Oceana Expedition – Part 2

Scientific diver Geoff Shester films red gorgonian corals and California golden gorgonian coral off Santa Cruz Island. Photo from Oceana, courtesy Jason Heaton.

Oceana and Blancpain Successfully Complete First of Three Ocean Expeditions in California’s Channel Islands

Research Supports Need for Additional Protections of Ocean Biodiversity

Oceana successfully completed its first of three ocean research expeditions in partnership with prestigious Swiss watchmaker Blancpain around the Channel Islands. From April 29 through May 3, aboard the 62-foot diving vessel, “Peace”, the expedition team explored and documented the biodiversity that makes these waters globally important. The expedition is in furtherance of Oceana’s campaigns to restore ocean abundance by addressing set gillnet fishing gear that is harmful to a suite of ocean life, and Blancpain’s commitment to ocean exploration and conservation.

“Our expedition showcases the incredible diversity of marine life surrounding the Channel Islands, bolstering the area’s reputation as the “Galapagos of North America,” said expedition leader Dr. Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director and senior scientist. “The beautiful habitats and special places we documented deserve additional protections from harmful gillnets — an indiscriminate fishing method which is still allowed in state waters around these amazing islands.”

Blancpain and Oceana first began their partnership in 2020 ahead of Project Alacranes, an expedition initiated to explore the depths of two areas in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in research that served as the basis for the Mexican government to enact the largest Natural Protected Area in the region. The success of this expedition led to the natural decision to continue the partnership between Oceana and Blancpain, as preparations to explore the Channel Islands were underway.

Over the five-day expedition, the team successfully accomplished the following:

  • Conducted visual scuba diving surveys to quantify and identify fish and invertebrate species and habitats — including gorgonian corals and kelp forests — at nine locations providing a glimpse into the biodiversity at risk. Oceana divers counted 830 fish, 1,837 mobile invertebrates (e.g., crabs, sea stars, lobsters), 1,156 large seaweeds (e.g. giant kelp), and 136 large gorgonian corals on 14 transects.
  • Collected water samples at 18 sites (nine shallow water samples collected via scuba and nine deep water samples collected via a Niskin bottle) for environmental (e)DNA analysis. The samples will be analyzed in a lab for DNA sequencing, which will allow us to identify virtually all ocean life (all plants, animals, and fungi) inhabiting and traversing these waters. By analyzing the DNA “footprint” left behind in the water column, they will get a comprehensive view of the area’s biodiversity at a range of depths.
  • Used state-of-the-art low-light cameras to capture high-resolution images and videos of unique, rare, and unusual species and habitats in need of protection.
  • Demonstrated the use of a compact Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Geneinno to document cold water corals at 100 feet depth off Santa Barbara Island.
  • Captured 360-degree video footage at all nine scuba diving locations to provide an interactive, immersive experience of being in the middle of a giant kelp forest. Some examples of the 360-degree footage can be viewed here. [Tips: on a desktop PC, use the mouse to pan and look around. On a mobile device, either use your finger to pan and look around or directly point the device to where you want to look. For a full 360 immersive experience, use VR goggles or download the Google Cardboard app from the Apple Store or Android Play Store or use Google carboard glasses to navigate as if immersed in the water seeing the environment firsthand].
  • Collected water samples at mid-water depths (from 60 meters/196 feet to over 100 meters/328 feet) to detect and quantify potential microplastics in the water column.
  • Piloted and successfully demonstrated that a hybrid underwater vehicle FUSION — an underwater robot manufactured by Strategic Robotic Systems used to support Department of Defense missions globally — can produce high resolution side-scan sonar maps of rocky reefs and identify precise GPS locations of lost fishing gear. The expedition demonstrated the promise of this technology to provide meaningful intelligence for ocean conservation.

The groups plan to utilize the imagery and scientific information gathered in support of protecting ocean biodiversity by reducing entanglement of ocean animals—including whales, sea lions, sharks, and other fish — in set gillnet fishing gear. These fishing nets used to target California halibut and white seabass can be 20 football fields long and are known for their high bycatch rates and adverse wildlife impacts. Despite action by California voters more than 30 years ago, set gillnets are still allowed in federal waters (3-200 miles from shore) off Southern California’s mainland, offshore banks, and in state waters around California’s Channel Islands. Oceana is urging the California Fish and Game Commission and the state legislature to continue working to reduce bycatch in the set gillnet fishery.

To learn more about ocean biodiversity at risk from set gillnets visit www.oceana.org/KeepCAOceansThriving

Sand dollars off Santa Cruz Island. Photo from Oceana/Danny Ocampo.

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