Officials share marine research

Matt Hawkyard, aquaculture research associate at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, holds dulse, a type of seaweed some say tastes like bacon. Researchers at Hatfield grow dulse in a lab on campus as opposed to collecting it from the ocean. “You can get a very fresh product and get that to market,” Hawkyard said of the campus facility that grows dulse. (Photos by Madeline Shannon)

NEWPORT — In an ancient Native American legend, the battle of Thunderbird and Whale documents perhaps the first earthquake humankind witnessed in the Pacific Northwest. According to the centuries-old tale, the fight between the coastal tribes’ two biggest gods shook the ground and washed away entire villages. The lesson, earthquake researcher Chris Goldfinger said, is one that still stands.

“It came with a little parable to go with it — in case Thunderbird and Whale ever get into it again, don’t build your villages too close to the coast,” Goldfinger said. “They’re actually, even today, well ahead of us folks.”

The lesson in Native American folklore is one of many divulged by researchers at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, who are busy at work studying everything from the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquakes (the inspiration for the legend of Thunderbird and Whale) to the effects of marine noise on sea mammals to how to protect oysters from strains of emerging viruses. 

The new research conducted by those at HMSC was profiled and highlighted at a media summit at the research hub Monday, bringing to light new information officials and residents of the coast can use to not only prepare for emergency situations like an earthquake, but even reduce the ocean noise produced on this stretch of the coast, protect coastal wetlands and start renewable energy projects. 

One notable new line of research conducted by those like Matt Hawkyard, an aquaculture nutrition research associate, involves defending oysters on the Oregon coast from a strain of virus he characterized as a herpes virus for oysters. 

“We generally refer to it as a herpes virus, but it’s not a true herpes virus that we think of in human [health],” said Hawkyard. “Essentially, it’s wiped out the Australian stocks and also in Europe — France, in particular. They’re all breeding the same Pacific oyster, and they’ve seen tremendous losses in their industry due to the herpes virus.”

Fortunately, the effects seen by Hawkyard’s European and Australian counterparts haven’t shown up on the west coast of the United States, he said. 

“We’re on the front end trying to breed and look for genetic markers that will help us breed for resistance to this herpes virus that will protect and prevent as much as we can,” he said. 

New research to be published in the coming months details the work of Leigh Torres, a researcher at the Marine Mammal Institute. Her work tracks how marine mammals react to increasing levels of noise in the ocean by measuring stress hormones found in their waste. 

“A lot of the research we do is to try to help manage human activities around these animals better,” Torres said. “Our oceans have become very noisy places. Over the last 50 years, there’s been a three-decibel increase in the baseline level of noise in the ocean.”

The question of how Torres and her research team collected whale waste is answered in one video, in which Torres and a cadre of graduate research assistants float in an orange research vessel to collect the waste of a whale they were trailing after the large marine mammals relieved itself. 

The plume, the video revealed, was large enough to provide ample opportunities for Torres and her team to collect adequate samples for analysis.

“We’re not always that lucky,” Torres said.

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