Wednesday, 7 June 2017

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat...

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noted that after nine long months, the James Clark Ross is back in the Northern Hemisphere. But what have we been doing in the interim since gadding about in Montevideo and discussing tattoos, I hear you cry!

We collected a new group of scientists from Recife on the Brazilian coast line and delivered them to Ascension Island and the surrounding sea mounts. Ascension Island is a lonely volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic. Its nearest neighbour, the island of St Helena is 800 miles away. Definitely too far for a bowl of sugar! In point of fact, no-one is native to Ascension. It appears to have been considered a desolate wilderness in the middle of the ocean. One-time pirate William Dampier was ship-wrecked and subsequently rescued from it. Other sea-farers used it as a letter box island and a chance to get fresh meat in the form of turtles. But otherwise the tides of men generally passed it by until Napoleon was exiled to St Helena.  Suddenly it became crucial for the British government to have a garrison there lest the French mount a rescue attempt for Bonaparte.  Since then Ascension Island has played a crucial part in transatlantic cable laying, was a wartime military base for the British and Americans and is a stepping stone in the air bridge down to the Falklands.

Proof that the original military garrison on Ascension regarded it as something of a hardship posting

Turtles still lay their eggs on Ascension

An American WWII jeep restored to working order in the Ascension Museum
In 2015, a cross party consensus achieved with the help of various NGOs determined that Britain and her overseas territories should have marine protected areas. Ascension in particular is considered to be a “Hope Spot” which means that enthusiastic human activity in the area hasn’t robbed it of its biodiversity. The fisheries scientists, the Ascension Island government and the foreign office have all been working together to try to form an evidence based marine conservation area or “blue belt”. Put another way, there’s no point in just plonking it down anywhere, you have to make sure that it’s actually doing some good and protecting the areas and the species that need to be protected.

That’s where National Geographic, EU Best and the Darwin Plus Initiative grants came in. National Geographic in particular funded the charter of the James Clark Ross and made a documentary on the science performed aboard in line with their Pristine Seas campaign. EU Best and the Darwin Plus Institute made it possible to fund the smaller boat that assisted us with tagging operations and the post-doctoral analyses of the information garnered.
Shark Tagging

The initial crucial thing was mapping the sea bed. Surprisingly large areas of ocean floor can be uncharted and it’s ever so embarrassing to lose expensive scientific equipment because you smacked it into an underwater cliff that you didn’t realise was there. In practice this meant that the JCR steamed round in circles whilst using a multibeam echosounder to work out what the ocean floor looks like. This is the same principle as an ultrasound; sound waves are beamed out by the ship and are then reflected back when they hit something solid. Receivers on the ship pick up the reflected wave and by using the known speed of sound under water, a very clever computer program can work out how far that sound wave has travelled before being reflected. And once all of those millions of pieces of data are collated we have a map of the ocean floor.

Once our map was generated, the scientists could get to work on discovering what beasties were down there. Initially it was important to work out where most of the biomass actually was. Again, echosounders were employed to beam back information about differently dense tissues- those tissues being likely to represent organic matter. This generated a broad brush stroke picture of where the majority of sea life was but not necessarily what it was. As previously suspected, most of the biomass was concentrated around the sea mounts- under water mountains created by volcanic activity. Sea mounts project upwards into the ocean, creating currents that channel deep sea nutrients up into warmer, shallower waters.

Having located where the most of these organisms were living, it was then time to see if we could get eyes on and actually work out what types of organisms they were, what their environments looked like and if there were any particularly vulnerable ecosytems. Benthic and pelagic cameras were deployed to film these organisms in their natural habitats whilst at the same time sister vessels were engaged in tagging sharks and tuna so that we could work out the movement patterns of the larger predators. In particular we wanted to know if the sharks and tuna spend all their time on the sea mounts or if they have wider ranges because that would be important in terms of determining how far out from the sea mount the marine protected area would need to extend.
Stills kindly shared from the National Geographic footage

Now the important question simply becomes why, should you as the reader, even care about this information? Why is the creation of marine protected areas thousands of miles from where you live (unless you live on St Helena, you lucky duck) remotely relevant to you?

Well, for one thing, these marine ecosystems act as carbon scrubbers. Algae in the water strip carbon from the atmosphere and cycle it into the food chain. Once bigger organisms have consumed that carbon, not only does it stay locked in their body for a number of years, but when they sink to the seabed their bodies become trapped in oceanic ooze, thereby trapping the carbon in the oceans for the long term. And if we want to avoid global warming, trapping carbon is exactly what we need to do. Factories spend thousands every year employing technologies to strip carbon from their waste emissions- these ecosystems will do it for us for free!

On top of this, if you want to keep eating seafood- and my favourite thing after chocolate is sushi- those fishing grounds need to be managed responsibly. And that means keeping a lid on reckless overfishing and monitoring stocks of fish. It means protecting the ecosystems that allow the larger predators to flourish because I have yet to meet anyone who has told me that they love eating plankton. And finally there is a certain moral imperative to protect the oceans. As a species we have been singularly careless in our treatment of this planet, regarding its wealth as boundless. But I hope and believe that we are starting to recognise that all of our actions often have consequences far beyond what we ever could have imagined. We cannot afford to be like the Victorian landowner releasing rabbits in Australia because he wanted something to shoot at from his veranda. If we want to continue to survive on a planet that is a kindly and generous home we must protect it for both ourselves and the generations to come.



  1. You might not want a /bowel/ of sugar though, however kindly lent...

  2. Pahahah! Yep, my editing skills let me down today! Correction made...

  3. I like this post.better usefull post .thanks for share this posting.

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    1. Glad it was helpful and that you enjoyed reading it!

  4. And you never once mentioned the airport is closed to all but military traffic as the new RAF shuttle-bus is under CAA regulations and so cannot land because it carries too many people. BAS staff now have a different jump-off point. I'd stick to the JCR if I were you.

  5. It already felt like far too long a post! I had to take out all the stuff about the crossing the line ceremony- fingers crossed that's coming tomorrow!