Assessing suitable sea otter habitat along Oregon’s coast

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

When considering a species reintroduction into an area, it is important to assess the suitability of the area’s habitat before such efforts begin. By doing this assessment at the outset, managers and conservationists can gain a better understanding of the capacity of the area to support a viable population overtime, and ultimately the success of the reintroduction. However, to do a habitat assessment, researchers must first have a base understanding of the species’ ecological characteristics, behavior, and the physical habitat features necessary for the species’ survival. For my thesis, I plan to conduct a similar assessment to identify suitable sea otter habitat to inform a potential sea otter reintroduction to the Oregon coast.

Source: The Tribune.

To start my assessment, I conducted a literature review of studies that observed and recorded the various types of habitats where sea otters currently exist. In my research, I learned that sea otters use in a range of environments, each with a unique set of habitat characteristics. With so many features to sort through, I have focused on specific habitat features that are consistent across most of the current range of sea otters – from Alaska to California – and are important for at least some aspects of sea otters’ everyday life or behavior, specifically foraging. Focusing my analysis on foraging habitat makes sense as sea otters require around 30% of their body weight in food every day (Costa 1978, Reidman & Estes 1990). Meaning sea otters spend most of their day searching for food.

Here, I present four habitat features I will incorporate into my analysis and explain why these features are important for sea otter foraging behavior and survival.

Habitat Features:

  1. Kelp: Sea otters are famously known for the benefits they provide to kelp forests. In the classic three-trophic-level model, sea otters allow for the growth of kelp by keeping sea urchins – consumers of kelp – in check (Estes & Palmisano 1974). Additionally, sea otters and kelp have a mutually-beneficial relationship. Sea otters will often wrap themselves amongst the top of kelp stocks while feeding, resting, or grooming to prevent being carried away by surface currents. Meanwhile, it’s thought that kelp provide a refuge for sea otters seeking to avoid predators, such as sharks, as well as their prey.
Source: The Telegraph.
  1. Distance from Kelp: The use of kelp, by sea otters, is relatively straight-forward. Yet, kelp can still have an influence on sea otter behavior even when not used directly. A 2014 study found that sea otters along the southern California coast were almost 10 times more likely to be located within kelp habitat than outside, while outside kelp beds sea otter numbers declined with distance from the edge of kelp canopies. Sea otters will often forage outside or next to kelp canopies when prey’s available, and even sometimes to socialize in age- or sex-specific rafts (Lafferty & Tinker 2014). These findings indicate that sea otters can and do regularly disperse away from kelp habitat, but because they’re so dependent on kelp, they don’t stray very far.


  1. Seafloor Substrate: Sea otters forage over a variety of sediment substrates, including rocks, gravel, seagrass, and even sometimes sand. For example, sea otters hunt sea urchins over rocky substrates, while in other areas they may hunt for crabs in seagrass beds (Estes & Palmisano 1974, Hughes et al. 2014). The type of substrate sea otters forage in typically depends on the substrate needs of their target prey species. Despite some variability across their range, sea otters predominantly forage in rocky substrate environments. Rocky substrate is also necessary for kelp, whose holdfasts need to attach to hard, stable surfaces (Carney et al. 2005).
Source: Save our Seas Foundation.
  1. Depth: Seafloor depth plays a pivotal role in sea otter foraging behavior and therefore acts as a natural boundary that determines how far away from shore sea otters distribute. Many of the prey species sea otters eat – including sea urchins, crabs, and snails – live on the seafloor of the inner continental shelf, requiring sea otters to dive when foraging. Interestingly, sea otters exhibit a non-linear relationship with depth, where most individuals forage at intermediate depths as opposed to extremely shallow or deep waters. One study found the average foraging depth to be around 15 meters (Lafferty & Tinker 2014). This behavior results in a hump-shaped distribution of diving patterns as illustrated in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Average probability of occurrence as a function of depth for female (A) and male (B) sea otters as predicted by a synoptic model of space-use (Tinker et al. 2017).

Of course, local conditions and available habitat are always a factor. For example, a study found that sea otters along the coast of Washington foraged further from shore and in slightly shallower environments than sea otters in California (Laidre et al. 2009), indicating that local topography is important in determining distribution. Additionally, diving requires energy and limits how deep sea otters are able to forage for prey. Therefore, diving patterns are not only a function of local topography, but also availability of prey and foraging efficiency in exploiting that prey. Regardless, most sea otter populations follow this hump-shaped diving pattern.

Source: Doretta Smith.

These features are not a complete list of all habitat characteristics that support viable sea otter populations, but seem to be the most consistent throughout their entire range, as well as present in Oregon’s nearshore environment – making them ideal features to include in my analysis. Furthermore, other studies that have predicted suitable sea otter habitat (Tinker et al. 2017), estimated carrying capacity as a product of suitable habitat identification (Laidre et al. 2002), or simply observed sea otter foraging behavior (Estes & Palmisano 1974), have echoed the importance of these four habitat features to sea otter survival.

As with most reintroduction efforts, the process of identifying suitable habitat for the species of interest can be complicated. No two ecosystems or habitats are exactly alike and each comprise their own unique set of physical features and are impacted by environmental processes to varying degrees. The Oregon coast consists of a unique combination of oceanographic conditions and drivers that likely impact the degree and amount of available habitat to sea otters. Despite this, by focusing on the habitat features that are consistently preferred by sea otters across most of their range, I will be able to identify habitat most suitable for sea otter survival in Oregon. The questions of where this habitat is and how much is available are what I’ll determine soon, so stay tuned.


Carney, L. T., Robert Waaland, J., Kilinger, T., and K. Ewing. 2005. Restoration of the bull kelp Nereocystis luetkeana in nearshore rocky habitats. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 302: 49-61.

Costas, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, waters, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Estes, J. A. and J. F. Palmisano. 1974. Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science. 185(4156): 1058-1060.

Hughes et al. 2014. Recovery of a top predator mediate negative eutrophic effects on seagrass. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(38): 15313-15318.

Lafferty, K. D. and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere. 5(5): 1-11.

Laidre et al. 2002. Estimates of carrying capacity for sea otters in Washington state. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 30(4): 1172-1181.

Laidre et al. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.

Tinker et al. 2017. Southern sea otter range expansion and habitat use in the Santa Barbara Channel, California: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2017-1001 (OCS Study BOEM 2017-022), 76 p.,

Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.



There is no such thing as “throwing it away”: Why I try to reduce my plastic consumption

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

Several years ago, I had a profound experience on a remote little coral island in the Kingdom of Tonga, in the middle of the South Pacific. I was a crew member aboard a 46’ sailboat, traveling in Tonga and Fiji. This trip was a time when I became very aware of my consumption because when living on a boat, you carry your waste with you. The South Pacific is a region of little islands scattered across wide ocean spaces, and my eyes were opened to island culture. An island is analogous to a large boat—your waste cannot go far. The idea of “throwing it away” began to seem suspect. Does anything really “go away”?

