Marine biologist works day and night to understand Pacific Ocean's ecosystem

<I>CASSANDRA PROFITA - For the Chinook Observer</I><BR>Beth Phillips is a marine biologist working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Point Adams Lab in Hammond. She spends a good deal of her time studying the seabirds that feed in the Columbia River plume west of North Head Lighthouse.

COLUMBIA RIVER - Beth Phillips knows how to catch a seabird in the dark and make it regurgitate.

But more importantly, she understands why anyone would want to do such a thing.

Phillips, 33, is a marine biologist working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Point Adams Lab in Hammond.

In the spring and summer, when weather permits, she boards a boat with fellow researchers, heads out to sea as the sun is setting and often doesn't return until 3 a.m. It's too hard to catch the birds in the daylight, she said, because "they see you coming."

"I don't know anybody who's caught one during the day."

They wait for total darkness to descend and shine a spotlight on the birds before moving in with a dip net.

"It's kind of like deer in headlights," said Phillips. "They freeze, and you come up and catch one in the net. It's harder than it sounds, though, because even on the calmest night ever the waves are still bouncing you around."

The birds they catch are shearwaters that migrate to the Columbia River area from colonies in New Zealand in the summertime. They feed on fish during the day and roost on the ocean at night. By collecting the contents of their bellies, scientists can tell what kind of fish the seabirds are eating, which could ultimately help answer questions about salmon survival.

"We're basically just pumping their stomachs," she said. "The big question is what happens to salmon once they leave the river for the sea."

Phillips grew up in Tacoma, got a biology degree at Western Washington University in Bellingham and earned a master's degree at California State University's Moss Landing Marine Labs. She stayed in the Monterey Bay, Calif., area for several years studying seabirds, particularly the ones that would wash up dead on the shore. Part of her job was to work with veterinarians and pathologists to determine how the birds had died - whether it was from a bacterial or fungal infection, an oil spill of some sort, entanglement with trash in the ocean or ingestion of plastic. In one year of work in Monterey Bay, she did so many bird autopsies (also known as necropsies) that people started calling her "the dead bird girl."

"I necropsied a lot of birds," she said. "Probably over 1,000."

In some species - particularly the birds that aren't able to dive underwater to fish, such as albatross, northern fumar and phalaropus - 80 to 90 percent of the dead birds she examined had undigestable plastic in their bellies.

"They can't dive, so they pick up whatever they see floating on the surface, and they mistake plastic for food," she said. "In a lot of cases it's plastic that's been broken down from wave action."

Phillips moved to the Lower Columbia River about a year ago to work with Dr. Jen Zamon, an oceanographer at NOAA's Point Adams Lab.

The two are working on three projects together, including the nighttime shearwater study, a monthly survey of birds in the Columbia River plume area from North Head Lighthouse and a juvenile salmon survival study on board the Canadian fishing vessel Frosti, which uses a surface trawl to capture and take tissue samples of young salmon.

"We sample for everything we can," she said. "It's basically never ending. They're looking for anything potentially contributing to salmon mortality."

The nighttime bird survey is a related project that looks at the question of salmon mortality from seabird predation.

"The Columbia River plume area is a hot spot for seabirds," she said. "One of the things we're looking at is why there are so many more birds here. Is it because there's more fish? We look at their diet, and we do our lighthouse surveys. We know they're predators, but how much salmon are the birds eating?"

When she was growing up, Phillips worked on a whale-watching tour boat as a deckhand, which gave her some experience at sea. She got certified to scuba dive when she was 16, which she said may have been what sealed her fate as a marine biologist. However, she also remembers her earliest research papers - clear back to fourth grade - were on penguins and tropical fish. Now she works on the ocean and spends some of her free time there too - on a surfboard.

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