“It’s about being really committed. I tell students who are not any smarter than their peers that this takes hard work . . . to work on one question for five to seven years.” — Sarah Henkel
One never knows the waters a science-based article will dip into when a writer features one of OSU-Hatfield’s multidisciplinary researchers. Scientists look at very focused questions while naturalists and generalist ecologists look at systems from a broader range, but that interplay is less friction than analysis. As a journalist, my job is to dig deep and find those connections.
For Sarah Henkel, looking at how human-made structures affect what happens at the bottom of the sea is both fascinating and important to all human-activities in and around marine systems.
However, one scientist’s invasive is another scientist’s opportunistic species. She’s got cred in the study of the benthic zone (what’s happening on the ocean’s bottom) and wave energy.
In her office at Hatfield, Sarah and I recognize that the world of ecology is evolving due to innovative research and new questions scientists and policy makers are no longer afraid to ask.
She’s not atypical – a smart scientist who is open to fielding a wide-range of inquiries.
Because of the heavy footprint humans have put upon the environment in the form of cutting down entire forests and jungles, as well as geo-engineering the planet through fossil fuel burning and all the chemicals released in industrial processes, newer challenges to both our species’ and other species’ survival end up in the brains and labs of scientists.
To say science is changing rapidly is an understatement.
One Floating Piece of Debris Can Change an Entire Coast
Henkel wonders what the effects of one pilon, one mooring anchor and one attached buoy have on ecologies from the sea floor, upward.
The ocean, once considered immune to humanity’s despoilments, is as far as its chemical composition and ecological processes fragile with just the right forcers. HMSC is lucky to have dedicated thinkers like Sarah Henkel working on questions regarding not only this part of the world, but globally.
Students working with Sarah gain from the knowledge she’s accumulated in her transition from inland girl growing up in Roanoke, Virginia, where creeks, deciduous forest and terrestrial animals enchanted her and her sibling, to marine scientist in Oregon.
“Ever since I was around three, I knew I was going to be a marine biologist,” she says while we talk in her office at Hatfield. When a child, she visited a “touch tank” at a museum near her home and was completely fascinated with the horseshoe crabs.
Posters of benthic megaflora – seaweed and eel grass – adorn her office walls at HMSC. We’re talking about kelps like bull whip, feather boa, deadman’s finger, witch’s hair, studded sea balloons and Turkish towel displayed on posters.
Symbiosis, Cooperation, Opportunism, Invasiveness? That is the Question.
While we talk about kelp/seaweed, she shifts to invasive species like Undaria pinnatifida which hitched onto debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. More than a dozen species on a worldwide list of invasive species were on broken dock moorings that washed up near Newport. Three—Undaria pinnatifida, Codium fragile, and Grateloupia turuturu— are particularly hazardous.
Some of Henkel’s work looks at one gene expression, say, in Egregia menziesii, to uncover how the species responds to various conditions. Some big issues dovetail to Undaria pinnatifida playing havoc in Australia and New Zealand.
Her fundamental question is how can certain invasive species establish niches in very different waters from where they evolved. Looking at temperature and salinity tolerances as well as desiccation limits of species helps cities, states and countries manage opportunistic invasives that not only thrive in new places, but push out endemic species.
East Coast-West Coast — Transplantation
Henkel’s a transplant herself, from Virginia, with a science degree from the College of William and Mary. She tells me that she was lucky to have gotten into a gifted and talented high school program where she attended half a day every morning, then getting bused back to her home school in the afternoon — for three years.
“It [Virginia Governor’s School] was set up like a college, with professors and curriculum more like college-level courses.”
She then transplanted herself to California State University--Fullerton in 2000 to work on a master’s degree. Then, further north, to UC-Santa Barbara for a doctorate in marine sciences.
The final thrust northward was in 2009, to OSU, where she has been ever since.
