Monday, April 11, 2011

Biological and Geological Features of Marianas Trench Marine Monument

Science joins economics in making a strong case for conservation in the area now designated as a National Marine Monument.

First there was the economic study that calculated the approximate revenue that the proposed monument will make. And now comes the scientific study detailing the prospects for research and discovery.

Researchers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contributed to the report written by Dr. Elin Kelsey, Ph.D., an environment and science writer engaging the public in conservation initiatives.

NOAA scientists Dr. Robert Embley, Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, Dr. Rusty Brainard and Dr. Gustav Paulay along with a host of other researchers provided Dr. Kelsey with a systematic research to provide the people of the Marianas an idea of how important the region is for the scientific community.

In a region where fathoms below the vast expanse of ocean remain unexplored, there is a plethora of scientific information yet to be known that will somehow change the way we understand evolution and how the human race can better deal with global warming.

The depths of the Mariana Trench holds mysteries yet to be solved. So many marine species lurking in its dark fringes yet to be identified and mysteries waiting to be unraveled.

Dr. Kelsey gathered the research of several scientists who stumbled upon interesting findings in what may be considered as a biodiversity hotspot—the Mariana Trench—a large portion of which is being proposed by President Bush to be made into a national marine monument before he vacates his post in January 2009.

Will the scientific study along with the previously released economic study be enough to calm the fears and stoke the fascination of the community for a region that can be classified as a biodiversity hotspot?

With President Bush giving the go-signal for the assessment of the proposed marine monument, the scientific study may help the members of the community to understand the stakes involved should they or should they not support the marine monument.

What lies beneath?

The Marianas Trench has always been an enigma for most people because it remains as the last frontier yet to be conquered by humankind. Since grade school, it has always been part of science class discussions, with its depth capable of accommodating Mt. Everest yet it would still be submerged in water by thousands of feet.

Since Piccard’s bathyscaphe Trieste’s successful trip to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in 1960, no one in history other than Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh was able to reach that far. Even with the latest in technology in 1995, the Japanese submersible Kaiko plowed the deep with no crew on board.

Prior to the trips of submersibles to the bottommost pit, it was believed that life could not exist at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. With Kaiko scooping out mud from the bottom of the Challenger Deep at 10,897 feet, after samples had been isolated and cultured, it was discovered that life indeed exists.

The sample contained microorganisms that were neither “barophilic (loving pressure), halophilic (loving salt) or acidophilic (loving acid) bacteria.” Instead, the isolated and cultured bacteria were found to be alkaliphiles and themophiles.

It was also discovered, that aside from microbes, shrimps, scale worm and sea cucumber were also found at 35,800 feet while fish was also seen at 27,460 feet or 5.2 miles below the ocean surface.

Recently, the most telling of explorations were of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when they conducted research in the area called Mariana Arc in the Western Pacific.

Headed by Dr. Robert Embley, the research team focused their attention to life at the vents where they discovered mussels congregating on seamounts where liquid carbon dioxide is streaming from the vents.

The discovery of liquid carbon dioxide and corals’ immunity to it makes the region an ideal laboratory to study global warming effects.

Commonly held beliefs suggest that as the oceans absorb carbon dioxide into the water, it makes oceans too acidic for corals to thrive.

In Dr. Kelsey’s scientific study, she pointed out, “Ironically, one of the best places on earth to study the naturally occurring effects of an acidifying ocean may also prove to be an important refuge for human-caused acidification.”

Dr. Kelsey cited the work of Dr. James Barry, a senior scientist working for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, who claimed that the best area for coral growth is right over the Mariana Trench. Dr. Barry, who has been studying the effects of climate change and carbon dioxide in the ocean for over 15 years, is investigating the tolerance of deep-sea marine invertebrates and microbes to changes in carbon dioxide and ocean acidity.

The discovery of thousands of 7-inch, thin-shelled mussels congregating in the very acidic environment of the ridges of a submarine volcano near Uracus. What amazed the researchers, despite the abundance of mussels with paper-thin shells, there is a dearth of dead shells, which scientists think is highly unusual. Dr. Embley and his team in their 2006 exploration of NW Eifuku witnessed how quickly a dead mussel’s shell dissolves.

In his exploration log dated May 8,2006, Dr. David Butterfield noted, “An issue of global importance is how increasing CO2 in the atmosphere and resulting lowering of surface ocean pH (increasing the acidity) will affect reef-forming corals and the marine plankton that produce oxygen and form calcium carbonate shells.”

Dr. Butterfield also wrote in his log how NW Eifuku can serve as a natural laboratory for the study of the effects of the increasing dissolution of carbon dioxide on marine life, and effect of lowered pH from volcanic CO2 emission on the abundant mussel communities that live on rocky ridges near the acid-producing vents.

