BLUE funds a scientific expedition around Ascension to boldly look where no man has looked before

October 14, 2015


This Research Cruise to Ascension Island in the tropical Atlantic, funded by the Blue Marine Foundation, is the first of its kind. The survey is taking place on the Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross, operated by British Antarctic Survey. The James Clark Ross is a state of the art research vessel for biological, oceanographic and geophysical cruises. It is equipped with a suite of laboratories and winch systems that allows scientific equipment to be deployed astern or amidships. The ship has an extremely low noise signature, allowing the deployment of sensitive acoustic equipment. A swath bathymetry system was fitted in 2000 for fine scale characterisation of the seabed.
Ascension Island harbours globally important marine biodiversity, representing unique assemblages of western and eastern Atlantic flora and fauna. Currently, however, a paucity of baseline scientific data from the marine environment is a major barrier to the effective management and conservation of the Island’s marine resources. Data on the abundance, distribution and biology of endemic and commercially exploited species is lacking.

To fill these data gaps, Blue Marine has created an amazing opportunity to assess the marine biodiversity of Ascension and its waters from a previously unexplored depth range of 50 – 1,000 m. The three day survey will enable new discoveries about the marine biology, ecology and oceanographic features of Ascension’s waters that will inform us about this unique island environment. This survey, operating round the clock, will cover as large an area as possible around the waters of Ascension Island; with the main focus being depths of 1,000m and shallower and out to circa 20 km where biodiversity is thought to be highest.

During the survey, a number of tools will be used including a high resolution multibeam echo-sounder to revel fine scale bathymetry (see picture above) and create habitat maps and identify features that may be hotspots for biodiversity. These will then be assessed in more detail with video and still photography using BAS’s camera lander.  A benthic (sea bottom) sampler will be used to collect organisms which can then be studied and will contribute to a quantitative assessment of biodiversity in the area and also ground truth the images taken by the SUCS lander.
The vessel arrives at Ascension Island today, 14 October 2015, and comes with a full scientific crew comprising scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG) and Ascension Island Government (AIG).

This blog will highlight some of the activities conducted as part of our expedition. As we sail to explore new parts of the marine environment, I hope we can give some insight into what life on board this state of this at expedition vessel is, and what our results mean for the marine science of our oceans. Follow this blog and join us in our discoveries!
Dr Paul Brickle – Expedition Leader.

Meet the Team:
1. Dr Paul Brickle – Expedition Leader (South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute)
Paul Brickle has been the director of the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) since its founding in 2012. Paul’s interests include the ecology and oceanography of the southern Patagonian Shelf, particularly the reproductive biology, age and growth, population dynamics and the population structure of marine species inhabiting the waters of this region. He also has a keen interest in marine parasites and their use as biological tags for investigating the population structure and migration of fish hosts. Paul is a part of a number of trophic studies of marine fish around the Falkland Islands and is interested in the environmental and fisheries impact on trophic structures in communities. His other interests include shallow marine ecology, community ecology and biogeography of small isolated islands particularly those in the South Atlantic including Ascension Island. Paul is an active diving member of the Falkland Islands based Shallow Marine Surveys Group and is also a Reader at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen.

2. Dr David Barnes – Chief Scientist (British Antarctic Survey)
Dave studies the interactions between benthos (life on the seabed) and their environment.  He mainly focuses on the ecology of continental shelves in polar and remote island regions, working from research vessels (such as RRS James Clark Ross) or research stations (such as Rothera, West Antarctic Peninsula).  Studying the ecology of organisms can aid our understanding of what shapes biodiversity, as well as how to monitor, manage and conserve it, but also how to estimate and harness the ecosystem services it provides.  This involves working in a wider team which includes many different types of biological scientists (such as molecular ecologists, physiologists, biogeographers and foodweb modellers) but also researchers in other disciplines (such as geologists, oceanographers, climatologists and glaciologists).  Dave is based at BAS HQ, Cambridge where he also teaches in the Zoology Department of Cambridge University.

3. Dr Peter Enderlein – Senior Marine Science Engineer (British Antarctic Survey)
Peter is based at BAS HQ, where he works as a Senior Marine Science Engineer, developing, building and maintaining marine science equipment, which we use on our research vessel the RRS James Clark Ross. This includes currently 26 different pieces of equipment – from very simple once like our rebuild N70 plankton nets to very complex systems, like deep water moorings. While on our research vessel he is responsible for the correct setup of the equipment as well as for the safe and successful use of all the different equipment.

