The Docs of the Bay
Traveling up the Yaquina Bay estuary in a small open-topped motorboat in mid-August, the Marine Team squints against the light and cold. It’s 58 degrees and foggy, and when the boat is moving the wind chill brings it down into the 40s. This is not an everyday pleasure cruise. It’s a scientific expedition.
“So much of what people see of science is the flash and magic of the discovery,” says Selina Heppell, a professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University. “But the majority of science isn’t about the breakthrough moment. Science is what happens in the days and years that lead up to the discovery. It’s in tracking the data and observing trends.”
As the boat maneuvers up the estuary past Newport’s bayfront, the crew of four university students heave a wet, heavy-duty net into the water. The submersed net fans open like a kite in the wind, and as it’s pulled behind the boat it collects a sample of aquatic life. The Marine Team is the brainchild of Selina and her husband, Scott Heppell. Students involved in the program gain valuable hands-on experience and, at the same time, they provide valuable data collection and the sort of long-term monitoring that is the backbone of modern science.
The team spends one day a month in the bay, testing for water temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen at various depths. With their trawl net, they might haul in several kinds of juvenile crab, perch, herring, jellyfish, and other life, which they identify, count, and release unharmed back into the bay.
As interesting as it may be to see what comes up in the net, the Marine Team’s work is not driven solely by curiosity. It’s a follow-up to sampling done in the bay from 1967 to 1968. By comparing what they’re finding now to what was found 40 years ago, the team and the coastal community can see how the estuary has changed.
“It’s helping us identify how the bay lives and breathes,” says Scott, who is also a professor in the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Since the Marine Team began working in the bay in 2001, they’ve been able to identify several differences between today’s information and historical records.
“We know the bay used to be fish-dominated and now it’s dominated by crab,” says Scott. “We don’t have the information yet to say why that’s happening, but we can say that it is happening.
“Historically, researchers caught substantial numbers of juvenile coho in the system using the same sampling techniques we’re using now, but up until this year the team had never seen one,” adds Scott. He’s found that herring are also less abundant in the bay than in previous decades.
The Marine Team’s documentation will help scientists identify future research needs and help the community evaluate options for economic growth, says Scott. He notes a recent proposal by a shipbreaking firm that wanted to bring vessels from San Francisco to Newport for deconstruction. The proposal, though possibly an economic asset for Newport, had the potential to negatively impact the bay by possibly increasing the presence of invasive species or introducing hazardous chemicals into the system. Knowing the current condition of the bay helps stakeholders manage its use, says Scott.
There are several different groups doing research in the bay, says Brett Gallagher, a graduate student in the Heppells’ lab and the unofficial captain of the Marine Team’s boat. “In order to use science to make decisions, we need to share the information we are collecting. Our data can help other researchers better understand what’s happening across the whole bay,” he says. “When we try to make decisions based on a snapshot look, we really can’t tell what’s going on. When we begin to look at the system over the long term, we can start seeing the cycles.”
Estuaries support a wide array of life. They function as transitions between land and sea, between fresh and salt, says Selina. She adds that productive estuaries may be linked to healthy fish populations and could serve as nursery habitat for both ecologically and commercially important fish species.
“Fish in the estuary seem to have very high growth rates compared to the highly variable growth rates of the same species in the ocean,” she says. “It is possible that in some years estuaries are very important and possibly the best habitat around. We just don’t know yet.”
The Marine Team is a success for science and education, in part because of its simplicity. It doesn’t require a big research grant in order to collect data once a month and compare what they find with what was found before. The program is funded by Sea Grant and by contributions from the National Marine Fisheries Service through the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies.
Long-term data collection like that being done by the Marine Team is not glamorous, but the students involved don’t seem to mind, as they attempt to pick crabs out of the dripping net without being pinched by small, sharp claws. They say that the work they are doing may help society better understand and manage natural resources, and for now that’s better than glamour.