Monday, November 15, 2010

The final day of the workshop is upon us!

Group picture of participants:

Top row left to tight: Jane Read, Amy Taylor, James Mclaine, Khanyisile Ngomane, Oddgeir Alvheim, Julian Badcock, Monica Mwale. Middle row left to right: Nosiphiwo Springbok, Gildas Todinanahary, Nicole Du Plessis, Peter Konstantinidis, Eric Anderson, Alex Rogers, Vladimir Laptikhovsky, Riaan Cedras, Vijay Mangar. Bottom row left to right: Philipp Boersch-Supan, Stela Fernando, Kirsty Kemp, Nkosinathi Masangula. Absent: Tinus Sonnekus, Tom Bornman and Rainer von Brandis (photographer)

Participants have worked incredibly hard this last week spending on average 12 hours per day at the world-class facilities generously provided by SAIAB (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity). More than 200 species of fish and 74 species of squid have been identified during the workshop. Additionally, the fish larvae expert Peter Konstantinidis has identified the larval stages of approximately 30 fish species. Although there were far too many samples to work through during this workshop, many of the participants will continue working on them during the ensuing months. Phillip Boersch-Supan and Kirsty Kemp have extracted several hundred biological samples from fishes including stomach contents, otoliths, scales, muscle tissue and brain tissue. These will be used for various studies related to deep-sea fish ecology and physiology. Although the taxonomic data still need to be analysed, the principal scientist, Alex Rogers, expects to find interesting latitudinal differences in the composition of seamount-associated species. Given that this is the first time that these specific seamounts have been studied, this information and the anticipated publications arising from it, should greatly assist in the management of deep-sea ecosystems and allow us to gain a better understanding of how they function ecologically.

The Participants would like to thank the project partners, namely:

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)

ZSL (Zoological Society of London)

ASCLME (Agulhas and Somali Current Large Marine Ecosystems

GEF (Global Environment Facility)

UNDP (United Nations Development Program)

IMR (Institute of Marine Research)

NERC (Natural Environment Research Council)

ECOMAR (University of Reunion Marine Ecology Lab)

SIODFA (Southern Indian Ocean Deepsea Fishers Association)

ACEP (African Coelocanth Ecosystem Prgramme)

Total Foundation (Fondation Total)

CenSeam (Global Census of Marine Life on Seamounts)


  1. Dear Seamount Scientists, I am a scientist too, so appreciate all the hard work you are doing, but I do have reservations about a "conservation project" pulling loads of fish from the sea, thereby killing them, in the name of conservation! I read a quote on the BBC web-page saying that some new species are being defined by looking at microscopic differences in gut or muscle length - could these just be the same species.....only bigger/smaller? The Victorians liked to catch, kill and catalogue everything...before people realised how easy it was for humans to make things extinct! Wouldn't it be better to just extrapolate that deep sea creatures exist at every sea-mount (as we know now they exist) and work towards conserving the seas without needing to photograph every individual creature (new or not) that may exist down there? They must all have relatively similar ecological needs to those creatures that have already been studied in the past (ecological niches and evolutionary pressure, and all that...) so I just don't see the point of dragging more things out of the sea when you can leave them happily where they are! Sorry to be a downer, (but I am not as down as those poor dead fish) but that's how I feel.

  2. Hello Anonymous
    Thank you for your comment - your thoughts touch on the most important aspect of our work and I hope I can respond to some of the points you made. I am one of the scientists who undertook the research expedition and the subsequent efforts to identify and catalogue the results. Sometimes we get carried away with the excitement of finding something new and the real reason for our work can get a little buried in that excitement, especially in the press. All of us involved understand the apparent contradiction in removing animals from the ocean in the name of securing their conservation and it is indeed easy to compare such work to that of Victorian collectors. However while the Victorians were just that – collectors, attempting to catalogue, record and display the vast biodiversity they were encountering, and in the process sometimes putting wild populations under risk of collapse or even extinction, there is a very fundamental difference in the work we are undertaking here. We are aiming not to collect the members of this seamount community but to understand and explain the way in which they rely on and interact with each other as a healthy, inter-dependent ecosystem.

    The high seas (those areas beyond 200 nautical miles of the coast and beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation) are currently not controlled or managed by any national or international effort. The high seas of the Indian Ocean, like most of the world’s oceans therefore remain largely open to exploitation by humans through fishing, oil extraction and mining. At the same time these regions are suffering the damaging effects of climate change that are common to all ocean ecosystems (still drastically underestimated by most). The Southwest Indian Ocean ridge system which was the focus of this expedition is currently facing threat from a proposal to mine the minerals associated with deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Parts of this region are currently closed to fishing on a purely voluntary basis agreed upon by the 4 fishing industries active in this region (collectively known as SIODFA, South Indian Ocean Deepsea Fishers Association). These temporary no-fishing areas represent the only protected deep ocean regions in the entire Indian Ocean, with the exception of the newly established Chagos Marine Protected Area.

