In 2016 the team conducted research in Bermuda and NW Atlantic with partners from Bermuda Institute of Ocean Studies, Bermuda Natural History Museum, Bedford Institute of Oceanography and other institutes to investigate the sediment macrofauna, zooplankton, demersal fish and benthic communities down to 800 m, and their environmental drivers.
The team discovered vast black coral forest habitats in the rariphotic zone (150-300 m), which comprised species new to science, revealing the value of documenting these deep reef communities. This benthic work, along with our assessment of the associated fish communities and recording the deepest record of the invasive lionfish, resulted in policy options being presented to the Bermudian Government. To date the expedition has resulted in 17+ papers and data has fed into Marine Spatial Planning process in Bermuda. Discovery of deep reefs was brought to classrooms across the global by the programme Submarine STEM which was started.
Our work on the Western Atlantic seamounts and in the waters of Nova Scotia revealed the polychaete community of Emerald Basin was more similar to those of the deep sea rather than near-by shelf, revealing heterogenous nature of sediment communities and that unique conditions have shaped the communities today. This research helped to increase the protected area recognised by The Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization and supported research into sponge reefs, which are important to temperate ocean processes.
A collaboration starting in 2018 between WildOceans, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), Coastal Ocean and Research and Development- Indian Ocean (CORDIO) and in country partners such as the University of Comoros, Comoros Directorate of Fisheries, AIDE and UMANA conducted an expedition to Comoros funded by Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund. Research assistants in South Africa, students in Oxford and academics in Comoros and across the Western Indian Ocean region are working together to analyse the data that is focusing on understanding fish and benthic communities down to 150 m. We discovered deep reef communities dominated by a rich diversity of sponges, this is unusual and work is on-going to explore how this relates to the patterns of life seen in the rest of the Northern Mozambique Channel. The team have created an ID guide and comprehensive policy messages to support decision making in. We are drafting associated research papers and continue to exchange knowledge with members of the University of Comoros, who have gone on to develop further research in this area.
This project was co-developed in 2019 by the Oxford team, Nekton and eight different Seychellois NGOs, institutions and Government Ministries, including SeyCCAT, University of Seychelles and the Seychelles Fisheries Authority, to explore the Outer Islands of the Seychelles from surface to 350 m depth. We conducted a first systematic survey of deeper habitats and discovered that the unique shallow water identity of the islands’ reefs is also present at depth. Additionally, surveys demonstrated the positive effects of the protection afforded to the UNESCO World Heritage site Aldabra for the fish assemblages around the atoll. Other work on functional diversity and its environmental drivers is on-going and the team are working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment to support management plans for the new designated areas for protection. In collaboration with partners we have conducted several knowledge exchange and communication events during the course of the project, ranging from a taxonomic workshop in South Africa with regional and global experts and trainees and a marine science symposium in Seychelles, to the first ever live broadcast and Presidential address at 120 m depth from a submersible.
The Ocean Tool for Public Understanding and Science (OcToPUS) provides a platform for spatial data and applications related to the state of the oceans globally and how they are changing over time, and was created via the Oxford Martin Programme on Sustainable Oceans. It brings together ocean data and tools that can support scientific study, monitoring, policy and decision-making for the management of the oceans. The team are currently collaborating with NGOs and other academics to further develop the utility of the platform. Please do get in touch if you are interesting at exploring the opportunity OcToPUS could bring.
Deeper coral reefs (30-300 m) are found globally across the tropics and sub-tropics at a similar geographic scale to shallow photic reefs. They harbour unique biodiversity and provide essential goods and ecosystem services. With their connectivity to shallow reefs (0-30 m), they could provide a critical refuge for corals affected by bleaching, acidification and other human impacts.
Currently it is not known what percentage of deeper reefs are actually protected globally, but they are much less explored, due to cost, logistics and perception of fewer threats. Consequently, less data are available and rarely used to inform management and conservation decisions. This has resulted in most area-based management and specifically marine protected areas (MPAs) not including deeper reefs, and when they do, it tends to be incidental rather than the result of purposeful management.
To address these gaps, the team are quantifying the inclusion of deeper reef habitats in existing MPA networks, and examining the process that has led to their inclusion or exclusion. At the moment, the project focuses on six countries on the Western Indian Ocean (Comoros, Kenya, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa and Tanzania), hence, it includes several partners and collaborators from those nations. By establishing a scientific rationale for including deeper reef habitats in MPA design, our goal is to co-develop a set of recommendations that will ensure their future consideration.