessed a humpback lunge-feeding beside the ship’s bow; and we saw a sperm whale traveling across calm seas.

Sperm whale surfacing before a long dive.

On this cruise, our lab focused on the marine mammal observations—which proved excellent during the cruise. In only four days of surveying, we had 43 marine mammal sightings containing 362 individuals representing 9 species (See figure 1). As you can see from figure 2, we traveled over shallow, coastal and deep waters, in both Washington and Oregon before inland to Portland, OR. Because we ventured to areas with different bathymetric and oceanographic conditions, we increased our likelihood of seeing a higher diversity of species than we would if we stayed in a single depth or area.

Humpback whale lunge feeding off the bow.
Number of sightings Total number of individuals
Humpback whale 22 40
Pacific white-sided dolphin 3 249
Northern right whale dolphin 1 9
Killer whale 1 3
Dall’s porpoise 5 49
Sperm whale 1 1
Gray whale 1 1
Harbor seal 1 1
California sea lion 8 9
Total 43 362

Figure 1. Summary table of all species sightings during cruise while the science team observed from the flybridge.

Pacific white-sided dolphins swimming towards the vessel.

Figure 2. Map with inset displaying study area and sightings observed by species during the cruise, made in ArcMap. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

Even after two days of STEM outreach events in Portland, we were excited to incorporate more science. For the transit from Portland, OR to Newport, OR, the entire science team consisted two people: me and Jason. But even with poor weather conditions, we still used science to answer questions and help us along our journey—only with different goals than on our main leg. With the help of the marine technician, we set up a camera on the bow of the ship, facing aft to watch the vessel maneuver through the famous Portland bridges.

Video 1. Time-lapse footage of the R/V Oceanus maneuvering the Portland Bridges from a GoPro. Compiled by Alexa Kownacki, assisted by Jason Miranda and Kristin Beem.

Prior to the crossing the Columbia River bar and re-entering the Pacific Ocean, the R/V Oceanus maneuvered up the picturesque Columbia River. We used our geospatial skills to locate our fellow science team member and high school student, Chris, who was located on land. We tracked each other using GPS technology in our cell phones, until the ship got close enough to use natural landmarks as reference points, and finally we could use our binoculars to see Chris shining a light from shore. As the ship powered forward and passed under the famous Astoria-Megler bridge that connects Oregon to Washington, Chris drove over it; he directed us “100 degrees to port”. And, thanks to clear directions, bright visual aids, and spatiotemporal analysis, we managed to find our team member waving from shore. This is only one of many examples that show how in a few days at sea, students utilized new skills, such as marine mammal observational techniques, and honed them for additional applications.

On the bow, Alexa and Jason use binoculars to find Chris–over 4 miles–on the Washington side of the Columbia River. (Image source: Kristin Beem)

Great science is the result of teamwork, passion, and ingenuity. Working alongside students, teachers, and other, more-experienced scientists, provided everyone with opportunities to learn from each other. We created great science because we asked questions, we passed on our knowledge to the next person, and we did so with enthusiasm.

High school students, Jason and Chris, alongside Dr. Leigh Torres, all try to get a glimpse at the zooplankton under Dr. Kim Bernard’s microscope. (Image source: Tracy Crews).

Check out other blog posts written by the science team about the trip here.

Managing Oceans: the inner-workings of marine policy

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

When we hear “marine policy” we broadly lump it together with environmental policy. However, marine ecosystems differ greatly from their terrestrial counterparts. We wouldn’t manage a forest like an ocean, nor would we manage an ocean like a forest. Why not? The answer to this question is complex and involves everything from ecology to politics.

Oceans do not have borders; they are fluid and dynamic. Interestingly, by defining marine ecosystems we are applying some kind of borders. But water (and all its natural and unnatural content) flows between these ‘ecosystems’. Marine ecosystems are home to a variety of anthropogenic activities such as transportation and recreation, in addition to an abundance of species that represent the three major domains of biology: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Humans are the only creatures who “recognize” the borders that policymakers and policy actors have instilled. A migrating gray whale does not have a passport stamped as it travels from its breeding grounds in Mexican waters to its feeding grounds in the Gulf of Alaska. In contrast, a large cargo ship—or even a small sailing vessel—that crosses those boundaries is subjected to a series of immigration checkpoints. Combining these human and the non-human facets makes marine policy complex and variable.

The eastern Pacific gray whale migration route includes waters off of Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Source: https://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/gwhale/annual/map.html

Environmental policy of any kind can be challenging. Marine environmental policy adds many more convoluted layers in terms of unknowns; marine ecosystems are understudied relative to terrestrial ecosystems and therefore have less research conducted on how to best manage them. Additionally, there are more hands in the cookie jar, so to speak; more governments and more stakeholders with more opinions (Leslie and McLeod 2007). So, with fewer examples of successful ecosystem-based management in coastal and marine environments and more institutions with varied goals, marine ecosystems become challenging to manage and monitor.

