Summer’s End

The days are getting shorter, and the nights are getting cooler, and it’s really starting to feel like this strange summer is winding to a close. In this last week before the start of my classes, I’ve been thinking about my fellowship with the Oregon Sea Grant. What have I learned, and how will this experience affect me in the future?

I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room: this has been a crazy summer! I consider myself to be a resilient and adaptable person, but a pandemic, unrest and violence on the streets of my home town, and then huge fires looming down on us and spewing smoke was a lot to try and take in stride. I’m so grateful for my health and that I still have a place to call home!

I’m also so grateful to all the people who I’ve had the chance to work with during my fellowship. I know that at best these folks were going through the same experience that I was, and it’s entirely possible that this whole cascade of events has touched them in a more personal way than it has me. Despite everything that was going on, I consistently encountered generosity, kindness, and willingness to help from all the people I had the chance to work with. I would like to give a special thanks to Lisa Cox at the Oregon DEQ, who took me in as an intern at the last minute, was my guide to the wild world of water quality, and also got me involved with the amazing OASE program. Everyone I met with this summer helped to show me what true professionalism looks like, and that is something I’ll remember.

Another take-away for me is a greater understanding of the complexity of conservation projects and some of the particular challenges of applied science. I’ve had a chance to learn about how conservation projects can get started, how they sometimes get funded, how they’re affected by politics and the relationships between conservation agencies and other stakeholders, and how much work and expertise is needed to get one off the ground. To me navigating all these layers seems trickier than the science in many ways, and equally as important if the goal is to have a positive effect on our environment. I’ve developed a growing respect for the people with the skills and experience to do good work in the thorny world of policy and legislation. Maybe I’ll be one of them someday.

I’m also very happy to have had the opportunity to learn about the Oregon Applied Sustainability Experience. This program partners Oregon businesses with students from a variety of fields with a goal of reducing waste, improving efficiency, helping with certification processes, and generally working to improve environmental outcomes. As part of my video project on the OASE program, I’ve had a chance to meet a few of the interns and business owners, and it’s been a great experience to get to know this passionate, bright, and innovative group of people. Each time I’ve visited the interns at their work I always end up with a big smile on my face. Special thanks to Connor Nolan, Alexi Overland, Angel Contreras Cruz, and to POSS, Defunkify, and the Oregon Soap Company for letting me point my camera around and for sharing your experiences with me.

Looking back, this summer feels like it’s gone amazingly fast. Two weeks from now I’ll have my head buried in a textbook again, and the longed-for rain will probably not be far behind. I hope the changing of the seasons will bring with it peace and understanding for us all. Thanks for reading this, I had a great experience this summer, and I’m happy I got this chance to share it with you.

P.S Can’t forget a picture of my helper :)

Summer Reflections

My summer fellowship with the Oregon DEQ began with a very general goal of reducing the environmental impacts of copper-based antifouling paint in Oregon. It was abundantly clear that excessive copper concentrations can be harmful, and even fatal to aquatic organisms, as I learned from the many research articles I read on the subject. Also clear was the connection between copper boat paint and elevated levels of copper. But what would be the most effective way to address this issue? What could I do over my 10-week internship that could have a tangible benefit for the DEQ, and for the health of my state?

There were a number of potential options: one way would be to develop surveys designed to understand boat owner’s attitudes towards copper paint and how widespread its use was among recreational boaters. Another possibility would be an outreach effort to marinas and boatyards, providing them with information about the harmful effects of copper in the environment, and suggesting alternative antifouling methods. I finally settled on a plan to put together a water testing program that could help to fill major gaps in knowledge about the actual concentrations of copper in Oregon’s waterways. Collecting empirical data on copper concentrations at sites of high copper paint use, such as marinas or yacht clubs, would be critical in establishing a clear and unambiguous link between the use of these paints and harmful levels of copper in the water.

Once I settled on the plan for a copper testing program, a whole host of other questions cropped up: How many sites should be tested to get a useful picture of copper concentrations around the state? How many tests should be performed at each site to ensure the results were statistically significant? Should we test for copper in the water column, or the sediment? How could we convince the owners of marine facilities to let us perform the tests? Most importantly, how would all this testing be paid for?

At this point, I was a few weeks into my fellowship, and I felt like the deeper I got into the subject the more questions I had. The answers to these questions came slowly, through many days of reading articles, reading the copper paint regulations from Washington and California, talking with people on Zoom or the phone, writing emails, making new connections and talking with more people, learning new facts that upset assumptions I didn’t even realize I had been making, and reformulating my plan again and again. The result felt like weeks of hard work with nothing really to show for it.

