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!

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.

The track of a ‘non-traditional’ graduate student

I have found that most people feel like COVID has affected their sense of time. This has been especially true for me — the last two years have been marked by beginning graduate school, getting married, a global pandemic, and having a child. The last two years have gone by in a blur. As I write this, some of the students that I began school with are completing their master’s degrees while I am returning from a six-month parental leave of absence after the birth of my first child. I am hoping that this blog post resonates with some folks who do not feel like the “traditional” student, that by speaking more openly about my journey I may be taking a step towards helping myself and/or others find a sense of community and understanding.

Despite everything (decades of education, scholarships, internships, global travel, field work) I still find myself constantly questioning my validity as a scholar, as a contributing member of the scientific community, or even as a Sea Grant Scholar. When the time comes to “perform” and I need to complete an application for funding or write a blog post my instinct is to say to myself that “I haven’t done anything,” that I am unworthy. I know many of my peers feel similarly, where does this seemingly never-ending doubt come from and how do we conquer it?  I try to remind myself that thoughts aren’t necessarily facts (in my case, thoughts are frequently not facts), sometimes thoughts are just thoughts. Looking back upon my previous blog posts and reflecting upon this last year as a Sea Grant Scholar, the truth begins to come forward and become clearer… So, what is true?

  • Fall 2019: I began my journey as a master’s student in Fisheries Science at Oregon State University two years ago this fall. In fact, I got married on the second day of classes!
  • March 2020: A global pandemic has worked its way around the world multiple times over in the past 1.5 years. Which means I was on campus for only six months before everything changed.
  • I formed a collaboration with ODFW Marine Reserves Program and California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCFRP) to sample during their hook-and-line surveys in the fall of 2021.
  • December 2020: As mentioned in my previous post, I formally drafted a plan for my research project and successfully defended my research review and formed my committee last winter.
  • I got pregnant!
  • I started working on part II of my project. Began conversing with ODFW regarding access to Oregon Recreational Boat Sampling (ORBS) program data as well as data collected as part of ODFW’s Sport Groundfish Onboard Sampling (SGOS) program.
  • March 2021: I then organized a session for a professional conference, which is a first for me. My lab mate, Claire Rosemond, and I brought together a theme and list of speakers for a symposium at this year’s Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.
  • April 2021: ODFW cancelled their hook-and-line surveys originally scheduled for fall of 2021. ☹ Good thing I secured a collaboration with CCFRP to sample in September! 😊
  • May 2021: It may be a small win, but it felt big to me! I won best graduate student poster at our locally sponsored conference RAFWE.
Monnin_RAFWE_2021
My winning poster at Research Advances in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Ecology Symposium (RAFWE) 2021 provides a quick overview of both aspects of my project.
  • I found that most people I knew (fellow graduate students, advisors, faculty, student union, etc.) did not have any familiarity with the parental leave policy at my university, let alone how to guide a graduate student through the process. Identifying the steps and personnel to communicate with felt a little like reinventing the wheel. Eventually I not only completed the process but also chronicled it and created an informational document (doc attached below for anyone who may benefit) that hopefully helps other students in the future. This process took weeks and continued beyond the birth of my child.
  • June 2021: I left for parental leave and had a baby!
Monnin_newmember
My son and I shortly after he entered this world.
  • September 2021: Realized that trying to leave for field work 8 weeks after having a child was simply not possible (at least for me). Canceled my field work with CCFRP.
  • I signed back up with ODFW for their 2022 hook and line surveys.
  • December 2021: Return from six months on parental leave

Hitting the ground running!

Hi there! My name is Jess Schulte and I am part of the newest batch of 2021 Oregon Sea Grant Scholars. I am working to gather data on the movement and foraging ecology of shark predators – specifically the broadnose sevengill (Notorynchus cepedianus) – in the Northern California Current System (NCCS). My research will provide the first insights into how this predator – and likely others – maintain these productive marine ecosystems through top-down interactions. My project focuses on integrating data from satellite and acoustic receivers and stomach content and stable isotope analyses from broadnose sevengills to better understand the ecosystem dynamics of NCCS systems, and will finally enable shark predators to be incorporated into our understanding of the area and wider NCCS (which has never been done before!). In other words, where do they go, what are they eating, and how does it affect us AND the fish that we eat here in the Pacific Northwest (salmon, halibut, crab, etc.)?

