Though she be but little: How the smallest stages of fishes can determine the success of the United States’ economy.

by Laura Vary, Master’s student, Marine Resource Management

Take a moment to consider the factors that allow you to read this article as an adult today. You (hopefully) have sufficient food and water to power your cells, which work tirelessly to flood your brain with enough glucose to retain an understanding of sentences. You have enough time and attention to focus on these words. In one way or another, you obtained a device with which to view this article, and viable internet connection to load materials. To be in the position of reading this article, many moments had to happen in precisely the right way.

Now, imagine you’re a tiny larval fish, smaller than ball bearing, in the middle of an ocean thousands of miles wide. The fate of your population rests on your poorly developed spine and you are experiencing your environment for the very first time. You lack developed eyes but can recognize light, you can swim (barely), but have no chance of fighting against the strong currents that push you across space. Yet, somehow, you must find food and a comfortable area where you can grow. Somewhere warm enough, as your growth will stop if the water is too cold. Somewhere calm enough, where you can have a chance of not only finding prey but capturing it.

The number of factors that must go right in order for these nearly microscopic creatures to mature into adults is almost incomprehensible. They do, though, and mature adults support a sector of the United States’ economy worth nearly $5.5 billion1.

In the United States, fisheries are extremely important to coastal communities’ cultures and our national economy. If you’ve eaten U.S. seafood recently, chances are that it came from Alaskan waters: 60% of all U.S. fish landings occur in Alaska, primarily in the Bering Sea1. Over $500 million is contributed to the U.S. economy from Alaska alone, and 1.2 million jobs stem from Alaska fisheries2.

The Bering Sea, a region of exceptional fishery productivity off Alaska’s west coast. The Bering Sea supports many fisheries worth millions of dollars. Notably, the Bering Sea is home to walleye pollock, a groundfish worth $420 million in 2020.

Alaska fisheries are booming, but the environment is changing rapidly. The Bering Sea is experiencing a swift onset of climate change with notable decreases to the sea ice that is vital for a functioning ecosystem3. It is very possible that those little larvae we imagined earlier will have a harder time finding adequate areas to grow up, areas with proper food and comfortable thermal conditions. If larvae are unable to find these preferred areas, the population that supports valuable fisheries is likely to drop in numbers4. Poor larval survival has been observed to cause fishery closures and population declines globally, which cost coastal communities and the U.S. economy millions of dollars5. To improve the health of larvae and secure the health of our fisheries upon which the national economy depends, we must continue supporting fishery sustainability into the future.

Media coverage of the oceans frequently adopts a “doom and gloom” lens, with typical news articles focusing on rapid glacial melt, population crashes, hurricanes, plastic pollution, and a myriad of other threats facing our oceans and coastal communities6,7. While these articles are addressing very real problems, successes in the marine world are often glossed over. Fishery sustainability, for example, is an area in which the U.S. and specifically Alaska have performed quite well.

Historically, fisheries management has been narrow in scope, establishing policies for the uses and protection of single species or even age groups within a species. Fisheries managers tended to imagine the ecosystem as a set of isolated ecological islands rather than dynamic and interwoven facets of the same community8. Alaska, alternatively, has maintained sustainable fisheries through a different approach: ecosystem-based management, or ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBM/EBFM). EBFM acknowledges the interconnected nature of ecosystems and elucidates connections among ecosystem components to promote long-term sustainability of natural resources. EBFM is a management framework in which all components of a healthy ecosystem, including humans and the use of natural resources by humans, are considered8–10. Simply put, EBFM is a way of managing human interactions with natural resources that emphasizes connections within the ecosystem and society and is adaptive across time and space9. In places where it has been implemented, like in Alaska, long-term sustainability of fisheries has been observed which is a testament to the importance of holistic management11,12.

EBFM can be thought of as treating the source of an illness rather than its symptoms. A patient complaining of chronic nausea, for example, will likely have a better health outcome if a doctor considers their diet, environment, stress levels, and exercise routine rather than simply prescribing anti-nausea medications. In Alaska, fisheries have been managed following this  holistic EBFM framework for decades11,12. Researchers and managers work tirelessly to understand the internal connections among organisms, the drivers of change, and the most important threats, much like a doctor trained in comprehensive medicine. Nationally, the U.S. has made strides in implementing EBM principles in fisheries management and scientists recommend the integration of EBM principles to other marine industries, like the development of renewable energy10,13. Now, perhaps you’re wondering why we should still be concerned about the fate of those larvae, and ultimately our fisheries, if EBFM is making such improvements nationwide. This question harkens back to a key concept of EBFM: it is adaptive and iterative in nature, requiring updates and modifications as the environment and human society change over time9. Further, status evaluations across vulnerable life stages of important fisheries (e.g., larvae) are required to improve EBFM implementation5.

A collection of larval fishes, captured by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center ecosystems and fisheries coordinated investigations team.
Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 12/30/2021.

