As i walk the beach at Seal Rock State Park, I observe numerous tide pool enthusiasts enjoying the colorful anemones and leathery sea stars. Beachcombers sort through the proverbial seashells on the seashore, but I notice everyone ignores “the wrack”—the salad-like heap of seaweeds cast upon the beach. Well, almost everyone.
Dr. Gayle Hansen introduces herself as she passes by. She is a marine phycologist who studies the taxonomy, distribution, and life histories of seaweeds. She is on her way home, but stops to chat about photography and her interest in seaweeds. She would like to publish a field guide to West Coast seaweeds, and I’m interested. Of course, neither of us has a pen handy to exchange names and e-mail addresses. “If you can’t remember my name, just ask for ‘the Seaweed Lady’ at the Hatfield Marine Science Center,” she says prior to leaving. And that is how I contacted her.
We meet in her office, which is now located in the Environmental Protection Agency building adjacent to the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Though her space is small and crowded with texts, pressed specimens awaiting labels, and floor to-ceiling cabinets filled with her herbaria, she is appreciative for the space to complete her species lists and studies.
Hansen is a taxonomist specializing in seaweeds.
Her work focuses on the physical and, at times, genetic relationships between seaweeds and on their distribution along the coast. She is the expert on seaweeds in Oregon and one of two experts working in Alaska.
“The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has relied on Dr. Hansen as one of the state’s only experts in marine phycology,” says Laurel Hillmann, the Coastal Planner for OPRD. “Her key insights on marine intertidal seaweed cover both general information on seaweed biology and suggestions on potential future management practices.”
The Nature Conservancy also invited her to participate in their marine conservation planning, especially the section on threatened and endangered algal species. “Whidbeyella cartilaginea is rare, almost extinct,” Hansen explains. “But for many species we don’t have enough baseline information to determine their rarity over their range.” That makes it difficult to direct conservation efforts.
A LIFE LEADING TO ALGAE
Growing up in Virginia, Hansen remembered col-lecting algae as a child “more for fun than anything.” She eventually went to college in Connecticut and followed up with a masters degree from the University of Vermont in mycology and a post doctorate in phycology from North Carolina in Chapel Hill. From there she went to Harvard, and then on to teaching positions at University of Massachusetts and Maine before moving west to British Columbia, Washington, and finally to Oregon.
“I spent three years in Friday Harbor, and there I was the founder of the Northwest Algal Society,
a group that still meets annually,” she says. While teaching at Western Washington University in Anacortes she was hired by the State of Alaska. “I got to go to Alaska after the Valdez oil spill,”
she explains. “I made collections there during the summer, and then was provided with a lab at the Marine Science Center in Oregon to work on them during the winter.”
GETTING SEAWEED SOME RESPECT
Hansen now works on a database that includes both historical and modern day records. “One of the first algal specimens collected from Oregon, well actually on the north shore of the Columbia River, was the feather boa or Egregia menziesii by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.” Her database targets primarily Oregon and Alaskan collections made from the early 1800s to modern day.
“We are very lucky in this state to have a resource like Gayle who knows her seaweeds backwards and forwards,” says Phillip Johnson, Director of CoastWatch. “Seaweeds are the lynchpin of intertidal and near shore ocean ecology.”
The main message I take home from Hansen is that seaweeds and microscopic algae are the Rodney Dangerfields of the marine world—they don’t get no respect. Like land plants, seaweeds are food for underwater grazers and they provide oxygen and shelter for tide pool creatures. “It takes about 1000 pounds of algae to produce one pound of salmon,” Hansen states, noting that three or four steps in the food chain are involved. “You can quickly understand the importance of algae in the commercial fishing industry, but we can not detect the changes without first knowing what seaweeds are out there.”
As Hansen continues with her studies and searches for funding sources, she says she would like to see a coastal natural history museum built somewhere along the Oregon coast. When it is built, you can bet your last sand dollar that seaweeds will be given the respect they deserve.
Damian Fagan is a freelance writer–photographer based in central Oregon.
Oregon Coast January/Feburary 2007