By Janet Krenn
To the landlubber, the ocean floor may seem remote, but deep-sea maps are essential for researchers and resource managers. Deep-water canyons provide a refuge for a variety of animals including deep-sea corals and fish, and knowing how ecologically and commercially important fish use the canyons can improve the way we manage fisheries. Maps of the ocean floor can also aid in planning for offshore energy or other uses.
That’s why representatives from 15 of Virginia’s federal and state organizations gathered on May 24 to tour the Okeanos Explorer and hear about one new success story: a collaboration that is putting data that is usually difficult and expensive to obtain into the hands of Virginia’s management agencies.
On Tuesday, May 29, the Okeanos Explorer, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship, cast off from Norfolk and started mapping deep-sea canyons along the mid-Atlantic coast. This kicks off a series of expeditions designed to improve understanding of the deep-water canyons off of Delaware, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia.
Studying anything underwater is very difficult, and canyons pose additional challenges. Different ships and camera equipment are needed to get successful images at different depths. To meet these needs, NOAA relies on four ships, the Okeanos Explorer, Ferdinand R. Hassler, Henry B. Bigelow, and Nancy Foster. While the Okeanos Explorer specializes in mapping areas deeper than 500m, the Hassler is designed to survey shallower areas. Scientists will use the combined mapping data from those two ships to identify locations for the Bigelow to investigate with a towed camera system.
Getting this data off the ship and into the hands of local and regional groups can be equally complicated. Typically local groups lack a clear way to get involved with federal agencies such as NOAA that gather such data.
“This is the advantage of working with existing state-federal partnerships, like Sea Grant,” says Troy Hartley. Hartley, the Virginia Sea Grant Director, played the role of matchmaker, bringing together NOAA staff with potential local and regional partners.
By making contact in advance of this upcoming cruise, NOAA was able to better understand local needs. They even added additional mapping targets based on suggestions made by local groups.
Laura McKay, who represents the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) and Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, two organizations that will benefit from the data, says the new partnership is very exciting. “This is the first time I’ve seen real connections and involvement between state coastal managers and what federal agencies like NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management can do out there on the continental shelf and slope,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for states to become stronger stewards of ocean health and to help ensure its sustainable use.”
The data McKay’s groups receive will be added to MARCO’s online map of ocean resources and uses, which is slated to become available via www.midatlanticocean.org this July.
For Eric Schwaab, Deputy Administrator of NOAA, this kind of collaboration fits perfectly into NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint vision of ocean management: to gather data to inform better decisions about conservation and use of ocean resources and facilitate partnerships between data users and gatherers.
“If we do a better job of coming together, planning together, and working together, data from projects like these can lead to better conservation and more profitable uses of our resources over the long term,” Schwaab said.
Okeanos Explorer cast off from Norfolk on Tuesday May 29 for a three-week exploration of deep-sea canyons along the northeastern seaboard. The 25-plus crew includes two graduate student interns, including an oceanography student from Old Dominion University.
Follow our partners on a tour of the Okeanos Explorer