To better inform EBFM, it is extremely important to understand what may happen to fish larvae if the Bering Sea warms dramatically or experiences more storms, or demands on fisheries increase to support a growing human population. I spend a lot of my time thinking about larval fishes in the pursuit of a better understanding of the factors that drive survival and successful maturation into juvenile fishes and eventual adults. Specifically, I investigate how the reproductive behavior of larval fishes in the Bering Sea may change in the future, and how anticipated changes could impact the survival of larvae. Through my research, I found that walleye pollock exhibit flexibility in where they spawn. This suggests that in warm years, aggregations of walleye pollock spawning adults may occur in regions different from historic population tendencies (note: these results are unpublished and thus have not been peer-reviewed yet).

            To promote adaptive management, many possible ecosystem states, relating to differing climate states, should be considered10. In the case of pollock, managers need to know that spawning aggregations may shift geographically in warm conditions for many reasons. Pollock eggs (roe) are harvested and so the lucrative roe fishery may need to move locations in the future. A movement of spawning adults could cause larvae to hatch in unfavorable areas, increasing larval mortality and leading to closures of the adult fisheries. Adult pollock could also move outside of U.S. fishing jurisdictions as the region warms, potentially warranting new international fishing agreements or modifications to established fishing areas14. My research therefore supports EBFM approaches by elucidating drivers of change which managers can then integrate within adaptive management strategies. At the end of the day, a failure to acknowledge different survival rates and environmental pressures across life stages in fisheries management could seriously impact the U.S. economy.

            Any U.S. community member is connected to the marine environment through the impact that fisheries and marine industries have on our economy. This economic connection between societies and their ecosystems is a fundamental driver of EBM, and underscores why even individuals living in landlocked states hundreds of miles from a large water body rely on a functioning marine ecosystem. The need for EBM, though, extends beyond fisheries management. Currently, global powers are developing “blue economy” initiatives which seek to improve the financial gains nations can receive from marine and coastal activities15. The blue economy includes any industry that occurs in marine or coastal areas, including power generation, fishing, tourism, and shipping16. The EBM framework should be integrated at every level of blue economy initiatives to prevent follies we’ve experienced in the past (e.g., overfishing, uncontrollable oil spills, plastic pollution, etc.)15. The EBM framework can also promote the development of even more jobs, as collaboration and a diverse team structure are central components of the EBM approach15. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a Blue Economy Strategic Plan that works to enhance emergent marine industries and protect their sustainability into the future16.   

            Yesterday, you may not have ever thought of larval fishes. After reading this article, I hope you understand the importance of their survival to the success of the U.S. economy. Millions of livelihoods and hundreds of coastal communities directly rely upon the commercial harvest of fisheries, but all U.S. citizens indirectly benefit from these marine ventures. At the heart of this industry are the tiny, frequently forgotten young fishes that must fight battles worthy of a Homeric epic: They avoid relatively monstrous predators and capture microscopic prey, all while being swept along by powerful currents. The sustainability of marine fisheries in the U.S. hinges on the implementation of EBFM in management and EBM in emergent blue economy ventures. More specifically, though, it hinges on the ability of scientists and managers to elucidate the drivers of mortality in the most vulnerable life stages of these organisms.


References

1.         Cody, R. Fisheries of the United States, 2019. 167 (2021).

2.         Fisheries, N. The Economic Importance of Seafood | NOAA Fisheries. NOAA https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/economic-importance-seafood (2020).

3.         Stabeno, P. J. & Bell, S. W. Extreme Conditions in the Bering Sea (2017–2018): Record-Breaking Low Sea-Ice Extent. Geophysical Research Letters 46, 8952–8959 (2019).

4.         Hjort, J. Fluctuations in the great fisheries of northern Europe, viewed in the light of biological research. (1914).

5.         Laurel, B. J. et al. Regional warming exacerbates match/mismatch vulnerability for cod larvae in Alaska. Progress in Oceanography 193, 102555 (2021).

6.         Oceans. The New York Times.

7.         Oceans. HuffPost https://www.huffpost.com/impact/topic/oceans.

8.         Lester, S. E. et al. Science in support of ecosystem-based management for the US West Coast and beyond. Biological Conservation 143, 576–587 (2010).

9.         McLeod, K. & Leslie, H. Why Ecosystem-Based Management? in Ecosystem-Based Management for the Oceans 10 (Island Press, 2009).

10.       Leslie, H. M. & McLeod, K. L. Confronting the challenges of implementing marine ecosystem-based management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 5, 540–548 (2007).

11.       Holsman, K. K. et al. Ecosystem-based fisheries management forestalls climate-driven collapse. Nature Communications 11, 4579 (2020).

12.       Fisheries, N. Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management Strengthens Resilience to Climate Change | NOAA Fisheries. NOAA https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/ecosystem-based-fisheries-management-strengthens-resilience-climate-change (2020).

