Tag Archives: Fisheries

Researcher Profile: Selina Heppell

What do sea turtles, sharks, sturgeon, and rockfish all have in common? Dr. Selina Heppell, marine fisheries ecologist and a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, would tell you that these marine creatures all have long lifespans, mature at a late age, and are threatened by over-harvest and habitat loss (the typical story of a top predator). COASST Intern, An Huynh, had the opportunity to ask Selina some questions about her research.

Heppell uses computer models and simulations (i.e. some pretty complex math) to assess how their populations change in response to environmental factors and applies those results to aid conservation and management decisions. Her passion for marine biology takes Heppell all over the world: to teach conservation of biodiversity in the sea in Iceland, help international partners develop sustainable fisheries policies in the Mediterranean, work with high school teachers in Mississippi.

Selina Heppell explains her dissection of a Humboldt squid to a group of students on the coast.

Selina explains her dissection of a Humboldt squid to a group of students on the Oregon coast.


me on 2 computers

How many computers does it take? In this case, two. A lot of Heppell’s research is done using models and simulations to assess how marine populations change in response to environmental factors.

A native to the Pacific Northwest, Selina dove into marine biology early, as a volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium when she was only 12. Her sense of wonder and amazement continues, “I love to tell people about cool stuff in the ocean.” So what’s the coolest thing she’s learned? “Sea turtles have finger-like projections in their throats to help them retain and swallow food while spitting the water back out. Unfortunately, it also means that that they can’t throw up very easily – whatever goes in has to pass all the way through. This is one reason why plastic bags and balloons are a big problem for them!” As COASST expands into marine debris, we’re lucky to have Selina’s expertise on our advisory board, as we examine which characteristics make certain debris harmful to specific marine species/species groups.

Even if you eliminated the marine debris threat, Sea turtles aren’t “out of the woods,” so to speak. Marine turtle populations are also highly sensitive to bycatch, or unintended fisheries take. Although protective measures have been put into place to mitigate bycatch effects (e.g. modifying trawl nets with “turtle excluder devices“), it still takes a long time to see a response in sea turtle populations. Due to this delayed response time, there are growing efforts to monitor sea turtles in the ocean instead of just protecting them on the beaches where they nest.

Heppell measures a sea turtle in the field.

Measuring a sea turtle in the field – carapace length.

Besides her field/at-sea time, as a professor, Selina spends a bunch of time with graduate and undergraduate students at Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Does all the field “work” in her lab involve snorkeling at tropical locales? Selina reminds our youngest COASSTers that the road to becoming a marine scientist is hard work: “it’s a discipline that relies on rigorous data collection and evaluation of evidence.” (COASSTers have some familiarity with the difficulty of evaluating evidence, on a small scale, using the keys, measurements and photos in the Beached Birds guide). Far from a “Discovery Channel degree,” prospective students “need to be dedicated to learning the scientific method and how to contribute data and results to conservation problems objectively,” adds Selina.

Beyond the typical classroom, Heppell sees value in any projects that boost public awareness in conservation biology and marine ecosystems, “COASST is particularly valuable because it gets people thinking about what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘not so natural’ and how systems change through time over very large areas.” After many years of involving and engaging the public through lectures, teacher workshops and citizen science programs, for Selina the benefit to marine conservation efforts is two-fold, “getting people to think about connections in nature can help marine conservation indirectly, and/or directly through political action or contributions to conservation and science efforts.”

selina teaching teachers 3 ketchum

Selina Heppell speaks to a group of teachers about marine policy at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.



New Footprints – Sean Rohan


Sean took this photo of a beached Snow Goose on Nunivak Island during a NOAA groundfish survey of the Eastern Bering Sea Shelf in June 2011. Once a COASSTer, always a COASSTer!

What paths do interns take once their time at COASST comes to an end? As part of our “New Footprints” series, we caught up with one of our past interns, Sean Rohan, and asked him what he’s been up to.

“After finishing my internship at COASST and graduating from UW, I had a short stint at Wild Fish Conservancy. I conducted snorkel surveys in support of a project monitoring anadromous fish passage above the Leavenworth, WA hatchery on Icicle Creek,” Sean mentions.

In October of 2010, he was hired to be a stomach analyst in the Food Habits Lab at Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle for NOAA-Fisheries.

Sean spends 10 months out of the year “nose to the lab bench” identifying the stomach contents of numerous Alaskan groundfish species (Walleye Pollock, Pacific Cod, Atka Makerel, Sabelfish, Halibut, Lingcod). He’s given the task of creating new taxonomic identification protocols for the stomach contents, similar to how COASSTers use Beached Birds to identify finds that aren’t in the best shape. As you might expect, intact prey items are a rare find, halfway digested in the stomach of a cod!

When summer arrives, he spends 2 months at sea participating in annual/biennial groundfish surveys. He’s been to the Bering Sea twice and the Gulf of Alaska once throughout his time with NOAA so far. He says the biggest perk of going out to sea every summer is the ability to see live seabirds for a change!

