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Beneath the Waves Receives Major Funding to Study Deep-Sea Life in the Caribbean

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Beneath the Waves Receives Major Funding to Study Deep-Sea Life in the Caribbean

July 01
21:18 2021

Two multi-year research projects led by Beneath the Waves (BTW), aimed at increasing understanding of the biodiversity of deep-sea waters in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, were chosen to receive funding through the Darwin Plus program. The program, also known as the Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund, provides funding for the “conservation of unique and globally significant environments found in U.K. Overseas Territories.”

On June 5, the U.K. Government announced, as part of World Environment Day, that it would invest £8 million [approximately $9.5 million USD] over the next three years to address the global biodiversity crisis.

The BTW-led projects, which bring together partners from the scientific research, non-profit conservation, and U.S. university education sectors, as well as the Bermuda and Cayman Islands’ Governments, received competitive research grants of £316,829 and £207,681, respectively, for two, two-year studies both anticipated to begin later this summer.

The projects are led by Dr. Austin Gallagher, chief scientist at Beneath the Waves (BTW), a non-profit research institute that uses cutting-edge science to advance scientific discovery and catalyze ocean policy. BTW’s approach focuses on the conservation of biodiversity and highly migratory species throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific Oceans.

“The deep-sea is our Earth’s largest ecosystem, and our planet’s final frontier for research and discovery. However, deep-sea environments still remain largely unexplored, poorly understood, and have few conservation measures in place,” Gallagher said.

“Through our research in the Lucayan Archipelago in the Bahamas, we know that critical migratory species and predatory fishes, like sharks, are extensively found in deep-sea areas. Bringing our innovative research methodology to this project, we seek to further understand how these species use the deep-sea, and provide scientific support for both the Bermuda and Cayman Islands’ Governments’ strategic biodiversity conservation priorities.”

The investigations will use a combination of approaches to accomplish these goals, including baited underwater camera [BRUV] systems to attract fish to study locations, which helps scientists minimize disturbances while making observations of fish population biodiversity.

In Bermuda, BTW will work as project co-lead alongside the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science (BIOS). Shares Timothy Noyes, a research specialist at BIOS and the project’s principal investigator, “As part of the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Programme [BOPP], Bermuda is in the process of developing a marine spatial plan that aims to boost the ‘Blue Economy’ and will include the creation of a network of protected areas covering 20 percent of the island’s exclusive economic zone.” 

A Caribbean reef shark investigates the Beneath the Waves dive team. Photo by Diego Camejo / Beneath the Waves

BTW SHARKWATER Shark Arena Bermuda June 23 2021

“While data are available to inform this initiative in shallow waters, there is much less information for areas deeper than 1,000 feet,” or 350 meters, Noyes adds.

This project will provide broadscale baseline measurements of deep-sea biodiversity around Bermuda from depths of 100 to 6500 feet [30 to 2,000 meters].

Dr. Brennan Phillips, project partner and assistant professor in ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island, specializes in the development and application of novel instrumentation for oceanographic research. His experience and expertise will allow the team to test low-cost, low-light imaging options for deep-water research.

Another tool that will be employed at the study sites is the collection of organisms’ hereditary material, via environmental DNA [eDNA]. Organisms continually release DNA into their surrounding environment, and common sources from fish include waste material, discarded scales, mucus, and reproductive cells.

By taking water samples from the area around the underwater cameras, scientists can extract genetic material and sequence it to identify each fish species present in the area at the time of the sample. This allows them to obtain more accurate estimates of biodiversity.

Beneath the Waves deploys their specialized deep-sea drop-camera rig, which will be used in biodiversity surveys of Bermuda’s deep-sea habitat. Photo by Wilson Haynes / Beneath the Waves.

BTW deep sea drop camera Bermuda June 23 2021

“The data collected will be relayed to the Bermuda Government Department of Environment and Natural Resources [DENR] through project partner Dr. Joanna Pitt, a marine resources officer, who is also a member of the BOPP Science Committee.

Pitt will help to integrate these data into the BOPP Marine Spatial Planning initiative and DENR’s Shark Management Action Plan, and will also lead the development of a Deepwater Fisheries Management Plan.

“Bermuda does not have a lot of fishing activity in deeper waters, but a better understanding of which species are present in these habitats will be very useful,” Pitt said. “An important aspect of sustainable fishing is minimizing impacts on ‘non-target’ species, like sharks, that we are trying to conserve. Gathering information on the distributions of both fishery target species and species of conservation interest is a critical first step towards this.”

Kaitlin Noyes, Director of education and community engagement at BIOS, will develop digital education resources for incorporation into the Institute’s Ocean Academy curriculum, which serves Bermuda’s students, teachers, and mentors. Shayna Brody, project partner and director of media and communications at the Waitt Institute, a founding partner of BOPP, will assist in the project’s outreach efforts.

“The deep sea is difficult to study and experience, yet is full of potential for scientific discovery,” Brody said. “Bermuda has a wealth of diverse marine environments, many of which remain relatively unexplored. By sharing this groundbreaking research with the wider community, we can all better appreciate how the deep-sea benefits those of us at the surface.”

In the Cayman Islands, BTW will collaborate with researchers from Heriot-Watt University, Marine Conservation International (MCI), and the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (DOE).  

The Cayman Islands lie adjacent to deep ocean trenches, yet little is known of its marine life below 50m, or whether its deep reefs offer a refuge from climate change. Although a well-managed network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) effectively protects shallow-water coastal reefs and associated habitat such as mangrove forest and seagass beds, as yet no planning is possible to protect or manage the greater part of Cayman’s territorial waters, let alone the huge extent of Cayman Islands’ exclusive economic zone. 

Therefore, the project will undertake surveys of Cayman seabed habitats down to 2000m and evaluate connectivity between shallow-water and deep-reef communities. The work will focus on threatened and commercial fish species, including sharks, and map the distribution of deep-water coral and other biotopes with a view to designating additional protected areas.

A previous ten-year project with MCI and DOE, the Cayman Islands Shark Conservation Project, resulted in a good understanding of the abundance and biology of sharks, rays, and other predatory fish in coastal waters, but no sampling was conducted at depths greater than 30m. Dr. Gallagher first recognized the need for surveying Cayman waters for deep-elasmobranchs, noting that none of the deep-water elasmobranch species likely to be present were detected in the previous study. 

“Three very deep-water sharks have been recorded in the Cayman Trench during prior oceanographic work, but no other information is available,” shares Gallagher. “Likewise, the protection and management of these species is not specifically addressed within the Cayman Islands. We need more data, and this project is designed to not only conduct the scientific evidence needed to support future species protections, but also to understand these critical deep-sea habitats and resources.” 

As project co-lead, BTW will provide experience in the use of deep-sea imaging technology and video surveys down to 2000m, as well as the required skills and gear for sampling and performing environmental DNA analyses. 

BTW leads and maintains collaborative projects in 5 countries throughout the Greater Caribbean region, working with government officials and departments, as well as local NGOs and communities.

About Beneath the Waves

Founded in 2013, Beneath the Waves is an ocean NGO using cutting-edge science to advance scientific discovery and catalyze ocean policy, focusing on threatened species and ecosystems. Led by a group of established and emerging leaders in the marine conservation world, they have initiatives focusing on the conservation of biodiversity and highly migratory species such as sharks throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific Oceans. Their work has generated nearly 100 scientific publications and numerous first-ever discoveries, and they have been involved in the study and conservation of nearly 1 million square kilometers of protected marine areas.

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