October 24, 2014

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By Courtney Mattison

The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) recently teamed up with Deep Ocean Exploration and Research and other partners to explore the depths of the proposed expansion areas of the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries. With the goal of gaining a basic understanding of new species and habitats that may soon be included in the sanctuaries, this team of scientists and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technicians explored depths up to 300 meters (984 feet) in Bodega Canyon and surrounding areas.

The ROV was equipped with a video camera that allowed researchers to observe a variety of interesting invertebrates and fish including sea whip corals, rock prawns and flatfish. Among the team’s exciting discoveries was a catshark and skate nursery near Bodega Canyon that consisted of several clusters of eggs on the seafloor.

Catshark egg nests on seafloor of proposed expansion area for Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo © NOAA

Catshark egg nests on seafloor of proposed expansion area for Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo © NOAA

The NCCOS will publish a report next year describing benthic characteristics of the region with maps and information about animals observed at survey sites. Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER Marine) – which was founded by Sylvia Earle in 1992 and is operated by her daughter Liz Taylor – supported this project alongside NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Academy of Sciences.

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Derelict fishing gear ensnares marine animals and causes them to drown. Photo © USFWS Joan Drinkwin

One unfortunate revelation from these surveys was the shocking amount of derelict fishing gear that has entered the deep sea. Derelict fishing gear (nets, lines, pots, traps, etc) is lost or abandoned by commercial and recreational fishers. It often sits on the seafloor and gets tangled in rocky outcroppings and reefs or floats along the surface, ensnaring mammals and turtles and causing them to drown. Since most modern fishing gear is made of synthetic (plastic) materials, it can remain in the marine environment for decades or even centuries, endangering marine life all along the way.

Fortunately, there are ways to clean up the mess. The SeaDoc Society (UC Davis Wildlife Health Center) has had success in partnering with the California Ocean Protection Council, State Coastal Conservancy, and NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and Office of Restoration to have scuba divers remove derelict fishing gear through the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project. However, there are very few ways to collect these nets and traps from the deep sea below safe depths for scuba diving. Remotely operated vehicles such as those produced by DOER Marine would be perfect for this job with sufficient funding. It would also be helpful to require tracking or identification tags on all fishing gear so that it could be reported if lost or abandoned.

Learn more about NCCOS here and DOER Marine here.

To report lost fishing gear in California:

  • Download a reporting form from the SeaDoc Society to print and return, or
  • Call 1-888-491-GEAR

Featured image (top): Skate and crinoids (related to sea urchins) photographed in Bodega Canyon during the NCCOS surveys. Photo © NOAA NCCOS.

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