13.       Copping, A. E. et al. Enabling Renewable Energy While Protecting Wildlife: An Ecological Risk-Based Approach to Wind Energy Development Using Ecosystem-Based Management Values. Sustainability 12, 9352 (2020).

14.       Baker, M. R. Contrast of warm and cold phases in the Bering Sea to understand spatial distributions of Arctic and sub-Arctic gadids. Polar Biol 44, 1083–1105 (2021).

15.       Wenhai, L. et al. Successful Blue Economy Examples With an Emphasis on International Perspectives. Frontiers in Marine Science 6, (2019).

16.       NOAA Finalizes Strategy to Enhance Growth of American Blue Economy. U.S. Department of Commerce https://www.commerce.gov/news/blog/2021/01/noaa-finalizes-strategy-enhance-growth-american-blue-economy (2021).

A journey to Ph.D. and beyond

by Deepa Dwyer, Ph.D. Student, Marine Geology and Geophysics

A Ph.D. can mean many things, each valued differently by those who strive for it. As a woman of color from an underrepresented community, born and raised in India, for me, a Ph.D. has come to be a way to help inspire the next generation of community members and world leaders. 

My lab at sea:
I had an opportunity to sail for a week abord the Oceanus during summer of 2020 collecting sediment cores from the OR-WA margin. 

I have long been dedicated to science outreach and education.  Exploring the mysteries of science became a passion at a very young age, a passion introduced by my mother, but pursuing scientific research didn’t become a focus until my undergraduate research advisor took a risk on me. After earning my undergraduate and master’s degrees, I was a manager of STEM programs at Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, where I collaborated with teachers and educators to develop an inquiry-based, hands-on learning experience for K-12 students. Through this position, I was able to offer students an opportunity to question and explore the mechanisms that make their world tick. 

My commitment to inspiring the next generation of scientists continued when I am reminded of a treasured annual high school summer research project that I managed called Partners in Science. The program’s goal is to pair students with researchers as they forma a collaborative relationship that takes them to a deeper dive through an attainable research goal. Through this program I gained the experience and fertilized the passion to help inspire students and teachers to appreciate scientific endeavors beyond the scope of a middle school or a high school science research project. 

This project motivated me to pursue my Ph.D. My current research explores the mysteries hidden in marine sediment cores from the Gulf of Alaska with the aim to solve them by studying imprints of the Earth’s magnetic field on the sediments. I was driven to this project because of my undergraduate and graduate work, inspired by a group of female scientists, when my research focused on sediments from Antarctica and meteorite from Mars. I enjoy my lab time but miss the impact of outreach initiatives from my previous job, and realized that for me, research alone is not enough. In November of 2021, my committee and I met to discuss transforming one of my dissertation chapters into an education and outreach chapter. 

Graduate Student poster at Scientific Committee of Antarctic research
I presented the culminating research from my undergraduate and graduate work on a sediment core from Antarctica, June of 2013. 

Today, effectiveness of research is measured by the questions it attempts to answer and future research it stimulates, but it should also be measured by the educational impact it can make, doors it can open, and people it can inspire.  Inspiring others takes effort; it’s a risk and a gamble.  That’s how I came to be where I am now: I was inspired by many mentors, from my mother to my graduate advisors. The risks they took on my behalf fueled my passion to introduce the full scope of scientific research to high school students during a course of a summer. And now it will fuel my research efforts for the education and outreach chapter of my thesis.

Moving forward, post Ph.D., I will be focusing my efforts on introducing the rigors and wonders of scientific research to middle school and high school teachers and students. I aim to develop a series of annual programs where students, teachers and researchers actively collaborate in efforts to question and answer the mechanisms that make our world tick. 

Shifting Waters in a Changing Place

by Margaret Conley, PhD student in Ocean, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences

Margaret tying off a ground line for a bottom mooring in a side channel of the Yaquina Bay estuary in Newport, Oregon. Photo by Jim Lerczak.

I study estuaries, the beautiful, mucky, and sometimes smelly mixing zones where river and ocean meet. Estuaries are exciting because they are always changing. Of course, every place has its seasons. Here in Oregon, we have summer sun and winter rain, spring flowers and fall leaves. But in an estuary, these changes are amplified: On top of seasonal changes, there is the daily drama of the tide, alternately flooding and exposing mud flats and marshes. The tide and the seasons also bring changes we can’t directly see — how warm and salty the water is, for example. These invisible characteristics are critical for the creatures that make estuaries their home, including oysters.

Low tide reveals a complex network of muddy banks and channels that are invisible during high tide at King Slough (top row) and Paddle Park (bottom row), two spots along the Yaquina Bay estuary, Newport, Oregon.

