Member Highlight: With $35m Grant, WHOI Scientists Will Dive To The Edge Of Ocean’s Light

2018-04-16T13:32:32+00:00 April 16, 2018|
(Credit: Larry Madin/ WHOI)

(Credit: Larry Madin/ WHOI)

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has received one of the largest private grants in its history, $35 million, to explore one of the least understood areas on earth.

(From Cape Cod Times/ By Doug Fraser ) — The “Twilight Zone” covers a vast portion of the earth, from the Arctic to the Southern Ocean that surrounds the Antarctic. It’s a twilight world, where there is little light from the sun, at depths from 600 to over 3,200 feet. Surprisingly, it teems with life.

“There is 10 times more fish biomass here, maybe more than all the rest of the oceans combined,” WHOI senior scientist and biological oceanographer Heidi Sosik told a TED Conference audience in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday night.

While the curiosity of discovering new species and unraveling the mysteries of the deep ocean are a big draw for scientists, Sosik said there was also a deep sense of urgency to get out ahead of industrial fishing practices that were just beginning to explore the potential of harvesting the abundant life in the Twilight Zone.

“We can’t turn back the clock on decades of overfishing on countless species that once seemed inexhaustible,” said Sosik, who felt the science needed to answer vital questions before large-scale fisheries started exploiting an essentially unregulated ocean beyond national boundaries. The Twilight Zone is now thought to be an integral link in the ocean food web and a mechanism that mitigates the impact of global warming.

“The fishing industry is on the brink of deepening fisheries such as (the Antarctic krill) fishery into the midwater (region) in what could start a kind of Twilight Zone gold rush,” Sosik said in her TED talk Wednesday. “This could have irreversible global scale impacts on marine life and food webs.”

While much about this dark world is unknown, the habits of some of its creatures are familiar. The bristlemouth is the most abundant vertebrae on earth. Just a few inches long a most, it has a pelican pouch for a lower jaw, large blue eyes and mouth of needle-like teeth. To avoid detection by predators, the bristlemouth and its fellow twilight dwellers move up closer to the surface at night and retreat to the depths by day in what is the largest animal migration on earth. Bristlemouth are so numerous that ship sonar reflects back, giving mariners a false reading of the ocean bottom.

The value is not in directly consuming fish that measure inches at most, but using that fish to feed commercial species being farmed in what is increasingly the solution to an increasingly developed world craving more protein. The goal is not to ban fishing but to get answers to how to manage it sustainably before large-scale fishing takes place.

“How amazing would it be to take a different path this time,” Sosik said. “The Twilight Zone is indeed a global commons. We need to first understand it before we can be responsible stewards and…

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