Smithsonian in Our Oceans

Diving Deep to Protect Our Oceans

Our oceans are vast and deep, covering 70% of the Earth’s surface. They contain the longest mountain range on Earth and hold millions of species. Even in absolute darkness in  near-freezing temperatures, creatures  can live for thousands of years. Five  miles beneath the surface, there is life.

Oceans sustain life on land as well. More than 3 billion people depend on oceans and coasts for their livelihood. Oceans provide more than half of the world’s oxygen, absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide and help regulate our climate. But our oceans are in danger.

Skyrocketing ocean temperatures and other human impacts have led to species extinction, mass coral bleaching, more intense storms and sea level rise. Based on deep research, Smithsonian scientists are pioneering solutions to sustain this vital resource and habitat.

Smithsonian scientists have christened a brand-new layer of the tropical ocean: the rariphotic  zone, about 400 to 1,000 feet below the surface. The layer “where light is rare” is likely home to hundreds of unique species. Documenting and monitoring biodiversity at all levels of the ocean is crucial to track the effects of ocean change. Research zoologist Carole Baldwin from the National Museum of Natural History explores the rariphotic zone and suggests that some ocean species may be moving deeper in response to warming surface waters.

After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill wreaked havoc on the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, scientists worked frantically to understand how coral habitats — key to ensuring the life and health of entire ecosystems—were coping. How do lessons learned from one calamity in one part of the Gulf affect important coral systems in another? Andrea Quattrini, Chris Meyer and other researchers at the National Museum of Natural History are investigating the connectivity of coral communities and sending data directly to partners that are working to expand marine protected areas and restore habitats along the Gulf.

Scientists know very little about where and how sharks live because they’re hard to track—and, therefore, hard to protect. Erin Dillon, a fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, is analyzing discarded shark scales collected from reefs in the central Pacific Ocean to reconstruct the paths sharks have traveled over time. Connecting the dots of how sharks move about the oceans based on historical trends could help scientists and policymakers preserve their habitats.

Each year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic make their way into our oceans. Floating plastic debris becomes “floating ocean ecosystems” for species that hitch rides on the raft-like garbage and travel to nonnative waters. At the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, scientists are tracking this unprecedented phenomenon and its impact on coastal ecosystems. Researcher Linsey Haram has shared these findings with U.S. policymakers to help guide their decisions in the new age of plastics.

Seagrass is often considered a nuisance but for Jonathan Lefcheck, coordinating scientist for the Smithsonian’s MarineGEO & Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, the plant is an inspiring study in resilience. Seagrasses store carbon, withstand warmer temperatures, grow in many ocean climates and provide thriving habitats for a fantastic range of creatures. They could help combat the effects of climate change — but scientists need to know more. MarineGEO is leading the first-ever Global Seagrass Survey: More than 100 participants on six continents will provide data on how seagrasses support healthy and productive ocean ecosystems.

Homing in on fished species at the genetic level allows us to preserve the ocean’s natural biodiversity by identifying species that are being overfished. Iris Segura-García, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Marine Station, has sampled the DNA of a variety of fish and crustaceans in Myanmar’s fisheries, where fishing is an essential part of community life. Her detailed analysis helped pinpoint species that are in trouble and informs strategies to preserve critical habitats and fishing resources. Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries is incorporating her data as they develop science-based protections and regulations.

Published April 2020 in IMPACT Vol. 6 No. 2

Rariphotic ZoneCoral





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