Victoria researchers study deep-water communities in Fiordland

A Victoria University of Wellington research team has uncovered new insights on marine life in the rarely explored deeper waters of Doubtful, Dusky, and Breaksea Sounds in the Fiordland (Te Moana o Atawhenua) Marine Area.

Led by Associate Professor James Bell, the Victoria University research team used funding from the Department of Conservation (DOC) to complete the trip and spent ten days aboard the DOC vessel, Southern Winds, in Fiordland researching marine life living up to 300 metres below the sea.

The team included five PhD students and a recent graduate of Victoria University, Dr Joseph Marlow.

“This is one of the first studies to measure the abundance of the different organisms in these deep water environments,” says Associate Professor Bell. “We were able to record the marine life unique to the area, such as sharks and black coral, which occur at amazingly shallow depths in the fiords. Based on our observations so far, we think we’ll be able to describe the characteristics of many species that haven’t been described before, which is very exciting.”

The research team used a Baited Underwater Video System (BUV) to identify carnivorous and scavenging fish living up to 300 metres deep. The system uses a container filled with bait to attract the fish, and then records them using a camera attached to the baiting system. The team also used a remotely-operated underwater vehicle to survey the seabed in shallower areas of the fiords (down to 130 metres), recording the incredibly diverse anemones, sponges, coral, and brachiopods (shellfish similar in appearance to clams) living there.

The data gathered by the expedition will provide important information to help protect the area from the impact of humans.

“As well as describing the deep-water communities and supporting ongoing management, this work will provide data that can be used in the future to assess any changes that might occur as a result of humans, such as climate change or pollution,” says Associate Professor Bell.

“This trip was a fantastic opportunity for our PhD students to be part of a pretty unique research trip to one of the more remote parts of New Zealand,” says Associate Professor Bell. “It was also a great opportunity to provide research expertise for DOC, as well as support the ongoing work by local conservation group the Fiordland Marine Guardians.”

The research group produced the following video from footage taken during their trip.

The first part of the video shows footage taken using the BUV. This video shows some of the common species encountered: hapuku, spiny dogfish, blue cod, terakihi, sevengill sharks, red gurnards and hagfish.

The second part of the video shows footage taken by the remotely-operated underwater vehicle. The footage highlights the diversity at the benthic level (the bottom of a body of water including the sea floor) of the fiords; revealing extensive brachiopod beds (a species of shellfish similar in appearance to clams), large anemones, diverse gatherings of sponges and a variety of deep sea coral species.