A seemingly pristine beach on Tungua Island, Kingdom of Tonga. Upon closer inspection, we realized the volume of plastics that could be found even on an island this remote. Photo by D. Barlow.

After spending a night at anchor in the Kingdom of Tonga when I listened through the hull to signing humpback whales and felt their deep tones vibrate our mast, I thought I was in a place as pure and untouched as I would ever experience. The next morning, we ventured to shore on an island that we could circumnavigate in less than an hour on foot. But the soft sand was strewn with more than just conch and cowrie shells. It was also strewn with plastic. I began to pick up the trash items on the beach, and before long I had a large bag filled to the brim with plastic. The captain humored me when I wanted to bring it back to the boat. But what was I going to do with it then? These remote island places have very little infrastructure—they can’t recycle it there. So should I take it to another island where it would likely get barged out and dumped back in the ocean? Or a landfill? What struck me most was the realization that none of these products were manufactured on these islands. Some of this plastic may have been imported to the nearest island with a town or city, while some likely had drifted across the sea to this landing spot. All the plastics that I picked up on that one, small island were just a tiny portion of ocean plastic that wash ashore on the world’s beaches, a tiny glimpse of a much larger issue.

Eight million tons of plastics make their way into the oceans each year. Let that number sink in. There is no such thing as “throwing it away”, because “away” does not exist. “Away” is the ocean.

“What lies under”. Image credit: Ferdi Rizkiyanto.

Before sitting down to write this, I participated in a beach cleanup event here in my local community in Newport, Oregon. Today along the whole Oregon Coast, over 3,000 volunteers removed more than 15,000 pounds of litter and marine debris from the coastal places they love. A few weeks ago Surfrider Foundation screened the documentary Straw, directed by Linda Booker. Following the well-attended screening, a panel of community members from Surfrider, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and Thomson Sanitary Services answered questions from the audience. In a lively discussion, we learned about why China is no longer accepting our recyclables and consequently we can only recycle plastics #1 and #2 here in Oregon, about how marine animals are rehabilitated after becoming entangled in plastic waste, about how Surfrider is encouraging local businesses to switch to paper straws and only offer them by request. As daunting as it is to think about the scale of our plastic consumption and the damage it causes, I am encouraged by the engagement and bottom-up movement in my community.

My life is shaped by the ocean—it is my inspiration, my work, my passion, my place of adventure and joy, the place that humbles me and heals me. Imagining the relationship between the products I use and the ocean is what makes me think twice before consuming. If I am driving in my car and want to stop for coffee but don’t have a reusable mug with me, I consider “if I were on a boat, would I drink coffee out of a single-use cup and then throw it away, toss it over the rail?” Of course not. So I invite you to think about the plastic in your life—it is everywhere. Think about how that plastic relates to what you love. Will it make its way into the stomach of a baby albatross, a sea turtle, the filter-feeding shellfish and large predatory fish that you love to eat?

Lifestyle changes can be simple and impactful. As a consumer, use your purchase power—when you have the option to buy a product wrapped in plastic or one that is not, opt for no plastic. Show manufacturers what you value. Bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Use waxed paper instead of plastic saran wrap. Talk to others, share your choices with them, encourage them to minimize their plastic use. And if you need context or motivation, imagine the relationship between the products you consume and the places that you love.


Sea Otter Management in the U.S.

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

Since the first official legal protections in 1911, the U.S. has made great strides in recovering sea otter populations. While much of this progress is due to increased emphasis on understanding sea otter behavior, biology, and ecology, there are also several policies that have been just as instrumental in making sea otter conservation efforts successful. Here, I provide a brief overview of the current legal and regulatory policies used to manage sea otters in the U.S. and explain why having a base understanding of these tools can help our lab as we look into the potential reintroduction of sea otters to the Oregon coast.

Sea otter with pup, Prince William Sound, Alaska. Source: Patrick J. Endres

When we talk about sea otter management in the U.S., the two most obvious laws that come to mind are the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In short, the MMPA seeks to prevent the take – including kill, harass, capture, or disturb – or importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products[1]. While the ESA seeks to protect and recover imperiled species – not just marine mammals – and the ecosystems which they depend upon[2]. Both laws are similar in the sense that their primary objectives are to protect and recover at-risk species. However, marine mammals will always be protected under the MMPA, but will only be protected under the ESA if the species is considered threatened or endangered.

On the federal level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) is primarily responsible for managing sea otter populations. In the U.S., we manage sea otter populations as five distinct stocks, which differ in their population size and geographic distribution – located in California, Washington, and Alaska state waters (Fig. 1). Because sea otters are divided into these single stocks, management decisions – such as recovery targets or reintroductions – are made on a stock-by-stock basis and are dependent on the stock’s population status. Currently, two of these stocks are federally-listed as threatened under the ESA. Therefore, these two stocks are granted protection under both the ESA and MMPA, while the remaining three stocks are only protected by the MMPA (at the federal level; state management may also apply).

Figure 1. Distribution (approximations of population centers) of sea otter stocks in the U.S. (SW = Southwest Alaskan; SC = Southcentral Alaskan; SE = Southeast Alaskan; WA = Washington, SCA = Southern/Californian)

While the MMPA and ESA are important federal laws, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the important role that state laws and state agencies have in managing sea otters. According to the MMPA and ESA, if a state develops and maintains a conservation or recovery program with protections consistent with the standards and policies of the MMPA and/or ESA, then the Service may transfer management authority over to the state1,2. However, typically, the Service has opted to manage any stocks listed under the ESA, while states manage all other stocks not listed under the ESA.

Sea otter management in the states of Washington and California is a clear example of this dichotomy. The Washington sea otter stock is not listed under the ESA, and is therefore, managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), which developed the stock’s recovery plan[3]. In contrast, sea otters along the California coast are listed as threatened under the ESA, and the Service primarily manages the stock’s recovery[4].

Interestingly, sea otter management in Alaska is an exception to this rule. The Southeast and Southcentral sea otter stocks are not listed under the ESA, yet are still managed by the Service. However, the state recognizes sea otters as a species of greatest conservation need in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan, which acts as a recommendation framework for the management and protection of important species and ecosystems[5]. Therefore, even though the state is not the primary management authority for sea otters by law, they still play a role in protecting Alaskan sea otter populations through this action plan.

Table 1. Federal and state listing status of all sea otter stocks within U.S. coastal waters.

States have also implemented their own laws for protecting at-risk species. For instance, while the Washington sea otter stock is not listed under the ESA, it is listed as endangered under Washington state law4. This example raises an important example demonstrating that even if a stock isn’t federally-listed, it may still be protected on the state level, and is always protected under the MMPA. Therefore, if the federal and state listing status do not match, which is the case for most sea otter stocks in the U.S. (Table 1.), the stock still receives management protection at some level.

So why does this matter?

