Embracing UCSB’s close relationship with marine environments, faculty members are conducting a number of projects designed to analyze and preserve the Pacific Ocean’s ecosystems, with studies spanning from artificial reefs and catch share programs off the West Coast to underwater canyons in the Bering Sea.
Alaska Fishing Disturbs Underwater Ecosystems
UCSB research biologist Robert Miller collaborated with Greenpeace and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to quantify the value of coral reef as a marine habitat and the effects of their decline on native species.
The study was conducted with samples from the Bering Sea’s Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons, two of the largest in the world. Miller was the lead author on the research — published in the Public Library of Science’s journal PLoS One — which revealed both the presence of coral species not previously known to exist in the canyons and the detrimental effects fishing imposes on coral growing in the area.
According to Greenpeace Oceans Campaigning Director John Hocevar, the organizations conducted the data collection process in the undersea canyons, which Miller then examined to prevent institutional bias.
Hocevar said the research’s results reveal the long-term threat fishing poses for the ecosystem.
“We did document fishery impact to the coral and sponge habitats in the canyons in the form of trawl scars — grooves in the sea floor caused by the trawlers — and also broken and overturned corals,” Hocevar said. “Even if the rate of damage is low, the impact over time can be very serious because corals are extremely long-lived and slow-growing, often living hundreds and even thousands of years.”
The team also discovered at least 15 species of deep-sea corals as well as a new species of sponge, which they dubbed the Aaptos kanuux in homage to the Aleut word for heart to represent the canyons as the core of the Bering Sea.
Hocevar said the sheer size of the Bering Sea fishing industry validates the importance of preserving the canyons’ ecosystem.
“There is a multi-billion dollar fishery in the Bering Sea, and what we can say for sure is that these corals and sponges are important habitat for commercially important fisheries,” Hocevar said. “There’s no question that there’s economic benefit in protecting coral and sponge habitats.”
Artificial Reef Not Providing Enough Food to Support Fish
The West Coast’s largest artificial reef yielded a decline in the number of well-fed fish, according to UCSB researchers studying the ecosystem.
The 150-acre area was constructed in 2008 as an experiment attempting to revitalize plant life that deteriorated due to heat released by the San Onofre nuclear power plant, owned by Southern California Edison. The success of the artificial reef will determine the company’s license to continue running the plant.
According to Marine Science Institute research biologist Steve Schroeter, kelp living in the reef may encroach on algae growing below, thus decreasing the amount of invertebrates available for fish to consume.
In collaboration with MSI research biologists Daniel Reed and Mark Page, Schroeter developed a food chain support index to compare the guts of fish living near the artificial reef to those living around two reference reefs, roughly 0.3 miles and 7.5 miles away. Based on this index, scientists identified a disparity between fish feeding at the simulated reef and those feeding at natural ones, Schroeter said.
“In 2011 the food chain support index was lower on the artificial reef compared to the reference reefs,” Schroeter said. “One of the hypotheses that we have is that by shading out the understory algae, the great success of the giant kelp may have unintended consequences of providing less food for the species that rely on the invertebrates that live in the algae.”
Although the amount of fish and variety of species correspond with researchers’ objective to preserve marine life, the fish living around the reef are underweight. According to Schroeter, the decline of well-fed fish presents an immediate concern, but overall the results indicate that the reef may better imitate indigenous ones over time.
“We’re optimistic that the approach is a reasonable one, but when you try to recreate a natural system, there’s going to be hiccups along the way, and it’s not a straightforward process,” Schroeter said. “Nine to 10 out of the 14 standards have been met in the first three years so that’s encouraging, [and] we’re hopeful that in the future we can find ways to remediate or fix those ways that aren’t being met.”
West Coast Program Regulates Fishing
UCSB professors Christopher Costello and Robert Deacon will begin evaluating the effects of a fishery system established on the West Coast last January.
After the West Coast groundfish fishery was pronounced a federal fishery disaster in 2000, NOAA worked to enact a system that would entice fishermen to only catch species with healthy population levels. Known as the “catch shares program,” the new management system was constructed to mitigate overfishing that leads to the depletion of species, placing them at risk of becoming endangered.
According to Costello, a resource economics professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, the West Coast fishery’s previous fishing methods led to poorer quality fish and proved dangerous for weak species with low population levels as well as those harvesting them.
“That system of management creates an incentive to race — to catch as much as you can — and that system is very costly for fishermen,” Costello said. “You have to limit the catch of fish; if you just let people catch as much fish as they want, you’ll collapse the fish stock.”
Costello said the catch shares program has been successfully implemented in a number of regions and will alleviate many of the problems created by the local fisheries’ former approach.
“Each individual fisherman gets a percent of the total catch; they’re just fishing for the amount that they’re allocated,” Costello said. “[This] system has been working in other fisheries both in other countries and cities for a long time, so we’re kind of just catching up and instituting this in the new approach.”
Costello said while overfishing is a problem in many parts of the world, evidence suggests that programs like catch shares can reverse the consequences.