I am a first year PhD student at Oregon State University and before classes started this year, I was able to get out into the field to kick-off my research. We spent three days out on the boat, dropping hooks in the water baited with discarded salmon heads. We didn’t have to wait long to catch sharks…almost every time we dropped a line down, we’d quickly pull it back up with a sevengill on the end! For this field trip, we focused on deploying our acoustic tags. These tags provide fine-scale information on where/how the sharks are moving within a smaller, defined area (such as a bay). This summer, we will be deploying satellite tags that will track the sharks as they leave their summer bay residences in Oregon and head elsewhere. We will also be collecting stomach contents as well as tissue samples to do stable isotope analysis. The former will provide data on recent feedings, and the latter will provide foraging information on a longer scale – dating back weeks to months!

Additionally, my research will collaborate with local tribes through the incorporation of tribal youth into my fieldwork. We will be taking interested tribal youth members into the field to teach them techniques about shark catching and tagging while also helping me to better understand the cultural context around the research itself. I’m also looking forward to continued outreach and engagement, including a display at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Research Center! We’ll be setting up social media platforms soon so keep an eye out for those as well (in the meantime, those interested can check out the Big Fish Lab Instagram page. We’re also doing other great research on the movement of other shark species as well as shark physiology and stress responses!).

I am excited and proud to be one of the newest Oregon Sea Grant Scholars and contribute to OSG’s mission and values by informing methods for ecosystem-based management and promoting community and industry outreach and engagement. While I’m still getting a handle in first year of graduate school, I’m eager to full-steam ahead on my Big Fish Lab research in the spring and summer!

Myself, preparing a broadnose sevengill for an acoustic tag deployment in Coos Bay, OR

Razor Clams in Oregon

For my master’s project, I am working on the ecological, economic, and socio-cultural impacts of razor clams for Oregon coastal communities. I am excited to partner with Oregon Sea Grant to continue my project into its final year. Though I will say, time is flying.

It’s hard to believe that I’m over half finished with my master’s project. Last summer, I interviewed razor clam harvesters, business owners, and communities leaders in Northern Oregon for part of my project. I am excited to add their thoughts and knowledge to my research! I believe that knowledge gained through science and experience are both valid, and there are many benefits to having both in the conversation. The importance of the razor clam fishery in Oregon hasn’t ever been studied, which is one of the reasons why I am so interested in this project. I get to add both scientific and ecological knowledge to help fill this gap in our understanding of the impacts of a healthy fishery.

That also means that I get to take trips up to Seaside and Astoria every now and again. For example, this past summer, I got to see the Peter Iredale shipwreck for the first time and go to the Astoria Column.

The months ahead will be filled with final data analysis and the preparation to defend next summer. I will also be preparing materials for ODFW to use for outreach to better connect with the razor clam harvesting community as part of my public outreach. Busy days are ahead, but I look forward to working with OSG and other OSG scholars in the coming months.

What’s the plan?

I am currently a second year Master’s student studying Fisheries Science under Dr. Scott Heppell at Oregon State University. When it comes to my research project, I have not started collecting or analyzing data yet (a global pandemic did get a bit in the way in that regard). However, I have put together a research proposal and successfully completed my “research review” (which is a formal meeting that confirms the organization of your thesis committee and allows for everyone to review and sign off on your proposal) in December, which certainly has helped me to feel more accomplished and like progress is being made!

The idea behind the project…

Fisheries monitoring is an important aspect of fisheries management, used to assess populations and determine sustainable harvest. In the commercial fishery there are several means of collecting this data (fish tickets, at-sea fishery observers, electronic logbooks, and various electronic monitoring technologies). In Oregon, however, there is currently only one way that we collect data on the recreational fishery, port samplers. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) conducts dockside interviews, counting landed catch (all fish caught) and interviewing anglers regarding discards (released fish) via the Ocean Recreational Boat Survey (ORBS). Of the recreational charter fishery alone, ORBS samples an impressive 30%. Yet, compared to the commercial fishery, there remains a significant lack of monitoring data.

Dockside sampling via ODFW’s Oregon Recreational Boat Survey
Photo credit: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Which is why I am proposing an alternative form of electronic monitoring of the recreational fishery on the Oregon Coast. In collaboration with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCFRP), my master’s project will test a stereo-video system onboard recreational charter vessels. Utilizing photogrammetry (the science of obtaining reliable measurements using photos and/or videos), I will identify and quantify recreational catch data off the Oregon coast and compare it to sampling data collected by state port samplers via standard sampling techniques. Both the ODFW Marine Reserves team and CCFRP conduct several hook-and-line surveys every year (targeting groundfish). These surveys are conducted both inside and outside of marine reserves and all fish caught are brought on board, identified, measured, and recorded by ODFW or CCFRP trained volunteers.