4. Dr Simon Morley – Marine Ecologist (British Antarctic Survey)
As a marine biologist working in the Polar Regions Simon’s research focuses on how the environment experienced by cold blooded marine animals has shaped their vulnerability to future climate. The extremely stable cold of the Southern Ocean has led to the evolution of many adaptations, including a reduced capacity to respond to elevated temperature. He will describe how our work has improved our understanding of the mechanisms underlying thermal tolerance and how this research will lead to better predictions of global patterns of biodiversity into the future.  Simon trained to be a marine biologist (BSc at Uni of Liverpool), fish biologist (MSc at Uni of Plymouth) and then a fish physiologist (PhD Uni of Liverpool). After a postdoc investigating the combined effect of temperature and oxygen on the life history of a bryozoan he moved to the British Antarctic Survey in 2001. Simon then spent 2 full years as a fisheries scientist on the sub-Antarctic Island of South Georgia before concentrating on physiological studies of marine ecotherms on the Antarctic Peninsula.

5. Dr Elanor Gowland – Scientific Data Manager (Aero- and marine-geophysics) (British Antarctic Survey)
Elanor manages the marine- and aero-geophysical data held by BAS. Her role includes supporting marine cruises, collecting these data, as well as processing, archiving, analysis and providing access to these data and products. The bathymetric maps produced by the multibeam instrument are used for a wide variety of science. Marine geologists use the maps to study how the ocean crust formed, how glaciers once moved over coastal areas and as a tool to find sites for sediment coring. Oceanographers can better model how ocean currents will flow with detailed bathymetry maps. Marine biologists can use the data to map wildlife habitats and it can be used as an important tool to define fishing areas.  Much of the Southern Ocean is very poorly surveyed so there is an element of discovery when the ship travels to a new area. One of the main instruments she looks after is the multibeam echosounder.  Many ships have singlebeam echosounders for navigational purposes. These systems send out one sound pulse at a time and find the depth directly under the ship. A multibeam system sends out an array of sound pulses in a fan shape and returns depths from underneath the ship and from either side as well. This is sometimes referred to as swath bathymetry as it produces a swath of depth information. The multibeam system on the James Clark Ross has 288 beams and can map a swath width of about 4 times the water depth.

6. Chester Sands – Molecular Ecologist (British Antarctic Survey)
Cheps moved with my family from Tasmania, Australia, in 2005 to take up a position as Molecular Ecologist for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge.  During this time he has been involved in 7 Antarctic research cruises led by the UK, USA and Germany, collecting invertebrates from the sea floor using various trawls, grabs and corers.  His research focusses on the inference of processes that underlie the observed spatial and phylogenetic patterns of diversity, principally of invertebrates.  Practically this requires techniques used in biogeography, molecular systematics, phytogeography and population genetics, employing the emerging *omics tools.  Conceptually this requires the teasing apart of contributing forces of adaptation and drive, and how these two forces are affected by environmental and demographic changes.

7. Oliver Hogg – Biogeographer (British Antarctic Survey)
Oliver is interested in the use of multidisciplinary scientific approaches to: (i) increase our understanding of biogeographical and ecological patterns in benthic biodiversity; and (ii) assess how this knowledge can be used to inform on marine conservation and management strategies. His research adopts a trans-disciplinary approach to marine habitat mapping. It integrates biological, geophysical, and ocean productivity data with regional oceanographic models and high-resolution seabed photography. This synthesis of multidisciplinary information enables large-scale biotopic characterisations to be made of marine benthic habitats. This allows us to study the respective influences of local-scale drivers verses large-scale abiotic gradients on biological communities, and model the distributions of potentially rare or endemic fauna and vulnerable marine ecosystems.

8. Dr Judith Brown – Fisheries Ecologist and Director of Fisheries (Ascension Island Government)
As a fisheries scientist and marine ecologist Judith is currently the Director of Fisheries for Ascension Island Government. She has a BSc in Applied Marine Biology from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh and following her strong research interest in fisheries ecology her PhD thesis was on the life history of Patagonian toothfish around the Falkland Islands. Employed mainly in fisheries research and on marine biodiversity projects, Judith is working her way around the South Atlantic Islands! She spent two years on South Georgia studying the commercially important fish species in the area for the British Antarctic Survey and then spent six months on Signy Island as a freshwater limnologist. Next she spent 2 ½ years in the UK with Eden Rivers Trust carrying out surveys on the salmonid populations and on river restoration projects. Judith then moved to the Falklands to work for the Falkland Island Government Fisheries Department, researching Patagonian toothfish (ageing, reproduction, diet and migration studies) and then worked for South Georgia Government as their Fisheries Scientist. Joining SMSG in its infancy Judith has been a keen member of the group since 2008 and is involved in the research diving, photography and identifying of marine critters. During her time on Falklands she took part in all the SMSG research trips around the islands as well as to South Georgia and two expeditions to Ascension Island. As the Project manager on a Darwin funded Marine Biodiversity project she then spent two years on St Helena (amongst other things writing a book on the inshore marine life) before moving to Ascension.

