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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009 | A crew of scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Mexico believes it discovered new species of marine animals on a recent expedition to the Gulf of California, and also documented the effects of human activity on the ocean’s ecosystems.

Scientists focused on the middle area between shallow and deep waters, on which little research has been done, said Brad Erisman, a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps who was one of the expedition’s four leaders. Erisman said in the past half-century, the shallow areas have been heavily explored by scuba divers, and deep areas have been explored by remote-operated vehicles that can reach the ocean floor.

A specially designed submarine allowed the researchers a unique view of the sea. The three-person Deep See Submersible submarine, capable of reaching depths up to 1,500 feet, features a 360-degree glass dome, enabling passengers to get a full view of their surroundings. The submarine, owned by San Diego resident Steve Drogin, is also followed on the surface by a 20-foot commercial live-aboard yacht, which was responsible for dropping the submarine in the water and towing it back up.

The expedition sheds new light how the effects of human activity are going beyond shallow waters to deeper realms of the ocean.

The scientists are fairly sure they’ve discovered several new species, although a lengthy verification process is required. These include a new genus of echinoderms, two species of shrimp, several species of worms and a new species of sea fan, said Octavio Aburto, another expedition leader and Scripps graduate student.

The expedition also observed species never before seen in their natural habitats; they’d only been seen washed up dead on shore. Aburto said Scripps has some of the best taxonomists in the world, and they don’t recognize some species that were observed during the expedition. However, the scientists also encountered a lack of biodiversity due to over-fishing and human pollution.

It also allowed scientists to compare today’s Gulf against a similar, but much more pristine and untouched, habitat.

Six months prior, Erisman had taken another Deep See expedition to Cocos Island, an uninhabited, protected world heritage site off the shore of Costa Rica with the same species and habitat as the Gulf. It provided a sharp contrast to the dearth of marine life found in the heavily fished Gulf of California.

“You can see every reef breathing with animals,” Erisman said of Cocos Island. “And unfortunately in most of the places in the Gulf it just wasn’t that way.”

Protected areas such as Cocos Island serve as a baseline, giving scientists an idea of what the world was like before human activity made its mark. That’s important, Erisman said, because people only compare the state of the ocean now to what it was a decade ago.

“And so if you ask a young fisherman now, they’ll say, ‘Well, why do we have to protect? It’s just as good now as it was 10 years ago.’ Because they don’t know any better,” he said.

“But if you ask their grandfather what he would catch on a daily basis, he was catching 100-, 200-pound fish. And what they catch on a daily basis now is two-to three-pound fish. So as a human you can only reference what you know.”

Fishing can be especially detrimental for large animals, such as hammerhead and tiger sharks, which are slow to reproduce and replenish their populations. The gulf grouper, another large fish that can reach up to a meter in length and weigh 300 to 400 pounds, has been completely fished out in the Gulf of California, Erisman said.

Other evidence of human impact: ghost nets, which are lost nets that float along and continue to kill marine life. They saw human garbage such as beer cans and even an umbrella. Erisman said that animals in the Gulf seemed fearful of the submersible, associating human contact with death, whereas in Cocos Island they would readily approach the vehicle.

The underwater mountains, or sea mounts, showed damage due to fishing. Erisman likened the impact of shrimp fishing to the troughs left by a grenade. “That’s what happens when you take shrimp trawlers and you slam them on the bottom,” he said. “They dig big holes and then you see debris of dead coral.”

“Society costs are higher when you destroy ecosystems,” Aburto said. “But of course some of the economic activities that are increasing, that are putting more pressure on the ecosystems in the region are very important for the pockets of very few people, because the owners of shrimp farming or these kinds of industry; the owners are very few compared with the rest of the people that live there.”

Ellen Pikitch, a professor at Stonybrook University who also directs the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, also said the two best ways of preserving the ocean’s environment are through marine-protected areas like Cocos Island and catch shares, which she described as “when you have the catch divided in some way and distributed to individuals, corporations or communities in such a way that they can count on having access to the resource over a period of time.” Recently, Dr. Pikitch put together a report on catch shares with other scientists and lawmakers, which was given to President Obama.

The expedition was a collaboration between Mexican and American scientists, and research will be shared between the two countries. It was funded by a wide group of organizations from both sides of the border.

Erisman said he hopes their findings will motivate people to preserve the ocean’s habitat, particularly the people of Baja

“We’re working with a conservation education group in Baja [that] works with schoolchildren, because they love this stuff,” Erisman said. “We can also do something in a more adult level as well. We have so much footage. So the idea is to introduce this to the public and make this more public-friendly and not some just scientific product that just stays and is only working with scientists, it needs to be more media-friendly.”

The images from the expedition will be turned into educational videos and a coffee-table book, and the proceeds will fund more expeditions. “I think what you do is you grab people with images, and if they themselves are captivating enough, it draws people to read,” Erisman said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do. And that’s the first step.”

Please contact San Diego-based freelance writer Gina McGalliard directly at ginamcgalliard@gmail.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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