Each of the previously mentioned laws are prohibitive in nature, where the objectives are to prevent and discourage activities which may harm the stock of interest. Yet, agencies may grant exceptions – in the form of permits – for activities, such as scientific research, translocations, commercial/recreational fisheries operations, etc. The permit approval process will oftentimes depend on: (1) the severity or likelihood of that action to harm the species, (2) the species’ federal and state listing status, and (3) the unique approval procedures enforced by the agency. Activities that are perceived to have a high likelihood of harming a species, or involve a species that’s listed under the ESA, will likely require a longer and more arduous approval process.

A sea otter release in Monterey Bay, California. Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium Newsroom.

Understanding these various approval processes is vitally important for our work on the potential reintroduction of sea otters to Oregon because such an effort will no doubt require many permits and a thoughtful permit approval process. Each agency may have their own set of permits, administrative procedures, and approval processes. Therefore, it behooves us to have a clear understanding of these various processes relative to the state, agency, or stock involved. If, hypothetically, a stock is determined as a suitable candidate for reintroduction into Oregon waters, having this understanding will allow us to determine where our research can best inform the effort, what types of information and data are needed to inform the process, and to which agency or stakeholders we must communicate our research.



[1] Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972

[2] Endangered Species Act of 1973

[3] State of Washington. 2004. Sea Otter Recovery Plan. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: Wildlife Program

[4] U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 2003. Final Revised Recovery Plan for the Southern Sea Otter (Enydra lutris nereis).

[5] Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 2015. Alaska wildlife action plan. Juneau.


The Land of Maps and Charts: Geospatial Ecology

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

I love maps. I love charts. As a random bit of trivia, there is a difference between a map and a chart. A map is a visual representation of land that may include details like topology, whereas a chart refers to nautical information such as water depth, shoreline, tides, and obstructions.

Map of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: San Diego Metropolitan Transit System)
Chart of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: NOAA)

I have an intense affinity for visually displaying information. As a child, my dad traveled constantly, from Barrow, Alaska to Istanbul, Turkey. Immediately upon his return, I would grab our standing globe from the dining room and our stack of atlases from the coffee table. I would sit at the kitchen table, enthralled at the stories of his travels. Yet, a story was only great when I could picture it for myself. (I should remind you, this was the early 1990s, GoogleMaps wasn’t a thing.) Our kitchen table transformed into a scene from Master and Commander—except, instead of nautical charts and compasses, we had an atlas the size of an overgrown toddler and salt and pepper shakers to pinpoint locations. I now had the world at my fingertips. My dad would show me the paths he took from our home to his various destinations and tell me about the topography, the demographics, the population, the terrain type—all attribute features that could be included in common-day geographic information systems (GIS).

Uncle Brian showing Alexa where they were on a map of Maui, Hawaii, USA. (Photo: Susan K. circa 1995)

As I got older, the kitchen table slowly began to resemble what I imagine the set from Master and Commander actually looked like; nautical charts, tide tables, and wind predictions were piled high and the salt and pepper shakers were replaced with pencil marks indicating potential routes for us to travel via sailboat. The two of us were in our element. Surrounded by visual and graphical representations of geographic and spatial information: maps. To put my map-attraction this in even more context, this is a scientist who grew up playing “Take-Off”, a board game that was “designed to teach geography” and involved flying your fleet of planes across a Mercator projection-style mapboard. Now, it’s no wonder that I’m a graduate student in a lab that focuses on the geospatial aspects of ecology.

A precocious 3-year-old Alexa, sitting with the airplane pilot asking him a long list of travel-related questions (and taking his captain’s hat). Photo: Susan K.

So why and how did geospatial ecology became a field—and a predominant one at that? It wasn’t that one day a lightbulb went off and a statistician decided to draw out the results. It was a progression, built upon for thousands of years. There are maps dating back to 2300 B.C. on Babylonian clay tablets (The British Museum), and yet, some of the maps we make today require highly sophisticated technology. Geospatial analysis is dynamic. It’s evolving. Today I’m using ArcGIS software to interpolate mass amounts of publicly-available sea surface temperature satellite data from 1981-2015, which I will overlay with a layer of bottlenose dolphin sightings during the same time period for comparison. Tomorrow, there might be a new version of software that allows me to animate these data. Heck, it might already exist and I’m not aware of it. This growth is the beauty of this field. Geospatial ecology is made for us cartophiles (map-lovers) who study the interdependency of biological systems where location and distance between things matters.

Alexa’s grandmother showing Alexa (a very young cartographer) how to color in the lines. Source: Susan K. circa 1994

In a broader context, geospatial ecology communicates our science to all of you. If I posted a bunch of statistical outputs in text or even table form, your eyes might glaze over…and so might mine. But, if I displayed that same underlying data and results on a beautiful map with color-coded symbology, a legend, a compass rose, and a scale bar, you might have this great “ah-ha!” moment. That is my goal. That is what geospatial ecology is to me. It’s a way to SHOW my science, rather than TELL it.

Would you like to see this over and over again…?

A VERY small glimpse into the enormous amount of data that went into this map. This screenshot gave me one point of temperature data for a single location for a single day…Source: Alexa K.

Or see this once…?

Map made in ArcGIS of Coastal common bottlenose dolphin sightings between 1981-1989 with a layer of average sea surface temperatures interpolated across those same years. A picture really is worth a thousand words…or at least a thousand data points…Source: Alexa K.

For many, maps are visually easy to interpret, allowing quick message communication. Yet, there are many different learning styles. From my personal story, I think it’s relatively obvious that I’m, at least partially, a visual learner. When I was in primary school, I would read the directions thoroughly, but only truly absorb the material once the teacher showed me an example. Set up an experiment? Sure, I’ll read the lab report, but I’m going to refer to the diagrams of the set-up constantly. To this day, I always ask for an example. Teach me a new game? Let’s play the first round and then I’ll pick it up. It’s how I learned to sail. My dad described every part of the sailboat in detail and all I heard was words. Then, my dad showed me how to sail, and it came naturally. It’s only as an adult that I know what “that blue line thingy” is called. Geospatial ecology is how I SEE my research. It makes sense to me. And, hopefully, it makes sense to some of you!

Alexa’s dad teaching her how to sail. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa’s first solo sailboat race in Coronado, San Diego, CA. Notice: Alexa’s dad pushing the bow off the dock and the look on Alexa’s face. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa mapping data using ArcGIS in the Oregon State University Library. (Source: Alexa K circa a few minutes prior to posting).

I strongly believe a meaningful career allows you to highlight your passions and personal strengths. For me, that means photography, all things nautical, the great outdoors, wildlife conservation, and maps/charts.  If I converted that into an equation, I think this is a likely result:

Photography + Nautical + Outdoors + Wildlife Conservation + Maps/Charts = Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna

Or, better yet:

📸 + ⚓ + 🏞 + 🐋 + 🗺 =  GEMM Lab

This lab was my solution all along. As part of my research on common bottlenose dolphins, I work on a small inflatable boat off the coast of California (nautical ✅, outdoors ✅), photograph their dorsal fin (photography ✅), and communicate my data using informative maps that will hopefully bring positive change to the marine environment (maps/charts ✅, wildlife conservation✅). Geospatial ecology allows me to participate in research that I deeply enjoy and hopefully, will make the world a little bit of a better place. Oh, and make maps.

