Day In the Life of a Phytoplankton Researcher 🔬🛥

Hello everyone! My name is Alex Ang, and this is the first of many blog posts detailing my experience as a 2022 Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholar. After graduating from Macalester College in May, I packed my bags and flew out to the west coast for the first time in my entire life. For the next ten weeks in Newport, Oregon, I’ll be working with the Newport Hydrographic Line Team at NOAA Fisheries and Oregon State University. I will be examining harmful algal blooms on the Oregon coast, specifically looking at the diatom, Pseudo-nitzschia. Though I’ve worked with harmful algal blooms (HABs) many times before, this is my first time working with this species and bloom dynamics on this side of the world. My experience with HABs was limited to laboratory growth experiments, never looking at the organisms in their natural environment. I will also be dipping my toes into studying the toxin they produce, domoic acid. I will use both field surveys and processing water samples to inform my research about patterns in toxin production when different environmental drivers are present. 

I arrived on campus at the perfect time, just as my team was getting ready to test drive an autonomous sailing vehicle, known as the Triton, capable of collecting offshore water samples for HABs. In a huge collaborative effort between the University of Washington, Oregon State University, the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing SystemsNOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and the Olympic Region Harmful Algal Bloom Partnership they hope to significantly enhance HAB forecast accuracy and sampling capability. Being on the water was a lot of fun, as I rarely got to do any type of field work in my previous research experiences. I learned that when out in the field, I have to be prepared for anything, since the weather can be unpredictable and research plans often change. Though not every week will look like this (testing out an autonomous vehicle!), it was amazing to have an opportunity to see a sampling vehicle in action. 

When I’m not on a boat, my days will consist of processing a backlog of water samples from 2021 with enzyme-linked immunoassays (ELISAs) to detect particulate domoic acid (pDA) as well as extracting chlorophyll from preserved samples. I will look at these data in tandem with conductivity, temperature, and depth profiles to examine patterns in toxin production and Pseudo-nitzschia abundance. Through helping the Newport Hydrographic Line Team process this backlog of data, I am contributing to a broader understanding of PN toxin production that could help inform recreational/commercial shellfish management. 

While the research is a huge part of my project this summer, I am also invested in working on adding a science communication aspect to it. At the end of the summer, I will produce an exhibit in the Hatfield Marine Science Visitor Center about the Newport Hydrographic Line and its research efforts. With my display, I hope to increase awareness of the Line and get the public interested in the various research that is being completed. Leveraging my experience with community outreach, I will also contact local boat tours about incorporating wording about the NHL. My project’s interdisciplinary approach aligns with Oregon Sea Grant’s mission of promoting discovery, understanding and resilience to Oregon’s communities and ecosystems. As a STEM and Humanities major myself, it has been quite the journey to bridge the gap between my two disciplines. 

Next week, I’ll be jumping into more lab and field work related to my project. I will begin to uncover the patterns of pDA production and drivers of Pseudo-nitzschia blooms on the Oregon coast. Stay tuned and follow me through my summer journey! 

Fieldwork Galore

Hello everyone!

I have officially finished my first two weeks as a Summer Scholar working for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on their SEACOR (Shellfish and Estuarine Assessment of Coastal Oregon) team! These first few weeks consisted of some intense fieldwork on the tide flats of Tillamook Bay (Figure 1). We are focused on two main projects this summer. The first, and most extensive, is shellfish and habitat data collection. The goal of this project is to figure out where recreationally significant clam species are in Tillamook Bay, as well as the abundance, biomass, and preferred habitat for each species. The four major target species are cockle clams (Figure 2), butter clams (Figure 3), gaper clams, and native littleneck clams. Data collected from this field season will later influence management decisions regarding the commercial harvest of bay clams in Tillamook. To get these data, we dig a bunch of holes in the tide flat and collect any critters we find! We’ve already dug up loads of clam, crab, and shrimp. Since we rely on low tides to get a lot of our work done, we’ve had many early mornings!

