Preserving magic in the depths and saving undersea worlds

Douglas Rader

Coral off the Georgia coast

NOAA’s National Ocean Service

The deep sea has always fascinated me. It’s an unexplored world – with creatures unknown to science – right on our doorstep.

My own journey into the sea began very early, walking the beach after storms, carefully handling the weird creatures thrown up by waves and tides, and imagining what lurked beyond my view. As a boy, my brothers and I would seine the shallows, marveling at the flashing silver fish and odd shaped creatures we hauled in after every pass of the net.

As an adult, my wife and children – and brother and sister-in-law – have joined me in exploring the uppermost zone of marine life while snorkeling and scuba diving around the tropical world. Wonders exist in those top two hundred feet – but they offer only a tiny window into what lies beneath. Always, the depths have drawn me, down, down, to where the light dims and the creatures change in their colors and shapes.

The race to the bottom

In the early 1990s, it became clear to me that a race to the bottom was underway. Fishermen were exploring and exploiting every corner of the world ocean, at depths never before considered even potentially fishable. The race for fish was happening faster than the science could be done to develop harvest guidelines, and much faster than management systems could be created to limit harvests to sustainable levels.

In fact, many of those races for deepsea fish came and went before anyone outside the industry even knew they were on. It isn’t unusual to hear from fishermen friends, “Oh, we fished those seamounts [undersea mountains] out back in the 1980s.”

Deep-water species appear on dinner plates more often than most people think. If you eat orange roughy, “white tuna” (aka escolar), wreckfish, “Chilean seabass” (aka Patagonian toothfish), royal red shrimp, or red or golden crab you are eating seafood from the deep sea.

The race for deep-water seafood brought other discoveries. Unknown species came up in nets, and scientific explorations were made as a result. One area of research that I became involved in was with the ancient deepwater coral reefs along the southeast coast of the United States.

Specimens of reef-building corals had been dredged from deep Atlantic southeast waters as far back as 1886, on the Albatross expedition. Until the early 1990s, however, no one had any idea, of the extent of those reefs. That’s when Dr. Steve Ross, Dr. John Reed and other scientists began exploring those waters in detail. They found massive deepwater reefs, covering tens of thousands of square miles just off America’s populous East Coast. There were slow-growing corals thousands of years old, and coral mounds hundreds of feet high that were perhaps a million years old.

At the time, I chaired the Habitat and Environmental Protection Advisory Panel of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, with a new mission to protect what U.S. federal law calls “essential fish habitat.” South Atlantic Council staff member Roger Pugliese brought these new discoveries to us for consideration, and it quickly became apparent that the deepwater reefs were threatened by potential bottom-disturbing fishing activities. We went to work to protect them.

Saving undersea worlds

Over the next decade, there was an extraordinary degree of collaboration between scientists, who shared unpublished data (which is almost unheard of) with managers eager to prevent irreplaceable coral habitat losses. The council decided to protect every single known reef – all of it! – and then proceeded to do so. The result was the creation of a zone, embracing some 23,000 square miles of “habitat areas of particular concern,” where bottom disturbing fishing was prohibited. Recently, new discoveries have resulted in additional protected areas.

This could not have happened without the support of fishermen targeting deepwater shrimps and crabs. Dr. Roy Crabtree, at the National Marine Fisheries Service, and I successfully worked with those fishermen to design “allowable gear zones” for each fishery, with a dual aim of protecting the corals and helping traditional fisheries to continue operation.

Even today, I get chills looking at the photographs captured by Drs. Reed and Ross from their deep sea expeditions, thinking of the beautiful creatures that live in those reefs. All of them might have been destroyed had not this committed partnership arisen from what began as pure scientific exploration. It was a wonderful example of scientists, managers and fishermen working together for the good of the planet.

What else lies undiscovered in the abyss? No one knows, though recent discoveries funded through the Census of Marine Life suggest that whole worlds remain to be found and explored, together with endless life forms as yet unseen and unnamed.

In fact, there is another race now underway, one dedicated to learning about deepsea life before it disappears. The world ocean is changing as it absorbs carbon dioxide, acidifies and warms. This is shifting basic ocean patterns and potentially threatening ocean life we do not yet even know exists.

The task for scientists, managers and fishermen is to learn enough about these as yet undiscovered worlds to help find ways to preserve them for future generations.