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Searching for Contaminants in Oregon's Coastal Waters
Searching for Contaminants in Oregon's Coastal Waters

Oregon's rugged and scenic coast is roughly 362 miles long, much of which, unlike those of our neighbors, California and Washington, is sparsely developed. With just over 650,000 residents, coastal communities account for only a fraction of the state’s population. Nevertheless, these communities contribute hundreds of millions to the state economy annually through industries including tourism, timber, agriculture, and commercial fishing. For many towns and cities on or near the shore, marine environments such as estuaries and the shallow waters extending a few miles out into the Pacific are engines for economic and social well-being.

The health of marine ecosystems is critical to the viability and vitality of the state’s commercial and recreational fisheries. Evidence suggesting direct correlations between human activities and the health of those ecosystems is mounting, causing researchers, resource managers, and policymakers alike to ask how land-based contaminants affect coastal and estuarine waters and the organisms living within them. Portland State University marine ecologist, Dr. Elise Granek is one of the scientists investigating how contaminants impact critical aquatic species along Oregon’s coastline.

Granek, a professor of environmental science in PSU’s Department of Environmental Science and Management and a fellow in the university’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, studies the transition zones between land and sea. Her research focuses on factors including organism movement, nutrient flow, and human disturbances of life in marine ecosystems. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), and the Oregon Sea Grant have all supported studies led by Granek. Findings from Granek’s Applied Coastal Ecology Lab on topics such as the effects of contaminants like microplastics, pharmaceuticals, and caffeine on oysters, clams, and crabs have made headlines in media outlets from local news stations to the New York Post and National Geographic.

“Our research seeks to understand how land-based sources of contamination affect organisms and community interactions in nearshore environments along the Oregon coast,” Granek said. To do so, Granek, along with collaborators and the students she mentors, scours the shoreline and estuaries from Brookings to Fort Stevens and beyond to identify contaminants and conduct laboratory experiments to study how the introduction of pollutants into these ecosystems affect aquatic species and interspecies interactions.

Granek’s work supports the resource managers and policymakers overseeing Oregon’s nearshore marine environments. One of the mechanisms that make this kind of partnership possible is the Oregon Sea Grant, a program managed by Oregon State University and funded by NOAA and the state. Backed by Sea Grant funds, Granek and her research team are investigating microplastic contamination and the biouptake of chemicals used in forestry management practices in species critical to Oregon’s commercial and recreational fisheries.

The question of microplastics

Humans produce approximately 300 million tons of plastic a year. Annually, we dump more than eight million tons of plastic into the oceans. If you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or seen the tragic photographs of marine animals with stomachs full of debris, you’re likely aware of the problem of plastic contamination in the world’s oceans. Plastic contaminants, however, are not limited to the bags, bottles, six-pack rings, polystyrene containers, and derelict fishing nets we typically see in the media. Rather, this pernicious contamination is present in all shapes and sizes, from the very large to the very small. Microplastics are the smallest among them (<5mm), and scientists find them everywhere they go looking.

Microplastics come in a variety of forms, but they originate from a single source: human activity. Microbeads used in cosmetics and personal care products, industrial scrubbers, resin pellets used for manufacturing plastic products, degraded fragments of larger plastic waste, and microfibers from clothing and fishing gear all contribute to microplastic contamination. 

As researchers from around the world began sharing the results of studies suggesting the omnipresence of microplastics, media outlets like the Guardian started taking note. Over the past few years, there’s been no shortage of stories with disconcerting headlines such as: “Single clothes wash may release 700,000 microplastic fibers, study finds,” “Plastic fibers found in tap water around the world,” and “Fish for dinner? Your seafood might come with a side of plastic.”

Ph.D. student Britta Beachler studies microplastic contamination in the labWith microplastics making news around the world, the questions concerning these materials began garnering attention at the federal and state levels here in the U.S., and abroad. In 2015, Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act. In Oregon, environmental managers and policymakers recently drafted a list of top priorities for marine debris research. Despite all the attention, the study of microplastics in the environment is as yet an emerging field, according to Granek and second-year Ph.D. student Britta Baechler. The two are working on a Sea-Grant-funded study of microplastic contamination in two species critical to Oregon’s commercial and recreational fisheries: razor clams and Pacific oysters. The study is a collaboration with ODFW and will provide a baseline for microplastic concentrations in the edible tissues of these culturally and economically significant species.

“It seems that, wherever we look, we’re finding microplastics,” Granek said. “This study will help us begin to establish the extent to which these species are ingesting microplastics and provide some context as to how Oregon fares with regards to contamination when compared to our neighbors with more developed coastlines.”

In the Applied Coastal Ecology Lab, Baechler’s research focuses on quantifying microplastic contamination levels in Oregon bivalves harvested for commercial or recreational purposes. Baechler visits beaches and estuaries along the shore, fifteen in all, collecting samples of Pacific oysters and razor clams. Back in the lab, the samples are shucked and their edible tissues dissolved in a chemical bath. The remaining inorganic materials are examined under a microscope to determine the presence, type, and concentration of microplastics in the sample. According to Baechler, early results suggest microfiber contamination is present up and down the coast.

