ANACORTES — While the labs, halls and dorms at Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center remain quieter than normal, some research has resumed, and plans are taking shape to make way for more.
“It has definitely been a slowdown,” the center’s Director of Marine and Coastal Science Brian Bingham said earlier this week. “We’re crawling back.”
While Bingham, seated in a lecture hall void of classes for many months, recounted the full closure of the Shannon Point facilities from March into May of last year, a few students, scientists and faculty now permitted to conduct research on site toiled away in the labs.
In one room filled with the sound of trickling water, University of Washington post-doctoral researcher Chris Murray searched for signs of life in plastic tubs sprinkled with tiny Pacific herring eggs.
“Here’s one that hatched. It’s like a little wisp of hair,” he said.
Murray and Brooke Love, academic director of marine and coastal science at Shannon Point Marine Center, are studying how herring embryos respond to different water temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, which affect the acidity of the water.
That’s important because as humans continue burning fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, global temperatures will continue to increase and the oceans will become more acidic, Murray said. Small fish like herring are also a critical piece of the marine food chain.
“Everything that’s in the ocean that’s bigger than these guys will eat them,” Murray said.
As the herring embryos incubated in water of various temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, Western Washington University environmental sciences student Ariel Shiley checked that water’s pH, or acidity, daily and collected water samples to preserve for later for closer examination of the carbon dioxide content.
“I know a lot of students who don’t get the opportunity to do research right now, so I feel pretty lucky, especially as an undergrad,” she said.
Shiley has helped the herring research team catalog hundreds of vials of water, many of which now wait in a designated refrigerator for their turn in specialized pH analysis tubes and a carbon dioxide “bubble machine.”
In another room equipped with a microscope, Western graduate student Nicole Singh gets a magnified look at the “wispy” fish that hatched during the experiment.
With each herring’s slender, silvery body and beady black eyes on her computer screen, Singh can measure its length, the size of its head and the size of the bulbous “yolk” that remains of its egg.
“We’re figuring out the development of the embryos at different water temperature levels and acidity levels ... to examine the effects of climate change,” Singh said.
The work is important on its own, as well as for enabling students to meet academic requirements.
“This is my thesis project,” Singh said. “I’m not sure how I would be able to graduate or even do a thesis without the lab work.”
At the university’s Shannon Point Marine Center on a remote piece of Anacortes shoreline, COVID-19 policies include limiting lab work to three participants at a time.
Gene McKeen, manager of academic support services at the center, said the university requires visitors to submit daily forms attesting that they have no symptoms and haven’t been exposed to anyone infected with the virus.
Still, not all projects have been resumed. Student research that requires collecting field samples remains a challenge due to travel restrictions and passenger limitations aboard boats, Love said.
“Just getting out in the field is really tough,” she said.
The dorms at the center — usually filled at certain times of the year with new university freshmen, students pursuing environmental sciences degrees or even visiting scientists from other universities or government agencies — also remain unoccupied.
“Everybody is just chomping at the bit to get back into it,” McKeen said while walking through the empty living quarters.
The center is hoping to welcome a new group of students as soon as this summer to fulfill a National Science Foundation-supported program.
“We’re still trying to figure out the details of how that’s going to happen,” Bingham said.
— This story is part of an occasional series on how this community is pushing forward — through and eventually past — the COVID-19 pandemic that reached Skagit County in March 2020.