WSG News Blog

How COVID-19 is Impacting Washington Sea Grant Research Efforts

July 20, 2020

By James Lee, Science Communications Fellow

As Washington State slowly reopens, the COVID-19 outbreak continues to impact people in nearly every line of work. Washington Sea Grant has been responding with support to communities and industries around the state. But what about the community of researchers whose work we fund?

According to WSG Director Russell Callender, a conservative estimate by Sea Grant’s national office indicates there is a $15 million impact on student support across Sea Grant programs nationally. In Washington State, Sea Grant funds roughly $1 million worth of research every year. But field- and lab-based scientific work has been significantly curtailed or remains on hold, which may impact students’ abilities to finish their degrees.

Dr. Jacqueline Padilla-Gamiño is with the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences (SAFS). With the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and other partners, she and her lab are researching physiological impacts of climate change and restoration techniques for the native pinto abalone, whose population has declined 97 percent over 25 years in state waters. Although the Restoration Fund and partners have produced and outplanted over 22,000 juvenile abalone, getting the abalone to settle and survive in the lab remains a challenge.

With funding from Washington Sea Grant, Dr. Padilla-Gamiño’s researchers are investigating ways to address these challenges and to see how abalone will be impacted by ocean acidification and warming. Early results show that the temperatures and pH levels expected in the near future will be harmful to the early life stages of pinto abalone, indicating a need to adjust restoration and hatchery practices accordingly. However, due to the COVID-19 crisis, summer field work to support this project is now up in the air. According to Dr. Padilla-Gamiño, “It’s a big problem for us. We’re working with live organisms and we’re exposing them to different environmental conditions. Research with abalone reproduction requires the collection of eggs and sperm, but that only happens during one part of the year since abalone reproduction is seasonal. With our summer work on hold, we won’t be able to collect egg and sperm until the following year.

She goes on to say, “So how do you support a student whose thesis is focused on this research for one more year? It’s really problematic. To compensate, my student is working on her preliminary data and trying to write that up now, to produce a smaller manuscript. Fortunately, she has started other collaborations as well. Also, while I can’t speak for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, our research is a collaborative effort so I know that these issues also delay what the Fund is trying to accomplish.”

Dr. Padilla-Gamiño’s research is just one of 11 Sea Grant-funded projects in Washington which COVID-19 is impacting:  In another project, Dr. Graham Young of SAFS and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe are working on a pilot sablefish aquaculture project. Last year, the research team produced 12,000 fingerlings, which are predicted to reach commercial harvest size by the spring of 2021. Because of COVID-19, only limited work is continuing to keep these fish alive, while some data collection has been curtailed.

Meanwhile, the Swinomish Tribe is guiding efforts to revive the traditional practice of building clam gardens. Bringing back this ancient form of mariculture would bolster native clam populations, support local food security, provide ecological and cultural benefits, and promote integration of traditional ecological knowledge with current resource management and climate change adaptation strategies. Educational trips to clam gardens in British Columbia, where historic gardens are well-documented, have been postponed for the near future because of the pandemic. To learn more about the adaptations that clam garden social science researchers are making in response to COVID-19, check out our Coastal Connections blog.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt business as usual in Washington State, Washington Sea Grant recognizes the impact the pandemic is having on our funded research and the communities that research is meant to benefit. We are currently doing everything we can to collaborate with our partners and minimize impacts not just to the research, but to the people involved. The humans and communities behind the research and how we operate are just as important as the research itself. We thank all our partners for adjusting as best they can during these difficult times.