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NURP funded researchers probe Aleutian depths
This story entered on 2nd Aug, 2004 07:10:20 AM PST

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This summer the NURP West Coast and Polar Regions Center located at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has launched a major endeavour to research the Aleutian Islands. Four projects awarded through a competitive peer-review process are being conducted using the Jason II, a remotely operated vehicle capable of operating to a depth of 6500 meters. With Jason II's depth capability, scientists are able to collect substrate samples and conduct research in areas never before documented.

One of the projects on this cruise has attracted media attention due to its focus on a hot political issue -- deep-sea corals. NURP is funding scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service's Auke Bay Lab to collect data to determine the existence and distribution of coral gardens and associated fish species in depths of 350 to 2750 m with the ultimate goal of constructing a model that predicts the distribution and density of coral habitat throughout the Aleutian Islands.

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Researchers probe Aleutian depths

JASON II: Submersible to plumb abyss to gather info on corals, other critters.


By DOUG O'HARRA
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 25, 2004)

A scientific team launched an expedition this weekend to explore unknown swaths of Aleutian sea floor, with plans to descend more than two miles in search of coral species and geologic phenomena no human has seen before.

Working aboard the 273-foot research vessel Roger Revelle, several Alaska marine biologists and undersea geologists hope to send the unmanned submersible vehicle Jason II on dives at 12 sites between Seguam and Semisopochnoi islands of the Aleutian Chain during a 1,000-mile cruise over the next two weeks.

The Jason vehicle, which can go more than 21,000 feet down, will give the Alaska researchers unprecedented video clips and samples from the cold, dark abyss beneath some of the most productive fishing grounds in the world.

Previous dives by other submersibles have found new coral species and fish habitat up to 1,200 feet down, but no one knows what lurks deeper.

"We're really quite excited to see what's below 365 meters," said Bob Stone, one of the project's lead scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Having the opportunity to look that deep out there is like an opportunity to explore not only another planet but another solar system."

One trip will scope out the mysterious, geologically active Adak Canyon as deep as 10,000 feet, using Jason's spotlights, hydraulic sampling arms and sophisticated sensors to scrutinize its craggy walls, said Stone, a marine biologist at Auke Bay Lab in Juneau.

Dives by another sub found coral-thick rockfish habitat along the canyon's eastern slopes in 2002, prompting conservation groups to propose special protection from
bottom trawling and other commercial fishing for the area.

"Of course our main interest is to see if there are coral and sponges down to the depths of current commercial fishing, about 1,500 feet," Stone said. "But we're going to go as deep as we possibly can."

The Revelle, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was scheduled to depart from Dutch Harbor on Saturday with the Jason II, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and should arrive in Adak on Aug. 8.

Along the way, the ship will halt at promising dive sites and send Jason to the bottom with scientists remaining aboard the mother ship in a control room watching live video. They can take measurements, poke through corals or docks up close, and even snatch a few samples for a trip to daylight.

Dispatches and photos of their findings will be posted at www.alaska scienceoutreach.com.

"We're fascinated to see what these scientists find in the deep waters off Alaska," said William Hogarth, the fishery agency's administrator.

"They are looking at remote parts of the ocean never before recorded in such detail."

The expedition is another chapter in a multiyear study that amazed people in 2002 with extraordinary, unexpected images of lush sea-bottom life in the Aleutians.

Led by Stone and Auke Bay Lab biologist Jon Heifetz, the team used the two-person submersible Delta to document the existence of sponges, corals and other invertebrates. The discoveries helped trigger an intense controversy over bottom trawling and how fish habitat should be protected in Alaska.

Partly as a result of publicity, a record 33,000 people sent comments last spring on an environmental study of essential fish habitat regulations now under review by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Conservation and fishing groups have asked the council to approve special protections for known coral areas. The agency is now taking comments on a different proposal from the group Oceana that would require the agency to immediately protect all deep coral habitats throughout U.S. waters.

In 2003, the expedition was joined by marine geologist Jennifer Reynolds, science director of West Coast & Polar Regions Undersea Research Center at the University of Alaska.

Using sonar surveys of the bottom and samples taken by Stone, Reynolds confirmed the discovery of Alaska's first undersea volcano, Amchixtam Chaxsxii, a dramatic cone that rises 1,900 feet from the floor of Amchitka Pass to within 380 feet of the surface.

Its summit supported a profusion of coral and sponge life, nestled amid black volcanic rock.

Principal investigators this year are Stone and Heifetz, and Doug Woodby, chief marine fisheries scientist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Reynolds also returned for another voyage.

The study has funding from the North Pacific Research Board and the fisheries agency, with support from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the undersea research center and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The scientists want to find out where coral grows, what sort of sea bottom supports it, and what fish and other critters thrive nearby, Heifetz explained in an interview earlier this year.

Sorting out these basic habitat questions will help resolve how much special protection coral areas need from bottom trawling, longlining and other types of fishing gear.

"We know it's special habitat feature, and we know that fish live there," he said. "But the question we get asked is how important it is to overall fish production, and that's a question that's very, very difficult to answer."

Person interviewed: Jennifer Reynolds, Science Director West Coast and Polar Regions NURP Center
News organization: Anchorage Daily News
Air time: Sun, July 25 2004 at 12:00 AM Time zone

Contact information
Name: Jennifer Reynolds
Tel: (907) 474-5871
jreynolds@ims.uaf.edu

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