Visitors to the Food Habits Lab often ask, “what’s the strangest thing you’ve found in the stomach of a fish?” Sean replies, “the strangest thing I’ve ever found was a murre foot in a Pacific Cod stomach, which I stumbled across during my first month on the job.”  He recognized it immediately thanks to his years at COASST. “For better or for worse, it seems dead birds just won’t leave me alone!” It is the only one found in the 30-year history of the program’s data set (from 150,000+ stomachs). “Fortunately, that at least suggests that Pacific Cod aren’t regularly feeding on murres.”

And the best part of his new job? “I have an opportunity to see the cogs of the ecosystem turning in front of me everyday,” says Sean, “pretty cool.”

New Footprints – Lindsey Nelson

Meet graduated COASST intern Lindsey Nelson, who spent nearly 600 hours in the COASST office from 2010-2012 as a Student Intern and later, Senior Intern.  After leaving COASST, she went north, WAY north, to work as a Fishery Observer in Alaska.

Lindsey, on the bow  of a fishing boat covered in ice in Alaska

Lindsey, on the bow of a boat covered in ice. You go, girl!

What does that entail? After completion of the three week training program (and passing a pretty grueling fish identification test), Lindsey’s job is all about “collecting data on catch estimates, species composition, prohibited species, bycatch (non-target catch), locations and dates and times, which is then assessed by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.”  Lindsey’s work helps NOAA establish regulations and optimum yields for Alaska groundfish (Pacific Cod, Sabelfish, Lingcod, Walleye Pollock, Atka Mackerel, to name a few) .

The day-to-day varies a little, as fishing only occurs two to four days a week.  The other days are spent either travelling or offloading.  During a fishing haul, she’s responsible for collecting samples of the catch and identifying, counting, and weighing all species, as well as special procedures for dealing with birds, mammals, sharks, prohibited species, and tagged animals.  She also monitors levels of bycatch and notes the delivery weights during offloading.

Lindsey collects samples in these baskets and performs her data collecting at this station.

Ah, the scenic data collection station: fish collection baskets, waterproof notesheets.

What the...!  Lindsey found this lumpsucker in one of her samples!

“One of the ugliest cute things I’ve seen,” says Lindsey, holding a Smooth Lumpsucker (and she would know!).

So is it all work and no play? Lindsey says “the crew was friendly and helpful whenever I need their assistance, and we’ve become good friends, even back home in Seattle.”  And the seasonal nature of her job allows her to travel, and check a few things off the list, “moose, glaciers, salmon, native performances, snow-covered peaks right next to the shore. You know… all the essentials.”

Alaska may be cold, but it's darn beautiful.  These are fishing boats like the ones Lindsey works on in Dutch Harbor, AK.

Cold and beautiful. Fishing boats in Dutch Harbor, AK.

Fisheries and Seabird Mortality

A new study has come out detailing the effects of gillnet fishing on bird populations.  Gillnets, which are designed to trap fish by the gills, will also catch birds. Eyewitness reports are one of the main ways gillnet caused seabird mortality is analyzed. Now a Canadian research team is taking a new approach to analyzing the affects of this type of fishing.

On the east coast of Canada, most fisheries were shut down in 1992 when the stocks collapsed.  This gave ecologists a perfect location to study the effects of gillnetting on the populations of murres and gannets, diving birds often caught in these nets. They compared the population trends between 1968 and 2012 with data on gillnet use between 1987 and 2012, and found that the murre and gannet populations have increased after the decline of commercial fisheries in Canada. This study provides evidence to support the theory that net fishing is harming seabird populations.

Due to the results of this study, the ecologists are suggesting a switch from gillnet fishing to pot-trap fishing for the remainder of Canada’s fisheries.  Pot traps, which allow fish to swim in but not out, are harmless to birds.  In addition, they are recommending Canada establish more marine protected areas in which all commercial fishing is banned.

Read more about this research here.


Using the Bones of Seabirds to Study Commercial Fishing

Scientists have found a new way to assess the impact of large-scale commercial fishing; by studying the bones of open-ocean predatory birds like the Hawaiian petrel. Researchers at Michigan State University and the Smithsonian institute have analyzed the bones of both ancient and recent petrels to determine their diet. This works because what they eat is recorded in the chemistry of their bones. Specifically, scientists can analyze the ratio of nitrogen-15 and nitrogen-14 isotopes and determine whether or not their prey is high or low on the food chain. In general, a larger ratio indicates larger prey higher on the food chain.

Picture of the Hawaiian Petrel

Bones of endangered Hawaiian petrels are helping scientists analyze the impacts of commercial fishing on open-ocean food webs. Photo: National Park Service

What they have found is a little alarming, especially for an endangered bird like the Hawaiian petrel.  Between 4,000 and 100 years ago, the isotope ratio was high, meaning the petrels had been eating animals higher up on the food chain. Then in the 1950s, the ratios started to decline suggesting that the petrels shifted to smaller prey lower on the food chain. This shift corresponds with the boom of industrial fishing. It appears that human activity may have caused a decline in animals high on the food chain leading to a large-scale shift in open-ocean food webs.

Petrels act as a canary in a coal mine for open-ocean food webs because they forage from the equator to near the Aleutian Islands. We don’t yet know how this shift in diet will affect them, nor how other predators are responding to changing food webs. What we do know, is that the choices we make as consumers–such as what fish we choose to put on our dinner plate–affect our entire marine ecosystem.

Read more about this study here.