  • A map of Tillamook Bay in Garibaldi, Oregon, with the main tide flats and channels labeled.
  • A hand holding a small cockle clam with water in the background.
  • A woman kneeling in shallow water, holding a butter clam and smiling at the camera.

The second smaller project involves using drones to map eelgrass beds. Since eelgrass acts as important nursery habitat for a variety of fish and invertebrates, the goal of this project is to see exactly where eelgrass is growing in the bay. This is a collaborative project with the Coastal Drone Academy which is based out of the Career Tech High School in Lincoln City. While the students operate the drones, the SEACOR team helps set up the GCPs (Ground Control Points) at known locations (Figure 4). GCPs allow us to overlay all our imagery data later on!

Figure 4. Emma Chesley (left) and Mitchell Gellhaus (right) setting up a GCP during low tide on an eelgrass bed. Photo taken by Morgan Bancroft on 6/16/2022.

A large portion of Oregon Sea Grant’s vision and mission involves studying the human dimensions of coastal and marine fisheries. Currently, there is a lot of controversy regarding the recreational and commercial harvest limits in Tillamook Bay. Data collected from this project influences harvest limits which can cause conflict between different fishing communities. This bay has not been surveyed by the SEACOR team since 2012, so there is a lot of interest (and some pressure) to get all the tide flats surveyed.

I am super excited to be a helping hand on this project in hopes we can collect lots of good data this field season! I’ve already learned so much about Oregon’s marine ecology as well as research in general. I can’t wait to see where the season takes us. Here’s to more gorgeous 4 A.M. mornings! ;)

More information regarding Oregon clamming can be found on SEACOR’s website: or/index.asp

Ocean Acidification Science-Policy Translation

Hello again! Hard for me to believe, but I recently passed the six month-mark in my Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia fellowship with Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). As I talked about in my last post, I’ve been working with the water quality assessment team at DEQ, and assisting in the development of procedures to assess biological impacts of Ocean Acidification (OA) and Hypoxia in Oregon’s near shore waters for the purposes of Clean Water Act 303(d) assessment. DEQ has convened a technical workgroup of scientists, researchers, and partner agency staff to help answer critical technical questions as we develop assessment procedures to understand impacts of these stressors. So far, my main task in this fellowship has been to help coordinate this workgroup towards this end. Since my last post we’ve been continuing to work with a subgroup of workgroup members versed in both scientific and policy perspectives to draft OA assessment procedures and an accompanying set of technical questions to bring to the full workgroup for refinement. We’ve had three meetings with the subgroup and are making progress on the set of questions and draft procedures. As we proceed with this workgroup made up of individuals with such a wide array of expertise and specialization across this topic area I thought I would share a couple of underlying elements of this process we’ve been considering and discussing as we formulate the set of questions for the technical group.

One challenging aspect of this process comes down to the inherent differences between scientists and policymakers in terms of approaches and methods of communicating knowledge and information. Translation between scientific research and information needs for policy development hinges on considering both styles of communication and making sure a shared understanding exists around terminology. The same terms can mean very different things depending on usage and context, so defining some key terms has been critical in this process.

Another key element of this translation involves the synthesis of information and ensuring the appropriate type and level of detail is included in conversations and questions, it’s easy to get “in the weeds” when talking about a complex topic such as OAH. One way we are currently addressing this is to divide our questions into a sequence of information needs, which has helped organize the dizzying amount of technical information we will be gathering into a structured framework. Finding the right level of detail to include along this sequence, especially in terms of how each question fits into DEQ’s overall assessment picture, has been an interesting iterative process, and I’m sure it will continue to be.

Overall, I’ve found that working in the subgroup has created opportunities for excellent discussions around these and other process-based factors that underly this work, and I’m looking forward to continuing to incorporate these elements into the remainder of my fellowship.

Oregon Seaweed Learning Tour

It has officially been two months since I started my position as a Restorative Aquaculture Fellow with Oregon Sea Grant and The Nature Conservancy! So far, the fellowship has been a great experience and I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity to network within the restorative aquaculture space and learn more about seaweed farming.