9. Dr Sam Weber – Senior Scientist (Ascension Island Government)
Sam has an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation and a PhD in Ecology, both from the University of Exeter. His PhD thesis, completed in 2010, examined the reproductive ecology of green turtles nesting at Ascension Island. Sam has worked for Ascension Island Government Conservation Department since 2011 on a range of projects, including the development of the National Biodiversity Action Plan and leading a status assessment of the Territory’s globally-important green turtle nesting population. In his current role as Principle Conservation Scientist, Sam is responsible for managing the Government’s environmental research portfolio and is involved in projects on habitat mapping and restoration, data management, seabird and marine turtle monitoring, marine sustainability and invasion ecology. He has wide-ranging interests in island biology, conservation science and biodiversity policy.

10. Dr Andy Richardson – Senior Fisheries and Marine Scientist (Ascension Island Government)
Andy works on and manages the Ascension Island Marine Sustainability project funded by Darwin Plus, originally arriving on Ascension Island in May 2014. He gained his undergraduate degree and PhD from the University of Hull, studying animal communities found within intertidal mussel beds. Andy has a general interest in marine ecology, having conducted research in northern and southern hemispheres, including the UK, Falkland Islands and South Georgia. He has also been involved in fisheries research, particularly the biology of European shellfish. Andy also has significant experience in research diving and boat operations, gaining qualifications and commercial endorsements in the UK and working around the world in both tropical and cold-water environments.

11. Kate Downes – Marine and Fisheries Scientist (Ascension Island Government)
Kate is working on the Darwin Initiative funded ‘Ascension Island Marine Sustainability (AIMS) project’. Kate studied Marine Science at Falmouth Marine School which led to a BSc Environmental Science at Plymouth University. She is currently completing an MSc by Research in Applied Marine and Fisheries Ecology at University of Aberdeen, investigating life history parameters (growth, age and reproductive biology) and seasonal variation in diet of yellowfin tuna that utilise Ascension’s waters.

Prior to moving to Ascension Island in October 2014, Kate has gained a vast amount of experience in the field of marine conservation, research diving and marine fauna identification, taking her all over the world from Cornwall, UK to much warmer climes such as Tanzania, Cambodia and the Seychelles. Kate qualified as a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor in 2011 and gained her RYA II Powerboat the following year. She has also led marine education and awareness programmes for both children and adults, and is particularly passionate about building awareness, and support for, marine conservation and responsible fishing practices within local communities.

12. Emma Nolan – Marine and Fisheries Scientist (Ascension Island Government)
Emma has a first class BSc (Hons) in Environmental Biology from University College Dublin, and a Masters in Sustainable Aquaculture and Inshore Fisheries from Queens University Belfast. Her MSc and BSc projects focused on the invasion ecology of the Zebra mussel and the Pacific oyster respectively. During her time at University she became a keen diver, volunteering on conservation projects abroad and at home and gaining a PADI Divemaster qualification. She then went on to work for the Environment Agency’s ‘National Fisheries Services’ (UK), investigating diseases associated with introduced pathogens and parasites in inland fisheries and providing advice to fishery owners, it was in this role where she developed a particular interest in fish pathology and life history. She is currently working as a marine and fisheries scientist on the Darwin funded Ascension Island Marine Sustainability project, where she gets to combine her love of diving (through underwater scientific surveys and collections) with her passion for fisheries and marine science, all while raising awareness and support for marine conservation on Ascension.

13. Dr Vladimir Laptikhovsky – Marine Ecologist (Shallow Marine Surveys Group and Cefas)
Vlad was born in 1962 in Russia and graduated the Kaliningrad State Institute of Fishing Industry. Between 1985 and 1999 he has been working in Atlantic Research Institute of Fisheries (Russia) studying cephalopods (primarily commercial squids) and small pelagic fishes of the Atlantic. Since 1999 Vlad worked in the Falkland Islands Government Fisheries Department, and has been a diver and research scientist with SMSG. In 2013 he moved to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas, Lowestoft) where he is involved in stock assessment of different marine fish and invertebrates of the Atlantic Ocean and Antarctic. He is an official scientific expert of the European Commission’s Directorate-General on Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG-MARE) working for the Joint Scientific Committee within the EU-Morocco Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement.  He is a member of two ICES working groups (on cephalopods and on Celtic Seas ecosystem) as well as working intensively on methods of shellfish stock assessment, primarily scallops and whelks. He is also an Associate editor of the Journal of Marine Biological Association of the U.K. and a member of Cephalopod International Advisory Council. Despite being away from the Falklands, Vlad still joins SMSG on expeditions to Ascension, and beyond.


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