Oysters are used to a certain degree of change. But how will they, and their estuarine home, respond to the larger changes that human-caused climate change will bring? This is what my fellow researchers and I are trying to figure out, and we’re starting by better understanding the dynamics of one of the most basic water characteristics: temperature. We are studying water temperature in the Yaquina Bay estuary in Newport, OR to figure out how it changes with tides, storms, and seasons. Once we better understand the current range of temperature changes, we can start to predict how the estuary might change in the future, and how all this change affects the plants and animals that live in the estuary.

We are measuring the temperature of estuary water at many locations, from far upriver where the water is fresh to the salty water at the estuary mouth. By looking all along the channel, we can witness the battle between ocean and river, pushing each other back and forth as the strength of the tides and the river flow change over time. We’re also measuring the mucky places, like tidal flats where the water comes and goes and side channels called sloughs. All these water sources, plus heat from the sun, combine to determine the temperature of the water in the estuary. By recording the temperature changes from tide to tide and season to season, we hope to identify which factors are most important in determining temperature at each location along the estuary. We also want to figure out how these conditions influence where oysters grow best.

A calm morning at Cannon Quarry Park, Lincoln County, Oregon.

Besides the changing waters, the assortment of plants and animals that live in the Yaquina Bay estuary also changes over time. Baby salmon travel through estuaries on their way to the sea, and birds use the Yaquina as a rest stop during migration or as a summer or winter vacation home. Just like me, these animals are temporary visitors, and they never see the full range of estuary conditions. But there are also those who make this changing place their permanent home. Just like the residents of waterside towns, organisms like oysters set up shop on a particular spot and stay put. To understand why oysters live where they do, we have to become permanent residents too.

That’s where the scientific instruments come in. These little machines let us become residents of the estuary. While we return home to Corvallis after each field trip, the instruments stay behind, quietly recording the changing waters. While we work in our offices, they brave winter storms, floating logs, encroaching mud, and curious creatures. With luck, plus lots of knots and tape, they are still there when we return, and they report back on what they’ve seen. Each time we visit, the instruments look like they’ve been claimed by the estuary, coated in brown goop to match the muddy bank, sprinkled with baby barnacles just like the nearby rocks. Crabs move into our bottom moorings as they slowly sink into the muck. If we didn’t return soon enough, they might just disappear entirely.

A sensor that measures temperature and conductivity, before and after cleaning.

Using these measurements, we plan to figure out what the oysters themselves already know: How does the temperature of the water change over time? After several months of measurements, we can already start to put together a story. We see the winter rainstorms that push ocean water down the estuary back towards the sea, changes in the coastal ocean that creep their way up the estuary with the tides, and solar-powered heating. Once we know how temperature in the estuary changes, we can try to predict how it will be impacted by climate change. This temperature change also contributes one piece of the puzzle in understanding how oysters, intrepid inhabitants of this changing place, will respond. 

Sunset and a falling tide at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, looking towards the Yaquina Bay Bridge.

Building Community

by Ashley Peiffer, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management

In the foreground, a school garden built by my community counterpart and fellow science teacher, Iddi. My tin-roofed house is in the background and Mshangai village lies in the valley below.

Upendo is the Swahili word for “love” and the name of one of my best friends in the Mshangai village of Tanzania where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2017-19. When I first arrived in Tanzania, I thought I knew what the village needed. It was only after getting to know my neighbors, like Upendo and her daughter, Rosie, that I realized my role as a volunteer was to drop all my preconceived notions and become part of the community first. Over the two years I spent in Mshangai, Upendo and Rosie taught me how much time and upendo it takes to build relationships and a sense of community. When I came back home to start my master’s degree at Oregon State University, I used those lessons, discovering that even without being physically present in a community, it’s still possible to maintain meaningful relationships with people across the globe.

Upendo, Rosie and I dressed up in our best batik (a hand-dyed fabric) for a local wedding.

One of the first moments I recognized that working in the village had nothing to do with imposing ideas of what “should” be and everything to do with building relationships was when Upendo started asking me to babysit Rosie. The simple gesture of asking me to fill a role that was normally taken by other women in the community brought me the humbling, heart-opening feeling of belonging. I found a deep sense of joy through the connections I made while taking on tasks such as babysitting, washing dishes with other women at local events, and chatting with village Bibi’s (“grandmas”) in an attempt to learn the three local dialects in my area that were often meshed with Swahili. Staying present in these day-to-day activities helped me to build meaningful relationships and listen to the concerns of my friends.

I often carried Rosie around the village center so she could avoid the mud with her bare feet.
One of my favorite pastimes: Chatting with my neighbor, Mama Sophia, and her sister near a shop in the village.

Without taking the time to get to know my neighbors, I would have never discovered that a major concern of the community was the amount of time girls and women missed out on their daily activities due to a lack of menstrual hygiene products. Nearing the end of my time as a volunteer, I found myself knee-deep in grant writing and event planning to host health seminars for hundreds of students and women in the community with my friend and fellow teacher, Rachel. We planned three seminars to teach about sexual and reproductive health and give away reusable menstrual pad kits from the HURU (“Freedom”) International program.

