Five HMSC Hot Topics

HMSC is known for being on the leading edge of new and exciting avenues of research into the marine environment. Whether they’re helping solve problems of overexploitation of marine resources or studying the learning process, HMSC faculty are at the forefront of all areas of marine science. Here are five areas that are keeping HMSC researchers busy right now.


Sarah Henkel working on deck of a research vesselWave energy

It’s hard to watch the ocean come ashore in breaking waves and not wonder how we could harness all that energy for human endeavors. OSU is at the forefront of research into how to translate the movement of water in ocean waves and currents into the movement of electrons to fuel our cities. The Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC), established in 2008 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, is a partnership between Oregon State University and the University of Washington. NNMREC’s mission is to advance wave and tidal energy technology through research, education, and testing. At HMSC, Dr. Sarah Henkel (Department of Integrative Biology, OSU) and Joe Haxel (NOAA PMEL) have undertaken NNMREC research on the environmental impacts of placing wave energy devices in the ocean off of Oregon. Henkel has been studying the bottom-dwelling communities in and near the Oregon wave energy test sites offshore. Haxel has been using his ears – and hydrophones – to listen for impacts. He studies sound in the ocean, and has been working on a project to examine potential acoustic impacts of wave energy converters on the ocean environment.

In addition to conducting critical research, HMSC faculty are working on the equally critical step of engaging the public, particularly coastal communities, in wave energy-related decision-making, and spreading information about the promises and challenges of these new technologies. For example, Kaety Hildenbrand of Oregon Sea Grant Extension helped to organize stakeholder groups up and down the coast, bringing commercial, charter and sport fishing interests, local governments and others into the siting process for wave energy test sites in Oregon. She and her colleagues also conducted research aimed at better understanding the social and environmental ramifications of wave energy. In addition, the HMSC Visitor Center, under the leadership of Sea Grant’s Mark Farley, installed a popular, hands-on exhibit explaining the ins and outs of wave energy development. 


Visitors at touch tank at HMSCFree choice learning

Sitting in a classroom, a student usually doesn’t have much of a choice about what to learn or how. When it’s time for geometry, it’s time for geometry, and the teacher typically leads the class using their own teaching methods. But how do we learn, and what do we choose to learn about, when given the freedom to choose in an informal learning environment like a museum? Are we attracted to hands-on displays or would we rather watch a movie? Do we learn better on our own or with others around us? How do we “make meaning” from the world around us?

These are the questions that Dr. Shawn Rowe (College of Education, OSU) asks at HMSC every day. He and his students use the HMSC Visitor Center as their laboratory, and the outcomes of their work can be used to improve exhibits here and in other similar institutions. Recent projects have included a study of bilingual families in aquariums, the use of mobile devices as learning tools, and the use of live animals in learning environments. 


Fish tanks in labOcean acidification

While most people have heard about sea-level rise and global warming as consequences of global climate change, a more recently-discovered side effect of climate change is the potential for ocean acidification. As more CO2 is pumped into the earth’s atmosphere, more is taken up by the ocean, causing a decline in the nearshore ocean’s pH (the deep ocean has a better capacity to buffer this change). This problem was first discovered in Oregon by oyster farmers, who were observing massive die-offs of young oysters in culture; it turned out that the baby oysters were having trouble depositing shells which were being dissolved by the more acidic ocean water.

HMSC has tackled this critical environmental issue head-on. Dr. Thomas Hurst of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center has been working with larval and juvenile walleye pollock, the target of the largest fishery in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. His first experiments indicated that pollock reproduction and growth do not seem to be affected by decreased pH. More recent experiments, however, suggest that young pollock raised in acidified water have trouble smelling out their prey, which could have disastrous implications in the wild. Dr. Chris Langdon has been studying the effects of depressed pH on bivalve growth and survival, and a graduate student of Dr. Bruce Menge (Department of integrative Biology, OSU) has been using HMSC facilities to study how encrusting algae are affected by acidified conditions. 


Woman holding salmon on deck of boatBycatch

Bycatch, the unwanted and typically discarded fish and other marine species sometimes caught in the process of fishing for a different target species, is a problem for the ecosystem, and also for fishermen. HMSC researchers have been working with the fishing industry to engineer a solution for west coast bottom trawlers, particularly to exclude halibut from their catch. Bumping up against the strict limits on halibut bycatch could shut fishermen out of the groundfish fishery. Waldo Wakefield (Northwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA) and Mark Lomeli (Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission) have been working with local netmakers and regulators to design and test a “flexible sorting grid Pacific halibut excluder,” which works by sorting fish by size as they progress through the trawl net back toward the cod end. Larger fish will not fit through the grid openings and are expelled from the net via an exit ramp. Target groundfish species are still retained at a very high rate, according to recent publications the research team has produced.


Woman in genetics labSalmon genetics

In the Pacific Northwest, salmon are more than just fish. They are icons, totems, living history, sustenance for our bodies and our bank accounts. These fish have been studied for decades, mostly with an eye towards ensuring that there are enough for us to eat, both now and in the future. One approach that HMSC researchers take involves examining the genetics of multiple species and stocks of salmon. Many questions can be answered about salmon by looking at their genes. For example, when Klamath River salmon were determined to be in danger of extinction, other stocks that mingle with them in the ocean were doing fine. How can fishermen continue to catch fish from the healthy stocks while leaving the protected ones alone? First we need to be able to distinguish the stocks, which is where genetics can help (read more about this effort under Project CROOS, above).

Dr. Michael Banks, his colleague Dr. Kathleen O’Malley (Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, OSU), and their students have applied genetic techniques to determining the distribution of individual stocks of Chinook in the ocean. They have also examined whether particular genes play a role in salmon mate choice, and the genetic mechanisms and environmental cues that influence the timing of the fishes’ famous seasonal migrations.

The work of these two researchers and their colleagues has shed an immense amount of light on the factors that influence and control population dynamics of salmon. This information is used to protect endangered runs, and will increase our understanding of how local salmon populations might be affected by, or adapt to, climate change.


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