Alexa in the field, putting all those years of sailing and chart-reading to use! (Source: Leila L.)


Living the Dream – life as a marine mammal observer

By Florence Sullivan, MSc.

Living the dream as a marine mammal observer onboard the R/V Bell Shimada Photo credit: Dave Jacobsen

I first learned that “Marine Mammal Observer” was a legitimate career field during the summer after my junior year at the University of Washington.  I had the good fortune to volunteer for the BASIS fisheries-oceanography survey onboard the R/V Oscar Dyson where I met two wonderful bird observers who taught me how to identify various pelagic bird species and clued me in to just how diverse the marine science job market can be. After the cruise, younger Florence went off with an expanded world view and a small dream that maybe someday she could go out to sea and survey for marine mammals on a regular basis (and get paid for it?!).  Eight years later, I am happy to report that I have just spent the last week as the marine mammal observer on the North California Current Survey on the Dyson’s sister ship, the R/V Bell M. Shimada.  While we may not have seen as many marine mammals as I would have liked, the experience has still been everything younger Florence hoped it would be.

Finally leaving port a few days behind schedule due to stormy weather! photo credit: Florence Sullivan

If you’ve ever wondered why the scientists in your life may refer to summer as “field work season”, it’s because attempting to do research outside in the winter is an exercise in frustration, troubleshooting, and flexibility. Case in point; this cruise was supposed to sail away from port on the 24th of February, but did not end up leaving until the 27th due to bad weather.  This weather delay meant that we had to cut some oceanographic stations we would like to have sampled, and even when we made it out of the harbor, the rough weather made it impossible to sample some of the stations we still had left on our map.  That being said, we still got a lot of good work done!

The original station map. The warm colors are the west coast of the US, the cold colors are the ocean, and the black dots are planned survey stations

The oceanographers were able to conduct CTD casts at most planned stations, as well as sample the water column with a vertical zooplankton net, a HAB net (for looking for the organisms that cause Harmful Algal Blooms),  and a Bongo Net (a net that specializes in getting horizontal samples of the water column).  When it wasn’t too windy, they were also able to sample with the Manta net (a net specialized for surface sampling – it looks like a manta ray’s mouth) and at certain near-shore stations they did manage to get some bottom beam trawls in to look at the benthic community of fishes and invertebrates.  All this was done while dodging multitudes of crab pots and storm fronts.  The NOAA corps officers who drive the boat, and the deck crew who handle all the equipment deployments and retrievals really did their utmost to make sure we were able to work.

Stormy seas make for difficult sampling conditions! photo credit: Florence Sullivan

For my part, I spent the hours between stations searching the wind-tossed waves for any sign of marine mammals. Over the course of the week, I saw a few Northern fur seals, half a dozen gray whales, and a couple of unidentified large cetaceans.  When you think about the productivity of the North Pacific Ecosystem this may not seem like very much.  But remember, it is late winter, and I do not have x-ray vision to see through the waves.  It is likely that I missed a number of animals simply because the swell was too large, and when we calculate our “detection probability” these weather factors will be taken into account. In addition, many of our local marine mammals are migrators who might be in warmer climates, or are off chasing different food sources at the moment.  In ecology, when you want to know how a population of animals is distributed across a land- or sea-scape, it is just as important to understand where the animals are NOT as where they ARE. So all of this “empty” water was very important to survey simply because it helps us refine our understanding of where animals don’t want to be.  When we know where animals AREN’T we can ask better questions about why they occur where they ARE.

Black Footed Albatross soars near the boat. Photo credit: Florence Sullivan

Notable species of the week aside from the marine mammals include Laysan and Black Footed Albatrosses, a host of Vellella vellella (sailor by the wind hydroid colonies) and the perennial favorite of oceanographers; the shrinking Styrofoam cup.  (See pictures)

We sent these styrofoam cups down to 1800 meters depth. The pressure at those depths causes all the air to escape from the styrofoam, and it shrinks! This is a favorite activity of oceanographers to demonstrate the effects on increased pressure!

These sorts of interdisciplinary cruises are quite fun and informative to participate in because we can build a better picture of the ecosystem as a whole when we use a multitude of methods to explore it.  This strength of cooperation makes me proud to add my little piece to the puzzle. As I move forward in life, whether I get to be the marine mammal observer, the oceanographer, or perhaps an educator, I will always be glad to contribute to collaborative research.


Coastal oceanography takes patience

Joe Haxel, Acoustician, Assistant Professor, CIMRS/OSU

Greetings GEMM Lab blog readers. My name is Joe Haxel and I’m a close collaborator with Leigh and other GEMM lab members on the gray whale ecology, physiology and noise project off the Oregon coast. Leigh invited me for a guest blog appearance to share some of the acoustics work we’ve been up to and as you’ve probably guessed by now, my specialty is in ocean acoustics. I’m a PI in NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory’s Acoustics Program and OSU’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies where I use underwater sound to study a variety of earth and ocean processes.

As a component of the gray whale noise project, during the field seasons of 2016 and 2017 we recorded some of the first measurements of ambient sound in the shallow coastal waters off Oregon between 7 and 20 meters depth. In the passive ocean acoustics world this is really shallow, and with that comes all kinds of instrument and logistical challenges, which is probably one of the main reasons there is little or no acoustic baseline information in this environment.

For instance, one of the significant challenges is rooted in the hydrodynamics surrounding mobile recording systems like the drifting hydrophone we used during the summer field season in 2016 (Fig 1). Decoupling motion of the surface buoy (e.g., caused by swell and waves) from the submerged hydrophone sensor is critical, and here’s why. Hydrophones convert pressure fluctuations at the sensor/ water interface to a calibrated voltage recorded by a logging system. Turbulence resulting from moving the sensor up and down in the water column with surface waves introduces non-acoustic pressure changes that severely contaminate the data for noise level measurements. Vertical and horizontal wave motions are constantly acting on the float, so we needed to engineer compliance between the surface float and the suspended hydrophone sensor to decouple these accelerations. To overcome this, we employed a couple of concepts in our drifting hydrophone design. 1) A 10 cm diameter by 3 m long spar buoy provided floatation for the system. Spar buoys are less affected by wave motion accelerations compared to most other types of surface floatation with larger horizontal profiles and drag. 2) A dynamic shock cord that could stretch up to double its resting length to accommodate vertical motion of the spar buoy; 3) a heave plate that significantly reduced any vertical motion of the hydrophone suspended below it. This was a very effective design, and although somewhat cumbersome in transport with the RHIB between deployment sites, the acoustic data we collected over 40 different drifts around Newport and Port Orford in 2016 was clean, high quality and devoid of system induced contamination.

Figure 1. The drifting hydrophone system used for 40 different drifts recording ambient noise levels in 7-20 m depths in the Newport and Port Orford, OR coastal areas.