Rachel and I often wore matching khangas (colorful cloth printed with Swahili idioms) for community events.

On the last day of the event, my friends from Mshangai and nearby villages came to receive their HURU kits, some walking over 5 miles one way just to reach the event. I was moved to tears by the community of women gathered with me. I held Rosie as Rachel gave the health lectures and all of the women, including my dear friend Upendo, took notes and asked questions. After the seminar, girls and women from the community paraded around the village with their colorful HURU kits, and Rachel saved the extras and all the education materials for incoming classes of students in future years.

Secondary school girls jotting down notes during a HURU seminar. Rachel and I hand-made the educational posters on the walls around the classroom.
Keeping one eye on Rosie while Rachel explains what would be found inside each HURU kit: reusable menstrual pads, underwear, and soap.
Secondary school girls proudly showing off their new HURU kits! 

The importance of community remains a focus of my life and a source of inspiration for my master’s thesis. Through the Marine Resource Management program and my advisor, Dr. Michael Harte, I was connected with the non-profit Secure Fisheries, a program of One Earth Future focused on empowering coastal communities in the Somali region to sustain and manage their fisheries resources and promote peace-building. Their work includes developing cooperative fisheries management in coastal communities, creating a system of region-wide catch data collection in partnership with universities and governments, and enhancing fisheries value chains to ensure communities derive as much value as possible from their fisheries resources. With staff located in both the Somali region and the United States, Secure Fisheries uses both community knowledge and scientific research to boost local capacity for fisheries management.

Photo from a Secure Fisheries’ hosted oceanographic mapping exercise in a Somali coastal community.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought my initial research plans– a gender and small-scale fisheries project in the Somali region–to a standstill. While in quarantine, I realized much of Secure Fisheries’ field work was significantly delayed because of the pandemic. Even so, staff members on both sides of the globe found creative ways to continue and even improve ongoing projects by switching to remote communication with communities and collecting GPS fisheries data. I was inspired by how the organization maintained strong relationships within communities, even with our new norm of social distancing. This inspiration led me to change my thesis research. I wanted to understand how Secure Fisheries and similar organizations adapted to extraordinary circumstances alongside the communities they work in, sustaining relationships with communities they could no longer visit in-person. 

Living and working in Tanzania allowed me to learn first-hand how building trust and relationships can lead to great things. Through my research so far, I have seen how Secure Fisheries exemplifies those same values. Without community relationships and an appreciation for local knowledge, Secure Fisheries may not have been able to identify means of adapting their work to the pandemic, like seeking alternatives to data collection or communication.

As I wrap up my research, I find myself reflecting back to my days in Mshangai, remembering what it was like to hand HURU kits to my neighbors and friends, knowing that they were receiving sorely-needed supplies. I have found a sense of belonging here in Oregon with the Marine Resource Management program and with Secure Fisheries (through Zoom!), and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for Upendo and Rosie, who opened up their homes and hearts to me and who patiently taught me what it means to build community. 

Straddling Two Cultures at Sea

by Johna Winters, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management

Johna Winters supporting OOI mooring operations in small boat off of the R/V Sikuliaq in 2018

As a marine technician, I’ve been to the North Pole, the equator, and the Great Lakes. I’ve worked with many oceanographers, limnologists (scientists that study freshwater systems like lakes), and ship’s crew to accomplish science missions from deploying scientific moorings off the coast of Oregon, to deep sea net trawls in the sea of California, to mud grabs in the deepest part of Lake Superior to look for evidence of invasive mussels. As a technician, my main job was to make sure that the scientists had what they needed to complete their projects: streams of data, sampling equipment, and expertise to deploy that equipment safely. In the process, I also obtained a U.S. Coast Guard rating which qualifies me to work as ship’s crew. 

An improvised science contraption Johna made out of a Tupperware container and spare parts, circa 2014. Photo Credit: Johna Winters.

But sometimes I used “people skills” as much as technical skills. Sometimes my job involved greasing the wheels of collaboration between scientists and crew. This role found me making an effort to communicate with each of these groups in their own language and then translating. Sometimes sampling methods didn’t make a lick of sense to the crew and sometimes scientists didn’t comprehend ship operations. In communicating with both groups, the techs were able to make data collection more efficient and higher quality. I didn’t see one group as superior to the other, only as serving different but important roles in our mission to study the ocean.

From technician to social scientist

It never occurred to me that I would one day be designing a study about research vessels for my master’s thesis work. While my degree in chemistry and my tech skills were useful for gathering accurate physical science data, they did nothing to help me wrap my head around these workplace interactions. I needed new models, frameworks, theories, and methodologies which the social sciences provided in abundance.

