Tsunami stowaways

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Tsunami stowaways

In early 2013, a small skiff washed ashore in southern Washington. While waves of debris from Japan have floated to the U.S. Pacific Coast since the tsunami, this fishing boat was different. Inside swam five stowaways: a group of striped beakfish that had made the 5,000 mile voyage together, becoming the first vertebrates known to do so.

That a species found almost exclusively in far western Pacific waters could survive such a journey surprised researchers; figuring out how it happened called for scientific detective work. On the trail is Jessica Miller, an OSU marine ecologist who studies the rich assortment of non-native species brought over by the dozens of buoys, boats, pallets, and gas tanks that have made landfall since the tsunami.

Then there is the most famous debris of them all: the 200-ton concrete dock that grounded at Agate Beach in June 2012. With the help of geneticists and taxonomists from around the world, Miller and her OSU colleagues have catalogued more than 150 species scraped from the dock and other large tsunami debris, including anemones, marine worms, shellfish, and the (admittedly cute) striped beakfish.

[caption]View tsunami stowaways slideshowIn June 2012, a massive concrete and Styrofoam dock from Japan washed up in Oregon. A tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake off Japan sent the 132-ton pier across the Pacific Ocean.[/caption]

Around 30 to 40 percent of species from tsunami debris are non-native to the Pacific Northwest, and OSU scientists have identified those that might pose a risk of establishing in our waters. Some of these species have become invasive in other parts of the world, says Miller.

“We are looking at a variety of non-native species. Some could have landed in hostile habitats and died off. Some might become naturalized here and not disrupt anything. Still others could eventually become invasive, but we might not know for some time,” said Miller, a fisheries and wildlife professor at OSU.

The extensive list of species culled from tsunami debris compiled by OSU now allows for an ongoing survey of coastal waters to determine if any of the organisms take up residence here.

Next, OSU scientists will plunge into the life history traits of the transoceanic travelers that were able to withstand the long, tumultuous ride to the Pacific Northwest—including one of the striped beakfish that’s now being studied in Miller’s lab in Newport.

“Some marine species can act as flight recorders. Shells, for example, can tell us about the growth and movement of some species as they floated here,” said Miller. “Eventually, we will try to understand why some species were able to beat the odds and make it all this way.”

Published in: Ecosystems, Water