Spatial information from the project’s first year acoustic recordings using the drifting hydrophone system helped us choose sites for the fixed hydrophone stations in 2017. Now that we had some basic information on the spatial variability of noise within the study areas we could focus on the temporal objectives of characterizing the range of acoustic conditions experienced by gray whales over the course of the entire foraging season at these sites in Oregon. In 2017 we deployed “lander” style instrument frames, each equipped with a single, omni-directional hydrophone custom built by Haru Matsumoto at our NOAA/OSU Acoustics lab (Fig. 2). The four hydrophone stations were positioned near each of the ports (Yaquina Bay and Port Orford) and in partnership with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Reserves program in the Otter Rock Marine Reserve and the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. The hydrophones were programmed on a 20% duty cycle, recording 12 minutes of every hour at 32 kHz sample rate, providing spectral information in the frequency band from 10 Hz up to a 13 kHz.

Figure 2. The hydrophone (black cylinder) on its lander frame ready for deployment.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. In my experience so far putting out gear off the Oregon coast, anything that has a surface expression and is left out for more than a couple of weeks is going to have issues. Due to funding constraints, I had to challenge that theory this year and deploy 2 of the units with a surface buoy. This is not typically what we do with our equipment since it usually stays out for up to 2 years at a time, is sensitive, and expensive. The 2 frames with a surface float were going to be deployed in Marine Reserves far enough from the traffic lanes of the ports and in areas with significantly less traffic and presumably no fishing pressure.  The surface buoy consisted of an 18 inch diameter hard plastic float connected to an anchor that was offset from the instrument frame by a 150 foot weighted groundline. The gear was deployed off Newport in June and Port Orford in July. What could go wrong?

After monthly buoy checks by the project team, including GPS positions, and buoy cleanings my hopes were pretty high that the surface buoy systems might actually make it through the season with recoveries scheduled in mid-October. Had I gambled and won? Nope. The call came in September from Leigh that one of the whale watching outfits in Depoe Bay recovered a free floating buoy matching ours. Bummer. Alternative recovery plans initiated and this is where things began to get hairy. Fortunately, we had an ace in our back pocket. We have collaborators at the Oregon Coast Aquarium (OCA) who have a top-notch research diving team led by Jim Burke. In the last week of October, they performed a successful search dive on the missing unit near Gull Rock and attached a new set of floats directly to the instrument frame. The divers were in the water for a short 20 minutes thanks to the good series of marks recorded during the buoy checks throughout the summer (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. OCA divers, Jenna and Doug, heading out for a search dive to locate and mark the Gull Rock hydrophone lander.






We had surface marker floats on the frame, but there was a new problem. Video taken by Jenna and Doug from the OCA dive team revealed the landers were pretty sanded in from a couple of recent October storms (Fig. 4). Ugghhh!

Figure 4. Sanded in lander at Gull Rock. Notice the sand dollars and bull kelp wrapped on the frame.

Alternative recovery plan adjustment: we’re gonna need a diver assisted recovery with 2 boats. One to bring a dive team to air jet the sand out away from the legs of the frame and another larger vessel with pulling power to recover the freed lander. Enter the R/V Pacific Surveyor and Capt. Al Pazar. Al, Jim and I came up with a new recovery plan and only needed a decent weather window of a few hours to get the job done. Piece of cake in November off the Oregon coast, right?

The weather finally cooperated in early December in-line with the OCA dive team and R/V Pacific Surveyor’s availability. The 2 vessels and crew headed up to Gull Rock for the first recovery operation of the day. At first we couldn’t locate the surface floats. Oh no. It seemed the rough fall/ winter weather and high seas since late October were too much for the crab floats? As it turns out, we eventually found the floats eastward about 200 m but couldn’t initially see them in the glare and whitecapping conditions that morning. The lander frame had broken loose from its weakened anchor legs in the heavy weather (as it was designed to do through an Aluminum/ Stainless Steel galvanic reaction over time) and rolled or hopped eastward by about 200 m (Fig. 5). Oh dear!

Figure 5. A hydrophone lander after recovery. Notice all but 1 of the concrete anchor legs missing from the recovered lander and the amount of bio-fouling on the hydrophone (compared to Figure 2).







Thankfully, the hydrophone was well protected, and no air jetting was required. With OCA divers out of the water and clear, the Pacific Surveyor headed over to the floats and easily pulled the lander frame and hydrophone on board (Fig. 6). Yipee!

On to the next hydrophone station. This station, deployed ~ 800 m west of the south reef off of South Beach near the Yaquina Bay port entrance. It was deployed entirely subsurface and was outfitted with an acoustic release transponder that I could communicate with from the surface and command to release a pop-up messenger float and line for eventual recovery of the instrument frame. Once on station, communication with the release was established easily (a good start) and we began ranging and moving the OCA vessel Gracie Lynn in to a position within about 2 water depths of the unit (~40 m). I gave the command to the transponder and the submerged release confirmed it was free of its anchor and heading for the surface, but it never made it. Uh oh. Turns out this lander had also broke free of its anchored legs and rolled/ hopped 800 m eastward until it was pinned up against the boulder structure of the south reef. Amazingly, OCA divers Jenna and Doug located the messenger float ~ 5 m below the surface and the messenger line had been fouled by the rolling frame so it could not reach the surface. They dove down the messenger line and attached a new recovery line to the lander frame and the Pacific Surveyor hauled up the frame and hydrophone in-tact (Fig. 6). Double recovery success!

Figure 6. R/V Pacific Surveyor recovering hydrophone landers off Gull Rock and South Beach.

The hydrophone data from both systems looks outstanding and analysis is underway. This recovery effort took a huge amount of patience and the coordination of 3 busy groups (NOAA/OSU, OCA, Capt. Al). Thanks to these incredible collaborations and some heroic diving from Jim Burke and his OCA dive team, we now have a unique and unprecedented shallow water passive acoustic data set from the energetic waters off the Oregon coast.

So that’s some of the story from the 2016 and 2017 field season acoustic point of view. I’ll save the less exciting, but equally successful instrument recoveries from Port Orford for another time.

Can we talk about how cool sea otters are?

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog introducing our new project, and my thesis, on the potential to reintroduce sea otters to the Oregon coast. In that blog, I expressed that in order to develop a successful reintroduction plan, scientists and managers need to have a sound understanding of sea otter ecology and the current state of Oregon’s coastal ecosystems. As a graduate student conducting a research-based thesis in a management program, I’m constantly fretting over the applicability of my research to inform decision-making processes. However, in the course of conducting my research, I sometimes forget just how COOL sea otters are. Therefore, in this blog, I wanted to take the opportunity to nerd out and provide you with my top five favorite facts about these otterly adorable creatures.

Photo Credit: Point Lobos Foundation

Without further ado, here are my top five favorite facts about sea otters:

  1. Sea otters eat a lot. Previous studies show that an individual sea otter eats up to 30% of its own body weight in food each day[1][2]. With such high caloric demands, sea otters spend a great deal of their time foraging the seafloor for a variety of prey species, and have been shown to decrease prey densities in their local habitat significantly. Sea otters are famously known for their taste for sea urchins. Yet, these voracious predators also consume clams, sea stars, crabs, and a variety of other small invertebrate species[3][4].

