The end of summer, the end of field work, and the end of my scholarship with Oregon Sea Grant

I sat down to write this final blog post right after I finished my final day of field sampling for the year… and what a year it has been! When Sea Grant awarded me the Malouf Scholarship I was just starting to get a grasp of what I wanted to do for my PhD. I knew I wanted to work with juvenile rockfish (because collecting them is one of the most fun things on the face of the earth) and examine the role of oceanographic conditions during rockfish development in determining rockfish growth and survival. Over the course of this past year I developed my research plans, successfully defended my dissertation proposal, and just wrapped up a successful (though at times very frustrating) rockfish collection season. While my time at OSU is focused on accomplishing my research, Sea Grant has encouraged me to branch out beyond academics and I’ve discovered the world of scientific communication and educational outreach. This last blog will be a recap of the field work and outreach the Malouf Scholarship enabled and inspired me to accomplish.


My field collections of rockfish involve a three-pronged attack, or a triple threat, to capture rockfish during their early, offshore life stage (pelagic juvenile stage), their transition from offshore to nearshore (recruit stage), and once they have settled to nearshore habitat (benthic juvenile stage). While I was only able to collect 7 pelagic juvenile yellowtail rockfish during a research cruise on a NOAA ship, I was able to team up with ODFW, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and commercial urchin divers in Port Orford to collect 622 black and yellowtail rockfish recruits (these species look very similar at this stage and I still need to ID them all). In addition, I did some freediving (with the help of two amazing undergraduate students) and SCUBA diving to collect 120 black and 25 yellowtail benthic juveniles.

I teamed up with Professor Aaron Galloway at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology to do some diving in Port Orford to collect rockfish. Photo credit: Aaron Galloway

I was fortunate to work with two undergraduate students this summer Zach (left) is a Sea Grant Summer Scholar working with ODFW’s Marine Reserves team and Madeline (right) is an REU student working with me on rockfish recruitment patterns.


Though collecting rockfish is an absolute blast, the oceanographic conditions this year made my field work frustrating at times. An unprecedented number of pyrosomes clogged and threatened to tear our nets on the NOAA research ship, limiting our ability to trawl for pelagic juvenile rockfish. Unexpectedly late storms in late April broke two of our moorings used for collecting recruit stage rockfish, and three more moorings (of a total of 16) disappeared for unknown reasons. Finally, quillback and copper rockfish (some of my targeted species) never really showed up this year. While highly variable survival and recruitment of rockfish is to be expected, it was quite disappointing not to see any of these guys. I had really fond memories of night time snorkel collections of them the previous summer. After several night snorkels, I learned that these rockfish sleep on Egregia menziesii (feather boa kelp) and when you shine your dive light on the kelp blades, their eyes and swim bladders reflect light and look like Christmas lights on an underwater tree (I wish I had taken some pictures to share with you!). Now that the field season is over, and all the stress of repairing/rebuilding/replacing broken moorings, scheduling boat trips, and all the other logistics that go into a collecting rockfish has washed away, I find that I am already looking forward to next spring/summer.


Collecting and learning about rockfish is my passion, however, over the course of this past year I have found that I really enjoy teaching others about rockfish. When applying for this scholarship and identifying where I wanted to focus my outreach efforts, I thought that teaching children would the most fun and effective way of teaching others about rockfish because children are so curious, excitable, and, if they were anything like me when I was younger, children can’t wait to tell their parents about everything they’ve learned. Through OSU’s Winter Wonderings program, I was able to teach 3rd-5th graders about how old rockfish can get, how scientists use their ear bones (otoliths) to age them, and tried to teach them how important this information was for fisheries scientists. I found that I got a little ambitious with the last point, but the students loved looking at otolith cross sections through a microscope. I also started volunteering for the Oregon Coast Aquarium as an interpretive diver. This was an incredible opportunity to be in the water and talking with an audience of aquarium visitors about our coastal resources. Most recently, I participated in an outreach event at Hatfield called the Sustainable Fisheries Workshop for Teachers where I taught several middle and high school teachers how to distinguish juvenile rockfish to species and how closely related species can have very different life history characteristics (life spans, reproductive capacity, and development rates). All of these outreach events have been really fun and I am excited to revamp my lesson plans to improve them for next year.

