TOP: NOAA research vessel Miller Freeman sails into Yaquina Bay just after 7 a.m. Saturday. The 215-foot ship was making a mid-cruise port call, unloading one scientific team and its gear, and bringing aboard another team and related equipment. The ship, under the command of Michael Hopkins, left the port later that day. (Photos by Terry Dillman) BOTTOM: The 209-foot Bell M. Shimada, the NOAA Pacific research fleet’s newest fisheries survey vessel, slipped into Yaquina Bay at about 8:30 a.m. Sunday, just ahead of a soaking, wind-driven rainstorm. The vessel, commanded by Todd Bridgeman, made a port call as part of on-going shakedown cruises to test its performance and familiarize the crew with its operations.
NOAA vessels are all about marine science, research, and education
Jobs. Economic development. Growth.
Most discussions about the pending relocation of the NOAA Pacific research fleet from Seattle to Newport focus on those potential aspects of the move. But all the dollars-and-cents discourse obscures the vessels’ true purpose: providing mobile laboratories and platforms for marine science research, and supporting NOAA’s stated mission to manage the nation’s fisheries and conserve protected species in the face of a changing climate.
Locally based scientists
When NOAA Ship Miller Freeman arrived in Newport early Saturday morning under the command of Michael Hopkins, the mid-cruise port call featured an exchange of research teams from Oregon State University (OSU)’s Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC).
The crew offloaded equipment, samples, and researchers under the leadership of Bill Peterson, an oceanographer with NOAA Fisheries Service and the Newport Field Station of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC). Peterson’s chief research interest is studying the effects of climate variability and change on zooplankton (tiny organisms that serve as a primary food source) and open ocean fish populations - juvenile salmon, in particular - in the Northern California Current region.
“We basically study how ocean conditions affect salmon,” Peterson said as he watched the offloading process. “About two times per year, we go up and down the coast and see how Newport compares with other areas.”
During those voyages, they index “a pretty good chunk” of the ocean, reaching as far offshore as 200 miles. This trip started in San Francisco and worked its way north along the Oregon and Washington coasts, covering about “two-and-a-half states of salmon territory” before returning to Newport.
Peterson also focused on krill - tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that provide a major food source for many whales - as part of his active research program on krill ecology and biology.
As Peterson’s team offloaded, another team led by Ric Brodeur, a research fishery biologist with NOAA Fisheries Service and NWFSC, prepared to load equipment and supplies for a seven-day expedition focused on juvenile salmon “to see how food conditions are for them this year.”
Brodeur, who arrived in Newport in 1999 after 10 years of ecosystem research in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, said they make the trip once a year as part of on-going studies of juvenile salmon survival during their first summer at sea. Brodeur developed the NOAA Fisheries Strategic Plan for studying juvenile salmon in marine waters; has worked with numerous agencies to provide information on ecosystem status and variability; serves on several national and international committees, panels, and working groups; and is deeply involved with North Pacific fisheries science and management issues.
Peterson joined the NWFSC Newport field station in September 1995, arriving from NOAA Fisheries headquarters, where he served for three years as the director of the U.S. GLOBEC (Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics) Interagency Program Coordination Office. Before that, he worked as a supervisory physical scientist for the National Ocean Service in Monterey, Calif., where he supervised the activities of 15 scientists associated with the Center for Ocean Analysis and Prediction. An adjunct professor of oceanography at OSU’s College of Oceanographic and Atmospheric Sciences, Peterson serves on several Ph.D. committees, and advises graduate students.
Research by scientists like Peterson and Brodeur are essential to commercial and recreational salmon fishermen, processors, and the coastal communities who rely on salmon populations, not only as an economic resource, but a cultural icon.
Peterson and other fisheries scientists say ocean conditions are the most critical aspect of salmon survival - more so than other sources of blame for declining salmon runs, such as habitat loss from logging and development, river dams, predatory sea lions and coastal birds, and over-fishing.
In 2008, when the salmon season went bust due to historically low returns of fish to the Sacramento River basin, Peterson pointed to a collapse in ocean conditions in 2005 as the culprit.
“The delayed upwelling off the Oregon coast meant that in the critical time when juvenile salmon were entering the ocean, there was nothing for them to eat - and most of them died,” Peterson said at the time. “But you don’t see the impact until two or three years later, when the fish should first begin returning as adults.”
Since 1998, Peterson has participated in a research project that analyzes the distribution of juvenile salmon off the West Coast, using genetic tracking to determine their river origin. Researchers say juvenile salmon from many of Oregon’s coastal rivers, along with those from the Willamette and Sacramento rivers, congregate just off the Oregon coast after leaving their respective river systems. In 2005, most of those fish starved, ultimately leading to a shutdown of salmon fishing in 2008 and 2009.
Knowing the reasons behind it doesn’t ease the economic pain, but it points to the need for research aboard vessels like the Miller Freeman, and NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada, the newest vessel in the fleet, which sailed into Yaquina Bay Sunday morning as part of its on-going outfitting and scientific gear trials.
Peterson said he and his team are scheduled to take a four- or five-day trial cruise aboard the Shimada at the end of August. “It’s a tryout, a test to see what they’ll be faced with in the future,” he added.
Space and time aboard the vessels are at a premium.
“We go to sea so much, and we have to compete for ship time,” said Peterson, noting that during those cruises, teams try to focus on a variety of research interests, including such things as ocean acidification, hypoxia, and algal blooms. “We want to give everybody a chance, as many as we can, and cover as much as possible when we have the chance,” he explained.
Distance from shore plays a role in the frequency of gathering scientific data. “Way offshore, the ocean doesn’t change very fast,” Peterson explained. “But the nearshore (out to 25 miles) is always changing.”
Having access to OSU’s research vessels Elakha and Wecoma are vital to nearshore studies, since scientists often have the opportunity “to hop on for three or four days” to see what’s happening out there. It’s not all work, however.
Sometimes the ocean provides an unanticipated spectacle, as it did for Peterson 35 miles offshore from Newport as the Miller Freeman headed in. They cruised through a stretch of ocean teeming with life, as killer whales, humpback whales, sea lions, fur seals, and porpoises put on a dazzling display.
“The humpbacks were breaching and skyhopping, everybody was feeding and the porpoises were rising up and walking on their tails,” said Peterson. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It’s research wrapped around the mysteries and wonders of the ocean, with the NOAA fleet and other research vessels providing the stage.
Terry Dillman is the assistant editor of the News-Times. Contact him at 541-265-8571, ext 225, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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