Johna on a cruise in the Arctic near the North Pole* aboard the USCG Cutter Healy in 2015. *The North Pole does not have an actual pole. Photo Credit: Croy Carlin

I got an inkling that these things could in fact be studied when an aquatic scientist gave me a paper called “Scientists and Mariners at Sea” (Bernard 1976). I was mystified that someone had written an academic paper about my strange profession. The crux of the paper is a discussion of some statistical methodology that was quite obscure to me at the time, but the other material in the paper was what was interesting to me. Research vessels today are quite different than they were in 1976. For example, alcohol is no longer permitted in the U.S. academic research fleet, there are many more women working in science (unacceptably, the proportion of non-white scientists in the geosciences has changed very little), and legal rights for LGBTQ+ people have advanced, but some of the themes of the Bernard paper are still relevant. Bernard writes about a dual hierarchy and the different cultures and value systems of scientists and mariners that, without the existence of research vessels, would never interact.  

Johna evaluating a sensor for damage on a rosette water sampler aboard the USCG Cutter Healy 2015. Photo Credit: Cory Mendenhall, USCG
A glass ceiling in ocean sciences

The longer I was a technician the more I realized that women in leadership roles were few and far between and it became obvious that I was treated differently because of my gender. Switching jobs did not alter this pattern. There were more women in the science parties that I interacted with, biology in particular, but in deck-work focused science parties, like mooring groups, and in the ship’s crew, not so much. I began to wonder, Did the unique environment of a research vessel have an influence over the cultural and historical momentum of sexism? Policies such as Title 9 and Title 7 had existed for decades, but how did policies designed to eliminate sexual harassment function in this unique environment?

Johna leading deck operations during a mooring deployment aboard the R/V Oceanus in 2016. Photo Credit: Mounted GoPRO

In 2016 or 2017, I came across another paper that has influenced my research direction: “SAFE: Survey of Academic Field Experiences” (Clancy et al. 2014). This study was originally designed for anthropologists but the researchers added other discipline categories when some geologists requested that they be included. The study found that a large proportion of respondents reported incidents of sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination and assault in field sites and identified structural aspects of academia, such as high power differentials between students and more senior academics, as contributors to this dynamic. When I came across this paper, I thought, “Someone should do this in oceanography!” It was two years later that my master’s thesis project solidified around this topic, with the help and encouragement of my committee members.

Expanding Horizons

In order to answer my research questions, I had to break through my past bias against the social sciences. As a younger person I dismissed anything that in my mind was “not science.” I attribute this narrow way of thinking to many influences around me, from my B.S. in chemistry to a comic by xkcd, an attitude that was also perpetuated by my STEM professors during my undergraduate education.

Comic highlighting perceptions of different fields in science. Edits in red are Johna’s. Note that the sociologist didn’t even get a conversation bubble until Johna added one in. Source: xkcd.com/435
 

Today I find the notion of a hierarchy of disciplines ridiculous. Different questions require different tools. And the research questions for my thesis couldn’t be answered with the tools that I knew from my B.S. in chemistry or from being a technician, so I applied to the Marine Resource Management program at Oregon State University.

My journey through my master’s course work in Marine Resource Management has included a core of oceanography classes, as well as qualitative and quantitative social science methods and marine policy as well as elective classes in women’s and gender studies, accounting, and environmental politics. It is this combination of approaches and tools that will help me to carry out my research objectives and hopefully offer something of value to the research vessel community, by disrupting the patterns that keep talented women from reaching leadership roles as crew, scientists, and technicians. 

As Johna says, “You can lubricate a winch with a grease gun, but you can’t solve sexism with a salinometer.” Photo Credit: Shannon Zellerhoff

From Owl Pellets to Pacific Fisheries

Laura Vary, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management  

Laura Vary with her father, who introduced her to science at a young age.
Beginnings of a scientist

I first became a scientist when I was four years old. I was crouching beneath a large pine tree in the woods of my backyard with my father standing beside me. We were inspecting an oblong, dark brown conglomeration. My dad explained that this mysterious thing was an owl pellet, likely excreted by one of the screech owls inhabiting our property. He palmed the pellet and we walked back to my house along the wooded path, my mind expanding as he described all that the little pellet could contain. 

Back in our garage, my father showed me how to carefully break apart the pellet using tweezers. He pulled out small rodent bones, teeth, and other unidentifiable fragments tangled in the coarse hair that held the pellet together. We dissected many of these in the months that followed, transforming my backyard into my first field site. My interest in ecology grew as I watched the dynamics of robins, cardinals, foxes, and chipmunks in those woods. They introduced me to basic biology as I found treasures including a complete, bleached possum skeleton and an intact still-born coyote pup. My biochemist father taught me all he knew about our woods during frequent walks in the evenings, stoking my enthusiasm and helping me to learn that the world of science could be mine. 