Although the scientists are puzzled over the abundance of mussels in extremely austere chemical conditions, they contend that future explorations may explain the high survival of these mussels and how these explorations can have an impact on the study of global warming and the acidification of the oceans.

Along with these mussels are shrimps and white galatheid crabs, a new species of tonguefish, a type of flatfish, was also discovered living at the periphery of the hydrothermal vents and are thought to be feeding off of hydrothermal bacteria. This discovery shatters an assumption that fish could not withstand harsh chemical environments like hydrothermal vents.

What the team discovered too is that nature truly finds its way in the most adverse of circumstances. Species living in the vent system depend on symbiotic bacteria that obtain chemicals from the rich effluence coming from the vents that they in turn use to manufacture sugar in a process called chemosynthesis.

Not only are the bacteria living around the vents, they also live in the tissues of worms, clams, and mussels but not as parasites to a host; more so, cohabiting with these species in a symbiotic relationship in order to survive.

Biota in the proposed monument

In “A Scientific Case for Establishing the Mariana Trench Marine Monument” produced by Global Ocean Legacy, Dr. Kelsey gathered the reports of several scientists who conducted separate surveys/studies in the area being proposed to be made into a national marine monument.

Central to her discussion are the interesting discoveries in the islands Maug, Uracus, and Asuncion where a healthy biota have been shielded from human depredations for centuries by their sheer distance from the nearest inhabited islands to the south.

From 2003 to 2007, there were seven scientific research expeditions to the CNMI funded by the federal government in the area President Bush is considering to elevate into a national marine monument status before his presidency expires in 2009.

In an article that appeared in the Saipan Tribune on Sept. 11, 2003, local and federal scientists recommend that a portion of the Northern Islands’ waters be declared as a “federally protected area,” after conducting a marine study in the area now being considered by President Bush to be made into a national marine monument.

In the progress report cited by the news article, the area was recommended to be considered as a no-take marine protected area. “Coral reef development was richest along the western side of West Island. A wide diversity of fish was observed. We suggest this area has strong potential for consideration as a no-take MPA [marine protected area], consistent with federal mandates for coral reefs.”

Based on the marine survey, there were 240 coral reef fish species (plus 15 new records in fish collections) found in Maug; 200 in Uracus; and 198 in Asuncion. Before NOAA scientists and researchers conducted their study, a previous report put the figures at 222 for Maug; 37, Uracus; and 57, Asuncion. This meant that the NOAA marine study revealed new records for the islands.

The 2003 exploration discovered a rare fish species, angelfish—Genicanthus watanabe—that thrives in deep waters was “occasionally seen in shallow waters” of Uracus and Maug.

Identified based on a specimen on Guam three decades ago, a spotted knifejaw or Oplegnathus punctatus was also seen in the area along with the xanthic phase of Kyphosus bigibbus.

Previous to this trip by NOAA scientists/researchers aboard the ship Oscar Elton Sette, the CNMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources revealed the discovery of eight fish species that had not been identified by any scientist before. The discovery of the eight new species pushed the total number of reef fish species to 95 that were documented in May 2003 and in turn, raised the total of documented fish species in the CNMI to 1,045.

Of the three islands—Maug, Uracus, and Asuncion—it was Maug that grabbed the attention of the researchers in the explorations conducted.

In Maug, researcher Qamar Schuyler of Coastal Resources Management, in her log dated Sept. 30, 2005, heaped praise on the island of Maug, stating, “Maug was an inspirational site for many.”

Schuyler wrote about a co-researcher who discovered a new species of Pseudojuloides wrasse and Dr. Peter Houk of DEQ dove in the lagoon and found corals fighting for space.

Also, both Schuyler’s log as well as the article written by Dr. Kelsey confirmed the area as a haven for sharks.

Schuyler and her team all experienced observing sharks—silvertip, whale shark, gray reef shark, and white tip reef sharks.

While towing near Maug, Schuyler reported her co-researchers observing the mating behavior of two white-tip reef sharks with “the male biting the fin of the female repeatedly while swimming in front of the twoers for over five minutes.”

In Dr. Kelsey’s report, it was cited that the proposed Mariana Trench Marine National Monument is a place where apex predators still exist in large numbers and higher shark densities in the north than in rest of the Mariana Archipelago. The western arc of the proposed monument has the highest density of shark.

Where there are predators, there are preys. Waters with high concentration of sharks and other apex predators have high concentration of fish.

Dr. Rusty Brainard corroborates this. “The waters around Uracus, Maug, and Asuncion show substantially higher fish biomass.”

