Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Partners and Places: Getting to Know the Deep Blue Atlantic


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Photo © Norm Despres, NOAA Stellwagen Bank NMS

from the Summer 2011 issue of Inside Nature

Their names alone inspire wonder: Atlantic wolffish, flytrap anemone, redeye gaper, striped dolphin and squat lobster. These are just some of the varied and fascinating creatures inhabiting the waters of the northwest Atlantic from Cape Hatteras to the Bay of Fundy.

This rich picture of underwater marine life comes courtesy of the most comprehensive assessment of the northwest Atlantic marine region to date. It took nearly three years, but Nature Conservancy scientists have compiled and analyzed copious data and now have a much clearer understanding of the most important underwater places in the region. An analysis at this kind of scale— the area studied was more than 140,000 square miles—had never been done before in this region.

“Now we have a map that identifies a set of underwater areas that merit the highest conservation management and attention,” says Conservancy Marine Scientist Jenn Greene. “That is so exciting. And because it is such a comprehensive analysis, we can tell people exactly why those areas are so important.”

Gathering and analyzing decades’ worth of data took a lot of blood, sweat and tears—and a touch of innovation: Conservancy scientists created new methodologies to examine some of the information. These methodologies helped the Conservancy better understand the underwater system.

A whole range of federal agencies—from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Geological Survey—as well as state agencies and academic researchers from other organizations shared data and served as technical reviewers. To get a sense of the scale of this task, Conservancy staff studied 40 years of fishery data on hundreds of fish species. And that was fish alone—they studied the sediments that make up the seafloor, bottom-dwelling invertebrates, marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds, to name a few. The result?  A fuller picture and understanding of the creatures and habitats of the deep blue Atlantic. This information—which is now publicly available—confirmed the importance of certain areas, but also brought new and unexpected ones to light.

“We’ve never had an assessment like this for this region,” says Greene. “Now that we do, we can take the next step: visualizing the pattern of human impacts in the waters of the region, which will help us balance conservation and human uses.”

Looking forward, the Conservancy is building on this accomplishment by starting a similar analysis of the waters from North Carolina to the Florida Keys. When completed, we will have seamless sets of data on the marine life and habitats of the entire Eastern Seaboard.

This work proves what scientists have instinctively known: that beneath the ocean’s surface lies an incredibly diverse and surprisingly structured environment. While the sheer vastness of the ocean keeps us from knowing everything, this assessment provides valuable information that will guide management decisions to benefit people everywhere.

Oceans, after all, are a living support system that—among other things—supplies most of the Earth’s oxygen. That means each and every one of us has a stake in keeping them healthy.

Explore the deep Atlantic further at

Read the summer 2011 Inside Nature newsletter.

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