Though I lived inland near lakes and rivers teeming with small spotted sunfish and bass, I was drawn to the craggy granite shoreline of Maine’s coast. I would rock-hop away from my mother as she read to seek out hidden tide pools that burst with barnacles and mussels and small periwinkles. By sixth grade I was determined to become a marine biologist. 

to another coast, far away

My mission to become a marine biologist led me, surprisingly, to the drought-stricken Central Valley of California where I studied marine and coastal science at the University of California at Davis. I was immediately drawn to the school after learning about UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory. Strategically located at the site of one of the most productive areas of the California coast, Bodega Marine Lab houses all varieties of innovative University of California undergraduate and graduate marine ecosystem research. With urging from my father to “follow the research” and extensive emotional support from my mother, I moved 3,300 miles away from my family. 

I joined my first undergraduate research project in the spring of my freshman year in the Ecology and Evolution Department with the Wainwright Lab studying the morphological evolution of teleost fishes. I traveled to the Smithsonian Museum’s Collections Facility in Maryland with a small group of my peers, and together we measured preserved specimens of Teleostei fishes. These measurements, and others taken by more undergraduates in following years, produced one of the largest public databases of linear measurements of fishes available today. This work resulted in the presentation of my first research project utilizing a subset of these data at the 28th Annual Undergraduate Research Conference. 

Studying morphological evolution at the Smithsonian

Then, after a year-long digression in terrestrial plant ecology, my first significant experimental failure, and the completion of physically exhaustive biology courses, I finally arrived at Bodega Marine Lab in August of 2018. I studied coastal and biological oceanography and assisted with research in Steve Morgan’s planktonic fisheries ecology lab. I counted fish larvae and eggs and became endlessly fascinated with the expansive world that fit within the view of my microscope. I returned to this lab after graduation in 2019 to become a paid research technician. In this dream role I learned identification of invertebrate larvae, how to distinguish one species of krill from another, and organized a science crew and team of volunteers to evaluate marine protected areas off the Sonoma Coast. The Morgan Lab became my second home; I understood my priorities as a researcher and progressive member of a new wave of scientists and determined what my future after graduation would look like.

Searching for fish larvae and eggs in plankton samples

From marine biologist to marine resource manager

Upon reflection of my undergraduate education, I realized that solving complex matters like sustainable ocean management and climate change requires an interdisciplinary framework. Furthermore, I learned that the waves of change I wanted to make would be more difficult to achieve with my Bachelor’s degree alone. The recognition of these goals led me to Oregon State’s research-focused yet extremely interdisciplinary marine resource management program. In the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences I will work with Dr. Lorenzo Ciannelli in his fisheries oceanography lab. Using fish plankton data, I plan to research the ability of fishes like halibut, cod, and pollock to alter the timing (phenology) and location (geography) at which they spawn. I strive to understand the biological flexibility of these species and how it relates to the future of their populations, reliant commercial and Indigenous fisheries, and the larger marine ecosystem. I am driven by the need to understand what confers resilience in fish populations, and how we – as stewards – can learn from traditional native practices, historical environmental dynamics, and robust predictive models to create sustainable ecosystems and restore balance in the ocean.

Researching Marine Protected Areas (and Olive Rockfish) off the California Coast.

My path in science has always been driven by a clear goal to promote sustainability and revitalization within our global ecosystems. I hope that more people find room for research and science in their daily lives as this goal intersects so many fundamental aspects of human life. A common misconception for many is that scientists are highly trained individuals that dedicate their lives to research… we are not. We are inquisitive people that look at our world, make observations, and ask questions, just as I did when I was young. I want more people to understand that their voices and actions are deeply influential in the scientific world, and I will dedicate my future in research to ensuring the inclusivity of academia, management, and conservation. Science needs everyone!

Follow Laura on Twitter @resultscan_Vary

A Tale of Two Seeps

By Lila Ardor Bellucci, Ph.D Student in Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Lila Ardor Bellucci sampling deep sea mud. Image courtesy of Marley Parker.
Introduction

Methane seeps are places where methane gas escapes from reservoirs below the seafloor into the overlying waters. These seeps support unique and fascinating benthic communities that provide habitat and food to other deep-sea fauna, while also keeping methane from reaching the atmosphere. Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, scientists are interested in studying seeps to see what role they might play in climate change. Seep ecosystems may also be a source of energy, biopharmaceutical compounds, and valuable rare earth elements, all of which could contribute to the US “Blue Economy.” As we humans explore these potential resources, scientists like me are working to better understand seep communities and their functions to inform future management. This article is about two seeps my team and I encountered during an October 2020 expedition to find and characterize methane seeps along the Cascadia Margin – about 80 miles off the coasts of Oregon and Washington.

Looking off the back deck of the E/V Nautilus at the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Argus. Image courtesy of Lila Ardor Bellucci.
Ocean exploration

Part of the fun in exploring never-before-seen parts of the ocean is that it’s hard to predict what you’re going to find. Prior to entering graduate school, I participated in ocean exploration and research aboard the E/V Nautilus and R/V Neil Armstrong as a member of their Science Management and Marine Technician teams. This unpredictability was always one of my favorite parts of the job, and the same was true of my lab’s recent E/V Nautilus cruise to explore methane seeps along the Cascadia Margin. Even across similar ocean depths and latitudes, seep sites can vary dramatically in appearance and function, and in the animals and microbes that live there. One reason for this variation is that seeps can be thought of as having lifetimes and can look very different at different phases in their lives. During our recent cruise, we were lucky to find seeps at opposite ends of these phases, often called “successional stages.”

