From the Mysteries of the Deep to Questions at the Surface: Scientists Study Marine Ecosystems of West Hawaiʻi

September 6, 2016 (updated 11/06/2017)

West Hawaiʻi IEA researchers unfurl a trawl net aboard the Sette.
West Hawaiʻi IEA researchers unfurl a trawl net aboard the Sette.

On September 6, 2016, the West Hawaiʻi Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) program embarked on a scientific expedition to the west coast of Hawaiʻi Island. West Hawaiʻi is a dynamic and highly productive ecological region and is home to diverse group of marine organisms including tropical corals and reef fishes, sea turtles, cetaceans, and manta rays. The 19 scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette will spend 20 days investigating the marine ecosystem and underlying oceanography of the region.

During the first half of the expedition, research efforts will focus on a specific area south of Kona where previous IEA research discovered a community of deep-water organisms found in high abundance. This group of organisms, termed the "mesopelagic boundary layer community", lives within a mile from shore and relatively deep water, between 1300 and 2000 feet (400 – 600 m). The mesopelagic boundary layer community is thought to be an important food resource for higher trophic groups that frequent the waters off West Hawaiʻi, such as dolphins and whales. However, much remains to be explored and discovered, such as assessing what marine animals are in this community and why they prefer this particular geographic area of Hawaiʻi Island.

In addition to researching animals from the deep, the West Hawaiʻi IEA research expedition will also study surface slicks: narrow, meandering lines on the surface ocean. Slicks are associated with increased water tension on the surface that dampens surface ripples and produces a visibly smooth, ribbon-like feature in the coastal ocean. The areas within and around slicks appear to function as biological oases, as they aggregate floating material and attract organisms in areas where food resources are otherwise sparse and dispersed. Researchers also believe these slicks may contribute to the recruitment and retention of early life history stages of marine organisms, such as reef fish and turtles. Despite this potential biological importance, very little is known with respect to the underlying physical mechanisms and the ecological relevance of surface slicks in Hawaiʻi.

Swallower (Kali indica) have hinged teeth that look similar to fish hooks. So once its prey is hooked there is no escape! NOAA Photo by Jessica Chen. Velvet Whalefish (Barbourisia rufa) have a very large mouth that looks like a whale's. NOAA Photo by Jessica Chen. Spookfish (Opisthoproctus soleatus) have telescopic eyes that look up, but can also rotate to look forward. Their stomachs 
        are also bioluminescent because of a symbiotic relationship they have with a bacterial colony. NOAA Photo by Jessica Chen.
Photos of recent specimens collected. Clockwise from top left: Swallower (Kali indica) have hinged teeth that look similar to fish hooks. So once its prey is hooked there is no escape! NOAA Photo by Jessica Chen; Velvet Whalefish (Barbourisia rufa) have a very large mouth that looks like a whale's. NOAA Photo by Jessica Chen; Spookfish (Opisthoproctus soleatus) have telescopic eyes that look up, but can also rotate to look forward. Their stomachs are also bioluminescent because of a symbiotic relationship they have with a bacterial colony. NOAA Photo by Jessica Chen.

Check the PIFSC Blog and Twitter for mission updates!

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