A visual representation of what can happen when there are many groups with different goals: no one can easily get what they want. Image Source: The Brew Monks

With this in mind, it is understandable that there is no official manual on policy development.  There is, however, a broadly standardized process of how to develop, implement, and evaluate environmental policies: 1) recognize a problem 2) propose a solution 3) choose a solution 4) put the solution into effect and 4) monitor the results (Zacharias pp. 16-21). For a policy to be deemed successful, specific criteria must be met, which means that a common policy is necessary for implementation and enforcement. Within the United States, there are a multiple governing bodies that protect the ocean, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Department of Defense (DoD)—all of which have different mission statements, budgets, and proposals. To create effective environmental policies, collaboration between various groups is imperative. Nevertheless, bringing these groups together, even those within the same nation, requires time, money, and flexibility.

This is not to say that environmental policy for terrestrial systems, but there are fewer moving parts to manage. For example, a forest in the United States would likely not be an international jurisdiction case because the borders are permanent lines and national management does not overlap. However, at a state level, jurisdiction may overlap with potentially conflicting agendas. A critical difference in management strategies is preservation versus conservation. Preservation focuses on protecting nature from use and discourages altering the environment. Conservation, centers on wise-use practices that allow for proper human use of environments such as resource use for economic groups. One environmental group may believe in preservation, while one government agency may believe in conservation, creating friction amongst how the land should be used: timber harvest, public use, private purchasing, etc.

Linear representation of preservation versus conservation versus exploitation. Image Source: Raoof Mostafazadeh

Furthermore, a terrestrial forest has distinct edges with measurable and observable qualities; it possesses intrinsic and extrinsic values that are broadly recognized because humans have been utilizing them for centuries. Intrinsic values are things that people can monetize, such as commercial fisheries or timber harvests whereas extrinsic values are things that are challenging to put an actual price on in terms of biological diversity, such as the enjoyment of nature or the role of species in pest management; extrinsic values generally have a high level of human subjectivity because the context of that “resource” in question varies upon circumstances (White 2013). Humans are more likely to align positively with conservation policies if there are extrinsic benefits to them; therefore, anthropocentric values associated with the resources are protected (Rode et al. 2015). Hence, when creating marine policy, monetary values are often placed on the resources, but marine environments are less well-studied due to lack of accessibility and funding, making any valuation very challenging.

The differences between direct (intrinsic) versus indirect (extrinsic) values to biodiversity that factor into environmental policy. Image Source: Conservationscienceblog.wordpress.com

Assigning a cost or benefit to environmental services is subjective (Dearborn and Kark 2010). What is the benefit to a child seeing an endangered killer whale for the first time? One could argue priceless. In order for conservation measures to be implemented, values—intrinsic and extrinsic—are assigned to the goods and services that the marine environment provides—such as seafood and how the ocean functions as a carbon sink. Based off of the four main criteria used to evaluate policy, the true issue becomes assessing the merit and worth. There is an often-overlooked flaw with policy models: it assumes rational behavior (Zacharias 126). Policy involves relationships and opinions, not only the scientific facts that inform them; this is true in terrestrial and marine environments. People have their own agendas that influence, not only the policies themselves, but the speed at which they are proposed and implemented.

Tourists aboard a whale-watching vessel off of the San Juan Islands, enjoying orca in the wild. Image Source: Seattle Orca Whale Watching

One example of how marine policy evolves is through groups, such as the International Whaling Commission, that gather to discuss such policies while representing many different stakeholders. Some cultures value the whale for food, others for its contributions to the surrounding ecosystems—such as supporting healthy seafood populations. Valuing one over the other goes beyond a monetary value and delves deeper into the cultures, politics, economics, and ethics. Subjectivity is the name of the game in environmental policy, and, in marine environmental policy, there are many factors unaccounted for, that decision-making is incredibly challenging.

Efficacy in terms of the public policy for marine systems presents a challenge because policy happens slowly, as does research. There is no equation that fits all problems because the variables are different and dynamic; they change based on the situation and can be unpredictable. When comparing institutional versus impact effectiveness, they both are hard to measure without concrete goals (Leslie and McLeod 2007). Marine ecosystems are open environments which add an additional hurdle: setting measurable and achievable goals. Terrestrial environments contain resources that more people utilize, more frequently, and therefore have more set goals. Without a problem and potential solution there is no policy. Terrestrial systems have problems that humans recognize. Marine systems have problems that are not as visible to people on a daily basis. Therefore, terrestrial systems have more solutions presented to mitigate problems and more policies enacted.

As marine scientists, we don’t always immediately consider how marine policy impacts our research. In the case of my project, marine policy is something I constantly have to consider. Common bottlenose dolphins are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and inhabit coastal of both the United States and Mexico, including within some Marine Protected Areas (MPA). In addition, some funding for the project comes from NOAA and the DoD. Even on the surface-level it is clear that policy is something we must consider as marine scientists—whether we want to or not. We may do our best to inform policymakers with results and education based on our research, but marine policy requires value-based judgements based on politics, economics, and human objectivity—all of which are challenging to harmonize into a succinct problem with a clear solution.

Two common bottlenose dolphins (coastal ecotype) traveling along the Santa Barbara, CA shoreline. Image Source: Alexa Kownacki


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