    Photo Credit: Katherine Johns via
  2. Individuals are specialists, but can change their diet. Sea otters typically show individual foraging specialization – which means an individual predominantly eats a select few species of prey. However, this doesn’t mean an otter can’t switch or consume other types of prey as needed. In fact, while individuals tend to be specialists, on a population or species level, sea otters are actually generalist predators[5][6]. Past studies that looked at the foraging habits of expanding sea otter populations show that as populations expand into unoccupied territory, they typically eat a limited number of prey. But as populations grow and become more established, the otters will start to diversify their diet, suggesting intra-specific competition[3][7].
  3. Sea otters exert a strong top-down force. Top-down forcing is one of the most important concepts we must acknowledge when discussing sea otter ecology. With top-down forcing, consumers at the top of the food chain depress the trophic level on which they feed, and this feeding indirectly increases the abundance of the next lower trophic level, resulting in a cascading effect[8]. The archetype example of this phenomenon is the relationship between sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp forests. This relationship goes as follows: sea otters consume sea urchin, and sea urchins graze on kelp. Therefore, sea otters reduce sea urchin densities by direct predation, thereby mediating grazing pressure on kelp. This indirect effect allows kelp to grow more abundantly, which is why we often see relatively productive kelp forests when sea otters are present[9]. This top-down forcing also has important implications for the whole ecosystem, as I’ll explain in my next fact.

    Pictured: sea urchin dominated seascape in habitat without sea otters. Photo Credit: BISHOPAPPS via Ohio State University.
  4. Sea otters help restore ecosystems, and associated ecosystem services. In kelp habitat where sea otters have been removed, we often see high densities of sea urchins and low biomasses of kelp. In this case, sea urchins have no natural predators to keep their populations in check and therefore completely decimate kelp forests. However, what we’ve learned is that when sea otters “reclaim” previously occupied habitats or expand into unoccupied territory, they can have remarkable restorative effects because their predation on sea urchins allows for the regrowth of kelp forest[10]. Additionally, with the restoration of key ecosystems like kelp forests, we can see a variety of other indirect benefits – such as increased biodiversity, refuge for fish nurseries and commercially-important species, and carbon sequestration[11][12][13]. The structure of nearshore ecosystems and communities change drastically with the addition or removal of sea otters, which is why they’re often referred to as keystone species.

    Photo Credit: University of California, Santa Barbara.
  5. Sea otters are most often associated with coastal kelp forests, but they can also exist in other types of habitats and ecosystems. In addition to kelp dominated ecosystems, sea otters are known to use estuaries and bays, seagrass beds, and swim over a range of bottom substrates[14][15]. As evidenced by previous studies, sea otters exert similar top-down forces in non-kelp ecosystems, as they do within kelp forests. One study found that sea otters also had restorative effects on seagrass beds within estuaries, where they consumed different types of prey (i.e., crabs instead of urchins), demonstrating that sea otters play a significant keystone role in seagrass habitats as well [12]. Findings such as these are vitally important to understanding (1) where sea otters are capable of living relative to habitat characteristics, and (2) how recovering or expanding sea otter populations may impact ecosystems and habitats in which they don’t currently exist, such as the Oregon coast.
Pictured: sea otter swimming through eel grass at Elkhorn Slough, California. Photo Credit: Kip Evans Photography.

Well, there you have it – my top five favorite facts about sea otters. This list is by no means exhaustive of all there is to know about sea otter ecology, and isn’t enough information to develop an informative reintroduction plan. However, a successful reintroduction plan will rely heavily on these underlying ecological characteristics of sea otters, in addition to the current state of Oregon’s nearshore ecosystems. As someone who constantly focuses on the relationship between scientific research and management and conservation, it’s nice every now and then to take a step back and just simply appreciate sea otters for being, well, sea otters.


[1] Costa, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, water, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

[2] Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.

[3] Laidre, K.L. and R. J. Jameson. 2006. Foraging patterns and prey selection in an increasing and expanding sea otter population. Journal of Mammology. 87(4): 799-807.

[4] Estes, J. A., Jameson, R.J., and B. R. Rhode. 1982. Activity and prey election in the sea otter: influence of population status on community structure. The American Naturalist. 120(2): 242-258.

[5] Tinker, M. T., Costa, D. P., Estes, J. A., and N. Wieringa. 2007. Individual dietary specialization and dive behavior in the California sea otter: using archival time-depth data to detect alternative foraging strategies. Deep-Sea Research Part II. (54):330-342.

[6] Newsome et al. 2009. Using stable isotopes to investigate individual diet specialization in California sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). Ecology. 90(4): 961-974.

[7] Ostfeld, R. S. 1982. Foraging strategies and prey switching in the California sea otter. Oecologia. 53(2): 170-178.

[8] Paine, R. T. 1980. Food webs: linkage, interaction strength and community infrastructure. The Journal of Animal Ecology. 49(3): 666-685.

[9] Estes, J. A. and J.F. Palmisano. 1974. Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science. 185(4156): 1058-1060.

[10] Estes, J. A., and D. O. Duggins. 1995. Sea otters and kelp forests in Alaska: generality and variation in a community ecological paradigm. Ecological Monographs. 65(1): 75-100.

[11] Wilmers, C. C., Estes, J. A., Edwards, M., Laidre, K. L., and B. Konar. 2012. Do trophic cascades affect the storage and flux of atmospheric carbon? An analysis of sea otters and kelp forests. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 10(8): 409-415.

[12] Hughes et al. 2014. Recovery of a top predator mediate negative eutrophic effects on seagrass. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(38): 15313-15318.

[13] Lee, L.C., Watson, J. C., Trebilco, R., and A. K. Salomon. Indirect effects and prey behavior mediate interactions between an endangered prey and recovering predator. Ecosphere. 7(12).

[14] Laidre, K. L., Jameson, R. J., Gurarie, E., Jeffries, S. J., and H. Allen. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.

[15] Lafferty, K. D., and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere. 5(5).


GEMM Lab 2017: A Year in the Life

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

The days are growing shorter, and 2017 is drawing to a close. What a full year it has been for the GEMM Lab! Here is a recap, filled with photos, links to previous blogs, and personal highlights, best enjoyed over a cup of hot cocoa. Happy Holidays from all of us!

The New Zealand blue whale team in action aboard the R/V Star Keys. Photo by L. Torres.

Things started off with a bang in January as the New Zealand blue whale team headed to the other side of the world for another field season. Leigh, Todd and I joined forces with collaborators from Cornell University and the New Zealand Department of Conservation aboard the R/V Star Keys for the duration of the survey. What a fruitful season it was! We recorded sightings of 68 blue whales, collected biopsy and fecal samples, as well as prey and oceanographic data. The highlight came on our very last day when we were able to capture a blue whale surface lunge feeding on krill from an aerial perspective via the drone. This footage received considerable attention around the world, and now has over 3 million views!

A blue whale surfaces just off the bow of R/V Star Keys. Photo by D. Barlow.