Except that’s not quite true. Even though not a single water sample has been taken and sent to the lab, something useful has still happened: I’ve gradually developed an understanding of a complex and nuanced subject. A subject with a wide array of interlinking, often competing or contradictory, social, economic, chemical, biological, and environmental components. As one of the people I talked to last week said, after all these weeks I’m still in the “development stage,” of my project, and that’s okay.

If there’s one takeaway I have from this summer, it’s that most of the time there’s no quick fix for “solving” environmental problems. Making a positive change is more often a long-term effort. The first step in that effort is always to get the best understanding of the problem as a whole, and I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve had this summer to experience that for myself.

A Conservation Policy Story

Today I’ll spend some time talking about the experience I’ve gained this summer regarding conservation policy. I’ll start off with an interesting policy story that I’ve learned about that involves the State of Washington’s recent attempts to regulate the use of copper-based antifouling paint through legislation. I got to know this story through my meetings with people at the Washington State Department of Ecology, and also from reading documents published by that same agency. I find this story very interesting because it highlights the unexpected ways that policy can take shape, and also the unforeseen consequences that a policy decision can sometimes lead to.

In 2011, the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5436 2011-12 into law. This new law committed Washington to phasing out the use of copper-based antifouling paint for recreational boats by 2020. This would be a dramatic change for the state’s approximately 200,000 registered boat owners, since banning copper paint would eliminate the primary means for controlling the build-up of mussels, barnacles, seaweed, tunicates, worms, and a myriad of other marine organisms that would slowly but surely attach themselves to the bottoms of their boats.

Interestingly, Senate bill 5436 was not introduced by any conservation or environmentalist organization, or by any state agency tasked with preserving water quality. Instead, it was introduced by the Northwest Marine Trade Association, an advocacy group for the recreational boating industry. Why would a boater’s advocacy group want to pass legislation to restrict the use of the most widespread antifouling tool available to recreational boaters?

The answer has to do with wastewater and stormwater runoff from boatyards and marinas where cleaning and repainting of boats occurs. The runoff from these boatyards and marinas is subject to testing by the Washington Department of Ecology, and these businesses could face fines or the loss of their operating permits if the copper concentrations in this runoff exceeded stringent thresholds. Because these businesses do a lot of cleaning and repainting of boats, and because so many boats had paint with very high concentrations of copper, it was very difficult for these businesses to keep the copper concentrations in their runoff and stormwater below these thresholds.

This is why the Northwest Marine Trade Association pushed for a ban on copper-based boat paint; if boat paints had no copper, than it would be easier for marinas and boatyards to avoid fines and keep their permits.

However, as mentioned previously, this new law presented a major challenge to boat owners; how could they prevent fouling of their boats when the most common tool would become illegal to use by 2020? The most straightforward solution would be to switch to an antifouling paint that used a biocide other than copper. There are an number of commercially available antifouling paints that use alternative biocides such as Irgarol, Tralopyril, DCOIT, or Zinc Pyrithione. These compounds were known to be effective at preventing the buildup of marine growth, but they are much less popular than copper paint, and they were used on only a small number of boats. What would be environmental impact of a wholesale switch to one of these alternative biocides?

A part of the new law specifically tasked the Washington Department of Ecology with finding out the answer to this question. The Department of Ecology was directed to research the environmental impacts of these alternate biocides and submit a report to the Washington Legislature by 2017. This report was duly submitted, and it contained a surprising conclusion: The Department of Ecology recommended that the Washington Legislature delay the ban on copper boat paint!

The Department’s research into these alternate biocides showed that they had the potential to cause serious environmental harm, and that the benefits of eliminating copper-based paint would be outweighed by the negative impacts of switching to different antifouling paints. The Washington State Legislature agreed with this recommendation, and at the moment the ban on copper-based antifouling paints is on hold, while the Department of Ecology continues it’s research into the safety of alternative antifouling methods.

This story is so interesting to me because so much of it is the opposite of what I would have expected to happen: a marine industry advocacy group proposing a ban on a widely used and popular paint, and the Department of Ecology arguing against that ban? I think it serves as an example that policy changes are not always as straightforward as they might seem.

