Deep Stuff

smith’s research vessel in Antarctica. Photos courtesy Craig Smithn

Whether it’s researching marine life in the darkest depths of the world’s seas, invasive species in the Antarctic or in Hawaii’s mangroves, UH’s Craig Smith goes deep into his subjects

UH scientist Craig Smith travels the planet taking a deep-sea census and discovers countless new creatures. He’s also involved in tracking changes to marine life in Antarctica and Hawai’i’s mangroves

Two of the biggest challenges scientists face – and they’re quite different – are trying to make new discoveries and battling major industries to help in the conservation of the environment.

Then there’s Craig Smith of UH’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. He makes hundreds of new discoveries on every mission he takes and is two steps ahead of the companies that want to exploit his area of expertise, the abyssal ocean – the deep, deep sea.

“It’s the largest habitat on earth and it’s the most poorly known; it is a huge frontier,” says Smith, who has been at UH for 23 years. “It has a really high diversity of animals and a lot of mineral resources.”

He has just finished a 10-year project named the Census of Marine Life. Its purpose was to evaluate the biodiversity of all marine life in the Earth’s oceans with his group focused on the depths from 10,000 to 20,000 feet down. This area for many years was believed to be a desert wasteland with water pressure being too great and temperatures too cold to sustain life.

invasive stone crabs are wreaking havoc in the Antarctic

But thanks to modern technology and remotely operated vehicles, Smith and his team are now sampling regularly what was once as distant as the moon, as far as scientific knowledge was concerned.

“The deep sea is really, really poorly sampled. It covers half the surface of the Earth and we have sampled maybe a few football fields in area,” says Smith, who got his start in the 1980s at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

“We know we have so much more to sample, because every sample we bring up has more than 90 percent species that are new to science – they have never been described before. So (some scientists) talk about ‘it is so exciting, we just found a new species.’ For us, we don’t have enough manpower to describe all the new species we find. It will take many decades.”

During the census, Smith’s team made 22 cruises taking samples all over the planet, and while they described 500 new species, they literally have tens of thousands more still needing names. Sampling from such depths is difficult because anything taken from below 6,500 feet cannot survive the ascent to the surface.

The problem comes not from the change in pressure – such a trip would explode mammals and many fish – but animals at those depths contain no gas in their bodies, allowing their body shape to survive the pressure. The problem comes rather from the temperature rising as they approach the surface. These creatures have survived for millions of years in an environment that is pitch black with temperatures of 38 degrees F.

smith takes a sample of the mud in kaneohe’s mangroves. Nathalie Walker photo

The technological advances that have allowed Smith’s discoveries also now allow industry to harvest the resources that were heretofore unreachable. The abyssal ocean floor is literally paved with manganese nodules, which are potato-shaped rocks rich with copper and nickel.

Because of the depth and cost of mining them, they have laid there undisturbed for millennia, but with the burgeoning Indian and Chinese markets hungry for such natural resources, all that is due to change.

“In the next 10 years or so countries are going to start vacuuming up huge sections of the sea floor, sucking up these nodules,” says Smith. “This is going to have a very big environmental impact in an area that is very sensitive. It is a very stable environment, but very fragile. It is important to know what the human impact will be and how to manage them.”

That is why the census Smith just conducted is so important. He served as part of a panel of scientists advising the International Seabed Authority on the measures needed to protect the myriad of species that will be affected by seafloor mining. The ISA, based out of Jamaica, was set up by the United Nations in 1982 to monitor all activities conducted on the seabed.

The forethought of the U.N. is applauded by Smith, and it’s making a big difference in helping conservation efforts.

“The good thing about managing the mining is that we can set up guidelines and designate protected areas before the damaging extracting activities begin,” says Smith, who has brought in more than $5 million in grants during his time at the university. “The cows are still in the barn; unfortunately, in most conservation efforts around the globe we are playing catch-up; we have to promote recovery. But we don’t have to do that in the abyssal ocean and that is nice.”

Smith with graduate student Pavica Srsen as she sorts a sample of sea-floor animals from Antarctica. Nathalie Walker photo

The census gave them a good start, but their lack of knowledge about how widespread the species are gives Smith pause.

While every sampling they take delivers a whole new group of animals, to ascertain conservation areas for the preservation of certain species is important for scientists to learn if those animals are spread throughout the deep ocean or are limited to these specific areas.

“If the human footprint is small and the species distribution is broad, then species extinctions are unlikely,” says Smith. “But if the footprint is large compared to species ranges, then you really have to be careful how you manage things. The potential footprint for manganese mining is so enormous, it will actually affect a larger area of the surface than any other human activity.”

The response to the study’s recommendations has been well-received, and Smith acknowledges a balance needs to be found between the needs of mankind and the needs of the planet.

But once this economic generator gets started, he sees no way of slowing it down.

“The market could probably only sustain one or two mining operations before the copper markets would be saturated,” says Smith. “Once they prove this is economically viable, they won’t stop. We are going to keep pumping oil until the wells are dry. They’ll start by exploiting a few hundred square kilometers per year, but they’ll just keep mowing that lawn, moving across the Central Pacific. In the end it will be many hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Manganese mining is not the only concern on Smith’s radar. He spends a couple months a year in Antarctica, specifically studying the area around the West Antarctic Peninsula, an area that is warming at the fastest rate on the planet.

The problem here is not species dying off, but rather as the sheet ice melts away it exposes more of the water column to sunlight.

Melting ice allows invasive creatures to survive Antarctica. Photo courtesy Craig Smith

The sunlight creates production of the building blocks of life, creating an explosion of invasive species coming to feed in areas where they could not have survived before.

“The kinds of animals that were previously excluded are now invading. One particular group is the stone crab,” says Smith, who maintains that these crabs have not been in this area for millions of years.

“They are voracious crushing predators, attacking sea urchins and clams, which had no known predators before this. They are rapidly reducing the diversity and affecting the ecosystem structure.

Species invasions are one of the things we are really interested in the Antarctic.”

He estimates the population of crabs to have grown to about 1.5 million, which could be devastating to the native species.

On a positive note, stone crabs are in the King crab family and the population is now large enough to support a fishery, which is the fine line that has to be walked between what is best for humans and the animal world with which we share the planet.

“We see it even in Hawaii. On the list of invasive species man-groves are there, but not the Samoan crab,” says Smith.

“Even though the crab has a big effect on native Hawaiian fauna, because people like to eat it, it is not invasive. Invasive has a value judgment – invasive is in the eye of the beholder.”

So the eternal balancing act continues, and Smith hopes to stay ahead of the wave in this battle over the abyssal ocean.

But in the end he knows that his recommendations are just that, and he will have to hope that our leaders have listened to what he has had to say when it comes time to make decisions about this mysterious menagerie that resides at the bottom of the sea.

“When politics and economics come together, they have different priorities,” says Smith.

As does Mother Nature.