CORVALLIS - Researchers at Oregon State University have created a "benthic terrain modeler," software that can be used with a geographic information system to provide a significant new way of describing the ocean sea floor and the fish and other marine species that probably live there.
Short of making dives or direct observations in submersibles, this system may allow ocean managers to develop a better understanding of the biology of large ocean areas, scientists say. It is attracting considerable interest from state and federal marine management agencies.
"This should be a fairly important advance in improving our understanding of marine habitat," said Dawn Wright, an OSU professor of geosciences. "It could be used anywhere in the world, given ocean floor data of sufficient detail, to inform studies of where certain types of fish and other species are likely to be congregating."
The system might be of value off the Oregon coast to characterize the biology and productivity of different areas, information that could be invaluable in study of the marine "reserves" being considered there. It's already being used in areas ranging from California to Ireland and American Samoa.
There's a reasonable amount of bathymetric data about ocean depth already available, Wright said. This software system takes that detail to create images of seafloor roughness, peaks, valleys and slopes, and combine that with known information about the area's marine biology obtained through dives, remote cameras or other approaches.
The result is a reasonably accurate and detailed biological description of the life that should, and usually is, found in a particular area, researchers say.
"Many nations are getting much more interested in understanding and protecting the biological diversity in their oceans," Wright said. "This is essential to sustaining fisheries, protecting against species extinction, and just understanding the ocean resource. But the oceans are so vast, and often unexplored, that we don't have good information on the biological nature of large areas."
The new system was tested this summer in studies at American Samoa, examining the marine biology on some coral reefs endangered by invasive species, human pollution and hurricanes. The projected results were tested and proven to be highly accurate by direct undersea monitoring.
The research has been supported by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. More information and a free copy are available from http://www.csc.noaa.gov/products/btm