Nekton Mission reveals new species from depths of the ocean

Mysteries

MYSTERY WIRE — A deep-diving science mission into the Indian Ocean says it has discovered “dozens” of new species, including fish, coral and other organisms.

But the scientists also give a warning – they say unsustainable fishing is having an impact on the ocean and its biodiversity.

It was a journey into the unknown, and now the British-led Nekton mission is revealing the secrets discovered in the depths of the Indian Ocean.

At an online symposium which begins today (Monday 9 November), scientists will reveal they’ve discovered “dozens” of new species, including fish, coral and other organisms.

They’re yet to be officially confirmed, but Nekton scientists say they’re confident.

Little is known about the watery world below depths of 30 metres, the limit to which a normal scuba diver can go.

Operating down to 450 metres with manned submersibles and underwater drones off the island nation of the Seychelles, the scientists were the first to explore areas of great diversity where sunlight weakens, and the deep ocean begins.

“I think it wasn’t unexpected, we were expecting to see a lot of new species because a lot of these areas haven’t been explored before. And you know that if you go to a new area where very little research has been done, it’s very likely that you will find new species,” says deputy science lead, Paris Stefanoudis.

“We were starting from the very top, about ten metres depth. And then we were working our way slowly down. We also looked at 30 metres, 60 metres, 120 and 250 metres, so a lot of these new species have been usually found in the deeper waters. But there have been some occasions where there have been actually found in shallow waters.”

At the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aldabra, “the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean”, Nekton submarine crews saw many different communities, not seen in the shallower waters, says Stefanoudis.

“And that just shows you that when you’re thinking about managing or conserving an area, you also have to think about the deeper reef ecosystems, not just what’s easily accessible in the shallows,” he says.

The Aldabra Atoll has been protected for about 40 years, but never explored beneath 30 metres.

Nekton scientists say they saw “a high number of predators” in the waters of Aldabra, which suggests protection efforts are working, they say.

“We know that healthy ecosystems are those that have a high number of predators and a high diversity of predators,” says Nekton principal scientist Lucy Woodall.

“So, seeing that in Aldabra, was highly suggestive that those protection measures are incredibly important for us to have a healthy ocean for future generations.”

But the scientists also give a warning – they say unsustainable fishing is having an impact on the ocean and its biodiversity.

Earlier this year, then Seychelles president Danny Faure announced the small island nation had successfully protected about a third of its waters – around 445,000 square kilometres, a sea area larger than Germany.

Professor Jörg Wiedenmann from the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton and heads up the institution’s Coral Reef Laboratory.

He believes it is vital we take a look at deeper depths to get a proper understanding of how the degradation of species higher up are impacting those far below.

“These are very interesting communities because they’re just not an extension of the shallow water reefs, but they are really distinct communities and this is something what science recognises more and more that these deepwater communities, they contain species, some of which we don’t even know yet, and they are very important to stabilise the overall functioning of the reef ecosystem across the depth levels,” says Wiedenmann.

His concern is that many ocean creatures will be lost before they are ever known.

“With every deep-sea expedition, new species will be retrieved and yes, there is both in shallow and in the deep water reefs, the probability that we lose some of these species before we have even properly described and discovered them,” says Wiedenmann.

Only about seven percent of the world’s oceans are currently protected. A “30-by-30” international target is pushing for at least 30 percent of the global ocean to be protected by 2030.

David Obura is the Director of the Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO).

He also chairs the IUCN’s (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) specialist coral group.

Obura says: “Key thing for me is not to push exclusively for a single target, such as 30 percent protection in ocean areas, but is to really look at 100 percent of the ocean area and make sure that all users manage so that they are sustainable and don’t degrade the environment and you keep a certain percentage, which may vary from place to place under strict protection because that really supports the rest.”

According to Obura little is understood about the combined impacts of pollution, acidification, global warming and loss of diversification on life in   our deepest oceans.

The Nekton team describe seeing far fewer top level predators like grouper in areas that haven’t been protected.

They say there’s no evidence available to show in detail what species levels were like ten, twenty or a hundred years ago so trying to make comparisons with older populations isn’t possible.

Without that it’s hard to judge how great the diversity loss has been.

“Let’s say the worst possible scenario, there’s a pool and you fish everything out of it, then you’re not going to have anything for the next year. Even if you leave one, there’s nothing for it to breed with. And these are some of the scenarios that we’re seeing globally,” says Woodall.

The seven-week Indian Ocean expedition wrapped up in April 2019.

Researchers conducted over 300 deployments, collected around 1,300 samples and 20 terabytes of data and surveyed about 30 square kilometres of seabed using high-resolution multi-beam sonar equipment.

A follow-up five-week mission, set to begin in March, had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Nekton hopes the expedition will be rescheduled to late 2021.

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