My project involves working with TNC’s Global Aquaculture Strategy Lead, Global Aquaculture Manager, and TNC staff from Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska to explore the potential to invest in and create restorative seaweed aquaculture farms in the Pacific Northwest. A major deliverable of my fellowship will be a situation analysis to better understand challenges and opportunities for Oregon’s seaweed aquaculture industry. Much of my work to date has involved meeting with folks from academia, private industry, NGOs, and state agencies to map out current research, projects, and seaweed farming. I’ve also gotten to do some wild seaweed harvesting in my spare time!

Recently we completed an Oregon learning tour with potential partners to build a shared understanding of farming methods, environmental conditions, and the community context of seaweed aquaculture in the state. We started in Newport, OR with some in-person and virtual presentations focused on a general background for mariculture in Oregon and the restoration of wild kelp. The next day we learned about urchin ranching efforts on the south coast, toured two innovation labs in Newport and headed north to visit Oregon Seaweed’s land-based farm in Garibaldi. We also got lunch at Local Ocean Seafood – my favorite restaurant in Newport.

In the past two months I’ve already gained a deeper understanding of this industry thanks to the help of all the folks I’ve had the opportunity to meet with. I’m very much looking forward to the learning tours we’re planning for Washington and British Columbia in the fall.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat…and a better understanding!

It’s June and we’re in the depths of field season! 

Myself and a WDFW colleague tagging a younger sevengill shark in Washington

My project focuses on incorporating broadnose sevengill sharks into ecosystem modeling in the northern California current ecosystem, which encompasses the coasts from San Francisco up to British Colombia. Historically, predators, in general, have not been included in our understanding of the Pacific Northwest coastal ecosystems (the few studies done have focused on orcas or pinnepeds such as sea lions). So, very little is known about sharks in this region. The broadnose sevengill is a large (up to 10 ft/3 meters and 230+ lbs/107 kgs), apex predator in other locations around the world. I suspect they play a similar role here in Oregon and Washington…especially when it comes to our very important local fisheries, like salmon, halibut, and crab! To find out, I am tagging sevengills with acoustic tags (to track movement) and taking tissue samples (to determine what they’re eating over different periods of time, using stable isotope and stomach content analysis). 

Since April, I’ve been going out once a month to look for sevengill sharks in Willapa Bay, WA. Sevengills – which live in temperate waters – show up seasonally in certain bays around the world. Willapa Bay, the second largest BAY on the west coast of the United States, is one of those specific bays. We’re not sure why sevengills show up there, but we do know that Willapa is also an important estuary for many species, including salmon, Dungeness crab, harbor seals, as well as Endangered Species Act-listed green sturgeon. Originally we thought that the sevengills showed up in June or July. But after doing some reading of some previous studies, I suspected that they might be showing up as early as April. And if they were, I wanted to sample them.
So out we went in April. Three days on the water and…..nothing! I was confused. I thought they’d be here! Maybe I’m just wrong? After talking with some local fishermen, though, we discovered…the local Chinook salmon run was running late. Maybe related? Unknown. We went home empty-handed.

In May, we returned. Before we got on the water, a local fisherman revealed…the salmon are here! Okay, but where are the sharks? Unknown. We got out on the water and spent most of the day fishing for sharks. Waiting waiting waiting. Right as I was about to give up — tug tug tug. “Did I catch a stick?” I pulled up my line and…..SHARK! It’s a sevengill! They’re here! I almost cried (a moment captured perfectly on camera by my advisor). How exciting!!! We caught two more sharks that day. AND we detected previously tagged sharks…from 2021! They are here! Which begs the question. What are they doing though? Unknown!

The exact moment that I saw the first sevengill shark in April, confirming they had officially arrived! I almost cried. (Shoutout to my advisor for snapping this picture).

Is it related to the salmon, or is it something else? Still unknown. But that’s what I’m trying to find out. Stay tuned (links below to keep up with me and my lab on social media)!