Maug for one has gravitated the attention of the scientists from the various explorations since 2003.

Asssistant regional administrator for the Habitat Division of NOAA’s National Mariune Fisheries Services’s Pacific Islands Regional Office Gerry Davis marveled at the view underwater in Maug’s lagoon.

For Davis, he does not know of any other lagoon as deep as Maug is. The 800-foot deep lagoon shelters fish species that are found only on coastal slopes, sharks and other apex predators.

When Davis dove into the lagoon, he saw dozens of bumphead parrotfish in three feet of water. Bumpheads are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and are also classified as Species of Concern under the US National Marine Fisheries and as a Species of Special Conservation Need for the CNMI.

What Davis experienced in that crater was a glimpse of what ocean was like in its pristine state before humans “started tinkering with it.”

Maug is an important site for conservation because of its pristine state. For Pew fellow Dr. Enric Sala, in order for conservation to be effective, there has to be rigorous baselines of pristine conditions “to asssess impacts of human activities and to evaluate the efficacy of management.”

At Maug, a three-island remnant of a volcano collapsing into a caldera of remarkable depth of 800 feet, Dr. Brainard sees a mature coral reef ecosystem and a unique geochemistry with the area found to have hydrothermal vents that release highly acidic water (pH 6.0) at a temperature of 140 degree Fahrenheit into the coral reef.

Another amazing feature of the crater is the “remarkable interface of photosynthetic and chemosynthetic ecosystems.” Organisms that depend on sunlight for food and fuel interact with organisms that depend on bacteria that convert nutrients in the vents into energy.

Because of the venting, Dr. Brainard considers Maug as a potential site for studying the long-term effects of ocean acidification.

For the potential of Maug to be an onsite scientific laboratory, Dr. Kelsey quoted Dr. Brainard as commenting, “We see it as an opportunity to better understand what maybe facing our reefs in the coming decades.”

Moreover, Ensley’s scientific study also cited the work of Dr. Gustav Paulay who also supported the idea of preserving Maug, Uracus and Asuncion nominated to be elevated by President Bush into a marine monument status for their potential as refuge from climate change. She quoted Dr. Paulay as saying, “The monument could be a safe place for corals to spread as the oceans get warmer.”

In a detailed report of the Mariana Arc exploration in 2003-2004, the NOAA team of scientists and researchers explored the summit of a small volcano called NW Eifuku, just northwest of the island of Uracus where at a depth of 1,605 meters, liquid carbon dioxide was found on the southern flank of the volcano.

“The NW Eifuku site is the first observation of liquid CO2 emission from a bare-rock basaltic system in an active magmatic arc setting,” reported Dr. Lupton et al.

Based on temperature measurements and analyses of the white smoker fluids, as it is near the supercritical portion of the CO2 phase program, the fluids contain the highest concentration of CO2 yet measured at any seafloor hydrothermal vent system.

Two years ago, Dr. Robert Embley’s team went back to the Mariana Arc and discovered sulfur volcanism, and he wrote in his exploration log in 2006, there are only two known sulfur volcanism in the solar system: one on Jupiter’s innermost moon Io and the other, in the Mariana Arc where “a convecting pool of liquid sulfur under more than 40 atmospheres of pressure” exists.

The site at Champagne discharges two distinct fluids into the ocean: 103 degree C gas-rich hydrothermal fluid with at least millimolar levels of H2S and another, a cold one (<>

Aside from the venting that scientists noticed, a recent cetacean survey reported 19 species of whales and dolphins within the area.

According to the 2007 US Navy commissioned systematic cetacean survey, some of the whale species identified were pygmy sperm whale, dwarf sperm whale, long and short-finned pilot whale, false killer whale, Bryde’s whale, seiwhale, pygmy killer whale, sperm whale, blue whale, humpback, Blainville’s beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, Longman’s beaked whale.

The area is part of the route that whales ply from Hawaii to the Philippines and it could be that some whales like fin whales dive as deep as they can to find food. And the Marianas Trench is the deepest place on earth where they can forage for food.

Although there was no mention or sighting even of a fin whale in the cetacean survey, a recent New York Times article about a fin whale’s feeding behavior may be best suited in the Pacific, specifically, in the area being proposed to be made into a national marine monument.

In that article, the scientists observed the feeding habit of a fin whale that dives so deep to get food or what scientists term as lunge feeding.

The New York Times article featured the study conducted by Jeremy Goldbogen and Robert Shadwick of the University of British Columbia who logged how fin whales feed.

They discovered that fin whales plunges more than 600 feet below the sea surface in what they perceive as the leviathan’s search for giant swarms of krill.