Volunteer anglers with the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCFRP) assist in conducting fishery-independent hook-and-line, catch and release surveys.
Photo credit: California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program

I will simultaneously collect stereo-video data on as many surveys as I can tag-along on in 2021. Which means I can then compare the length measurements I collect via stereo-video to the length measurements collected by hand during these surveys. Additionally, this is a unique opportunity to collect previously unobtainable data of the bycatch typically discarded on recreational charter boats. With this sampling design, I can make various comparisons that would shed light on whether electronic monitoring could be appropriate in recreational fisheries. Additionally, I will compare current reported data (collected via port samplers) to my own, with the ability to assess the accuracy of current reporting techniques and propose a cost effective, low maintenance alternative.

Given the current pandemic and potential for other disease outbreaks, I can imagine that in this new world of social distancing, an alternative form of port sampling may be necessary in the future. The stereo-video technology utilized in my project could be integrated into kiosks located at filet stations in all major Oregon ports. Thereby allowing the continued collection of recreational catch data without placing ODFW port samplers in danger or managing large absences in data.

Stereo-video systems are traditionally used in this manner (underwater) to identify and measure fish in a non-invasive way. I will be using this same technology and software ABOVE water and on the deck of a charter vessel.
Photo credit: Pilbara Marine Conservation Partnership

The second half of my research project, entails investigating further into the uncertainty associated with bycatch data in the recreational fishery. Retained catch can be measured directly at the dock, but accurate monitoring of bycatch requires (1) anglers accurately identify released species and (2) remember what they released. Due to event recall biases and variability in species ID skills, this can introduce a high degree of uncertainty in recreational fisheries data. The main source of bycatch data for the recreational fishery in Oregon are in-person interviews conducted by port samplers. To supplement this, three at-sea observers sample a portion of the sport charter vessels for species composition, discard rates and sizes, location, depth, and catch per angler as part of ODFW’s Sport Groundfish Onboard Sampling Program (SGOSP). My objective is to determine whether current average bycatch values are accurately represented in port sampler collected interviews. To assess this uncertainty, we will compare data currently being collected by ODFW via ORBS port samplers to data collected by at-sea observers via SGOSP. By comparing these data, I will determine if bycatch recall values reported by recreational charter boat captains are in line with the same data documented by at-sea fisheries observers.

That’s the plan anyway. As the sun starts to peak out from the clouds more frequently, plans begin to form and pressure begins to build for my upcoming field season. I have a few updates I would like to share soon, so stay posted!

California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCFRP). Video put together by volunteer angler Matt Michie.

Beginning your research project during a global pandemic

In the Haze

Graduate school can be hard and a dredge. You get lost in the details, in YOUR project, in the details of your project and you lose perspective. When I decided to come back to school for my graduate degree, I decided that I would lay down some boundaries that might help me keep better perspective. Work whilst at work, play and rest at home. Obviously there would be some exceptions (research is not a 40 hour a week job, between teaching classes, taking classes, applying for funding and grants, conducting your research, and professional service inevitably there is always some working during your planned free time), but I found that sticking to this plan to be very helpful. Working from my office gave me a chance to engage in work actively and intentionally, reinforcing a need to use my time wisely and efficiently. This also meant that I was able to disengage and recharge when I went home.

Then, COVID-19 made its internationally debut. EVERYONE has been impacted by COVID, I am no exception. Overall, I feel very lucky and privileged to have faired as well as I have. Yes, my field work has been continually delayed, but I have a paying job, food in my belly, and a roof over my head, and a loved one (and furry one) to keep me company at home. It is hard not to be grateful when I know that I am much better off than many. That is the large-scale perspective.

When I analyze how my professional life has been affected by COVID-19 things start to get fuzzy. For the safety of myself and my family, I work from home. I have a quiet place to work and have no real obligations or worries that hinder my ability to work from home (like children or loved ones that need my care). Yet, I know that my ability to stay focused and motivated has decreased. My ability to draw the lines between work hours and personal hours has blurred, my efficiency has gone down, and as a result my morale has greatly suffered. Being a graduate student can be hard… I have so many privileges including setting my own schedule and having ultimate flexibility and culpability with nearly every choice that effects my professional life. But it can be difficult to keep perspective when you have ONE over-arching goal over the course of several years to accomplish – your research project, your thesis, your publication(s). It is hard to see the progress you have made, to see the steps forward, and the steps you have already taken behind you.