Searching for seeps

One of the first remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dives we had planned was to a site where past sonar data had indicated exciting wide-spread bubbling. The multibeam sonar is an acoustic tool, mounted to the ship’s hull, that allows researchers to map the seafloor and also detect methane seep bubble streams. As we came over the site, sitting about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) below us, we were disappointed to find no trace of bubbles in our multibeam data. Would we descend and not be able to find the seep?

When Lila and the other scientists see bubble plumes like this, they know there will be methane leaking from the seafloor, but they never know what it is going to look like until the ROV actually gets down there. Image courtesy of Oregon State University, NOAA OER, NOAA OCNMS, Ocean Exploration Trust, NA-121.
First seep

We decided to dive anyway, and the risk paid off. Shortly after reaching the seafloor, we were surprised to come across massive piles of carbonate rock, looming above ROV Hercules like dark towers. This type of rock is formed by the methane-eating reaction of bacteria and archaea (single-celled organisms, often found in extreme conditions) that live at seeps. Carbonate rocks of this size could have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to form! Similar to an old growth forest with large trees, the existence of these massive towers told us that the seep must be at a later successional stage in its life. Although we came across living clam beds, often found at methane seeps, this impressive site was no longer the bubbling frenzy it may once have been during its younger days. 

Carbonate rocks, created as a byproduct of methane being eaten by microbes, provide a home for many animals from octopods to mushroom corals.  You can also see expansive microbial mats in the fissures between rocks; this fauna is living on a shallow dusting of mud overlying even more carbonate rock. Video courtesy of Oregon State University, NOAA OER, NOAA OCNMS, Ocean Exploration Trust, NA-121.
Unexpected discovery

Our next discovery was even more unexpected. On our way to the late successional stage seep site, our multibeam mapping team noticed a large bubble plume in the sonar data, again about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) deep. Although we hadn’t initially planned on it, we decided to take a chance and investigate further. As the ROVs (Hercules and its stabilizing companion Argus) descended, we picked up the acoustic signals of bubbling from over 100 meters (328 feet) off the seafloor, using an ROV-mounted sonar. When we arrived at the bottom, we were greeted by one of the largest microbial mats any of us had ever seen.

Second seep

As we navigated around its edge to gain our bearings, we realized that the mat of dense, white and gray bacteria seemed to go on forever, covering at least 50 square meters. As we explored its interior, we found numerous bubble plumes on the northern edge of the mat, filled with small tube worms and surrounded by extensive clam beds. This was a textbook young seep, in an early successional stage and (to our delight!) still soft and perfect for taking sediment core samples. At older sites, taking cores can be difficult because of those carbonate rocks that form, blocking the core tube as we try to push it in.

The research team collecting sediment cores at the early successional stage seep site. This video is sped up four times.  Video courtesy of Oregon State University, NOAA OER, NOAA OCNMS, Ocean Exploration Trust, NA-121.
Collecting sediment cores

I should mention that, while the collection of sediment cores and other samples may seem like a simple task, each sample we collected was actually the collective achievement of a whole team. Our team was made up of the various specialists and scientists that ran each dive from within the “control van” aboard the ship, as well as those who joined us from land via satellite-enabled telepresence. While we (the science team and data loggers) dictated and recorded sampling, pilots manipulated ROVs and mechanical arms thousands of feet below them, navigators managed the position of the ship, and video engineers controlled the ROV cameras that we all used to see. 

Processing samples

Each of the samples we collected on our dives was then processed as soon as the ROVs came back on deck. Because we ran 24/7 operations on the E/V Nautilus, both dives and sample processing could occur at any time of day. In the case of our “young” seep dive, processing our glorious cores and other samples took us over 7 hours. This was in addition to the 8 hours each of us spent on watch in the control van, in my case from 12 to 4 (both AM and PM). It was cold, it was muddy, and it was non-stop, but it was a whole lot of fun and all worth it. The samples we collected from these two diverse seeps, as well as the others we visited during our cruise, will now enable us to better understand these diverse seep habitats from various angles.

Conclusions

Although studying individual seep sites really well can be very valuable, it’s also important to study a broad range of seeps when trying to gain a better understanding of them. As this tale of two seeps shows, even nearby seeps can be very different, each telling us part of a larger deep-sea story. Unexpected discoveries like this help us to shape our understanding of a seep’s lifetime, thereby providing valuable guidance for future research.

Originally published on the NOAA Office of Exploration and Research website as a mission log for E/V Nautilus cruise NA-121: “Gradients of Blue Economic Seep Resources”.