Deep-sea grenadier fish, Nezumia sp. (© NOCS 2006) Deep-sea grenadier fish, Nezumia sp. (© NOCS 2006)
Deep-sea grenadier fish, Nezumia sp. (© NOCS 2006)
Deep-sea grenadier fish, Nezumia sp. (© NOCS 2006)
Deep-sea grenadier fish, Nezumia sp. (© NOCS 2006) Deep-sea grenadier fish, Nezumia sp. (© NOCS 2006) Deep-sea grenadier fish, Nezumia sp. (© NOC 2006)
Deep-sea grenadier fish, Nezumia sp. (© NOCS 2006)

Modern-day exploration in UK waters

RV Charles Darwin - one of the NERC Research VesselsAlthough a very substantial amount of deep-sea research has been carried out by scientists at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (and its earlier iterations SOC, IOS, and NIO) much of this work has taken place outside of UK waters( see here for map of UK waters). Early deep-sea work was carried out by the the Insitute of Oceanographic Sciences (IOS) studying the Porcupine Seabight and Porcupine Abyssal Plain, both outside UK territory (there have been more than 40 biological cruises to these locations; see cruises pages to download cruise reports.

Modern day research in UK deep-waters actually began with the deep-water scientific sampling programme in the Rockall Trough (see map) and was started by The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in 1973. Their research in this area continues to this day with a wide ecological programme including pelagic, benthic and hydrographic studies using a variety of technologies including trawls, coring devices, grabs and sledges. Fish populations have been extensively studied from the slopes of this region.

Much of the more recent exploration in UK deep waters was prompted by the need to assess the impact of manís activities in deeper waters; such as fishing and oil exploration, and the sustainability of such activities. For example, in the last two decades trawling has extended to as deep as 1800m causing presumed, but as yet unquantified, disturbance of the seabed fauna communities.

Some regions surrounding the UK are now undoubtedly the most extensively studied deep-sea areas in the world. This is largely the result of work commissioned in the late 1990's by a consortium of industry companies, the Atlantic Frontier Environmental Network (AFEN). AFEN funded an intensive effort to survey the bottom-dwelling animals of northern UK deep waters, resulting in large-scale regional surveys of the North and West of Shetland and the Rockall Trough seabed environments.

click for full-size map of AFEN 1996 & 1998

In 1996, 20,000 square kilometres of seabed lying to the west of the Shetland Isles was mapped and sampled. A further survey was carried out in 1998. The 1996 survey covered an area the size of Wales and included all the acreage of the UK Atlantic Margin which had been licensed for oil and gas exploration before 1995. In 1998 a further 10,000 square kilometres of seabed covered by the 17th oil licensing round to the north and west of Scotland was surveyed (see map). The same strategy was adopted for both surveys. In spite of fascinating early results from the "Lightning" and "Porcupine" cruises described by Wyville Thomson in his book, "The Depths of the Sea" (1874), the area had been comparatively poorly studied scientifically.

Data from these surveys have been published in CDROM form by Geotek Ltd, and have contributed significantly to knowledge of the benthos in the area. The surveys revealed an area of previously unknown, isolated smaller-scale habitats (100 m scale) which have been called the Darwin Mounds, comprising several hundred mounds in two main areas.

click for full-size map of SEA areas

The AFEN regional scale approach was then adopted in 1999, 2000, and 2002 by the DTI with surveys of the Wyville Thomson Ridge, the central axis of the Faroe-Shetland Channel and northern channel and Norwegian Basin as part of their Strategic Environmental Assessment process (read more about the DTI SEA process here). A map of sampling sites from all surveys can be viewed here . Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is the process of appraisal through which environmental protection and sustainable development may be considered, and factored into national and local decisions regarding Government (and other) plans and programmes Ė such as oil and gas licensing rounds. The DTI began a sequence of sectoral SEAs of the implications of further licensing of the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) for oil and gas exploration and production in 1999. Data from these surveys are still being generated and zoological samples lodged with the National Museums of Scotland.

a typical deep-sea specimen

Deep sea benthic research is expensive and traditionally scientific effort has been funded at a small fraction of that of industry, with the result that industry sub-sea inspection equipment is almost always superior to the equivalent scientific capability.

In order for scientists to make use of this superior equipment, a venture called the SERPENT Project has been established. The SERPENT project (hosted at the NOCS) is a collaborative programme between scientific partners, institutions and a network of major oil and gas operators and contractors whereby technology and knowledge are shared with the aim of progressing deep-sea reserach. The project centres around opportunistic and ad-hoc use of ROVs (Romotely Operated Vehicles) in operational settings during periods of non-essential use (stand-by time) and the utilization of photographs and data collected as part of routine offshore work and previous environmental assessment. In this way, valuable scientific data on deep sea marine species are already being obtained. Currently only three or four UK marine laboratories have deep-sea photographic capability so the SERPENT project is an extremely important resource for scientists.

A fundamental tool in modern-day research is the ability to visualise the seafloor using various state-of-the-art technologies. You can read more about deep-sea image collection methods here.

NOCS 2006 © All rights reserved