Man’s ability to create waste is being felt in the remotest parts of the planet, according to an Australian-led expedition to some of the deepest parts of the ocean.
Scientists who spent a month investing the underwater abyss off Australia, which is up to 4km deep, made amazing discoveries of new species but also recorded a depressing spread of human-origin rubbish.
As well as mapping and recording new species, the voyage of the Australian research vessel Investigator also sought to measure pollution found on the sea floor and other human impacts such as microplastics near the surface.
“We have found highly concerning levels of rubbish on the seafloor,” says Dr Tim O’Hara, Museums Victoria’s Senior Curator of Marine Invertebrates.
He was chief scientist on the voyage of discovery by a team of 58 scientists, technicians and crew, from fourteen institutions within Australian and around the world, on the Marine National Facility .
“We’re 100km off Australia’s coast, and have found PVC pipes, cans of paints, bottles, beer cans, woodchips, and other debris from the days when steamships plied our waters,” says Dr O’Hara.
“The seafloor has 200 years of rubbish on it. Hopefully information such as this is the first step in influencing social attitudes towards rubbish disposal.”
The abyss is the largest and deepest habitat on the planet, covering half the oceans and one-third of Australia’s territory, but it remains the most unexplored environment on Earth.
One of the key outcomes of the voyage will be maps of seafloor life, which be used by governments to ensure that they are protecting the marine environment in the long term.
Maps created using sonar, coupled with underwater camera vision, have revealed a diverse seascape of rocky plains, huge canyons and undersea mountains.
Large areas of the recently created Commonwealth Marine Reserves have been mapped for the first time.
“We are the custodians for this piece of the Earth and it is really important that we have baseline data so that we can protect it from the impacts of climate change, rubbish and other human activity,” says Dr O’Hara.
More than one-third of the spineless critters and some of the fishes found during the voyage are new to science.
The finds include worms that live in whale skulls, a red coffinfish with a fishing rod on its head, giant anemone-sucking sea spiders, a blob fish, a shortarse feelerfish, flesh-eating crustaceans, a cookie cutter shark with teeth arranged like the serrated edge of a steak knife and a herd of sea pigs.
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