A Quarantine Fellowship

Since I last posted two weeks ago there has been quite a bit of progress, and a few changes, in my two projects for the summer. The copper boat paint project has started taking shape, with the identification of a potential funding source for a small pilot testing program to measure copper concentrations at various sites around Oregon. The testing will likely focus on heavily used marinas and boatyards, where high concentrations of copper from antifouling paint are more likely to occur. These tests could help shed light on the the extent of copper contamination, and if the results indicate an unhealthy level of copper at a particular sites they could serve as starting points for a discussion between stakeholders to decide how to remedy the problem.

The OASE video is also going well, and I have been able to visit Connor Noland at Port Orford Sustainable Seafood and Alexi Overland at Defunkify and shoot some video of them at work. It’s been fun to learn about the projects they’re involved in, and it’s also been a great excuse to get out of town for a little bit :)

Fishing Boats on the Oregon Coast

Aside from these trips out of town, my work life has settled in to a pretty standard routine. Once the sun is up I’ll head out to the back yard with a big cup of coffee to check new emails, look at my day planner, and watch the furious activity of the honeybees at the flowering mint plant by my chair.

Bees on the mint plant in my yard.

The rest of my morning is filled with reading articles, planning my projects and writing in my notebook, and phone calls and zoom meetings. I usually take a break every hour or so to say hi to my wife, who’s been hard at work in her first term at graduate school. And of course, I can never resist giving a scratch between the ears to our dog Mesa, who seems to have permanently installed herself on our couch since we got her a few months ago :)

Mesa on the couch.

In the afternoons I’ll usually have a late lunch, again usually in the back yard to take advantage of all the nice weather we’ve been having.

Lunch time in the back yard.

Later on in the day is when I’ll take care of things around the house, run errands and go shopping, and hang out with my wife and take the dog for a walk. I’ve found that I start to feel most creative when the sun goes down, and I’ll spend most nights editing away on my OASE video project.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, of course, meant a huge change in my life, but at this point I feel that I’ve mostly gotten used to the changes and have made the best of the current situation. I miss being able to go to the library and coffee shops to work. Most of all, I miss being able to interact with people and do all the simple things that I used to take for granted like attend a lecture or meet someone for a cup of coffee. However, being able to make my own ours and work from home has its advantages, and I really love being able to spend lots of time with my family and work my projects when I’m feeling the most energized and inspired.

I hope everyone else is also having some positive experiences this summer, and I will check in with you all again in a few weeks!

Summer at the Oregon DEQ: Learning, Planning, and Spreading the Word

My name is Chris Schmokel, and I am an environmental chemistry major at Oregon State University and also an Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholar Fellow. My fellowship placement is with the Oregon DEQ, and this summer I’m working on two projects: starting up a pilot program to test for copper concentrations in Oregon waters, and creating a short video to share all the good work being done by the Oregon Sea Grant’s Oregon Applied Sustainability Experience internship program.

Some background on the copper testing project:

A boat in dry dock with a hull covered in algae and barnacles.
A sailboat with an extremely fouled hull.

Organic growth on the underside of boats is known as fouling, and it can range from a mild inconvenience to a major problem, depending on how long a boat is in the water and the type of aquatic organisms present at a given location. Many techniques have been developed over the years to deal with this problem, but currently the most prevalent solution is the use of special antifouling paint for the undersides of boats. This paint contains a large percentage of copper, which acts as a biocide, slowly leaching into the water adjacent to a boat and discouraging organisms from attaching to it. Unfortunately, copper ions released in this way can spread beyond a boat’s immediate vicinity, and can cause unintended ecological harm. A great deal of research has shown that excessive copper concentrations are toxic to many types of aquatic organisms, including freshwater mussels and salmonids, among others. Both California and Washington have passed regulations to control the use of copper based boat paint, but Oregon has yet to do so. My project for the summer will focus on developing a pilot water testing program to help the DEQ get a better picture of the concentrations of copper at various sites around Oregon. This sort of testing may be the first step towards Oregon enacting copper regulations similar to its neighboring states.

My second project this summer is creating a short video to highlight the work of the Oregon Sea Grant’s Oregon Applied Sustainability Experience internship program. This program partners college students with local businesses to find ways to improves efficiency and prevent waste and pollution. Tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM (!!!) I’ll be hopping in my car and heading down to Port Orford to get some shots of the halibut boats coming in to offload their catch. I’ll also be sitting down with intern Connor Nolan to talk about the work he’s doing with Port Orford Sustainable Seafood to reduce processing waste and maybe even convert it into a marketable product in the form of fish paste for cooking.

I’m very excited about these projects, and I hope next time I post I’ll have some fun photos from Port Orford, as well as some new information on a copper testing pilot program.

Video equipment laid out on a bed.
All my video gear laid out for tomorrow.