Unraveling the Ocean’s “Black Box” Off the West Coast

Copepods are the most numerous and arguably the ecologically most important members of the Arctic zooplankton. Credit: R. Hopcroft, UAF

With as much as we know collectively about the ocean, each new discovery seems to remind humanity how little we actually know. This is why the scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research ship Bell M. Shimada do what they do. Spending a week or two at sea may seem less than ideal for some, but to these men and women, it’s an opportunity that simply can’t be passed up. 

Among the mysteries being studied are the habits of salmon – what do they eat, where do they go, and why do so few return from the sea. These are the questions that wrack research fishery biologist Laurie Weitkamp’s mind each day. 

“Right now we don’t understand very much, and we feel like, maybe there really are some critical things that we can be doing that would benefit salmon. But we don’t know what those are at this moment because the ocean is just a big black box,” Weitkamp said in an interview with OPB. 

Even small changes could make major strides to helping return the native salmon population to a healthy level. Even raising ocean survival rates in very small ways for the endangered Snake River spring and summer chinook could be crucial, said NOAA supervisory research fish biologist Brian Burke. 

“If we could change ocean survival from 1% to 2% on average, that would dramatically change the entire situation,” Burke said. 

And the reality of the situation is that this research is crucial to encouraging the regrowth of the salmon population in Oregon and elsewhere.  

Going Beyond Salmon 

But salmon aren’t the only mysteries on offer here. Tiny zooplankton, such as copepods, spring into activity when the sun drops and their chances of survival rise. One of the studies performed by NOAA aboard the Shimada included the capture of live copepods to study on-shore.  

“It’s cool to see them [when] preserved, but when they’re alive, and you see them moving around, and feeding and swimming. No matter how tired I am, it’s always the coolest part,” said Oregon State University researcher Kris Bauer. 

“They sort of have this torpedo-like body. Then they have these two giant antennules that stick out on either side of their head, essentially the length of their body. If you’ve ever seen Plankton from ‘SpongeBob,’ that’s exactly what I’m studying,” Bauer said. 

The Shimada is part of a journey along the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington, covering 1,718 nautical miles, or roughly 1,977 land miles. 

Over the days at sea, the Shimada brought in a number of surprise guests in its net. From a deep-sea bristlemouth and bioluminescent copepods to a large group of pyrosomes, the discoveries were like Christmas morning, according to Bauer. 

“Everybody’s eyes light up when we bring up the nets,” Bauer said. “It’s like, let’s go out 200 miles and drop a net in the water and see what we get.” 

By Ethan Hauck 

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