A broadnose sevengill shark, ready to be released after tagging!

Fisheries and Aquaculture Workshop in Petersburg, Alaska

I can’t believe it’s already June! The second year of my fellowship is really flying by. The highlights of the past few months have definitely been the opportunities to interact with my colleagues in person. In April, Oregon Sea Grant held a two-day program meeting in Newport and I really enjoyed “meeting” everyone who I’d previously only seen in a tiny square on my computer screen. In May, I had the amazing opportunity to spend a week in Petersburg, Alaska for a workshop with West Coast Sea Grant Programs on connecting fisheries and aquaculture across the region. The workshop brought together folks from Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and California Sea Grant programs to share our work on aquaculture and fisheries. We participated in training, went on field trips, and worked on collaborative regional projects. 

First of all, let me tell you about the small fishing town of Petersburg which sits at the tip of an island. The five hour flight to get there makes two stops on the way, and the airport building is about the size of a gas station. The population is about 3,000 people, and almost everything is within walking distance. The town features Scandinavian architecture and on our last day there, they were starting the annual Little Norway Festival which celebrates Norwegian Constitution Day and brings in about 1000 visitors every year. The harbor boasts hundreds of fishing boats and Petersburg is known for its diverse fishing industry that includes salmon, halibut, blackcod, herring, crab, shrimp, clams, and more! 

On Monday, the first day of the workshop, we met at a local beach park to get to know each other and share updates on our work. While we were there the tide at the beach continued to recede and show a dramatic change, which was really cool to watch. The pictures below show the change within just a few hours.

The next day we spent the morning in training about “Best Practices for Adult Education.” All of us attending the workshop conduct outreach and engagement with primarily adult audiences in fishing and aquaculture communities so this was really useful. After spending the morning on Zoom, we headed outside to tour a local fish hatchery that raises juvenile Salmon to support recreational and commercial fisheries. We were lucky enough to be there when they were releasing juveniles into the adjacent river through a large tube that transported the fish from holding tanks into the water. The picture below shows the fish emerging from a tube into the river in a swarm. 

Hose releasing juvenile fish from a hatchery into the river.

Next we went on to tour river restoration sites with a researcher from the U.S. Forest Service. These sites have been restored in recent years to provide better and more diverse habitat for salmonids that live and/or spawn in freshwater. There are some pictures of the restored site below. 

On Wednesday, we spent the day indoors and listened to presentations over Zoom, worked on projects, and interacted with folks from the local fishing community. The highlight of this day for me was a panel on “Advocacy and the Role of Extension Agents.” At Sea Grant, extension agents work on a lot of controversial issues in coastal communities, but our role is to remain neutral and serve as facilitators of information and exchange. In practice, this is really challenging, especially when residing in small coastal towns where everyone knows each other. It can be difficult to separate your personal and professional affiliations. While my fellowship has been remote and I haven’t experienced living in a small coastal community, I have had challenges with determining an appropriate role to not advocate for aquaculture, but instead provide information from a neutral place. This panel made me feel less like an imposter, as others have similar struggles, and provided some practical advice for how to navigate these situations. 

On Thursday, we gathered for a half day to wrap up, and then some of us went on an optional boat tour to the LeConte Glacier. This was absolutely the highlight of the trip. We spent about 5 hours on the boat with a local tour guide and coincidentally, a whale biologist. The wildlife on this tour was incredible! We saw humpback whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, mountain goats, and a black bear. Traveling on the boat to the glacier through sea ice was an experience I will never forget. While we didn’t get very close to the glacier, we did get quite close to two-story icebergs, including one that had recently flipped over. According to our guide, icebergs will rotate, and the ice underneath will be more blue and vibrant, while the ice above the water will be white and look more like snow. Once the iceberg rotates, the blueish ice will change to the whiter, snow-like ice within a few hours. We were lucky enough to see a flipped glacier on our way back from the glacier.

