£1 million research program explores human impacts on remote marine environment
Credit: Alex Nimmo-Smith
The Chagos Archipelago, a remote British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) located 500km south of the Maldives, is one of the most pristine marine environments on earth.
For almost a decade, the area has been covered by a 640,000 km² Marine Protected Area (MPA), which incorporates a no-take zone, meaning it has endured little negative impact in terms of day-to-day human activity.
However, as with the rest of the planet, it is being affected by climate change and has a legacy of fishing. So it provides a perfect testbed to assess their effects, understand how mostly intact marine ecosystems function and explore how conservation practices put in place as part of the MPA might benefit other areas of the marine environment.
That is the goal of new research by the University of Plymouth. Funded by a £1million grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation as part of the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science, scientists are embarking on a two-year programme to identify what underlying mechanisms keep the region’s seas – and the species living within them – so healthy and explain the distribution of the large organisms found there, such as sharks and mantas.
This new research will bring together a wide range of scientific disciplines to provide the first detailed assessment of BIOT’s oceanographic processes, seabed habitats and deep water (mesophotic) coral reefs, and how the two may link to keep shallow water reefs resilient.
Professor of Marine Ecology Martin Attrill, the research programme coordinator, said: “This is an amazing opportunity to study one of the most unspoilt marine environments on the planet. BIOT provides an unrivalled location to understand the important natural interactions between the movement of the oceans, coral reefs and large marine animals and thus inform how we can improve and enhance environmental management. Whilst we are focusing on BIOT as part of the wider Bertarelli science programme, the results of this new funded programme will be applicable across the world and will help to keep our seas healthy. We are grateful to the Garfield Weston Foundation for supporting this exciting research.”
The research will bring together oceanographers, marine biologists, hydrographic surveyors and biogeochemists from the University and the Manta Trust, an international charity established by Plymouth graduate Guy Stevens.
They will focus on features within the British Indian Ocean Territory which they believe are instrumental to the overall health of the region and yet have received little previous attention.
At a seamount called Sandes, which hosts a huge aggregation of silvertip sharks around the summit, and an atoll called Egmont, where Manta Rays consistently aggregate and forage, scientists will look to establish what physical and oceanographic features cause these phenomena.
Then by studying mesophotic corals, found at approximately 50-200m depth beyond the reach of divers, they will examine whether cool ocean currents caused by internal waves help to reduce the bleaching experienced by shallow corals due to ocean warming and aid the recovery of those that are impacted by bleaching by transporting larvae upwards, from the healthy mesophotic reefs towards the surface.
Dr Kerry Howell, Associate Professor in Marine Ecology, who is leading the mesophotic coral elements of the programme said: “We know very little about the deeper parts of coral reefs, as divers cannot reach these areas. There is so much we need to learn and undoubtedly many new species to discover. We will use the University’s Remotely Operated Vehicle to explore these mesophotic reefs, and try to understand how they function.”
The project also aims to understand how the physical processes, which it is believed are instrumental in rendering seamounts and mesophotic reefs so important, change over time.
The research will build on previous research cruises to the region involving University scientists, including a three-week trip in January 2015 exploring why it is home to such a diverse population of aquatic life.
Dr Phil Hosegood, Associate Professor in Physical Oceanography, was part of that expedition and is leading the Oceanography elements central to the new research programme.
He added: “By bringing together several marine disciplines, we can develop a clear and informed picture of how the ocean functions in this region. Our ability to answer some of the ocean’s greatest mysteries has always been hindered by the degradation of the marine environment resulting from human exploitation. In the Chagos Archipelago, that is not a factor, and the chance to understand the physical processes that might help corals survive and animal species to flourish is an exciting prospect.”