In my experience, field work keeps you connected to your study subject. Working in the field rejuvenates your excitement, inspires new ideas, and thus keeps you motivated throughout the rest of the year. Like many, my field work has been delayed due to COVID-19 (hopefully, I will be collecting data this fall). However, the combination of working from home on a research project with no definite end date, and without any field work or significant excuse to leave the safety of my home, has left me feeling a bit lost and dejected.

Do the next right thing…

Alas, time continues to pass and the reality of an impending defense date looms somewhere in the future. Currently, it seems difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It almost feels as though I have stalled out before my project even started, yet I remind myself of the long-term goal. The goal is to conduct a research project from start to finish, complete a thesis, publish, and obtain my master’s degree in fisheries science and hopefully along the way I will take a step towards doing some good in the world of marine science.

For now, I will keep in mind advice that I once received from a wise source, Disney’s animated film Frozen 2, “All one can do is the next right thing”. At this point in time that means continuing to engage in my quantitative ecology class where I am learning about how to better conduct data analysis; continue to make appointments with mentors and collaborators who can help inspire ideas and motivate me during this strange time; and lastly, to refine my methodology as much as possible before data collection begins this fall. One day at a time, one step at a time, just doing the next right thing.

Connecting During COVID-19: Research and Communication

Much has changed since last fall! To echo many other recent posts, much of my recent life has been adjusting to the new normal. We are about two months into Oregon’s initial stay-at-home orders. All things considered, I am feeling lucky in my situation. With plans to defend this summer, I am nearing completion of my Master’s research on the adaptive capacity of small-scale fishermen in Baja, Mexico. I am lucky to be able to continue to analyze data and write from home without having to change my research plans.

I have been wondering about the effects of current events on science outreach and collaboration. Although my research wasn’t disrupted, I am bummed about missing out on some outreach opportunities in the spring and summer. Back in February, I presented a poster of my research at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Diego. I was also planning to present at the Marine Socio-Ecological Systems Conference in Japan this week, but it was cancelled. I know that many people’s experiences are similar to my own: cancelled conferences, talks, meetings. These missed opportunities can challenge us towards developing new ways of disseminating science remotely. I recently presented via Zoom at the People and Nature virtual seminar here at OSU, and I quickly realized that presenting over Zoom (as opposed to in person) is a new skill in itself! I would imagine that this remote lifestyle affects collaborations too. I observed an (in-person) Marine Protected Area Sizing and Spacing workshop back in March that showed me how valuable it can be to gather experts in the same room to discuss ideas. Running this type of workshop remotely would absolutely still be useful but calls upon a different strategies and skillsets. As I ponder these ideas, I am finding myself continually impressed by the quality and variety of webinars, games, and other online resources that already exist or are actively being created to communicate science. It is encouraging, and it has been interesting to think about outreach and collaboration in this way.

Next fall, I am excited to be continuing on for a PhD in the Geography program here at Oregon State University. Working with my current OSU and NOAA mentors, I will likely be continuing my research into the adaptive capacities of coastal communities by focusing here in the Pacific Northwest. Some questions I am interested in are: How can coastal communities adapt to changes in ocean conditions? and How does collective action of fishing communities result in cooperation or conflict in fisheries? When planning out what my PhD research will look like moving forward, I will consider what is feasible with in-person interview methods that I hope to use. As Brittany mentions in a previous post, studying people recently has become much more complicated.

For now, I’m grateful to be continuing on as planned with my Master’s research and looking forward to wrapping it up this summer. Until the next post, take care!

A Reflection on a Master’s Thesis

“Defense Season”: that’s what graduate students affectionally call the last few weeks of Spring term when students finishing up their Master and PhD degrees hurry to submit their thesis and present their research. Last week, I successfully defended my MS in Marine Resource Management with support from the Oregon Sea Grant’s Robert E. Malouf Marine Studies Scholarship (a picture from after my defense is below!).

mazur001TW

Over the past two years, I learned a lot about how scientific information is communicated to our natural resource decision-makers. I now understand the importance of an effective science communication process so our decision-makers have the information they need to best manage our natural resources.

 

My research: a recap

As a reminder, my research evaluated how a webinar series can improve engagement between National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers and Oregon’s natural resource managers. NOAA West Watch currently communicates information about unusual climate and marine conditions to an audience of NOAA experts and key partners (white in the figure below). This type of science communication process is considered “one-way” because information is transferred from the webinar to the audience.