In the spring Rachael made her way to the remote Pribilof Islands of Alaska to study the foraging ecology of red-legged kittiwakes. Her objectives included comparing the birds that reproduce successfully and those that don’t, however she was thrown a major curveball: none of the birds in the colony were able to successfully reproduce. In fact, they didn’t even build nests. Further analyses may elucidate some of the reasons for the reproductive failure of this sentinel species of the Bering Sea… stay tuned.

red-legged kittiwakes
Rachael releases a kittiwake on St. George Island. Photo by A. Fleishman.


The 2017 Port Orford field team. Photo by A. Kownacki.

Florence is a newly-minted MSc! In June, Florence successfully defended her Masters research on gray whale foraging and the impacts of vessel disturbance. She gracefully answered questions from the room packed with people, and we all couldn’t have been prouder to say “that’s my labmate!” during the post-defense celebrations. But she couldn’t leave us just yet! Florence stayed on for another season of field work on the gray whale foraging ecology project in Port Orford, this time mentoring local high school students as part of the projectFlorence’s M.Sc. defense!

Upon the gray whales’ return to the Oregon Coast for the summer, Leila, Leigh, and Todd launched right back into the stress physiology and noise project. This year, the work included prey sampling and fixed hydrophones that recorded the soundscape throughout the season. The use of drones continues to offer a unique perspective and insight into whale behavior.

Video captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111.


Solene with a humpback whale biopsy sample. Photo by N. Job.

Solene spent the austral winter looking for humpback whales in the Coral Sea, as she participated in several research cruises to remote seamounts and reefs around New Caledonia. This field season was full of new experiences (using moored hydrophones on Antigonia seamount, recording dive depths with SPLASH10 satellite tags) and surprises. For the first time, whales were tracked all the way from New Caledonia to the east coast of Australian. As her PhD draws to a close in the coming year, she will seek to understand the movement patterns and habitat preferences of humpback whales in the region.

A humpback whale observed during the 2017 coral sea research cruise. Photo by S. Derville.

This summer we were joined by two new lab members! Dom Kone will be studying the potential reintroduction of sea otters to the Oregon Coast as a MSc student in the Marine Resource Management program, and Alexa Kownacki will be studying population health of bottlenose dolphins in California as a PhD student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. We are thrilled to have them on the GEMM Lab team, and look forward to seeing their projects develop. Speaking of new projects from this year, Leigh and Rachael have launched into some exciting research on interactions between albatrosses and fishing vessels in the North Pacific, funded by the NOAA Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program.

During the austral wintertime when most of us were all in Oregon, the New Zealand blue whale project received more and more political and media attention. Leigh was called to testify in court as part of a contentious permit application case for a seabed mine in the South Taranaki Bight. As austral winter turned to austral spring, a shift in the New Zealand government led to an initiative to designate a marine mammal sanctuary in the South Taranaki Bight, and awareness has risen about the potential impacts of seismic exploration for oil and gas reserves. These tangible applications of our research to management decisions is very gratifying and empowers us to continue our efforts.

In the fall, many of us traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia to present our latest and greatest findings at the 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. The strength of the lab shone through at the meeting during each presentation, and we all beamed with pride when we said our affiliation was with the GEMM Lab at OSU. In other conference news, Rachael was awarded the runner-up for her presentation at the World Seabird Twitter Conference!

GEMM Lab members present their research. From left to right, top to bottom: Amanda Holdman, Leila Lemos, Solène Derville, Dawn Barlow, Sharon Nieukirk, and Florence Sullivan.

Leigh had a big year in many ways. Along with numerous scientific accomplishments—new publications, new students, successful fieldwork, successful defenses—she had a tremendous personal accomplishment as well. In the spring she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after a hard fight she was pronounced cancer-free this November. We are all astounded with how gracefully and fearlessly she navigated these times. Look out world, this lab’s Principle Investigator can accomplish anything!

This austral summer we will not be making our way south to join the blue whales. However, we are keenly watching from afar as a seismic survey utilizing the largest seismic survey vessel in the world has launched in the South Taranaki Bight. This survey has been met with considerable resistance, culminating in a rally led by Greenpeace that featured a giant inflatable blue whale in front of Parliament in Wellington. We are eagerly planning our return to continue this study, but that will hopefully be the subject of a future blog.

New publications for the GEMM Lab in 2017 include six for Leigh, three for Rachael, and two for Alexa. Highlights include Classification of Animal Movement Behavior through Residence in Space and Time and A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Next year is bound to be a big one for GEMM Lab publications, as Amanda, Florence, Solene, Leila, Leigh, and I all have multiple papers currently in review or revision, and more in the works from all of us. How exciting!

In our final lab meeting of the year, we went around the table to share what we’ve learned this year. The responses ranged from really grasping the mechanisms of upwelling in the California Current to gaining proficiency in coding and computing, to the importance of having a supportive community in graduate school to trust that the right thing will happen. If you are reading this, thank you for your interest in our work. We are looking forward to a successful 2018. Happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

GEMM Lab members, friends, and families gather for a holiday celebration.

Conservation at the Science-to-Policy Interface

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

How can I practice conservation? As an early-career professional and graduate student, this is the very question I ask myself, constantly. In such an interdisciplinary field, there are several ways someone can address issues and affect change in conservation, even if they don’t call themselves a conservationist. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all method. A marine ecologist will likely try to solve a problem differently than a lawyer, advocate, journalist and so forth. Therefore, I want to explain how I practice conservation, how I develop solutions, and how this has factored into my decision to come to grad school and apply my trade to our sea otter project.

Jane Lubchenco – marine ecologist and environmental scientists – replanting coral. Photo Credit: Oregon State University.

Like many others in conservation, I have a deep appreciation for the field of ecology. Yet, I also really enjoy being involved in policy and management issues. Not just how they’re decided upon, but what factors and variables go into those decisions, and ultimately how those choices impact the marine environment. But most importantly, I’m curious about how these two arenas – science and policy – intersect and complement each other. Yet again, there are an endless number of ways one can practice conservation at the science-policy interface.

Think of this science-policy space as a spectrum or a continuum, if you will. For those who fall on one end of the spectrum, their work may be heavily dominated by pure science or research. While those who fall on the other end, conduct more policy-oriented work. And those in the middle do some combination of the two. Yet, what connects us all is the recognition of the value in science-based decision-making. Because a positive conservation result relies on both elements.

Infographic demonstrating the interface between conservation science and policy. Photo Credit: ZSL Institute of Zoology.

I’m fascinated by this science- policy space and the role that science can play in informing the management and protection of at-risk marine species and ecosystems. From my perspective, scientific evidence and the scientific community are essential resources to help society make better-informed decisions. However, we don’t always take advantage of those resources. On the policy end of the spectrum, there may be a lack of understanding of complex scientific concepts. Yet, on the other end, scientists may be inadvertently making their research inaccessible or they may not fully understand the data or knowledge needs of the decision-makers. Therefore, research that was meant to be useful, sometimes completely misses the mark, and therefore has minimal conservation impact.

