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Exploring New Zealand's underwater mountains

1 July 2005

Exploring New Zealand's underwater mountains

New Zealand's under-ocean mountains, known as seamounts, will be the focus of a four-year research project led by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology is investing close to $3 million in research that will describe and develop an understanding of seamount habitat, the biodiversity associated with seamounts and the effects of fishing on seamount communities. This will provide the information and the development of management tools to support environmentally sustainable fishing in seamount regions.

Seamounts are prominent and widely distributed features of the New Zealand marine environment, with more than 800 identified in the New Zealand region. They support high biodiversity and special biological communities, sometimes with high levels of unique species. They are also often highly productive ecosystems and the focus of important commercial fisheries (e.g., orange roughy, oreo, alfonsino).

Project leader Dr Malcolm Clark says while seamount habitats are productive, they are also fragile. Fishing practices such as deepsea trawling can damage habitat.

The lasting effect fishing has on seamount ecosystems is not known. "We will be asking lots of questions, such as what level of disruption does large and small-scale fishing cause to entire seamount ecosystems? How quickly do seamount ecosystems recover from fishing and what is the relative impact of different fishing gears?", Dr Clark says.

"The research aims to underpin management that will reduce the environmental effects of fishing on seamounts through changes in fishing practices, and thereby assist industry to meet consumer demand for environmentally friendly products."

The research team combines many disciplines, including biologists, ecologists, taxonomists, geneticists, fisheries researchers, modellers, oceanographers, geologists.

The broad range of disciplines involved will allow more to be learnt about what creatures live in New Zealand's seamount regions - an important part of the research given so little is known.

Although relatively little sampling or study has been undertaken to date in the New Zealand marine environment of seamounts, available data indicates that not only are many organisms new species that have not been identified before, but can be seamount-specific.

Researchers will also gain a greater understanding of the physical nature of seamount terrain.

"It is important to improve our knowledge of these seamounts by continuing to identify where they occur, characterising their physical structure and environmental setting, in addition to determining their biodiversity and the interactions between different species and their supporting environment, " says Dr Clark.

Seamounts selected for detailed study will be extensively surveyed using advanced remote sensing and mapping techniques, underwater digital photography and physical sample collection and analysis.


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