Overall, this trip was an incredible experience and I’m really grateful that Sea Grant provided the resources for me to get there! 

Updates from the OCMP: Minding the Federal Consistency Review Shop

Since my last post, the direction of my fellowship has shifted yet again.  I have hinted in previous posts that I have been given a lot of latitude to take the work in any direction I see fit – so the project has grown and shrunk and grown again as I learn more about the system in which I’m working.  This is really my favorite type of environment to work in – I like dynamic work, following random threads, learning new things, and not always knowing what’s next.  That being said… this latest shift was not as welcome because it came as a result of the departure my mentor from state service: over the last three months, I have been taking on a lot of the tasks of the State-Federal Relations Coordinator and minding the federal consistency review shop while the Oregon Coastal Management Program (OCMP) has been hiring my mentor’s replacement.     

Though it has been unfortunate I have not had as much time to dedicate specifically to the further development of tribal coordination procedures, I’ve been leaning into the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of a federal consistency review.  I thought I had a decent grasp, but I’ve found I was just scratching the surface.  (hubris!)  With my new appreciation for the complexity of the position and requirements of a federal consistency review, I feel better positioned to generate procedures that will work for the next Coordinator. 

For example, being in the Coordinator’s shoes has really underlined the importance of developing effective, clear, and fairly simple procedures for involving the tribes.  The reality of the position (and, really, I think this is true for lots of dynamic/ high-tempo professions) is that things sometimes have to fall off the plate.  Therefore, procedures have to be realistic and mindful of varying levels of bandwidth for them to outlast their creator.  So, I have been thinking quite a bit about where I can create efficiencies – generating message templates, simplifying methods to identify who needs to be contacted, and updating checklists that help the Coordinator track where they are in the process.  My appreciation for reasonable and sustainable processes is a common theme throughout my professional career so far, and has probably already come up in a previous blog post…

In other news, I am really happy to report that a major component of my main project has been able to continue during these last months.  Working with one of my Tribal advisors and the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), I have been developing a proposal to add more policies related to archaeological resources into the suite of policies that are considered during a federal consistency review.  Policies must meet certain criteria to be called “enforceable” and be approved by NOAA for inclusion in a coastal management program.  Enforceable policies are the backbone of a federal consistency review – federal permit applicants and federal agencies proposing actions must make a statement that they believe their project is consistent with these policies. The OCMP then concurs, concurs with conditions, or object to the applicant’s determination that their project is consistent based on our independent review and the input of our network partners

For this reason, the inclusion of these additional enforceable policies of importance to the Tribes is a substantial step forward in emphasizing the OCMP’s commitment to the protection of archaeological resources.  I am currently developing letters to distribute to the Tribal Councils to provide notification about the change, discuss the significance, explain the implementation process, and request their feedback.  This is a months-long process that will very likely outlast my tenure with the OCMP, so I am excited to get it moving! 

Abalone Fishery Management Challenges and Intersectional Location Benefits

It is the end of the second quarter of my Natural Resource Policy Fellowship working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to learn more about applying biological information to an imperiled shellfish fishery and it has been a challenging task so far. The recreational red abalone fishery in Oregon is unique due to its small size of users, limited information about the population level biology of the target species coupled with the intense enthusiasm of users. I have been working on using other fishery management plan frameworks as a guide for forming the hybrid conservation and fishery management plan for red abalone here in Oregon and it has illuminated some major differences between those established management plans and my work-in-progress plan. Mostly, I have found that we have limited quantitative data to work with when attempting to establish Harvest Control Rules, including biological reference points, total allowable catch and spawning potential ratios. This is a challenge I knew was on the horizon, but it does make it difficult to determine an effective strategy for management while still considering the conservation needs of this species. Currently, I am utilizing other frameworks in conjunction with unique fishery management techniques in other similar fisheries with limited data. In its completion, this would look like a limited fishery with established regions that will be managed separately based on index survey efforts and utilizing data from nearby fisheries that have a similar population structure but more established biological understanding and increased funding for monitoring. I am looking forward to creating a completed first draft in the coming months and continuing to further develop this unique management framework.