Helping teachers pick up the fine details of identifying juvenile rockfish to species. Photo credit: Su Sponaugle


Working with Oregon Sea Grant has really opened my eyes to the importance of outreach and communicating my work with the people it may affect. I now feel comfortable talking to fisherman (commercial and recreational) about rockfish populations and how they naturally change through time. As my research progresses I am looking forward to communicating how oceanographic conditions affect the survival of young rockfish and how survival of young rockfish translates into changes in the adult population. Now all I have to do is begin analyzing my data to discover this relationship! I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone at Oregon Sea Grant for awarding me this scholarship, and for all the encouragement and support this year. It has been an incredible experience working with you all. Thank you very much!

The Oregon Coast Aquarium provides a unique opportunity to interact with aquarium visitors while you are diving. I was able to teach these visitors about plastic pollution and about rockfish. Photo credit: Nick Brown

Rockfish Research Cruise

From May 26 to June 2nd I was aboard the NOAA research vessel the Reuben Lasker to help out with NOAA’s Pre-Recruit survey to help with federal fishery research and to collect samples for my own research. Below is a description of the cruise and a daily log of my time on the cruise)

The Pre-Recruit Survey is part of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) effort to improve stock assessment estimates of rockfish recruitment. Let’s see if I can break this down. Federal fisheries scientists (who work for NMFS) are tasked with tracking commercially harvested fish stocks and determining the appropriate amount that fisherman should catch in a given year to ensure the population persists and produces fish in future years. To give fisherman an accurate number, NMFS scientists need to be able to predict how their specific fish populations will change in size from year to year. Most commercially harvested fishes produce prodigious numbers of young every year, with relatively few surviving to adulthood.

  • I’ll define recruits as fish that survive to adulthood
  • I’ll define recruitment as the total number of fish that survive to adulthood from a cohort born in a given year.

Recruitment can be high or low for a given year depending on survival of the early life stages. The Pre-Recruit Survey collects Pre-Recruit rockfishes (a.k.a. young rockfishes that haven’t reached adulthood, but have passed through most of the gauntlet of high mortality associated with the larval stages) so stock assessment scientists can try to get a sneak preview of what recruitment in a given year will look like. Otherwise, stock assessment scientists have to wait several years for these fish to mature to adulthood and then be caught by fishermen (or fishery independent fish surveys) to know how many survived (isn’t it weird that fish have to be caught for scientists to know that they lived? Some groups are working on using remotely operated vehicles and other camera systems to get non-destructive estimates of fish abundance).

I am on this cruise to help sort fishes and will be using juvenile rockfishes collected in the cruise as part of my PhD research. My work aims to give us a better understanding of how environmental conditions (water temperature, food availability, and patterns of water movement) affect survival of the young life stages of rockfish.


Sea-date 1 :

Today I boarded the NOAA Research Vessel Reuben Lasker. To get to the ship was quite a trip. I drove from Newport, OR to Eureka, CA where I met up with another NOAA scientist, Paul Chittaro, who was going on the cruise. Paul and I have been on several research cruises together and are pumped for this cruise.

To get to the ship, we had to get picked up at the docks of the Eureka Harbor on a small skiff and cruise out to meet the Lasker. Every other time I’ve been on a research cruise, I’ve met the vessel at the dock, but this year to save time (it takes a full day to bring a large vessel into a port to load and offload passengers) the ship’s commanding officer decided to do an at sea transfer.
The weather and sea conditions were pretty exciting. The waves crossing the bar at the mouth of the harbor were a good 6-10 feet tall and outside the harbor the seas had been whipped up by some storm winds creating crisscrossing swells.

Approaching the RV Lasker from their transfer skiff. Photo: Will Fennie

This made an already exciting boat ride almost too exciting when we got picked up by the Lasker. The Lasker has a device much like a claw that slides down the side of the ship to pick up its skiff. Our boat driver had to maneuver the skiff alongside the Lasker and hold it in position, in choppy seas, so the ship’s claw could grab the skiff and pull it onboard. I am having trouble describing how weird it felt to be in a boat, lifted out of the water, and land on a larger ship, but anyway I’m on board and ready to start catching fishes.

