Sunday, November 23, 2008
Underwater volcano is now protected!
Davidson Seamount stands 7,546 feet above the ocean floor, in pitch black waters about 80 miles southwest of Monterey. Until eight years ago, almost nothing was known about it, largely because its summit sits 4,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
But as marine biologists began to send unmanned submarines to explore it, they found a
pristine environment rich with life, from red crabs with spindle legs to anemones that close like Venus flytraps.
"We were astounded to discover the variety of life, and particularly the size of the animals," said Dave Clague, a geologist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing. "Some of the corals are truly huge. The big pink bubble gum corals get at least 10 feet tall. And they are hundreds of years old. We'd never seen anything like that."
On Thursday, the Bush administration published final regulations to expand the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary by 14 percent to include Davidson Seamount. The first such expansion since Congress and President Bush's father established the sanctuary.
in 1992, the newly protected waters total 775 square miles — an area more than half the size of Yosemite National Park.
All offshore oil drilling is banned in the Monterey sanctuary, which stretches from the Marin headlands near the Golden Gate Bridge along 276 miles of coastline to Hearst Castle. With the new boundaries, the drilling ban will be extended to Davidson Seamount, as will other regulations prohibiting harmful fishing practices, mining and other exploitation.
Scientists from MBARI and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have conducted 14 expeditions to Davidson Seamount since 2000.
They have collected dozens of samples of corals, sponges, clams, fish and other marine life on which to perform DNA tests and other experiments, using remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs.
But 99 percent of the seamount remains unexplored.
"We see whatever we can catch in the lights of an ROV. It's like sampling the Sierra Nevada only by what we can see from headlights of a car. It will take a long time to fully explore it all," said Bill Douros, West Coast regional director for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
The area was not included among the sanctuary's original boundaries, he said, because "in 1992, it was simply a point on a chart. Nobody had ever been there or seen it."
The seamount last had a volcanic eruption 9.8 million years ago. Another eruption is highly unlikely, Clague said. If it did erupt, lava would remain below the surface.
The rules giving the seamount permanent protection will become final in mid-March, with no changes unless Congress orders them, which is not expected.
They were part of a package of new NOAA regulations updating the management plans for three California marine sanctuaries: Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank.
The plans also set strict new rules for personal watercraft, known commonly as jet skis, so that the crafts, which environmentalists say harass otters and other wildlife, are confined to four small areas, and can only be used in winter months to tow in surfers to Maverick's, the area off Half Moon Bay known for its massive waves.
The new rules also ban cruise ships from dumping any sewage in sanctuary waters. And they ban all forms of shark chumming, a practice of dumping blood into the water by thrill seekers and filmmakers to attract great white sharks but one that can endanger surfers.
The sanctuary expansion adds to the ocean legacy of President Bush. Bush has drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists for relaxing oil drilling rules and other conservation laws.
In 2006, he created the largest protected marine area in the world, off the northern Hawaiian Islands, and also has pushed measures to ban shark finning and to protect the Florida Everglades.
"Although he hasn't been widely considered an environmental president, he does have a history of some leadership on ocean issues," said Kaitilin Gaffney, a program manager with the Ocean Conservancy in Santa Cruz.
"To me, the Davidson Seamount is the classic crown jewel that the sanctuary program was set up to protect. It's just spectacular."