Healthy Planet Marine Studies Initiative

An Educational Leap into the Shimmering Sea

Oregon State professor Bruce Menge and graduate student Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman investigate an epidemic of sea star wasting disease at Seal Rock.

Oregon State professor Bruce Menge, left, and graduate student Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman investigate an epidemic of sea star wasting disease at Seal Rock.
Oregon State professor Bruce Menge, left, and graduate student Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman investigate an epidemic of sea star wasting disease at Seal Rock. (Photo: Chris Becerra)

THE OCEAN IS KEY TO LIFE ON OUR PLANET, supplying every second breath of oxygen and transporting heat from equator to pole. Over 1 billion people receive their primary source of protein from the sea, and humans will be looking increasingly to marine aquaculture to feed a hungry planet. Over 90 percent of goods travel by ship across the global oceans, and we are looking to the sea for renewable energy. The sea is in our blood, inspires our arts and literature and is key to our future.

However, the challenges facing the world’s oceans are well-chronicled: warming temperatures, increasing acidification, rising sea levels, outbreaks of harmful algal blooms, larger waves and storms, severe erosion, over-stressed fisheries. The list goes on and on.

The science documenting these issues is solid, and few, if any, academic institutions in the world have the breadth of expertise to study them as does Oregon State University. The question, though, isn’t, “What is causing these extraordinary changes to the ocean?” It is, “What are we going to do about them?”

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Put yourself in the shoes of a city manager in a coastal community. The freshwater piped to your city’s residents flows through low-lying areas that are likely to be inundated with seawater in the next 50 years, according to the most conservative estimates of sea-level rise. What should you be doing about that now?

You know that an earthquake and tsunami akin to those that devastated Japan in 2011 will someday strike the Pacific Northwest; thus, you organize evacuation drills. It is then that you recognize that your community’s hospital, elementary school and nursing home are situated smack in the middle of a tsunami inundation zone. How will you deal with an immobile population?

An unprecedented harmful algal bloom has resulted in the delay of the Dungeness crab harvest for over a month this winter off Oregon and for nearly five months off California. Luckily, when the season opened and crabbers were able to brave the bad weather, they found an ample supply of crab. But what will happen economically if, next year, the bloom doesn’t abate and ships never leave port?

Graduate student Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman is studying the influence of climate change on whelks and mussels in the intertidal zone. (Photo: Chris Becerra)
Graduate student Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman is studying the influence of climate change on whelks and mussels in the intertidal zone. (Photo: Chris Becerra)

It is questions like these that, in part, triggered Oregon State to launch its Marine Studies Initiative (MSI). The university is building on its half-century of leadership in marine sciences to create a bigger, broader and bolder program that merges the natural sciences with social sciences, business, engineering, education and the humanities.

“In the broadest terms, this is about building coastal resilience,” says Robert Cowen, director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and one of the co-leaders of the MSI. “We have the opportunity to educate and motivate the next generation of students and citizens to develop innovative approaches to solving ocean-related challenges.”

The Marine Studies Initiative will build the university’s capacity to teach students, conduct more interdisciplinary research and provide service to coastal communities and businesses. A hallmark goal of the initiative is to enroll 500 students on the Hatfield Marine Science Center campus by the year 2025.

To reach that goal, OSU needs to increase the number of students in the pipeline, which means attracting more students to the Corvallis campus who are interested in ocean-related topics, according to Jack Barth, a professor and associate dean in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State and co-leader of the MSI with Cowen.

“We envision that students may study at Hatfield for a term or a year at a time, which means that we need to have some 1,200 students involved in a marine studies curriculum in the university as a whole,” Barth says. “We’ve already begun hiring faculty on campus, and in Newport — a process that will continue over the next few years.”

These faculty members won’t necessarily be ocean scientists, Barth emphasizes, but they will teach in areas that complement the science and help address emerging issues. For example, with funding from the OSU Provost’s Office, the university has hired Ana Spalding, a marine policy specialist, in the College of Liberal Arts; Steve Dundas, a coastal economist, in the College of Agricultural Sciences; and Jamon Van Den Hoek, a spatial planner specializing in coastal processes, in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The university’s goal, Barth said, is to train students to be well-rounded and able to look at coastal and marine issues from a multi-faceted perspective.

“Ultimately, we’d like our graduates who are asked a question about sustainable fisheries to be able to relate to all of the people around the table — the fisherman, the processor, the environmentalist, the tourist and the restaurant owner,” Barth says. “It requires a broader understanding of all the issues.”

That breadth of training is part of what will distinguish Oregon State students under the Marine Studies Initiative, according to Cowen. The experiential learning potential for students will be unprecedented.

“Students studying at Hatfield will have access to a diversity of habitats, scientists and state and federal agencies unlike anywhere else in the country,” Cowen points out. “They also will be studying in a community that is highly engaged and intimately connected to the ocean, whether it is through fisheries, tourism or some other tie.”

The Marine Studies Initiative is building partnerships up and down the Oregon coast, from Astoria in the north with its Seafood Research and Education Center to Port Orford in the south with its new OSU Field Station. Oregon’s four coastal community colleges will be key players, partnering with OSU to provide greater access to higher education for Oregon’s coastal residents. “It’s really about realizing that Oregon’s ocean touches all of us, whether via supplying seafood, providing inspiration and awe, or making our Oregon climate one of the best in the world,” Barth says. “The Marine Studies Initiative will center our attention and energies on important ocean issues and challenges.”

During the next several years, the university plans to add 20 to 25 faculty members at the Hatfield Marine Science Center and an equivalent number on the Corvallis campus.

Construction of a new building in Newport for classes, faculty and research will begin in 2017, as will construction of a housing facility that will be located off campus. A marine studies degree program will be developed and launched over the next year.

Future plans for the Marine Studies Initiative include creating marine options for a broad range of traditional degrees including business, engineering and economics; establishing three centers of excellence around such topics as ocean acidification, coastal resilience and safe food from the sea; and a new building on the Corvallis campus.

“The defining characteristic of the MSI is how the university will reach more broadly across disciplines for its academic and research programs,” Cowen says. “We will still have fisheries biologists, ecologists, oceanographers, and population scientists. But they will be working hand-in-hand with resource economists, political scientists, cultural heritage specialists and engineers.”

Mark Floyd is a science writer in News and Research Communications at Oregon State University.