Major investment in deep sea research project
21 June, 2007
“A multi-agency research team has just finished gathering extensive information on seabed habitats and animal communities on the Chatham Rise and Challenger Plateau. This work is a major investment in understanding the soft-sediment communities, which probably make up 90 percent or more of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but about which very little is known,” Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton said today.
“Our EEZ is the fourth largest in the world and contains some of our most valuable natural resources,” he said. “For future generations to also benefit from these resources, we must maintain the integrity of our ocean habitats and the ecosystems that support them. This new deep sea research will help the future management of New Zealand’s marine environment.”
The Ocean Survey 20/20 Chatham/Challenger research is a collaborative project between the Ministry of Fisheries, Department of Conservation, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). The wider Ocean Survey 20/20 programme is being led by LINZ, with input from a broad range of central and local government bodies, and research providers
Jim Anderton was aboard NIWA’s research vessel Tangaroa today. It has brought back to Wellington specimens, photographs and video footage of over 5000 seabed samples from the Chatham Rise and Challenger Plateau. Extensive sonar data was also collected to produce detailed maps of the seafloor’s physical features. This concludes the first stage of the Ocean Survey 20/20 Chatham-Challenger project.
The project aims to map habitats and marine biodiversity of the seabed down to water depths of 1200m in two areas– the Chatham Rise and Challenger Plateau. These two areas are strongly contrasted. The Chatham Rise is highly productive and is one of New Zealand’s most fished areas, while the Challenger Plateau is much less productive and fished far less extensively.
With the field work now completed, scientists will spend the next three years analysing the data and producing ecological maps of seabeds in these two areas.
“Having these maps and new biodiversity information will help us make future decisions around resource use and protection of biodiversity in New Zealand’s offshore areas,” Jim Anderton said. “The government has already committed to developing Marine Protected Areas within the EEZ sometime after 2012. This new information will help us with these decisions. The Chatham/Challenger project should also help us understand more about the effects of bottom trawling on soft-sediment seabeds.”
Background Information on the Chatham/Challenger project
The prime purpose of this project is to map and compare the sea-bed habitats and the biological diversity of the sea-bed at several locations across the Chatham Rise and the Challenger Plateau.
Very little is known about the diversity of animal communities that live on the sea-bed, particularly in offshore sediment habitats which cover much of our economic zone. More importantly, we know little about how crucial these communities are to the health of the marine environment and their role in sustaining our fish resources. Mapping and characterising the types of communities living there is the first step.
Zoning the ocean into areas that reflect biodiversity for management purposes is a complex task. To date, progress has been made using physical oceanic data, but information about sea-bed ecology is largely missing. The Chatham Rise and Challenger Plateau areas have been chosen for this project because they provide a strong contrast in terms of plankton productivity. Sea-bed biodiversity is likely to mirror this.
This project will provide significant new information about the biodiversity of the sea-bed. Once combined with the physical ocean data that already exists, the government will be much better placed to make decisions about the protection of biodiversity and developing standards for maintaining aquatic health.
Three voyages have taken place using NIWA’s research vessel, Tangaroa.
Voyage 1 took place in August last year and involved a multi-beam echo-sounder survey of the Chatham Rise and the Challenger Plateau. Producing maps of the sea floor, it provided the first systematic multibeam coverage of the area.
Voyage 2 took place in April this year and took samples from over 100 different sample sites on the Chatham Rise. A recently developed deep sea camera system yielded high resolution images of the seabed and samples from the sea-bed communities were collected using sea-bed sleds. These were towed behind the ship and dragged along the sea floor collecting samples. Just under 3400 sample lots were collected, weighing about 3.5 tonnes and made up of about 450 different types of organisms.
Voyage 3 took place in May/June this year and involved exploring the Challenger Plateau locations using similar methods to Voyage 2. Just under 2000 sample lots were obtained comprising about 200 different types of organisms and weighing a total of 1.5 tonnes.
Scientific analysis over the next 3 years will be carried out to:
- Identify the animal species collected and compare their diversity and abundance between the two areas
- Produce maps of habitat type, animal groupings throughout the two areas
- Determine the major environmental drivers of biodiversity and habitat variation
- Map the distribution of trawl marks and evaluate biodiversity and animal community composition along gradients of observed fishing activity
In order to map and compare seabed communities in the two areas, the organisms will first need to be identified. This requires the expertise of a large team of taxonomists − highly trained scientists expert in naming and describing a particular group of organisms.
Because these areas haven’t been comprehensively sampled before, it’s likely that some of the species will be new records for New Zealand and some may be entirely new to science.
Samples of all of the invertebrate species will be held in NIWA’s National Marine Invertebrate Collection in Wellington. The fish specimens will be held in Te Papa’s collection of marine fish.
The biological information from this project will also be used to improve New Zealand’s Marine Environment Classification system. The MEC system is mainly based on a range of physical data like depth and water temperature, so the addition of the new biodiversity information will extend its ecological usefulness.