Recognizing this persistent problem, I practice conservation as a facilitator, where I identify gaps in knowledge and strategically develop science-based solutions aimed at filling those gaps and addressing specific policy or management issues. In my line of work, I’m dedicated to working within the scientific community to develop targeted research projects that are well placed and thought-out to enable a greater impact. While I associate myself with the science end of the spectrum, I also interact with decision-makers on the other end to better understand the various factors and variables considered in decisions. This requires me to have a deeper understanding of the process by which decision-makers formulate policies and management strategies, how science fits within those decision-making process, and any potential gaps in knowledge or data that need to be filled to facilitate responsible decisions.

A commercial fishing vessel. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

A simple example of this is the use of stock assessments in the management of commercially important fisheries. Catch limits may seem like simple policies, but we often do not think about the “science behind the scenes” and the multitude of data needed by managers to set those limits. Managers must consider many variables to determine catch limits that will not result in depleted stocks. Without robust scientific data, many of these fisheries catch limits would be too high or too low.

Science protest in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.

This may all sound like theoretical mumbo jumbo, but it is real, and I will apply this crossover between science and policy in my thesis. The potential reintroduction of sea otters to Oregon presents a multitude of challenges, but the challenge is exactly why I came to grad school in the first place! This project will allow me to take what I’ve learned and develop research questions specifically aimed at providing data and information that managers must consider in their deliberations of sea otter reintroduction. In this project I will be pushed to objectively assess and analyze – as a scientist – a pressing conservation topic from a variety of angles, gain advice from other experts, and develop and execute research that will influence policy decisions. This project provides the perfect opportunity for me to exercise my creativity, allow my curiosity to run rampant, and practice conservation in my own unique way.


Photo Credit: Smithsonian.

Everyone processes and solves problems differently. For those of us practicing conservation, we each tackle issues in our own way depending on where we fall within the science-to-policy spectrum. For me, I address issues as a scientist, with my techniques and strategies derived from a foundation in the political and management context.

Additional Resources:

Bednarek et al. 2015. Science-policy intermediaries from a practitioner’s perspective: The Lenfest Ocean Program experience. Science and Public Policy. 43(2). p. 291-300. (Link here)

Lackey, R. T. 2007. Science, Scientists, and Policy Advocacy. Conservation Biology. 21(1). p. 12-17. (Link here)

Cortner, H. J. 2000. Making science relevant to environmental policy. Environmental Science & Policy. 3(1). p. 21-30. (Link here)

We Are Family

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

The GEMM Lab celebrating Leigh’s birthday with homemade baked goods and discussions about science.

A lab is a family. I know there is the common saying about how you cannot choose your family and you can only choose your friends. But, I’d beg to differ. In the case of graduate school, especially in departments similar to OSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife, your lab is your chosen family. These are the people who encourage you when you’ve hit a roadblock, who push you when you need extra motivation, who will laugh with you when you’ve reached the point of hysteria after hours of data analysis, who will feed you when you’re too busy to buy groceries, and who will always be there for you. That sure sounds a lot like a family to me.

GEMM Lab members at the Society for Marine Mammalogy 2017 Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the masquerade ball. Photo source: Florence Sullivan

Many of us spend weeks—if not months—conducting field research for our various projects. None of us do this work from the main campus…seeing as the main campus for Oregon State University is located Corvallis, Oregon which is approximately 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The GEMM Lab isn’t actually based on the main campus; instead, you’ll find the lab at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, within a two-minute stroll of the picturesque Yaquina Bay. However, many of the core classes we need are only offered on main campus. This results in the GEMM Lab members being spread across Corvallis, Newport, and the dominant fieldwork site for their project (which could be locally in Oregon, or in the waters off of New Zealand). So rather than your typical, weekly, hour-long lab meetings, the GEMM Lab meetings are monthly and last on the order of 3-5 hours. Others hear this and think that must be overwhelming to have such a long lab meeting. On the contrary, these are scheduled to fit into all of our chaotic schedules. One day a month, all of us gather together as a family unit, share what’s new about our lives, be sounding boards for each other, solve problems, and do so in a supportive environment. Hopefully you’re getting the picture that just because we’re all part of the same lab, it doesn’t mean we’re geographically close. This is exactly why we cultivate meaningful relationships while we are together. The Harvard Business Review published an article 2015 based on multiple peer-reviewed journals, summarizing the six dominant characteristics necessary to foster a positive workplace:

  1. Caring for colleagues as friends
  2. Supporting each other
  3. Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes
  4. Inspiring each other at work
  5. Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work
  6. Treating each other with respect

And I can attest that every member within the GEMM Lab embraces all of these characteristics and I have a feeling that none of them have read that article prior to today. Family naturally follows those basic guidelines. And, our lab, is a family.

My very first GEMM Family Dinner.

Case and Point: when I was applying for graduate programs, I made a point of traveling to meet the GEMM Lab members at the monthly lab meeting. Sure, I also wanted to make sure that both Newport and Corvallis would be good fits in terms of locations. But, mostly, I needed to see if this Lab would be a strong family unit for my graduate school career and beyond. The moment I arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, it was clear, this was a family that I could see myself being a part of. Not only had all the members brought some kind of food item to share at the lab meeting (this was important to me), but Florence had baked homemade bread, Dawn had offered to show me around Hatfield, and Leila had set up a time to take me around main campus with other grad students. During the lab meeting discussions, I was welcomed to contribute and I felt comfortable doing so. That was another big moment where something “clicked” and I knew I had found a great group of amazing scientists who were also amazing human beings.

GEMM Lab members at the Port Orford Field Station in August 2017.

Flash forward a few months, and now I am one of those lab members who is bringing food to lab meetings. More than that, we have GEMM Lab dinners and game nights. I may be based in Corvallis, but I commute out to Newport just for these fun activities because this is my family. I want to be with them—not only when we’re talking about our research—but when we’re laughing about the silly things that happen in our daily lives, comically screaming at each other in an effort to win whatever game is on the table, and enjoying home-cooked meals. This is my family.

GEMM Lab members helping some friends at South Coast Tours build a dirt-bag house in August 2017.

I guess I’d like to plug this message to any potential graduate student regardless of discipline(s): find a lab with people that you truly want to surround yourselves with—day and night—in good times and in bad times—because undoubtedly, you’ll need those kinds of people. And, to current lab constituents in any lab: it’s up to us to create a supportive family which will make everyone successful.

Sister Sledge knew just this when the group sang this verse of their hit, “We Are Family”:

Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of this world’s delights
High, high hopes we have for the future
And our goal’s in sight
We, no we don’t get depressed
Here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong, oh-no
This is our family Jewel

I’m grateful to have found a lab that embodies the lyrics of one of my favorite childhood karaoke songs. The GEMM Lab is not only a lab that produces cutting-edge science; it is a family that encourages one another in all facets of life—creating an environment where people can have high-quality lives and generate high-quality science.

GEMM Lab Family Dinner complete with the board game, Evolution, and homemade pizza. October 2017.