Saturday, March 14, 2015

Beach combing is all in the wind

Is it that time already?

I have fond memories of last April - hiking two miles down a steep headland to retrieve as many buoys as I could on a secluded beach before hiking the two miles back up in the rain.  Well, for me they were fond memories.  As for my boyfriend, he hung in there.

Okay, he may have said it was something like Tropic Thunder.  "Hang in there man- we need to get ALL of these floats back to my yard!"
Spring is a beachcomber's dream in the Pacific Northwest, because the winds that normally blow north to south (in summer) or south to north (in winter) go through a brief shifting period in the spring and fall.  This shift happens clockwise, so that means in spring months- mainly March through April, winds are often blowing directly into shore from the west.

This graph from 2014 shows that winds bounced from Southerly (Red: from the South) to Northerly (Blue) in March through April last year.  This time between strong Southerly winds to strong Northerly winds in the summer is called the 'transition period' when winds blow from the west. [Graphic:]
Why is this so awesome for beachcombers? That means that a lot of debris (everything from boats, floats, and buoys) is going to be coming in after 11 months of circulating in the northern Pacific Ocean.  Since 2011, a lot of this debris has been attributed to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunamis, but the Pacific ocean also hosts a large debris field near Hawaii called the North Pacific gyre, where a lot of trash tends to accumulate.  This poses a large problem for northwest shores, so in spring you can also help clean this up by participating in beach cleanups in your community.

So, for every ton of garbage and debris, the beachcomber can hope to find one fascinating piece- maybe even that elusive glass float!

If you go out beach combing, consider taking a trash bag with you to pick up other debris, like styrofoam, plastics or wrappers that you find. Every large piece you pick up is being prevented from disintegrating on your local beach.  Some places, like Lincoln City, Oregon, will very kindly reward you for picking up the beach with monthly raffle drawings. So the way I see it, I'm doing the environment a favor by beach combing as much as possible!

Beachcombing and beach cleanups can be almost the same thing!  This volunteer cleans up crab buoys that washed ashore during the wreck of the F/V Chevelle in 2013 [Photo:, Oregon Surfrider]

So, if beachcombing is your thing, it's time to get out there!  Not only is the weather beautiful (mostly), but you might find some of those rare objects that we all search after.  To me, each unique object tells a story of people, the ocean, and beating the odds.

Below I've listed an activity that you can use to identify the best times to beach comb.

Good luck out there! I'd love to hear about your finds.

Citizen Science Opportunity!
See if you can predict or identify prime beach combing days using weather data.

If you want to track the winds yourself and plan your next beach combing trip, there are some excellent resources out there.  First, is the NH-10 (Newport Hydrographic Line - Station 10) which collects running data on wind speed and direction.  This data can be found at . You can view Wind Speed (listed as meters per second- 1 m/s is roughly equal to 2.24 miles per hour), Wind Direction (listed from 0 to 360 degrees where wind from the North is 360 degrees and South is 180 degrees- think of a circle), and a combined value of Wind Speed + Direction.

Winds in the northern Pacific rotate clockwise throughout the year.  In summer, winds blow from the north in the Eastern Pacific, and in winter they blow from the south. (

Using Wind Speed + Direction can be a confusing way to tell Easterly or Westerly winds, but using the two above criteria separately is an ideal way to tell if beach combing will be good or not in the near future.  First, the higher the wind speed, the more powerfully pushed ashore debris will be.  Secondly, the closer the number value is to 270 degrees- that is, from the east- the more debris that is likely going to be brought directly onshore.

The hardy NH-10 buoy is always bringing us the latest weather and ocean conditions, rain or shine. []
You can also check Wind Speed and Direction from NOAA's oceanographic weather page: if you like more visual interpretations.  Simply select your area of interest and click on 'Forecast Graphics'.  You can hover over the words 'Wind Speed and Direction' to see a map of current conditions, as well as some other items such as temperature, weather, and cloud cover.  Also very handy if you plan on going fishing in the near future. :)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Striped Beakfish - Pacific hitchhikers extraordinaire

You may all remember when a striped beakfish washed ashore in the hull of a Japanese boat in Oregon in April of 2013.  This little guy was the sole survivor of a group of five that washed up (what a trooper!) and was taken to his new home at the Seaside Aquarium.

And what many of you also may or may not know, is that another one of these guys washed ashore last month.  To one Oregonian's surprise, the fish was caught live in a crab pot off of Port Orford.  The fish is currently in quarantine at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon and off of public exhibit until it shows that it is healthy enough to display or move. 

The newest striped beakfish is currently under the care of veterinary and aquarium staff at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, OR [Photo: Oregon State University]

They may look like a tropical species, but the striped beakfish (Oplegnathus fasciatus) is actually a common species in the western North Pacific, including Japan.  Seeing these fish in eastern Pacific waters (like Oregon) appears to be a more commonly-occurring phenomenon, and this might raise concern that striped beakfish just might be hardy enough to become a non-native invader of eastern Pacific waters. However, the fish was likely less than two years old, which suggests that it was not a direct transplant from the 2011 tsunami, but rather likely traveled with marine debris into Oregon waters.    Fish in the open ocean tend to congregate under floating debris or plant material, dubbing these items 'fish aggregating devices'.  A fish aggregating device can really be qualified as anything that floats, and that fish group around.  It's likely that these floating objects provide visual protection from predators lower in the water column, and might also provide shade or other stability.

A group of kelp and gooseneck barnacles provide a roof for wandering fish. [Photo:]

What's special about the striped beakfish? Well, besides its tropical-like appearance, nothing in particular, unless you account for its apparent adaptability!  What is interesting about them, however, is that they are a commercially sought-after and farmed fish species in Asia, and while many of the individuals found have been 5-6 inches long, they can reach lengths of up to 31 inches. While it is primarily the juveniles that are found swimming under debris, the largest recorded weight for this species is a whopping 14 pounds!  

Not so cute now, am I? [Photo:]
 And apparently they are sufficiently delicious to write a comic strip about:
Striped Beakfish Sashimi!  (Comic: Bartley Scanlation, Cooking Papa)

It will be worth noting if more of these guys are observed by divers, fishermen, or wash up on the beach.  Signs like this will suggest that there is a larger population establishing itself in the eastern Pacific, which may or may not have ecosystem consequences, especially for similar perch-like species that are found throughout Oregon, Washington and California.

Until then, we can only wait and see what washes up in the next round of debris this spring. Oh, on that note, you should probably read my next post!  I'll be talking about how the weather will likely be changing very soon, meaning it is just about the optimal season for beach combing in the Pacific Northwest.  Go shake that sand out of your walking shoes! :)

Monday, February 9, 2015

A most excellent summary of sea star wasting disease!

Hi all!  I know it has been a while since I have posted any new content (more coming soon, I promise!)

However, right now I want to leave you with this wonderful drawing.  Sometimes as scientists, we tend to make things more complex than we need to.  A drawing by Finley Miller-Morgan of Newport, Oregon has reminded me of that.

I think this may be one of the best scientific illustrations that I have seen in a long, long time.

A big thank you to Megan and Finley Miller-Morgan for letting me use this great drawing!

See you on the flip side, bloggers!