“This study will shed light on contaminant levels, the distribution of microplastics, and whether contamination affects reproduction, growth, or the fitness of these organisms, all of which will inform policymakers tasked with determining whether this is an ecological issue that the state needs to act on,” Baechler said.

Environmental Science and Management professor Elise Granek discusses microplastic contamination in shellfish at the Oregon Sea Grant coferenceWe know researchers have found microplastic contamination in coastal sediments around the world, and that evidence suggests a strong relationship between population density, effluent flows, and the prevalence of microplastics—particularly microfibers, associated with clothing and textiles. As reported by the Guardian, each time we do a load of laundry, we’re potentially creating hundreds of thousands of microfibers. These materials, which are not regulated, are often released into the environment in effluent flows from water treatment facilities. Mounting evidence suggests that aquatic species, including those harvested commercially and recreationally, are either directly or indirectly ingesting these pollutants. The research Granek and Baechler are undertaking, along with similar studies underway in the Applied Coastal Ecology Lab, will provide critical information on the presence and potential sources of microplastic contamination in species living in Oregon’s coastal waters and their effects on the health of the organisms that ingest them. Watch a video about this project at

The downstream factor

The impact of human activities on Oregon’s nearshore and estuarine ecosystems is not limited to microplastic contamination. Far from it. With support from the Sea Grant program, Granek, along with fellow Environmental Science and Management faculty member, Dr. Max Nielsen-Pincus, and graduate student Kegan Scully-Engelmeyer are studying whether there is a connection between forest management practices and estuarine systems by analyzing the bioaccumulation of forest-use chemicals in tissues of soft-shell clams and Pacific oysters.

The Wilson River in Oregon's Tillamook State ForestOregon’s forests are either publicly or privately owned. Public lands are those held by the federal and state governments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northwest Forest Plan dictates management practices in federally controlled forests, while the Oregon Forest Practices Act governs management on state- and privately-owned lands. The two management regimes, however, differ in some ways, including the size of buffer zones required between timber available for harvest and rivers, streams, and wetlands, aerial spraying, and the types of pesticides and herbicides allowable for forest management practices. Aerial spraying and certain herbicides and pesticides, for example, are prohibited on federal forest lands, while they are permissible on state- and privately-owned forests. Also, whereas federal lands require buffers between 80 and 150 meters, state law stipulates a 30-meter zone between harvestable lumber and rivers, streams, and wetlands. Differences such as these could affect water quality in watersheds, which, in turn, could impact aquatic species living downstream of Oregon’s coastal forests.

“We have watersheds in the Coast Range in Oregon that flow through forests managed under different regimes,” Granek said. “Those waters eventually make their way to estuaries where shellfish are harvested commercially and recreationally. The question we’re asking is: does the management plan governing forests on lands upstream affect bivalves living in these waters?”

Using Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping data, the team will locate coastal watersheds, and identify ownership, and thus management practices, of land through which the watersheds flow. Then they’ll collect samples of soft-shell clams and Pacific oysters downstream. Back in the lab, the research team will analyze the specimens looking for chemical uptake. The analysis will help them determine whether concentrations of forest-use chemicals such as pesticide and herbicides are present and if they differ between samples collected downstream of primarily federal- or state-governed lands. Additionally, Granek and her team will investigate whether chemical-loading affects the growth and reproductive health of the clams and oysters.

Oregon Sea GrantThe project will provide forest and marine managers in Oregon critical information and bring together an advisory group of public and private stakeholders who will contribute by offering input and help distribute findings. The team has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, the US Geological Survey, ODFW, and the Oregon Departments of Land Conservation and Environmental Quality, as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians and the National Policy Consensus Center to complete the work. According to Granek, building on this research, future studies could explore the potential for health risks associated with human consumption of shellfish downstream from forests managed under either of the regimes.

“This study could have a major impact on policy,” Granek said. “If we find significant differences in contamination levels, that may shape the future of forest management policies here in Oregon.”

Human activities, no matter where they occur on land, whether they be abstract, such as setting policy, or as mundane as washing a load of laundry, have direct effects on the health and well-being of marine ecosystems that support coastal communities and the state at large. Understanding the relationships between what we do on land and the state’s nearshore and estuarine environments is imperative. Acting upon that information both from a regulatory and policy standpoint and as residents of Oregon concerned with preserving the environmental quality of coastal waters is essential to sustaining the beauty, biodiversity, and bounty of these waters for generations to come.

By Shaun McGillis, Research & Strategic Partnerships

Images: Britta Baechler, a master's student at Portland State University, looks for razor clams at Clatsop Beach. Britta Baechler magnifies fibers from clothing with a microscope. Elise Granek, a professor at Portland State University, talks about her lab's research on microplastics and shellfish during Oregon Sea Grant's 2017 State of the Coast conference. Photos by Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant. Bottom Image: Oregon's Wilson River in the Tillamook State Forest.