Unfortunately the weather off Eureka wasn’t conducive to sampling, so the chief scientist decided to steam up to Newport Oregon where the weather was better. My first day aboard consisted of eating, and trying to adjust my sleep schedule over to the night shift. Juvenile fishes spend the daytime in deep water and come closer to the surface at night to feed. It is much easier to collect juvenile fish at nighttime because they are concentrated near layers of zooplankton (tiny planktonic animals) that they feed on, so all my work occurs from 9pm to 6am. “Adjusting” my sleep schedule to get used to the night shift really means that I spent most of the first day trying to sleep in my bunk and battling nausea.


Sea-date 2:


Bucket o’ pyrosomes. We had to rinse the pyrosomes in seawater to clean off any fish or other important organisms from the pyrosomes to figure out what else was in the water. Photo: Will Fennie

We arrived on station just south of Newport this afternoon and began our first night of sampling. Our sampling plan is to run transects of midwater trawls at specific location along Oregon’s coast. We starting sampling our shallow depth/nearshore stations at the beginning of the night, and move offshore to
deeper water as the night progresses. The idea is to get a long-term view of fish communities and see how they vary with distance from shore (bottom depth) and latitude. We use a mid-water trawl to get density estimates of fish and other organisms.
There is pretty high variability in the abundance and composition of our catches from year to year, but this year is pretty weird. Normally we catch lots of juvenile rockfishes (yellowtail, widow, shortbelly,

Sorting fish and krill from the pyrosomes. Looks like we caught some myctophids (lantern fish) and a king of the salmon (the long, skinny, red and silvery fish in the bottom right).

canary, dark blotched, bocaccio, blue, and black rockfishes), Pacific hake, several species of lantern fish, quite a few species of larval flat fishes, and some adult anchovy.
Tonight we mainly caught gelatinous zooplankton and in particular colonial tunicates called pyrosomes. Pyrosomes are typically found in more tropical waters, but with the warm blob in 2015 and the el Niño of 2016, waters off Oregon have been unusually warm and many tropical species are showing up far north or their normal ranges. While pyrosomes are pretty cool to see in the water, they are bioluminescent, they are a real bummer to sort through and have almost broken are net!


Sea-date 3:


We sampled off of the Columbia River mouth tonight. This is an interesting place because there is a huge source of freshwater that dramatically affects the oceanographic conditions for hundreds of miles. Freshwater is much less dense than salt water, so it sits on top of it (think oil and water, but less dense water and denser water…). As the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean it punches through the surrounding saltwater creating a wedge in the ocean. Oceanic water moving towards shore smashes into this freshwater wedge and sinks beneath it (like a tectonic subduction zone). This concentrates plankton at the interface between these two types of water, which attracts zooplankton, then juvenile fishes, then larger fishes and birds, then marine mammals and so on. The marine mammal and bird observer on the ship said he saw more birds in that area than he has seen almost anywhere else (this observer has been on research cruises for 30+ years all around the globe).

This is Paul who is pumped for our huge catch of pyrosomes. We lost a little enthusiasm when we learned that this catch had ripped the net. (Photo: Will Fennie)

Last year we caught hundreds of rockfishes along this transect, so I was very excited to see what we caught this year. Unfortunately for me, our nearshore station was dominated by adult anchovies, many of which were pregnant females, and there were very few rockfishes. Our second station was so full of pyrosomes that it ripped the net (see attached image of our net almost bursting with pyrosomes). We cancelled our furthest offshore station because we were afraid that we wouldn’t get any fish and needed time to repair the net.


Sea-date 4


Tonight we sampled off the Tillamook line. We had decent rockfish catches here last year, but like the Columbia River line, pyrosomes dominated this year’s catch. I am starting to get sick of wading through buckets of those things. However, we did collect several rockfishes. I wasn’t quick enough to take a picture of them, but we caught a couple of species: yellowtail rockfish (S. flavidus), shortbelly (Sebastes jordani), bocaccio (S. paucispinis), canary (S. pinniger), and widow rockfish (S. entomelas). At least this cruise is starting to live up to its name (Rockfish Pre-Recruit Survey)!


