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Aussies urge seamount conservation

By Environmental News Network staff

June 10, 1998
Web posted at: 2:48 PM EDT (1448 GMT)
Seamounts contain a diversity of life forms including deep-sea coral reefs, many of which are new to science and are highly vulnerable to trawling   

Research by the Commonwealth Scientific Information Research Organization in Australia has prompted the group to recommend the protection of unique marine life forms on undersea mountains south of Tasmania. The act may lead to Australia's first deep-sea marine protected area.

The recommendation follows a three-year study by CSIRO Marine Research, with funding from Environment Australia and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, on the unique life on the seamounts and the impact of deep-sea trawling.

The research showed the seamounts contain a diversity of life forms, many of which are new to science and are highly vulnerable to trawling.

The seamounts, remnants of extinct undersea volcanoes, rise 200-500 meters above the seafloor at depths of 1000-2000 meters. While fishing for orange roughy and deep-sea oreos has occurred on shallower seamounts in the region, the deepest of the seamounts in the proposed marine protected area have never been fished.

"We found deep-sea coral reefs dominated by filter feeders such as colonial corals, and including bamboo corals that live for 100 years," says research leader CSIRO Marine Research's Dr Tony Koslow.

In a single research cruise by the R.V. Southern Surveyor, 259 species of invertebrates (such as corals, seastars and crabs) and 37 species of fish were found indicating the number of species living on the seamounts is high in global terms.

About a third of the invertebrates found were new to science and up to 40 percent of the new species are thought to only occur on seamounts in this region, says Dr Koslow.

In mid-1995, Australia's deep-water trawl fishing industry entered into discussions with Environment Australia regarding a voluntary interim closure of a 370 km region of the seamounts 100 km south of Tasmania. A memorandum of understanding between Environment Australia and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority based on the voluntary closure was signed in September 1995 with the support of the fishing industry.

According to CSIRO's Dr Keith Sainsbury, the voluntary fishing moratorium enabled CSIRO to conduct scientific investigations and provide the government with the information required to assess future management options.

The research strongly suggests that heavily trawled areas outside the interim protected area were significantly impacted by trawling, with greatly reduced coral cover and number of species compared to lightly fished or unfished seamounts.

However, lightly fished areas outside the marine protected area and unfished areas were found to have a very similar abundance of marine life and number of species.

The CSIRO report recommends the interim protected area, which includes 15 of the 70 seamounts in the region, be protected from all fishing and other activities that could disturb the marine life associated with the seamounts.

Peter Taylor of Environment Australia said the work by CSIRO provides an invaluable scientific assessment and will form the basis for consultations to further develop the proposal for a Marine Protected Area.

"Environment Australia will now move to the next stage of the process and I look forward to further cooperation and negotiations with stakeholders, in particular, the fishing industry," Taylor said.

According to the president of the South East Trawl Fishing Industry Association, Tom Davies: "The research will greatly assist further negotiations over management arrangements for the area, consistent with discussions the industry, at a national level, is having with Environment Australia on marine protected areas generally."

The cluster of seamounts off Southern Tasmania is unique in that it is the only area in Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone where so many seamounts are currently known to occur in one place, according to Dr Neville Exon of the Australian Geological Survey Organization, which conducted a survey of the seamounts in 1994.

The CSIRO study included 14 seamounts in the region, both inside and outside the interim protected area and covering a wide range of depths and levels of prior commercial trawling from unfished to heavily fished.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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