A Brief History of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station

Although it may seem strange for the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences to have a marine-based experiment station, it is actually very much in line with the land grant mission of the University. Seafood represents a robust variety of commodities for the state of Oregon, not to mention nationally and internationally. The main difference between seafood and other agricultural commodities in Oregon is that, for the most part, seafood is wild-caught/harvested instead of being cultivated by humans.

Oregon has always been a fishing and seafood state.  The diets of coastal Native Americans centered on seafood, and the modern fishing industry anchors port communities from Astoria to Brookings. With fishing comes the need to process the catch for consumers, sustainably manage the fisheries, and, more recently, make the most of “waste” from seafood processing. Although these industries have evolved over time, one truth has remained –  scientific research is always needed to support these areas and more, allowing them to continue growing and thriving.

Oregon State University research on shellfish began in Newport’s Yaquina Bay in 1939 (prior to the establishment of Hatfield Marine Science Center), while the OSU Seafood Lab was established in Astoria in 1940 to meet the increasing research needs of the seafood industry. By this time, OSU’s College of Agriculture had also established Agricultural Experiment Stations across the state, each devoted to one or more terrestrial agricultural commodities.

By the early 1960s it was clear that OSU needed a permanent coastal research outpost, and Newport was the perfect location.  Supported by federal and state funds, Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) was dedicated in 1964. However, it would be two decades before four visionary men came together to make the case for an Agricultural Experiment Station at Hatfield.

By the early 1980s, Dr. Lavern Weber (then Director of Hatfield Marine Science Center), Captain Barry Fisher (renowned Newport fisherman and professor of Fisheries at OSU), Joe Easley (fisherman, Pacific Fishery Management Council Councilman, and Director of Oregon’s Trawl Commission), and Terry Thompson (fisherman, Oregon state legislator, and Lincoln County commissioner) had come together to champion the needs of the fishing and seafood industry on the Oregon Coast. These leaders focused on the need to develop a better understanding of the marine environment and to explore ways of ensuring sustainable fisheries. Their understanding of the issues and ability to communicate these needs effectively led to the establishment of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station (COMES) in 1989. To this day, COMES is a two-city operation, with faculty and staff at HMSC in Newport and at the OSU Seafood Research and Education Center (SREC) in Astoria.

Since its inception, COMES has taken an interdisciplinary approach to fisheries and seafood research. The COMES faculty is drawn primarily from the OSU Departments of Fisheries and Wildlife, Food Science and Technology, and Applied Economics, but the individual researchers represent a wide variety of disciplines. Fisheries research (including ecology, genetics and genomics, aquaculture, environmental and resource economics, fisheries oceanography, marine predators, and ecotoxicology and environmental stress) takes place in Newport at HMSC, and seafood research (including chemistry and biochemistry of seafood products, surimi and surimi products, nutritional pharmacology, and value-added R&D) takes place in Astoria at the SREC.

In order to ensure that we are providing the most comprehensive and accurate science for our stakeholders, COMES researchers also collaborate with a variety of industry partners, state and federal agencies, community organizations, commodity commissions, non-governmental organizations, foundations, private corporations, and other university departments.

In addition, COMES faculty nurture tomorrow’s industry and marine science leaders through teaching and graduate student advising. Our students have gone on to work with state and federal agencies, industry leaders in seafood processing, and as faculty at universities around the world.

Much like the industries it supports, COMES continues to grow and change over time. Gil Sylvia, (COMES Director since 1998) has retired, and Christina DeWitt (Director of the SREC) is serving as Interim Director while the search for a permanent director is conducted.

One thing is for sure, though – COMES will continue to follow the path that the founders laid for us, striving to provide excellent science in support of our many partners.  Stay tuned to see what comes next!

Additional Resources -

If you are interested in more about the origins of COMES -

For an overview of Land Grant legislation –

For more on the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station –

Honor our founders - Lavern, Barry, Joe, Terry - with a gift