Sea-date 5


Tonight was our last night of fishing. We managed to catch quite a few rockfishes! We didn’t collect nearly as many as I was hoping, but certainly better than catching zero. I also saw a salmon shark while we were collecting larval fishes (click the link to
view, sorry it isn’t the best quality video!):

While we didn’t catch as many rockfish as I hoped for, we still
found some, and it made the cruise worthwhile. I am looking forward to planning the next steps in my research which involve free diving and SCUBA diving to collect juvenile rockfishes that have moved from their offshore life stage (the one being sampled in this cruise) to their nearshore benthic stage where they grow up to become the adults that everyone loves to fish for.



Keeping Busy During Winter

Winter time in Oregon makes doing any field work along the coast dicey, so most marine scientists find other ways to keep busy. For many of us that means getting to work analyzing the past year’s field work data, and even writing up research findings. While publishing your research is critically important to getting through a graduate degree in science, Sea Grant has helped me realize how important it is to communicate your work to a wider audience. Outside of your field, few people will hear about your research if you only communicate it through scientific journals. However, if you step out of the science bubble and engage in scientific outreach with a broader audience, you can reach far more people and it can be an absolute blast. Over the past couple of months I’ve volunteered to communicate science to third – fifth graders through Oregon State University ‘s (OSU) Winter Wonderings program, to anyone who was willing to listen at Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Marine Science Day, and I’ve just completed training to be an interpretive diver for the Oregon Coast Aquarium this summer.

Winter Wonderings 2017

Last winter I participated in Winter Wonderings with another OSU graduate student to teach young students about chemical reactions. We had a blast doing a demonstration of how enzymes can speed up reactions, culminating in colorful foam blasting out of two liter soda bottles. The young students loved it, but this year, my friend Jack and I wanted to teach something a little closer to home. We drew on our own research to provide a marine science extravaganza. Jack studies anemone-algal symbiosis and taught about how anemones use stinging cells to capture prey as well as hosting photosynthetic microalgae to provide another source of food. I devised a lesson plan to talk about fisheries science and how fish otoliths (ear stones) can be used much like tree rings to age fish and provide valuable information on fish populations change over time.

Teaching winter wonderings students that everything thinks rockfish are delicious. Photo by Jack Koch

Showing young scientists how to read rockfish otoliths to determine a rockfish’s age. Photo by Jack Koch.

Both our lessons involved getting the students to use microscopes, which we were a little worried about at first. Fortunately, the students loved it and were transfixed by watching anemone stinging cells fire and absorbed in counting rings in adult black rockfish otoliths. This outreach experience was incredibly rewarding and inspiring. Seeing how curious 8-10 olds are and their enthusiasm for learning reminded me of how much I loved hands on experiences like this and has motivated me to seek more outreach opportunities.

Marine Science Day and SMURFs

Training new SMURF recruits in proper collection techniques. You can see the SMURF (the cylinder of green and black garden fence mesh) in the bottom right corner. Photo by Dr. Su Sponaugle.

Each year Hatfield Marine Science Center opens its doors to the public for Marine Science Day. All the labs put on demonstrations of their work to show visitors what it is we do at Hatfield. This event is a great opportunity to speak to a variety of people about your work. My lab focuses on the early life history of fishes and has some really high-tech equipment to image larval fish in the ocean. My research focuses on slightly later life stages and uses some lower tech, but better named equipment. To collect juvenile rockfishes as they make the transition from their pelagic larval phase to their benthic juvenile and adult phase, OSU and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife deploy standard monitoring units for the recruitment of fishes (SMURFs). I used a combination of a prop SMURF and some video to train visitors in collecting juvenile fishes as part of my research. Everyone from five-year olds, who could barely hold the net we use to collect SMURFs, to the grandparents who brought them enjoyed learning about juvenile fishes and pretending to collect them.


