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  September 25, 2000

Study of Ocean Floor Habitats
Takes Auster Around the World

What a tough life Peter Auster lives, with trips to the Florida Keys, the Caribbean and the South China Sea, to name just a few. He would be the first to tell you how lucky he is.

"My first choice would have been to be a Viking, but being a marine biologist is the next best thing," he says with a big grin. "I travel all over the world and see parts of the planet no one else has ever seen."

Auster is the science director at the National Undersea Research Center at the University's Avery Point campus. A fish ecologist, his research in fish habitat conservation has earned him national recognition time and time again.

Most recently, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration named him an Environmental Hero for the Year 2000, for his work at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located 25 miles east of Boston.

Last year, he was honored by the Pew Charitable Trust with a prestigious Marine Conservation Fellowship. Of the 60 people nominated by an international advisory committee, Auster was one of 11 selected to receive the $150,000 research award.

And several years ago, the American Oceans Campaign, an organization founded by actor and marine conservation activist Ted Danson, launched a crusade to address the devastating effects of mobile fishing gear on the seafloor. The campaign was based, in large part, on Auster's work.

Underwater Video
To understand what is happening hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface, Auster lives like a fish - maybe a canned sardine would be more accurate. Sometimes he is packed into a small submersible; other times he is cramped inside the control van for a remotely operated vehicle, and spends hour after hour using underwater video technology to study how fish use seafloor habitats for survival and to document the effects of fishing gear on those habitats.

One example of the damage Auster sees is the result of bottom trawling. Fishing boats drag huge nets across the ocean's bottom. The nets are held open by heavy metal arms that can weigh up to a ton. The leading edge of the net usually has chains or metal bobbins weighing tens to hundreds of pounds each. They force fish or shrimp to rise off the seafloor and into the net. What they leave in their wake is devastation.

"Seafloor communities that were once dominated by species such as sponges, corals, and mussels, all of which function as fish habitats, are crushed or removed by the trawls. The seafloor is changed from a complex and diverse landscape into a flat and homogeneous one," he says. "That affects not only fishes, but patterns of biological diversity overall. We can't continue to use mobile fishing gear at current rates and expect biological diversity to be conserved and our fish populations to be sustainable."

Auster has spent the better part of 20 years trying to understand how habitat mediates the population and community dynamics of fishes. He got his start as a research assistant at the University's Marine Sciences Institute, but his underwater adventures started long before that. His mother would tell you that it began when he was five years old and a friend gave him a book called, "A Fish Out of Water." From that point on, the Connecticut native spent much of his time underwater in his family's backyard pool or in a nearby pond in Middletown. By age 16, he was a certified diver. Even now, it would not be unusual on a summer evening to find Auster and his wife Lisa snorkeling in Cedar Lake in Chester, where he goes to watch sunfish build and defend their nests on the lake's floor.

Deep Sea Exploration
Ironically, the inspiration to become an explorer of the deep ocean comes from thousands of miles above. Auster was motivated by Alan Shepard and the first U.S. manned space flight. He vividly recalls his excitement when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

"Working on the ocean is the same kind of exploration," he says, "and because of its nearby location, you get to visit it a lot more often. I can spend hours or days in submersibles. Down there, life is everywhere."

One of his most recent trips "down there" was in April to Bonaire, a small island in the Caribbean Sea off Venezuela. As part of his Pew Fellowship, Auster spent two weeks diving to collect data he will use to develop a protocol for rapid assessment of fish habitats that can be implemented by non-specialists. The protocol will also link habitat complexity with biological diversity. Currently, no common assessment methods exist for a wide range of seafloor habitats, and there are not enough experts or research money to monitor biological diversity around the world.

Within the next two years, his research will also take him to Australia's Great Barrier Reef and British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands.

Protecting the Environment
Meanwhile, Auster is still in the depths of his work with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. There he is focusing on fish communities and their use of the deep boulder reefs of the sanctuary and how these communities contrast with coral reef fish communities found in other parts of the world.

Although Stellwagen Bank has been designated as a sanctuary, it is anything but a "safe" haven for the diversity of marine life. Recreational and whale watching boats bring a million people through the area each summer, while commercial fishing boats continue to scour much of the sanctuary floor.

The environmental threat is of such concern that the federal government chose Stellwagen Bank as one of the first sanctuaries to undergo a management plan review process. Auster was asked to investigate the effects of various types of human disturbances to the sanctuary and then develop the scientific underpinnings for creating conservation areas within it.

It is this kind of work that enthuses Auster and, the way he figures it, that will keep him in or on the water for the rest of his life.

"It's a good time to be living and doing this!" he says. "Technology has really made marine research a lot easier. When I get to the point I can't dive anymore, I'll still be able to conduct research from a ship with a remotely operated vehicle. I could do this from a wheelchair. And after I'm dead, I'll be in a place where every article is accepted without revision by journals and every grant proposal is funded."

Janice Palmer