What startled these scientists was the whales’ grinding to a complete halt in a matter of seconds by opening its mouth that allows water to flood in its oral cavity.

According to the NY Times article. “In fact, a fin whale’s body turns out to be exquisitely adapted for increasing its drag. The underside of its mouth is made up of a unique set of pleats that can stretch to four times their normal size. By continuing to beat its tail, the whale forces more water in, causing its mouth to expand like a parachute. And just as race car drivers use parachutes to slow them down, the whale’s inflated mouth brings it to a dead stop.”

As big as these mammals are, they require a big space where they can find something to eat.

And the Pacific Ocean, specifically, the Marianas Trench, is a good feeding ground for these leviathans of the sea.

Aside from these huge mammals are the species of dolphins sighted in the only survey conducted.

In the same cetacean survey, Spinner, striped, pantropical spotted, Risso’s, and rough-toothed, and common bottlenose dolphins were sighted in the area in the only cetacean survey ever conducted in the CNMI in 2007.

Meanwhile, aside from these mammals of the sea, the scientists too had the chance to survey other animals on land on the islands of Maug, Uracus, and Asuncion. On these islands, birds known as megapodes that instead of using their own bodies to incubate their eggs, rely on geothermal heat.

These Micronesian megapodes are endangered species in both federal and local lists and are found in the islands of Maug, Uracus, and Asuncion.

Moreover, these northern islands are also the last refuge for the Mariana fruit bats that thrive well in areas with no human activity.

These same islands are also home to sooty terns, boobies, noody, Micronesian starling, Micronesian honeyeater, collared kingfisher, ground dove, Pacific reef heron, and birds that have been listed as species of special conservation need for the CNMI.

All these endangered species and yet to be discovered fauna and flora species combine to make Asuncion, Maug, and Uracus a goldmine for scientific research and conservation efforts because of diversity.

Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, Canada Research Chair in Deep Oceans at the University of Victoria, and who took part in the exploration of the Mariana Arc along with Dr. Robert Embley, commented “What Global Ocean Legacy has identified within this proposed marine reserve is a wonderful range of genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity.”

For Dr. Tunnicliffe, the boundaries encompass a vast range of large-scale geological habitats, of much greater geological range than even Hawaii.

Dr. Brainard agrees with her, saying, “All of the islands in the Marianas are higher in genetic richness than anywhere in Hawaii or Johnston, or Jarvis.”

Tougher, stricter conservation measures needed

Given the remarkable outcome of the NOAA explorations in the Mariana Arc, it now behooves the community to consider giving the area maximum protection.

Dr. Rusty Brainard was right in thinking “the remoteness of the northern islands of the Mariana Archipelago will not protect them” for so long. Recent media reports established the presence of illegal fishing in the area.

In pursuit of keeping the plant and animal species in their natural habitats and to keep them thriving uninterrupted by human activity, a more potent conservation measure must be put in place. Although the CNMI has already enforced conservation measures in the region, it will be a fitting complement to allow a more potent measure—that of President Bush invoking the Antiquities Act to designate Maug, Uracus, and Asuncion a national marine monument.

The proposed marine monument is complementary to conservation efforts of the CNMI in the three islands of Uracus, Maug, and Asuncion, which it designated as a nature reserve under the CNMI Constitution.

Given the glowing reports by scientists who took part in the NOAA explorations of the region, the community must act promptly on the call for tougher and stricter conservation measures.

And no measure could even be tougher and more beneficial to the community and the environment than setting aside the 115,000 square miles of water and land as a national marine monument.

Because it has remained virtually untouched by humans for generations, the trench now becomes an ideal, natural laboratory where scientists can study evolution and the impact of human activities to marine ecosystems.

With bright prospects for research and understanding of a plethora of scientific phenomenon, the Marianas Trench will enable not only American but other scientists of the world, to better understand global warming and cushion impact of human depredation.

Although the waters surrounding the three islands, including submerged lands and EEZ, belong to the federal government, the proposal seeks to share the management and enforcement of the marine monument with the local government. Contrary to the misinformation that sowed fear among the members of the community, the federal government is seeking the opinion of the community regarding the proposed co-management of a marine monument.

And as in the case of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that President Bush made into a national marine monument, the proposed monument here will allow traditional practices of the indigenous people to continue.

Traditional fishing as well as the rites of a navigator, among other traditional practices, will still flourish.

A flourishing culture and tradition, a thriving economy, and a surviving pristine environment all exist simultaneously in an area where prospects for research are tremendous for the scientific community.

Let this all happen. A national marine monument is not only good for the CNMI, it is good too for all those who depend on the vast oceans for sustenance and preservation of not only flora, fauna, and marine life forms, but also for the continued existence of the human race.

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