Volunteer Diving at the Oregon Coast Aquarium

While most people cannot join me to collect SMURFs this summer, I wanted to give people a feel for what it is like to be in the water with rockfishes. I began volunteer diving at the Oregon Coast Aquarium a few months ago. Most of my duties include cleaning acrylic and vacuuming exhibits. However, I dive on Saturday mornings and get to interact with visitors as they pass through the tunnels in the passages of the deep. I am thrilled every time I give a visitor a high-five or a fist bump through the glass separating them from the water. Never before in my life have I felt like such a celebrity for cleaning, but I really want to talk to guests while diving. This summer the Aquarium has a program where divers use special masks with microphones to talk directly to guests. I’ve just completed training to use this equipment and am ecstatic about the opportunity to share my diving experience with the public. I’ll be talking with aquarium visitors every third Saturday this summer starting June 17th.

Coming Up

The weather is transitioning to typical spring and summer patterns which means I am starting up field work soon!. I leave tomorrow for a NOAA research cruise that kicks of my field season. Stay tuned for updates on rockfish collections aboard the NOAA research vessel Reuben Lasker and future SMURF adventures.


Intro and First Quarter Update

Hi, my name is Will Fennie and I am a Robert E. Malouf Scholar. I am working on my PhD at Oregon State University and really interested in the early life history of rockfishes. Rockfishes, like many marine organisms, have a planktonic larval phase where their young drift offshore and develop in the pelagic waters off Oregon’s coast. As they develop, these young fish must feed, grow, and return (or recruit) to nearshore reefs. Rockfish face many challenges during this journey. My research aims to understand how the oceanographic conditions young rockfish experience affect their growth. In addition, I want to study how rockfish early growth contributes to a juvenile rockfishes ability to survive the journey to nearshore reefs.

Sorting pelagic rockfishes during the 2016 NOAA Pre Recruit Survey. Photo Curt Roegner.

To study how ocean conditions affect juvenile rockfishes’ growth, I have to collect juvenile rockfish during their pelagic life stage. To determine how early growth determines recruitment to nearshore reefs, I need to collect juvenile rckfishes during their pelagic life stage, their settlement stage (right before they recruit to nearshore reefs), and their poste-settlement stage (once they have settled to reefs). Because the ocean off Oregon’s coast is so wild, I’ve needed to team up with some amazing people to get on the water and collect rockfishes. I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Ric Brodeur a year and a half ago and because we shared similar interests, he allowed me to come on his NOAA research cruise to collect pelagic juvenile rockfishes.

Next, my lab mate Dani Ottmann paved the way for OSU students to work with Dr. Kirsten Grorud-Colvert at OSU and with scientists at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW). OSU and ODFW scientists have developed a nearshore groundfish recruitment monitoring program. These scientists deploy moorings offshore of Oregon’s nearshore reefs witha standard monitoring unit for the recruitment of fishes (SMURF) to collect setttlement stage fishes. SMURFs are plastic garden fence mesh cylinders that mimic the kelp canopy habitat juvenile fishes recruit to. The Oregon Coast Aquarium and ODFW provide vessels to reach these moorings. Once there, snorkelers jump into the water to retrieve SMURFs and collect juvenile fishes. Finally, I have to SCUBA dive on nearshore reefs to collect juvenile rockfishes that have settled to benthic habitat.


Left: Dani and I retrieving a SMURF in Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. (Photo: Kelsey Swieca) Right: Dani displaying a SMURF with Redfish Rocks in the background.

Left: Dani and I retrieving a SMURF in Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. (Photo: Kelsey Swieca)
Right: Dani displaying a SMURF with Redfish Rocks in the background.

Thanks to all the help I’ve had, I have enough samples to start my research. Through my collaboration with Ric Brodeur, I have access to pelagic juvenile rockfish samples of several species from the last 12 years, and access to the early life stage of black rockfish. Thanks to OSU and ODFW’s SMURF project, I have access to several hundred settlement stage black and quillback rockfishes. Thanks to several OSU dive buddies, I was able to collect settled juvenile black and quillback rockfishes on Oregon’s nearshore reefs.

Next quarter I will be busy working up these samples. Stay tuned for information on how to measure the age and growth of juvenile rockfishes.