My research proposed that adding natural resource managers, specifically from Oregon, could better help the webinar’s information reach communities that NOAA serves. These managers would participate in the webinars, serving as translators of the science to their community stakeholders. In return, these managers could gather community observations regarding abnormal conditions that individuals experienced in their environment. Oregon’s natural resource managers could then report these observations  back to researchers through NOAA West Watch webinars (blue in the figure above). This movement of information in two directions (from researchers to managers to communities; from communities to managers to researchers at NOAA West Watch) is called two-way communication, and attempts to better match research with community or decision-making information needs.

What we found

We found that Oregon’s natural resource managers need information about our changing environment to make decisions regarding sustainable use of our resources. NOAA West Watch webinars provide this needed environmental information that gives context to Oregon’s changing terrestrial and marine environments. Having this “one stop shop” for information regarding both climate and marine conditions in a webinar saves time for our resource-limited managers.

However, we also found that it’s difficult to have engagement on a webinar. Looking at the diagram above, information is moving to Oregon’s natural resource managers, but it’s unclear how information should be moving back to NOAA West Watch. To improve this engagement mechanism, additional effort needs to be made to build relationships and facilitate discussion. In the case of NOAA West Watch, engagement needs to be incorporated into the goals of this program. To demonstrate why engagement with Oregon’s natural resource managers matter, the webinar needs to leave dedicated discussion time and facilitate engagement by posing questions.

Why this all matters

Science communication is an inherently difficult process, especially between environmental researchers and natural resource managers. These researchers and managers often have different perceptions of the environment and professional priorities. Science itself can be difficult to understand and communicate. Finally, not all science is useful for making decisions about natural resources. These factors all cause challenges when researchers and managers try to communicate science.

However, research has shown that built relationships between researchers and managers results in successful science communication. Relationships help researchers and managers trust each other and the unique skills and perspectives that the other group provides. By better integrating research and management problems, these two sides can work together to solve some of our challenging environmental questions.

Our environment is not static; it is constantly changing due to natural fluctuations, and there’s a continuing shift in “normal” conditions with climate change. Individuals and agencies who manage our resources need access to and an understanding of how the environment changes and what those changes means for our natural resources and communities. We (researchers, managers, communities) are all invested in the long-term sustainable use of environment, but it takes effective communication of sound science for that to be successful.

Fire and Drought and El Niño, Oh My!

Oregon Sea Grant Sponsored Study Looks at Improving Communication About Environmental Conditions Between Scientific Experts and Oregon’s Natural Resource Managers

It was the beginning of 2016. Unusually warm seawater named “The Blob” collected in the North-East Pacific Ocean. A massive harmful algal bloom formed in Oregon’s coastal waters. High amounts of a marine biotoxin called domoic acid resulted in closures of the recreational razor clam fishery. Almost 5,000 people along the North Coast (where the majority of recreational razor clamming occurs) stayed home because of this closure. “…You can imagine the lost economic opportunities,” said the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Shellfish Program Manager. “People don’t come out and rent vacation homes or they don’t go camping, they’re not eating in the restaurants, state parks are not filled; all those kinds of things occur because we’ve made this decision to not allow harvest.”

This is just one example of how changing ocean conditions are affecting Oregon’s coastal communities. Now, researchers at Oregon State University are evaluating a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) webinar called NOAA West Watch. Specifically, they are seeing if the webinar can be changed to communicate these extreme environmental conditions to Oregon’s natural resource managers. Currently, NOAA West Watch communicates information about abnormal environmental conditions to NOAA scientists.

Specifically, the research team is including Oregon’s natural resource managers in this webinar to improve regional coordination and communication. This could lead to a more ecosystem-based view for problem solving. To do this, the researchers are inviting a variety of Oregon resource managers, local scientists, and non-governmental organizations to watch the webinars and provide feedback on how to improve the webinar for a more manager-friendly audience.

Why do we need a more “ecosystem-based” view and manager-friendly audience, you may ask? Historically, much of our natural resource science and management occurred on a sector-basis. For example, scientists who studied fisheries often didn’t talk to scientists who studied estuaries. The same often occurred with management, as agencies have specific jobs and management roles in the environment. Managers had to find information across many subjects and determine what was important for their decision-making. Over the past couple of decades, management has shifted to an ecosystem-based management (EBM) framework that considers all ecological and human connections within and to the environment. Despite this mentality shift, natural resource science and management is still highly disjointed.

Strengthening connections between natural resource science and management is increasingly important as our coastal ocean changes. Accordingly, both scientists and managers will have to anticipate and plan for changes to our environment and resources. Evaluating NOAA West Watch can determine if this communication tool can support EBM by including a variety of scientists and managers in a setting that is responsive and adaptive to environmental changes on the West Coast.

