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Oceanographic collaboration

Deep study

(January 13, 2000, Gazette)

Dr. Richard Haedrich

By Karen Shewbridge

Memorial University and Texas A & M University are collaborating on what researchers are calling a milestone in deep ocean biological oceanography. The four-year study of deep benthic ecology of the Gulf of Mexico is one of the biggest deep sea research projects of its kind ever launched.

The study will provide a framework to determine the ecological effects current and future oil and gas exploration could have on the deep continental slope at depths of 300 to 3,000 metres. It will cost $ 4.2 million US.

Dr. Richard Haedrich, Biology, is Memorial’s leading researcher on the project.

“Initially, MUN was responsible for deep ocean collecting with large nets and classical faunal analyses of biodiversity, distribution, and community structure on existing data sets.”

The data sets primarily involved a retrospective monitoring of polychaete worms collected years earlier. Dr. Haedrich said the worms are important because they are the most abundant animals living in the sediments and would be greatly affected by disturbances caused by the exploration for fossil fuel reserves.
“The oil industry wants to know what happens to bottom dwellers,” said Dr. Haedrich, “how such disturbances might impact on the fishery, and whether they could possibly affect the food chain for commercial fish.

“We analyzed a lot of those data and put them in a particular perspective and produced a lot of graphs and maps ... so we’ve been mapping things like diversity and abundance and a lot of community parameters to help the research team plan its cruises.”

The preliminary results were so well-received, Memorial has been asked to do further analyses on larger groups, including small and large crustaceans, fish, star fish and others.

Minerals Management Services of the U.S solicited the project which may expand its scope beyond the potential oil and gas exploration fields in order to gain a clear understanding of the structure and function of the deep-sea communities in the Gulf environment.

Dr. Haedrich pointed out that this study is particularly necessary.
“The ecology of that portion of the deep sea is quite different from the conditions where most marine oil fields are now. It is a more tropical region than the North Sea and other sorts of places.”

Memorial researchers will receive approximately $150,000 through the project and will assist on three research cruises in the Gulf of Mexico.