NEWPORT — More than 150,000 tourists visit Newport’s Hatfield Marine Science Center each year, and they all want to see the octopus — though it’s often hiding in some obscure corner of its tank.

While the elusive sea creature may be the star attraction at Hatfield’s visitors center, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface at HMSC.

Established 50 years ago on a sandy spit jutting into Yaquina Bay, the Hatfield Marine Science Center is home base for Oregon State University’s far-flung ocean research enterprise as well as the hub for a cluster of state and federal agencies conducting marine research and resource management activities out of the busiest port on the central Oregon coast.

It’s also the focal point for an ambitious plan to create a satellite campus for up to 500 students and elevate OSU’s marine science program into a world leader in the field.

Still in the planning stages, the Marine Studies Initiative aims to build on OSU’s academic strengths in core areas such as oceanography, marine biology and fisheries management and integrate them with courses in a wide range of other fields.

“Very few institutions have the breadth and depth of expertise that we do and are positioned right on the edge of the ocean,” said OSU marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, a special adviser to the initiative who served four years as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and was recently named the first U.S. science envoy for the oceans. “That breadth and depth of disciplines positions us to do something no one else is doing.”

History of collaboration

Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center sits on 49 acres leased from the Port of Newport in the shadow of the Yaquina Bay Bridge. What started out as a fisheries lab in a single building has evolved into a complex of classrooms, laboratories, dorms, docks and auxiliary buildings. A dedicated water-handling system pipes up to 800,000 gallons of seawater each day into the center’s lab facilities, then treats the water before discharging it back into the bay.

OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, a world leader in whale research, is housed here, as is the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, which partners with industry to develop improved fishing and seafood processing methods. Two OSU research vessels, the Oceanus and the Elakha, tie up at the center’s docks.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has three labs at the center, and the agency’s Pacific fleet is based at Newport. Other agencies with facilities on the marine science campus include the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Aquatic Research Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Altogether, about 300 people work on the Hatfield site, and the mix of academic researchers, government scientists, and graduate and undergraduate students makes for some lively collaborations, according to center director Bob Cowen.

One example is the Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, run jointly by OSU and NOAA, but there are numerous other joint projects happening at any given time. Some of the agency scientists have courtesy appointments as OSU faculty, employ grad students as assistants and provide conduits for federal research funding.

“It’s highly interactive,” Cowen said.

Building the future

One of the goals of the Marine Studies Initiative is to take better advantage of the educational opportunities provided by all that research activity by constructing a new classroom building on the Hatfield site.

At present, the center has about 75 undergrad and graduate students in residence during the school year, a number that swells to around 100 during the summer months.

“That’s getting close to our capacity in terms of the housing we have available, the study spaces and opportunities within our laboratories,” Cowen said. “Our plan is to build out over a 10-year process to go from 100 students to 500 students, and we’re building a facility to support that.”

While the design is far from final, plans call for a 100,000-square-foot classroom and lab building. Half the money for the $50 million project is expected to come from state bonds, with the rest from private donations and grants. An anonymous donor has pledged $20 million toward construction costs if the OSU Foundation can match it through fundraising, with $5 million of the university match to go toward the building and the other $15 million for program development.

Cowen said the foundation has raised about $20 million to date and he hopes to have the university’s full share in hand before the Legislature votes on the bonds later this spring.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “We have about three months left (but) I’m staying awake a little more at night these days.”

Plans to expand the Newport campus hit a speed bump in December, when Oregon’s state geologist raised objections to the idea of constructing a classroom building at the Hatfield site, which is in a tsunami inundation zone. OSU officials responded that they already have an evacuation plan in place and that students would be housed off-campus, on higher ground.

OSU oceanography professor Jack Barth, who is teaming up with Cowen to lead the Marine Studies Initiative, said the university is acutely aware of the risks of building in the tsunami zone but is also in a position to manage those risks through smart design.

“We really want this to be a model of how you build a resilient building near the coast,” he said. “We really want to be driven by safety.”

However, there are no plans to site the new building anywhere but the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

“It’s a marine facility,” Barth pointed out. “That’s why we want to be near the ocean.”

Interdisciplinary approach

Expanding OSU’s presence in Newport is seen in part as a kind of safety valve for the university, which has taken criticism from Corvallis residents over livability issues exacerbated by a growing student population.

But the Corvallis campus itself is an integral part of the Marine Studies Initiative.

For one thing, most of the classroom instruction for OSU’s marine science programs already takes place there. For another, the campus houses a number of specialized facilities used in marine research, including the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, the Wallace Energy Systems and Renewables Facility, the Marine Geology Repository and the Ocean Observing Center, which gathers and analyzes data collected by OSU’s array of offshore buoys, fleet of undersea gliders and network of ocean-floor monitoring cables.

Faculty in Corvallis are also involved in the work being done at remote facilities such as the Oregon Hatchery Research Center near Alsea and the OSU Seafood Lab in Astoria.

“Oregon State is an amazing place for all these marine-related activities,” Barth said. “We’ve been doing it for 50 years, but we haven’t put it all together.”

More than 100 faculty members are involved in planning the curriculum for the Marine Studies Initiative, which will weave together courses from virtually all of OSU’s 12 colleges.

It’s essentially a two-strand approach. One involves building on OSU’s academic strengths to create degree programs in two or three scientific arenas where the university believes it can be a world leader. Among the programs under consideration are these:

• Ocean resources, which would include sustainable seafood production, renewable energy and pharmaceuticals from the sea.

• Healthy coastal communities, including sustainable fisheries, climate change adaptation and natural hazard resilience.

• Marine ecosystems, including the study of ocean acidification, low-oxygen “dead zones” and other threats to marine life.

The other strand would be the creation of an undergraduate degree in marine studies, something OSU officials say would be an academic first. The idea is to pair a solid foundation in the natural sciences with rigorous instruction in the social sciences or liberal arts.

It’s an interdisciplinary approach designed to equip students to work in a wide variety of fields within the marine environment, from business and engineering to communications and public policy.

“We’re going to train them in the language and knowledge of all those different disciplines so they have a more holistic understanding,” Cowen said. “We’ll be using that marine theme as the glue that ties all those together.”

Putting theory into practice

Bruce Mate knows firsthand what can be accomplished when scientists can communicate their findings to the right people.

Mate, director of the OSU Marine Mammal Institute at HMSC, pioneered the use of satellite tags for tracking whale movements. In the late 1980s, data from his research showed a strong correlation between right whale deaths and commercial shipping patterns in North Atlantic waters off the Canadian coast.

“Fifty percent of the dead right whales in the Bay of Fundy were being killed by vehicle collisions,” he recalled. “Ships basically doubled the mortality rate.”

But Mate’s data also suggested a simple solution to the problem.

“Just moving a shipping lane four miles could reduce the probability of collision by 80 percent,” he said. “We showed that information to the shipping industry, and they took that up as their own cause. Within a year they had that changed.”

Here in Oregon, industry is already paying attention to OSU’s marine studies plans.

Clackamas-based Pacific Seafood, a vertically integrated company with its own fishing, processing and distribution operations, has a history of working with the OSU Seafood Lab and Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station and is considering the possibility of creating some internships with the Marine Studies Initiative.

Dan Occhipinti, the company’s general counsel, cautioned that those discussions are still in the preliminary stages. But he also said the company sees great potential value in combining a marine science background with a broad education in business or related fields.

“My gut reaction is yes, we would look favorably on that kind of experience and education,” Occhipinti said.

“It seems to us that OSU’s in a unique position to be able to blend that.”

By Bennett Hall, Corvallis Gazette-Times