I am also enjoying the immersive and intersectional experience of working on a campus that connects the academic side of marine biology to the management side due to the close proximity of the University of Oregon Marine Biology campus with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife field station in Charleston. It is unique and helpful to have both entities as well as the fishing industry at the fishing plant Pacific all within one location!

Found a red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) – (look under the rock!) while in the field working with the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology Invertebrates course! Awesome to see the animal I am studying and drafting a management framework for in the field.

Seasickness and Science-at-sea

Hey there! My name is Becky Smoak and I am a 2021-22 Malouf scholar, finishing up my Master’s thesis this fall. I have been participating in at sea research since my undergraduate studies. So far I have gone on 7 at-sea voyages, with each ranging from 5-13 days.

Before I ever went to sea for science, I spent weekends as a kid on a 30-foot fishing vessel in the Pacific ocean with my family. I knew from this experience I was one of “those”, you know, the type of person that gets seasick. The hard truth is that everyone gets seasick, whether it’s from 30-foot seas with a cross swell or just simply being on a boat. What will set you apart from the rest, is your ability to manage your motion sickness. Managing motion sickness is challenging and can be mentally exhausting – actually, IS mentally exhausting. The first step towards management is a plan: for instance, over the counter and prescribed medications can be a lifesaver. Heck, there’s even slang associated with this issue: you may hear “sailors cocktail” thrown around on a research vessel (referencing a mix of Dramamine and pseudoephedrine). My personal favorite option is “the patch”; the patch is a topical circular patch the size of a nickel that is placed either behind your ear, or even under your arm.

However, no cure is a miracle cure. Often these remedies come with consequences including (but not limited to) headaches, blurred vision, drowsiness, dry mouth, etc. The list goes on and on. This problem plaguing scientists may sound scary, but I promise, it can be managed. I came from a background in terrestrial wildlife ecology and one voyage at sea changed my perspective forever. On most vessels, there is an overwhelming amount of support from your colleagues when it comes to seasickness. The key idea onboard is to help when you can and more often than not, if you’re not feeling well, taking a rest in your stateroom may be just what you need.

Conducting research at sea is a unique opportunity and can set you apart from others when applying to school, internships, and/or jobs. If getting seasick is holding you back, don’t let it! Because in the end, no one is impervious to motion sickness. Being prepared and compassionate for others will go a long way in this field.

Collecting seawater for filtration on the NOAA R/V Bell M. Shimada during a “covid” cruise.

Razor Clams and Graduate School

Hello All!

I am a Malouf Scholar coming to the end of this season, known as graduate school. I have been working very hard to complete my data analysis in the past months. In addition, I have begun to wrap up my study on the impacts of the razor clam fishery on Oregon coastal communities. I am so close to completing my study and will be defending my master’s this summer! (I know everyone says this, but honestly, where does the time go?)

I have learned so much; for instance, I found that razor clams are an important resource to Northern Oregon, with many examples of multi-generational harvesters. Also, the razor clam fishery helps keep coastal businesses alive during the winter months when there are not many other fisheries open. These are just two examples of the outcomes of my research, and there is so much more that I wish I could share with you!

From the beginning of this project, I wanted to produce elements that razor clam managers could use and harvesters. Through interviews with coastal communities, many research participants commented that they wanted to know more about biotoxin closures (a biotoxin is a poisonous substance produced by a living organism). Many also commented that they wanted to learn more about domoic acid (in the past decade, it has shorted the razor clam harvest season 6 years in a row, from 2015 to 2020). With this in mind, I started drafting an infographic about domoic acid, where it comes from, and why it happens. While that’s not quite finished yet, I am excited to be able to share it with the communities when it is completed.

I also have been working on other small deliverables, such as a small poster showing the life cycle of a razor clam. The life cycle is below, there’s still some fine-tuning left, but I would love any input you might have!