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See it, Save it: Using Images of Deep-Sea Life to Preserve the Seabed

Conservationists are deploying ROVs to capture photos and videos of unknown deep-ocean animals off Southern California in an effort to build support to put 16,000 square miles of the seafloor off-limits to destructive fishing practices.

Written by Taylor Hill Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Gold coral and rockfish
A greenspotted rockfish hides behind gold coral south of Santa Cruz Island off the Southern California coast. A shark egg case is attached to the gold coral. Oceana

Geoff Shester, a senior scientist at the nonprofit group Oceana, took to the podium at the September meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council as many do – armed with a PowerPoint presentation.

The council is responsible for managing the West Coast’s fisheries from the edge of state waters to 200 miles (320km) offshore, and Shester was giving a refresher on a proposed plan to protect more than 16,000 square miles (41,400 square km) of deep ocean habitat off Southern California from trawling. Trawlers drag large nets along the seafloor to snag bottom-dwelling fish, but the fishing technique also damages corals and other habitat and kills marine life not targeted for catch.

“You get to these meetings, and the decision-makers have seen slide after slide of dense data – showing annual fish catch numbers, charts – it can get dry,” Shester said.

But the marine biologist had something sure to grab the attendees’ attention: photos and videos displaying some of the elaborate, diverse and colorful life recently discovered at depths of up to 4,100ft (1,250m) in the Southern California Bight. The presentation showcased images of some of the thousands of corals and sponges, eels, octopuses and 31 distinct fish species captured during a recent weeklong survey expedition that Oceana sponsored with Marine Applied Research and Exploration (MARE). The nonprofit California-based group deploys remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to video and photograph deep-sea life.

Colorful species of gorgonian corals including this purple Eugorgia species can be found in shallower waters off the Channel Islands in Southern California. (Oceana)

“When we get these images up, we’ve got decision-makers, the general public and even fishermen all captivated by what they’re seeing,” Shester said. “A lot of the fishing guys are living their whole lives out there, but don’t really get to see what’s going on down there. They can’t believe the colors.”

Shester hopes the data obtained by the expedition will persuade the council to pass additional protections for the ocean floor at its November meeting, when the group updates essential fish habitat areas for West Coast rockfish, lingcod and other species.

Oceana’s proposal would leave mostly unaffected the region’s current near-shore trawling fisheries that target halibut, sea cucumber and prawns, as the areas designated for closure are outside historical fishing grounds. What the proposal really does is give fishery managers a chance to protect old-growth corals from future fishing efforts and allow for baseline scientific data and research to be gathered about a largely untouched ocean floor.

MARE founder Dirk Rosen sees the plan as a chance to show what a functioning deep-sea ocean floor habitat looks like.

A map of proposed protected areas off the Southern California coast. (Oceana)

His team has been capturing high-definition images of the ocean floor since 2004, but they typically monitor the recovery of marine sanctuaries that were once fished. Those fishing practices often involved knocking down old-growth corals so that long trawl nets could be dragged along the bottom of the seabed without getting snagged.

“It’s basically like burning down the forest to hunt deer,” Rosen said. “It works for a couple years, but then the deer are gone.”

In the proposed conservation zones, Rosen’s ROVs snapped images of undisturbed coral gardens that could be centuries old. They also documented interactions between marine animals and the seafloor that are rarely observed, including cat shark eggs hanging from a golden coral, migrating crabs by the thousands walking along the seabed off Santa Barbara Island and nursery grounds for multiple species of rockfish among corals and sponges.

“If we can get there and remove the threat of trawling, we can document what a thriving ocean floor looks like, and start to get an idea of how the ecosystem down there functions,” Rosen said. “We know more about what’s going on on the backside of Jupiter than our own seafloor and that needs to change.”

An octopus hides out while a squat lobster stands guard beneath a vase sponge at a newly identified rocky reef off Santa Barbara Island. (Oceana)

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has backed Oceana’s proposal, leaving Shester optimistic about a positive decision come November.

He hopes the images will sway public opinion, similar to how the public supported the 5,000 square mile (13,000 square km) Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument designated by President Barack Obama last year.

The deep-sea corals 150 miles (240km) off New England’s coast were mostly unknown until a 2013 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded mapping expedition beamed images back to the surface of the region’s profound beauty. By 2015, some 160,000 public comments had been submitted supporting the monument designation.

A rockfish finds shelter under a sponge adorned with a brightly colored basket star and fern-like feather stars. (Oceana)

“These pictures and videos speak more than a thousand words,” Rosen said. “You can show the data, and have the information to back it up, but it becomes hard to believe that so much is down there when you never see it. This makes seeing believing.”

Even if the trawling ban goes through, the 16,000 square mile region off Southern California would still be vulnerable to non-fishing pressures, including oil and gas exploration.

For Shester, getting the proposal passed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council after years of public scrutiny means the protections should be long-lasting – and secured from the whims of whatever party is in power in Washington.

“A monument designation doesn’t go through the long analysis and review process,” Shester said. “This will be a durable protection, and if this is deemed as essential fish habitat, which we believe our research shows that it is, it will be protected by law.”

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