Floating transponders track tsunami debris path

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more

Oregon citizens become coastal scientists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet owners, veterinary care professionals sought for national study

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more


Demystifying modeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

You can find the model here: Modeling Practice

COASTALearning Symposium Oct. 9-10

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

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

Learn more:

Confluence: Oregon communities respond to climate change

Confluence cover

Cover by artist Earl Newman

Climate change: Some people feel overwhelmed by it, others argue about it. Oregon Sea Grant researchers, Extension specialists and communicators, meanwhile are working to better understand what a changing climate is already doing to the ocean and coast – and helping coastal communities better prepare themselves for higher and more damaging waves, stronger storms, rising sea level and other anticipated changes.

The latest issue of OSG’s Confluence magazine examines some of the issues coastal Oregon faces, and ways in which Sea Grant is helping citizens and scientists address them, from anticipating the effects of climate change to building resilience in the face of them – and better understanding how people with different backgrounds and philosophies can even communicate about the topic.

Other articles in this issue include

  • Profiles of several Oregon Sea Grant Scholars, and how their student experiences in Sea Grant internships and fellowships helped prepare them for careers in marine science and public policy
  • A new app that helps coastal visitors identify critters they find on the beach – and contribute to citizen science by reporting them.
  • A study of how juvenile Dungeness crab move through coastal waters as they mature, and an exhibit at the Hatfield Marine Science Center that explains what scientists are learning, and how it might benefit the crab fishery.

Learn more

New Video: Responding to the Risks of . . . Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris

Marine debris – trash, refuse, stuff lost at sea — can often seem like a problem that’s difficult to make headway against. New short videos produced by Oregon Sea Grant can change that impression.

Responding to the Risks of Marine Debris: Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris, documents the aftermath of the devastating 2011 tsunami that washed millions of tons of personal belongings, along with other industrial and structural debris, in to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan. Since then, Japanese tsunami marine debris both large and small has come ashore along the U.S. West Coast, providing a unique window on the ways in which debris moves throughout the oceans, the risks associated with marine debris, including invasive species, and the responses people — from scientists to citizens — are making to marine debris.

The 10-minute documentary video is online at the Oregon Sea Grant Vimeo channel in high definition at vimeo.com/98582981

. . . and on our YouTube channel (where closed captioning is also available):

This video was produced by Oregon Sea Grant in a cooperative project with NOAA West and the West Coast Sea Grant programs.