Taking A Deep (Ocean) Dive into EBM

To determine if NOAA West Watch is a useful tool for supporting EBM, researchers are evaluating the following:

  1. the most useful spatial scale for information;
  2. if it can connect human and natural systems;
  3. if it can serve as a way for discussing competing environmental values and uses; and
  4. if it can be flexible to changes in the natural and human environments.

On a cold, windy day along the Oregon Coast, it can be easy to want to head indoors and forget about the rest of the world. But as a larger ecosystem, Oregon’s coast is connected not only to the surrounding ocean environment, but also to land. Additionally, the coast serves as a place where humans make connections, including providing opportunities for managers and scientists to work together. Scientists and managers are tasked with effectively studying and managing this diverse, changing ecosystem. To do so, they need to understand ecological and human connections that are occurring in the coastal region. “Sometimes we get so focused on what is happening here that we might fail to look at connections that are happening in other places,” said one Oregon resource manager who participated in the study.

The Oregon State researchers think NOAA West Watch may be able to explore these connections. In particular, the evaluation seeks to determine the most useful spatial scale for the webinar’s information. By considering the West Coast as an ecosystem, scientists can communicate changes in large-scale environmental conditions. Managers would then respond to those changes that can impact local environments and communities. An estuary manager who participated in the study shared, “Thinking about those kinds of bigger-picture issues is always helpful. It takes the blinders off so you’re not just looking at your little estuary; there’s these bigger conditions and factors that are influencing what you’re seeing.”

Additionally, the researchers are seeing if NOAA West Watch can help with the reporting of Oregon’s local marine environmental impacts. As community representatives, Oregon’s managers would speak for a local perspective in global environmental changes. Managers can share community environmental observations with NOAA employees during NOAA West Watch. NOAA can then include these observations in future science and policy. Initial results indicate that NOAA West Watch can help communicate human connections in the larger western regional ecosystem.

 

 Large waves hit Haystack Rock in Pacific City, Oregon Crab pots sit on a fishing dock in Oregon.
Examples of unusual environmental conditions and their impacts to Oregon that were presented in NOAA West Watch. Left, large offshore storms created record high waves along the Oregon coast in January of 2018 that left one dead. Right, delays to commercial Dungeness crabbing along the West Coast resulted in $400 million of direct impacts in January of 2017.

 

Furthermore, evaluators are determining if NOAA West Watch can bring together a wide range of science and management fields to build communication among competing coastal users. Given the ocean’s limited space, stakeholders need to discuss which ocean uses they prefer. However, it can be difficult to explore costs and benefits of certain uses if information is distributed across natural resource subjects. This research seeks to represent a variety of Oregon’s coastal science and management interest in NOAA West Watch webinars. Broad representation may help promote individual connections to build into institutional partnerships.

Compared to land environments, the ocean is generally not as well understood. Therefore, Oregon resource managers have to be flexible to changes in scientific progress. NOAA West Watch may help improve understanding by quickly combining and communicating environmental condition information; Oregon’s managers could then use that information for decision-making. Frequent webinars may help managers monitor changing physical conditions used to anticipate biological events. For example, managers can keep an eye on conditions that may lead to harmful algal blooms and shellfish fishery closures.

January 2017 clorophyll off in Oregon's coastal ocean. March 2017 chlorophyll off Oregon's coast.
NOAA West Watch webinars present environmental condition information to follow changes in the coastal ocean, such as these maps of chlorophyll concentration which can indicate harmful algal blooms. On the left, January 2017 conditions show a low number of phytoplankton, our marine plants. However, two months later (right), chlorophyll concentrations increase, indicating that a harmful algal bloom may be developing.

 

Keeping Pace with Oregon’s Changing Environment

With a changing climate, Oregon is expected to have increased droughts, changes in fish distribution, and increased wildfires. Natural resource scientists and managers have to predict and plan for these types of changes. Oregonians have recreational, economic, cultural, or personal interests in ensuring our resources are managed sustainably for long-term public use.

Ecosystem-based management is a framework that managers work under, and scientists can inform. Better communication can help managers understand our changing environment. Results from this NOAA West Watch evaluation suggest that this communication tool can be changed to fit the needs of an EBM management system. It can connect scientists and Oregon’s natural resource managers to promote collaboration and co-management.

As our coastal environment changes, what marine resources are you concerned about managing? [Comment below!]