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Vic Uni creates international biodiversity study

A meeting of scientists in Viña del Mar, Chile has set in motion one of the largest projects ever undertaken in marine biodiversity. A biodiversity database for one of the world's largest and most diverse marine ecosystems will be established by an international team from Chile, New Zealand, Peru, and the USA.

Stretching almost halfway around the globe, the Humboldt Current/ Sub-Antarctic Convergence (HUSAC) cold-water ecosystem provides nearly 20 percent of the world's fishing catch and supports many species of seabirds and marine mammals, as well as being home to vast number of invertebrate species most of which are poorly known to science.

"We know that some remarkable things are happening in the HUSAC cold-water ecosystem that have turned the prevailing wisdom on its head," said the New Zealand coordinator of the HUSAC project, Professor Peter Englert, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Science at Victoria University.

"For example, over the last ten years the Peruvian Jack Mackerel, or Jurel, has migrated against the prevailing current, and in defiance of biological wisdom, to invade New Zealand waters," he said. "The Jurel is now the principal commercial catch of Jack Mackerel in New Zealand, whereas ten years ago it didn't exist here."

Professor Englert also said that New Zealand seabirds regularly migrate back and forth across the HUSAC cold-water ecosystem between Chile, Ecuador, New Zealand, and Peru. "These seabirds have been banded and their movement has been tracked along the HUSAC biological corridor."

The countries bordering the HUSAC cold-water ecosystem share many other biological resources. At least 13 species of commercial fish and invertebrates are shared among the HUSAC bordering nations, and many more species may be synonymous when investigated in more detail.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Embassy of Peru and the Embassy of Chile provided valuable encouragement and support for the HUSAC initiative which took place on 26-27th May," said Dr Gauldie. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade supported this New Zealand initiative as part of the Government's Latin America strategy, launched by Prime Minister Rt Hon Helen Clark in August last year. The Ministry met the costs of Dr Gauldie and 2 other New Zealand scientists to visit Santiago for the HUSAC Project inaugural meeting.

The HUSAC group was created in response to the Sloan Foundation's request for science groups to set up regional, or basin-wide, biodiversity databases as part of the world-wide Sloan Census of Marine Life project.

"Biodiversity is a widely used term, but for the general public it is basically an expression of our common appreciation of the beauty and diversity of nature. But for a scientist, 'biodiversity' only begins to have a meaning when a database is created that brings together all of our knowledge of all of the organisms in an ecosystem," said Dr Gauldie. "Only when a quantitative database is created can scientists begin to analyse the relationships and interactions that are the true meaning of the word 'biodiversity'. The HUSAC project will create such a database on a website to be called www.husac.com."

Local students are expected to benefit form the project. "The development of a unique biodiversity data-base will provide exceptional research opportunities for Victoria University's post-graduate students," said Professor Englert. "For us, a significant outcome of the meeting in Santiago was the opportunity to set in motion plans for cross crediting degrees with Chilean Universities that will eventually allow even undergraduates to spend semesters in Chile and have those units count toward their degrees, and vice versa for the Chilean Universities."

Victoria University is working with the Embassy of Chile to follow up on this matter, and to find the best way to increase traffic between universities in both countries.

"The database is the glue that joins the science part of biodiversity to the management of biodiversity," said Professor Englert. "The future conservation and wise utilization of the vast biological wealth of the HUSAC cold water system is the goal of the HUSAC project".

The HUSAC meeting in Viña del Mar was chaired by Dr R W Gauldie who is on the faculties of Victoria University of Wellington and the School of Ocean, Earth Sciences and Technology at the University of Hawaii, and the Starlab organisation in Brussels.

The meeting attracted New Zealand scientists from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Geological and Nuclear Sciences and d-Cypha, a specialist database design and management company in Wellington. Scientists attended from Chilean institutions including the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, IFOP ( the fisheries research organization of Chile), three Universities ( Universidad de Concepcion, Universidad Austral de Chile, Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso), the Servicio Nacional de Pesca and the Comite Nacional de Oceanografia.

Scientists from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory of the University of Hawaii and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami attended the meeting. A scientist from IRD in France also attended. Scientists from Peru are also preparing submissions to the HUSAC project.

As the HUSAC project develops over the period 2002-2003, it is anticipated that the three countries that border the edges of the HUSAC cold-water ecosystem, Argentina Colombia, and Ecuador may also be drawn into the project.

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