Five HMSC Breakthroughs

Scientific progress is almost always incremental. There are few single moments that, in and of themselves, revolutionize our understanding of a topic. Even the most notable scientific discoveries — E=MC2 or the determination of the double-helical structure of DNA — were based on years of related research. At HMSC, we have now amassed a half-century of data and observations about the sea around us, ultimately leading to some major breakthroughs.  Here are a few of those stories.


Grey whale with oil rig in backgroundWhale tagging

The Whale Telemetry Group of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute pioneered the use of a now widely-applied scientific technique: using electronic tags that communicate data via radio or satellite to record position, depth, speed, and other information about individual whales and dolphins. The group, under the leadership of MMI Director Bruce Mate, tagged their first humpback whale in 1986. Many technological iterations later, they now use much smaller and more high-tech tags for species ranging from blue whales, the largest animals to have ever inhabited the earth, to sprightly Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

Using these tags, the group has made critical discoveries about these animals’ biology and ecology. For example, they have tagged blue whales off of California – likely the largest remaining population of this highly endangered species – since 1993. Tagging data revealed that these whales make feeding migrations to the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, and they identified the Gulf of California as their wintering ground. These scientists were also the first to tag blue whales in the southern hemisphere, identifying their likely feeding habitats. A project tagging sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico revealed this population’s geographic range for the first time, indicating that many individuals stray outside of the Gulf and as far away as the Atlantic Ocean off of South Carolina. Finally, a study of bottlenose dolphins in Florida illuminated for the first time this species’ diving activity over the course of a day.

This work, and other MMI research, has been featured on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and in countless popular science publications.


Crew standing in front of the ROV AlvinHydrothermal vents

The “Submarine Ring of Fire” is not a Johnny Cash song performed underwater – it’s the band of underwater volcanoes and earthquake sites around the Pacific Basin at the edges of Earth’s tectonic plates. The sun’s light does not penetrate to these depths, and so these deep-water sites host other-worldly biological communities that gain their energy from the chemicals that seep (and explode!) out of the earth’s interior. HMSC researchers Bob Embley, Bob Dziak, Bill Chadwick and their colleagues, working through a long-standing collaboration between OSU and NOAA, the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies (CIMRS) have explored sites around the Ring of Fire for decades. Using a range of cutting-edge technologies, including underwater sensors and remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs; underwater robots controlled remotely from shipboard), this team has undertaken dozens of cruises to the Ring of Fire.

Their studies have shed immense light on this very dark environment. For example, they were the first to show that precursory signals were recorded by seafloor instruments before correctly forecasting an undersea volcanic eruption at Axial Seamount in 2011. Their team has contributed to cruises that have discovered entirely new chemosynthetic species. And they led an expedition on which, for the first time, an underwater volcanic eruption was observed as it was happening.


Woman woking in seafood labOregon whiting fishery

In 1989, a nondescript species of fish known as whiting and a dynamic fisherman named Barry Fisher helped build an enduring relationship between OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station (COMES), headquartered at HMSC, and the fishing industry. The marketing and food science expertise of COMES helped establish the whiting industry as one of Oregon’s most valuable fisheries.

In the early 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, Oregon fishermen, led by Barry Fisher and a few others, entered into a partnership with Soviet fishermen to harvest and process whiting. The American boats captured the fish and delivered them to Soviet processing vessels. A few years later, the Americans launched their own processing fleet and the fishery was conducted entirely by American boats, including a large Oregon fleet. In the early 1990s, Oregon fishermen worked with COMES and the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association to develop shoreside processing for whiting, eventually securing federal approval for shoreside allocation (allowing the fish to be processed onshore in Oregon). COMES — and its superintendent, Dr. Gil Sylvia — in particular, worked on developing the marketing aspect of the fishery, and developed an economic model for managing the species. Via its seafood research lab in Astoria, COMES also developed and tested value-added whiting products to support the growing fishery.

The whiting fishery is now the largest, by landings, in the state. Whiting is processed into surimi (imitation crab meat and fish), and is increasingly being sold as fillets.


Oyster held by forcepsOyster culture

Oyster culture has been part of HMSC’s core research endeavors from the very beginning. Even before HMSC existed, OSU researchers were studying oyster culture, working on improving methods to keep the bivalves thriving in culture conditions. The fisheries lab at Sally’s Bend that predated the marine science center focused on developing broodstock for oyster culture. Once the marine science center was built, there was very little money for research, so one of the first researchers, Willie Breese, appealed to the public for research funds, highlighting the work on oysters that those funds would support. Breese and others (including Mo Niemi, who founded the famous Mo’s Restaurants) were the first to develop a broodstock of Pacific oysters that would reproduce locally, eliminating the need for importing seed from Japan every year.

Dr. Chris Langdon (Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, OSU) and his laboratory have furthered oyster culture significantly with the development of innovative food for cultured oysters and other bivalves. He pioneered the use of lipid-coated microcapsules to enclose nutrients in artificial feeds, allowing for efficient delivery of nutrients and medicines with little leaching into the water. Langdon also directs the molluscan broodstock research program at HMSC, which has made enormous strides in producing fat, healthy broodstock for West Coast aquaculture operations. Recently, he has turned his attention from the Pacific oyster to Kumamoto oysters, a more delicate and highly-prized species.


Salmon with tag on cutting boardProject CROOS

Sometimes the mere existence of a research project can be considered a breakthrough, especially when that project involves collaboration between two groups that have historically inhabited very different worlds: fishermen and scientists. Project CROOS (Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon) is a perfect example of how research partnerships can help answer huge questions. This collaboration among Oregon fishermen, fisheries managers, and scientists, collects and analyzes genetic data from oceanic salmon to answer a number of questions about salmon ecology and population dynamics. The impetus for the project came from the decline of certain salmon stocks. While Chinook from the Klamath and Sacramento Rivers, for example, were in trouble, other stocks were large enough to support fisheries. But in the ocean, how could fishermen target healthy runs while leaving the rare ones alone? Were they separated spatially in the ocean? Did they exhibit different migration patterns? To find out, fishermen collected small pieces of salmon fins when the fish were caught at sea, and HMSC scientists, led by Michael Banks (OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife), analyzed the DNA of the samples, usually returning results within 24 hours. One of the amazing outcomes of this work is a public web page where users can access user-friendly information on catch and fishermen's effort by time, by regions, by fish size, and by river of origin for California, Oregon, and Washington ( This information is improving our understanding of the ocean ecology of Chinook salmon, as well as elucidating factors that drive stock-specific oceanic distribution patterns and identifying key information needs for Ecosystem Based Fishery Management.

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