We laugh at the idea of humans also being an invasive or transplanted species: She brings up a place like San Francisco Bay which is considered by scientists as a "global zoo" of invasive species with as many as 500 plants and animals from foreign shores taking hold in Frisco’s marine waters.
“Scientists think there are more invasives in San Francisco Bay than there are native species.”
She, her husband Wil, and their six-year-old live in Toledo because, as she says, “there’s no marine layer to contend with and Toledo has a summer up there.” Mountain biking is what the family of three enjoy – from Alsea Falls, to Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Hood.
The Young Woman and the Sea: Part II
“The biggest issue facing wind and wave energy developers in the environmental arena is the high level of uncertainty regarding environmental effects. Without a substantial understanding of the natural dynamics of a system, it will be difficult to reduce that uncertainty.” – Sarah Henkel
After her Ph.D, from UC-Santa Barbara, Sarah sent out more than a dozen applications for professorships and research positions to universities.
What got her into the OSU family was her work at a California-based trust looking at decommissioning offshore oil platforms.
“What sorts of animals are living on platforms?” she said. “Do you cut them off at the top to allow navigation and then preserve whatever’s grown on it?”
Artificial reefs are attractive in increasing species like corals, sponges, fish and crustacean, but she emphasized that’s mostly done in tropical locations. Henkel says she was a strong candidate for OSU because of the school’s work on the effects of wave energy equipment and lines on the ecosystem up here off Newport.
The marriage between Henkel’s knowledge of benthic ecosystems and the need to understand not only what the moorings of wave energy machines do to fauna like boney fish, crabs and other species, but also what happens to the mechanisms that are immersed in water as they capture the wave energy was perfect for OSU.
She points out wind turbines also have anchoring systems and superstructures; however, the actual energy-capturing mechanisms are high in the air compared to wave energy devices.
Wave Energy, Blue Energy – No Slam Dunk
“The industry recognizes the value of looking like they are being good environmental stewards,” she says, pointing out her ecological expertise melds well with the industry’s ideal of sustainable, renewable clean energy.
Her role with the Pacific Marine Energy Center is to coordinate all the science concerned with the ecological effects of wind energy – both the siting, building and operation of any wave energy array.
OSU is looking at wave energy while the other members of PMEC are studying tidal energy (University of Washington) and river energy (University of Alaska).
The idea of studying sediment changes caused by anchors and structures located on the ocean floor – at the grain size level – might not be considered “sexy” when one thinks of marine biology; however, for Henkel the benthos zone is where it’s at.
“The classic question for artificial reefs is attraction versus production: Can there be more fish overall with this additional habitat, or is that artificial habitat attracting fish away from natural reefs?”
The permitting process for the wave energy site off Newport has been both Byzantine and slow, and it’s ironic that in her 10 years at OSU, Henkel has not had any opportunity to do the field observations and data collecting she was hired to head up. In that decade, Henkel said a third-scale wave energy device was put into the ocean out here for seven weeks.
Henkel is not stuck in limbo, however, since she is conducting research into other aspects of the benthic region with far-reaching implications for our coastal economy.
Crabs on the Move
When we think of the Dungeness crab, most realize it’s Oregon’s leading commercial seafood product; it brought in an estimated $75 million in 2018. Henkel posed a question that many crabbers have had in their minds for years: How far will crabs travel in search of food?
In 2018, Henkel and a colleague from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration superglued acoustic tags onto legal-sized Dungeness crabs near the mouth of the Columbia River and off Cape Falcon.
Acoustic receivers helped the team learn the frequency and distance crabs moved in rocky versus sandy habitat – data that, again, will help understand possible impacts of wave energy testing on marine reserves.
Those 10 tagged crabs in sandy environs near the Columbia left the region within a week; the transmitters, at a price of $300 each, went with them.
Most know that crabbers prefer sandy areas for their pots because of fewer entanglements compared to rocky bottoms.
