The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Bruce Mate Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Mike Dicianna.

September 8, 2016


Bruce Reed Mate was born in 1946 in Wheaton, Illinois and attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he double majored in Electrical Engineering and Biology. Interested in pursuing a career in marine biology, Mate transferred to the University of Oregon during his senior year at IIT, so that he could more fully explore educational opportunities on the Oregon Coast. He completed his Biology degree at Oregon in 1968 and ultimately enrolled in the university's Ph.D. program in Biology, funded by a pre-doctoral grant from the National Science Foundation. Mate's research focus during this time was the migration habits of sea lions along the Oregon Coast.

In 1972, prior to the completion of his doctoral work, Mate began what would become a career-long association with Oregon State University. Mate's first position at OSU was as a post-doctoral fellow, funded by the National Institutes of Health. During the years of this appointment, Mate researched heavy metal metabolism in marine mammals with a particular focus on the ability of coastal sea lions to metabolize high concentrations of naturally occurring mercury.

In 1975, Mate accepted a temporary position with the Oregon State University Extension Service as a Marine Extension Agent serving the south coast of Oregon. Working in this capacity, Mate contributed to a research project focusing on marine mammals and fishery competition in the Rogue River, with specific attention paid to the role that lamprey play as both a predator of salmon and as a food source for the area's sea lions.

One year later, Mate received his first faculty appointment at OSU as a Research Associate in Oceanography based at the Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. Reclassified into a tenure track position in 1977, Mate's early work as a faculty member was a continuation of the fisheries competition studies with which he had been first involved during his term as a Marine Extension Agent. As this work progressed, Mate began utilizing a brand new practice that involved tagging seals with radio transmitters that enabled researchers to track their movements from day to day.

An important moment for Mate came to pass in 1979 when he decided to test his seal tagging methods on a much larger marine mammal: the gray whale. Frustrated by his inability to attract grant funding to support his ideas about tagging whales, Mate and his wife sold a car and took out a second mortgage on their home to fund a month-long trip to San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California. With the assistance of two colleagues, the group successfully tagged three gray whales and subsequently tracked their migration northward all the way to Alaska.

What followed was a series of major tagging and tracking projects funded by numerous grants and contracts, and ultimately making use of satellite telemetry to record whale behavior. Since 1979, Mate and his research group have tagged fifteen populations of whales in all of the Earth's oceans, visiting fifty-five countries in the process. As a result of this pioneering work, scientists and policymakers have arrived at a new understanding of the migratory, feeding, and reproductive patterns of the world's most endangered whale species, including gray whales, blue whales, right whales, sperm whales, and fin whales. Armed with this information, national governments and international regulatory bodies have put in place informed sets of regulations that have helped to rehabilitate multiple whale populations that once had been close to extinction.

In 1988, Mate established the OSU Marine Mammal Institute as a distinct research program within the Coast Oregon Marine Experiment Station. In 2006, the program was granted full Institute status by OSU, and today it is home to over forty students, staff, and faculty who conduct and support research on marine mammals. Now an endowed chair in OSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Bruce Mate continues to live in Newport and serve as director of the OSU Marine Mammal Institute.