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Experts Working To Identify 'Living Cargo' On Tsunami Dock

OPB | June 27, 2012 8:21 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:01 a.m.

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Gov. John Kitzhaber is expected to name General Mike Caldwell to lead the Oregon Tsunami Debris Task Force Thursday. Caldwell is director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management.

Meanwhile, experts at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center are studying the Japanese dock that washed ashore on Agate Beach. It also carried enough living cargo to keep marine scientists busy for decades.

Courtesy: Hatfield Marine Science Center

Scientists say they have discovered a complete sub-tidal community of Asian species living on the dock.

OPB’s EarthFix reporter Bonnie Stewart talked to OSU marine ecologist Jessica Miller. Miller and other scientists have been trying to identify more than 50 species stored in a subzero freezer.

They’ve shipped some samples to scientists around the country and in Canada.

“Sea squirts or tunicates, a group called ascidians, we sent some samples out to an expert, and then Gayle Hansen, here at OSU who works with a Japanese colleague, she’s been sorting her way through the algal species,” Miller said.

She thinks an invasive brown alga might try to settle in the Pacific Northwest.

“The Undaria would probably be the one where you would might estimate would have the highest chance of causing some problems in this region, because there were lots of individuals on the outside of the dock and they were, according to experts, were releasing spores,” she said.

Identifying what was onboard is just the first step. Scientists want to know what might happen next.

“For the species that had to have come from the coastal waters of Japan and survived the whole 14-month journey over here if we could learn more about their growth rates and maybe what water masses they were in, we can get a better handle which species are most likely to invade and better understand the dispersal possibilities,” she explained.

Scientists know that the Japanese dock had been in the water since 2008. That tells them how old some of the species might have been before the tsunami sent them across the Pacific.

It is that journey that intrigues Miller. She has researched the migration, dispersal and movement of fishes. She wants to apply that science to the mussels and other shelled species that latched onto the dock in Japan.

“I use the ear bone, which is a calcium-carbonate structure in their head where you can track their moving and migration with the structure and chemical composition of that and you can do similar work with shells,” Miller said.

Over the next weeks and months, Miller will be among those sifting through the sea life they’ve been keeping on ice.

Find more on this and other environmental stories at EarthFix.

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