    The sad fact is that humans are extremely good at over-exploiting the planet’s resources and in the case of the ocean’s resources our activities have lead to the collapse of virtually every fishery which has been established to date. It is not simple greed that generates this repeating pattern, but the genuine need for resources, lack of understanding of what the ecosystem itself can sustain, and mis-management. Coastal nations, many of which are developing nations, remain very heavily reliant on the ocean for food. If current levels of population global growth continue then there will be roughly 9 billion people on the planet in 2050. Although we currently over-exploit virtually every marine resource we target, the use of the oceans as a major food resource is not going to stop.

    Our greatest hope of (cont.)

  3. effective conservation in the marine environment lies in sound management of these resources, and sound management is utterly reliant on a solid understanding of how these ecosystems work. Lack of information is often used by policy makers as an excuse for inaction. Our experience has taught us that only transparent policy-making (that which can be understood and traced back to fact), based on robust science, has any significant affect in improving sustainability in fishing practices. Currently only ~7% of coastal states have robust scientific assessment of their resources as the basis of their marine management policies. This figure is even less for the high seas/deep ocean regions.

    The true aim of our work is to observe, measure, count and ultimately understand this ecosystem so that we can provide a sound scientific basis for management and conservation. Ideally this will generate support and agreement

    between policy-makers and stakeholders (fishers, miners) for the establishment of Marine Protected Areas where no exploitation activity is undertaken. To ensure that we designate the correct areas as protected we need to understand where current populations are spawning, their migration patterns, the timing of their reproduction, the connectivity (genetic and otherwise) between exisiting populations, and how they depend upon each other for survival. Contrary to your comment that these animals must all have relatively similar ecological needs to those creatures that have already been studied in the past, we in fact know very little about the ecological niches of these seamount organisms and how these niches change through their life-cycles. One particularly interesting and unexpected find during our expedition was that several larval fishes came up in our nets when we reached the convergence zone between the warm tropical waters of the north and the cold waters of the Southern Ocean. This indicates that this zone where the two oceans meet may be very important region for young fish as they develop, and may therefore be a region worthy of a concentrated conservation effort. We also understand very little about the interactions of this particular food web and what it is that is supporting (in terms of diet) the large populations of commercially targeted fish that characterize seamount environments and which are so susceptible to destructive fishing methods and to boom-and-bust fisheries. Much of our work during the cruise was an attempt to “measure” the migrating layer of small fish and plankton which we believe represent this food source, with acoustics. By fishing those layers to get hold of the animals which created the acoustic signal, we hope to be able to extract patterns in our acoustic data so that we can say which signals are created by which types of fish, and ultimately this will reduce our need to remove them from the environment to measure them during future studies.

    I (and I think I can speak for most scientists (cont.)

  4. involved in this project) really welcome your comments and thoughts on this project, not least because it reminds us to ensure we make clear our true aims and not simply get caught up in the media frenzy that surrounds the discovery of new, weird and wonderful animals. Most of us actually agree with your idealistic view that it would be better to leave the world alone and let the oceans be. The hard facts however are that exploitation of global resources will continue and the oceans are far from immune. The very reaI needs for food and income that drive human patterns of over-exploitation mean that industry and exploitation is currently still one step ahead of scientists with regards to our ability to give policy-makers what they need to properly manage these resources. Where were do have all the necessary facts we are still currently struggling to make policy-makers and politicians realise that biological limits are real and cannot be negotiated in the way politicians are used to negotiating. The very depressing dampened and weak policy outcomes from the Copenhagen Convention earlier this year are testament to this.

    I realise I have written quite a long response here but this is an issue close to all our hearts and I am glad to be prompted to respond to it. Please do keep an eye on our work and note that a conference is currently being planned at the Zoological Society of London for early in February which will deal directly with the issues surrounding the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, and if you are in or near London I would encourage you to register and attend. It is open to the public and all interested parties. It may also interest you that our next expedition will take place in November 2011, and this one will exclusively employ the use of a remotely operated vehicle to observe and film the ocean floor and the organisms we were unable to observe during our recent expedition (which focused on those animals living in the water column). We choose not to fish in these deeper regions as that activity would destroy the deep-water coral and sponge communities which are a vital part of the seamount ecosystem. But through filming and observing we will be able to understand the ecological links between this sea-floor realm and the open ocean realm we have been currently dealing with.