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  September 4, 2001

Marine Biologist Joins New
Federal Ocean Exploration Program

Marine biologist Peter Auster is going on a mission into inner space. He is one of three scientists leading the first cruise of a new formal ocean exploration program funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

For more than four decades, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on space exploration and only a small fraction of that kind of money on the ocean. That may be changing. Last fall, a panel of nationally renowned scientists, commissioned by President Clinton, recommended that a federal ocean exploration program be established.

On Sept. 9, Auster, the science director of the National Undersea Research Center at UConn's Avery Point campus, and scientists from the University of Maine and the College of Charleston, begin the first leg of this underwater journey called Deep East 2001. The three National Undersea Research Centers located at east coast universities, including UConn, are organizing three voyages this fall that will involve a dozen scientists from a variety of institutions and organizations.

Auster and his group will dive in the submarine canyons of Georges Bank, and on Bear and Physalia Seamounts (underwater mountains). That will put them about 180 to 200 miles off the New England coast and a little less than a mile below the surface. Because of the depths, they will be using Alvin, the only manned submersible the U.S. owns that is capable of going that deep.

"This is formalizing the scientific exploration of the ocean the National Undersea Research Program has been conducting for years," Auster says. "We are not going out just to see what is there, but to systematically observe a part of the world where few, if any, have been before, and we will use that information to generate new questions about how the world works."

Auster says there is a key difference between exploration and research. Whereas research starts with a question and is carefully crafted into a hypothesis for testing, exploration is about making the kind of primary observations that generate those original questions, he says.

And there are plenty of observations to be made, as 95 percent of the oceans have yet to be investigated. During the second and third voyages, explorers will be investigating the cold seeps and geologic hazards in Hudson Submarine Canyon and cold seeps at the Blake Plateau. Auster and his group will focus on locating and characterizing the ecological role of deep water coral communities, with the hope of learning how to conserve them from human impact.

For thousands of years, deep-water corals have been a common component of sea floor communities in the Gulf of Maine and along the continental slope. But since the rapid expansion of fishing during the last century, they have been disappearing in large numbers. Auster, who has been diving off the northeast for two decades, says he can count on one hand the number of times he has seen any deep-water corals at all.

"Scientists know very little about the role of corals in deep-water communities, but we do know fishing activities are moving into deeper waters as fish populations in shallow water have been depleted," he says. Auster's primary research will concentrate on how and why mobile animals, primarily fish, use coral communities before fishing activity has a chance to greatly affect these areas, as it has in the shallower regions of the continental shelf.

"We need to start making management decisions based on the goal of conserving biological diversity, a result of which will be sustainable fisheries," he says. "Decision-making only to sustain fishing activities does not necessarily result in the conservation of biological diversity."

Conserving the food supply and ecosystem are not the only benefits from such research. Auster says we've hardly scratched the surface in prospecting for useful compounds from marine animals, including corals. For example, Ara-A - an antiviral drug - and Ara-C - an anti cancer drug - originated from marine sponges found in U.S. coastal waters, and a new adhesive used during surgery in place of sutures was developed from a marine organism.

The Deep East group will spend about eight days on the first trip and will share the results of their exploration at a news conference scheduled for Friday, Sept. 21, in New York City.

Janice Palmer

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