CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers at Oregon State University and three other leading marine science universities in Oregon and California have received a five-year, $17.7 million grant to conduct ecological research aimed at improving the conservation of marine organisms.

This is the largest single grant ever made to a university by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and will allow the four institutions to learn more about the vast near-shore region along the Pacific Coast.

The Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans: A Long-Term Ecological Consortium, or PISCO, brings together four leading centers of marine science research: Oregon State University , Stanford University, University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and University of California, Santa Barbara, (UCSB). By combining their strengths, PISCO will enable researchers at these institutions to conduct coordinated studies of coastal ecosystems on an unprecedented scale. The new consortium will implement an ambitious program of monitoring, experimental research, interdisciplinary training, student education, public outreach and use of findings to help guide policy and decision makers. "This project represents the kind of scientific research we need to protect our coasts and oceans for future generations," said Julie Packard, trustee and vice chairman of the Packard Foundation. "Now, more than ever, it's critical that we develop an integrated understanding of how coastal systems work. These are extraordinarily rich and productive ecosystems, and they're under siege from a host of human activities."

A major focus of the consortium's effort will be to study the interactions of fish, invertebrates and algae within marine communities and the dispersal of early life stages, along a 1,200 mile stretch of coastal waters from Oregon to southern California. PISCO will establish a coordinated monitoring network to track near-shore ecological patterns along the coast and provide vital information on topics ranging from zooplankton survival to collapsing fisheries, invading species, salmon declines, coastal planning and biological impacts of global warming.

"This is the first time such an extensive interdisciplinary effort has been undertaken to study the near-shore zone" said Bruce Menge, Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at OSU and one of OSU's two principal investigators on the project. "Before now, this zone, which extends out to 10 kilometers from the shore, has been inaccessible both to ocean-going research vessels and shore-bound ecologists." OSU's Jane Lubchenco, Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and the principal investigator leading the new consortium, said "the near-shore habitats are incredibly important because they are so rich in marine life, they fuel our coastal fisheries and because they are at risk from a broad spectrum of human activities."

"Whether you're talking about fisheries, invasive species, biodiversity or red tides, the near-shore is where the action is," Lubchenco said. "Moreover, using coastal systems wisely depends in part on understanding how they work."

The program will use sophisticated new biological monitoring devices deployed at 31 sites from the mouth of the Columbia River to near Los Angeles. They will provide detailed information about water temperatures, currents and the plethora of marine life forms, many of them tiny or even microscopic, which are found at varying depths.

These custom-built devices will use special collector traps and electronic instrumentation, all sampled regularly, to provide a detailed and previously nonexistent picture of the near-shore ecosystem along the Pacific Coast dominated by the California Current. Other measurements and scientific monitoring will be done at shore-based sites nearby.

Among the questions scientists hope to answer:


  • How do currents, upwelling and other physical ocean processes affect phytoplankton productivity, nutrient concentration and the communities of plants and animals that depend upon these factors?
  • How will marine communities respond to the changes in water temperature, currents, wave forces and salinity that may result from global climate change, and how quickly can they adapt?
  • How does ocean circulation affect the dispersal of marine life in its earliest larval stages?

With OSU in the north, UCSC and Stanford's Hopkins Marine Laboratory on the central coast and UCSB in southern California, PISCO researchers are well situated to investigate ecological interactions over the broad geographic area. In addition, the PISCO group encompasses diverse scientific expertise.

"To accomplish these goals," Menge said, "it is necessary to bring together a far greater range of scientists in different disciplines than is often done in smaller research projects. We have marine ecologists working with oceanographers, molecular biologists and experts in population genetics or computer modeling."

OSU, UCSC and UCSB will coordinate PISCO's ecological monitoring and experimental research programs and will provide new leadership in policy outreach. Stanford will coordinate laboratory research on biomechanical and physiological mechanisms and will develop an interdisciplinary training course in advanced scientific techniques. And when some of the data and findings begin to come in, Lubchenco said, special efforts will be made to ensure it finds its way off the shelf and into the public forum and political policy debates. Policy outreach is included in PISCO's plans so that the scientific knowledge gathered by the researchers is effectively communicated, and an annual symposium is planned as part of this effort.

"It's especially important that whatever we find be available to develop sound environmental and social policies," Lubchenco said. "Towards that goal, the consortium will work closely with natural resource policy makers, communicate with the general public through open forums and the news media, and get our scientists involved in sharing their findings."

The basic knowledge obtained through the new consortium, researchers say, could also play a key role in the development, placement and effective functioning of new marine biological reserves that are increasingly being discussed as one way to help conserve and protect marine biodiversity. In addition to Lubchenco and Menge, the principal investigators in the PISCO Consortium are Steven Gaines and Robert Warner of UCSB, Mark Carr and Peter Raimondi of UCSC and Mark Denny and George Somero of Stanford. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is a private family foundation established in 1964. It provides grants in several major program areas, including science, population, conservation, arts and children and community.

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Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337