“It’s interesting because I’ve done a lot of sampling of benthic habitat and there just isn’t a lot of food down there,” Henkel told Mark Floyd of OSU. “There’s usually only very small worms and clams, yet there’s an enormous crab harvest each year and most of that is from sandy-bottomed regions.”
Good science means marching on, so another 20 crabs were tagged and then dropped in waters near Cape Falcon, a rocky benthic zone. Her findings were surprising: “Four of those crabs left the region right away, while the other 16 stayed an average of 25.5 days. One stayed for 117 days.”
“Even though it’s a small sample size, it’s clear that habitat can influence crab movement,” Henkel told Floyd. “The crabs in the rocky areas had more to eat, but they often also have mossy bellies, which may not be as desirable commercially. Commercial crabbers like to target migrating crabs in sandy areas that tend to have smooth bellies.”
Chemical Outflows Studied
Other interesting projects Henkel has been involved with include a 2012 study of marine species living in Newport waters to see if the Georgia-Pacific containerboard plant outfall pipe, located 4,000 feet off Nye Beach, might be exposing some marine life to contaminants.
In fact, it was the City of Newport that requested OSU researchers look at a variety of species, including flatfish (speckled sand dab), crustaceans (Dungeness crab and Crangon shrimp), and mollusks (mussels and olive snails) because they might be bioaccumulating metals and organic pollutants at different rates.
Henkel and colleague, Scott Heppell, professor at OSU in Fisheries and Wildlife and co-investigator on the project, found contamination of those species was not at levels of concern.
"There was some concern that metals and organic pollutants may be bioaccumulating in nearby marine life,” Henkel said. “We tested for 137 different chemicals and only detected 38 of them — none at levels that remotely approach concern for humans."
New Student Archetypes
We discuss what characteristics current science students possess compared to when she was a young undergraduate science major in the late 1990s. “We see a lot more students who want their science to matter . . . they want to be studying things that will improve society.”
This social awareness also has created more collaborative and supportive learning environments, she stresses. “When I was a student, we had the attitude that we didn’t want anyone to see our data until we publish it.”
Now, she emphasizes, there is so much data coming in from all angles; for instance, one project can get 1,000 photos a minute just of one marine species in its habitat. Part of the sharing may stem too from being more socially conscious and concerned than the cohorts for Henkel when she first started school.
Other concerns are tied to this recent shift in administrations – from Obama to Trump. There was a lot of support for renewables under previous administrations, but now under Trump so much is up in the air for scientists working on research projects tagged as “climate change” or “renewable energy,” even those research projects around species protection.
Sarah has completed two large grants focused on offshore renewable energy managed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, but the potential for future studies are uncertain with a return to federal investment in oil and gas.
The Scientist’s Toolbox — Adaptation
To adapt, Sarah says, wave energy research is now looking at developing, promoting and deploying small machines near navigational buoys and aquaculture operations, where batteries die in six months; in the case of aquaculture, automatic feeding machines run on batteries, but with a wave-energy generating device supplying constant power, there would be no gap in the power.
On top of that, thousands of research and navigational buoys in our oceans have batteries that need constant replacing and disposal. Wave energy at the sites would be a constant energy source and reduce waste from battery disposal.
Making lemonade (new breakthroughs in blue energy) out of lemons (subsidies and tax breaks in the billions for the oil industry but none for blue energy) is also part of the scientist’s philosophy.
Sarah’s big takeaway when talking about the power of the Hatfield campus is that students get to work with other agencies and collaborate on real projects. “Not many students can be destined for a job in the Ivory Tower,” she said. Seeing other scientists from other agencies in different roles gives students at HMSC so many more avenues for career paths.
Henkel might be a sea floor expert, but she still knows that looking at how seabirds react to and interact with wind turbines and wave energy fields is important, as is studying the electromagnetic frequency fields created by blue energy generation.
She’s on a mission to get down to the granular level of things, but in the end, each little piece of the puzzle is hitched to the big thing, called the ocean.
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”