NEWPORT - Oregon State University is launching a research vessel this month (August) honoring Native American tradition and Oregon's natural environment while focusing on current ocean ecology.

The 54-foot Elakha will be based at the university's Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport and operated by OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

While the Elakha will be available for a wide variety of projects, the vessel's focus will be assisting OSU researchers Bruce Menge and Jane Lubchenco in studies of Oregon coastal marine systems. Menge and Lubchenco are the university's Wayne and Gladys V alley Professors of Marine Biology and Lubchenco is an OSU Distinguished Professor of Zoology.

The researchers are part of the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans: A Long-Term Ecological Consortium (PISCO), which brings together researchers from OSU, Stanford University, University of California at Santa Cruz and University of California at Santa Barbara. A major focus of the consortium is the study of linkages between the fish, invertebrates and algae within marine communities and near-shore oceanographic conditions along Oregon and California coasts. A key question is to d etermine where the early life stages come from and where they go, researchers said.

The Elakha, which cost about $500,000, will replace OSU's Sacajawea research vessel, which has been in use since 1969. Funding came as part of an $18 million grant by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which helped establish the PISCO program. Addit ional funds were provided by the university's Research Office and by the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

"This new vessel will be larger, faster, stabler, safer and will dramatically enhance ecological and oceanographic research capabilities in the near-shore ocean," Menge said. "It will open new vistas for OSU, both in research and instruction."

The Elakha will have a laboratory area, berthing for four, and a small galley, said Fred Jones, marine superintendent for the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

Scientific capabilities include a 2,000-pound capacity A-frame and winch, and a flow-through water sampling system. The Elakha, powered by a single, 600-horsepower diesel engine, will have a range of about 575 miles. Endurance will be a maximum of 72 hour s, Jones said.

"We expect to use it primarily out of Newport with a range along the Oregon coast, including the Columbia River and other Oregon estuaries, as well as offshore to about 30 nautical miles (35 statute miles)."

Elakha is the Chinook trading language word for sea otter. The name was selected after talks with researchers and representatives of area Native Americans. Chinook trading language is a mixture of sounds and phrases used to ease trade among Northwest trib es not sharing a common language.

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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Brent Dalrymple, 541-737-3504