New Deep Sea Research Centre established at NUI Galway
Monday, 28 April 2003
At some ten times the size of Ireland's land area, our seabed is a resource of major significance and there now exists a whole new body of knowledge that allows us to pursue biological and ecological studies in deeper water as never before. NUI Galway's Martin Ryan Institute (MRI) has just announced the setting-up of an Irish Centre for Offshore Biological and Ecological Studies (ICOBES). The centre, in collaboration with national and international partners, will address the serious deficit of knowledge on the animals of the deep ocean floor and on their relationships with their environment.
These animals constitute a highly important resource in their own right – ecologically and commercially. "Their presence determines in no small way the 'health' of the seafloor, and they play an important, as yet poorly understood, role in the food web of the deep sea", says Professor Brendan Keegan, Chairman of the new research centre. "This is extremely important when, with the decline of many traditional fisheries (e.g. the cod), our attention is being turned towards new food species from deeper waters."
"If we are not to make the same mistakes again, we have, amongst other requirements, to be able to identify the diversity of animals in question. We must know their biology (e.g. when and how often do they reproduce) and their ecology (e.g. who eats whom and what other effects they have on their habitats)", says Professor Keegan.
NUI, Galway has built up an international reputation in marine taxonomy - the identification of marine plant and animal species. Many of its graduates have endured with this interest in their own work places, such as the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and Aqua Fact International Services Ltd.
This survived the rising attractiveness of molecular taxonomy (identifying species on the basis of their genetic composition), which saw many institutions world wide turn away from the classical approach of identifying whole animals and plants on the basis of their "shape and make".
"It was indeed very strange that, even in the face of widespread concern over the permanent loss of species, expert recognition of marine plants and animals continued to decline", observes Professor Keegan. " There is growing awareness of the urgent need to re-acquire these impoverished skills", he said.
Ireland, as a whole, has had little marine taxonomic expertise beyond our shallow coastal waters. "This is regrettable, given the increasing interest in the offshore/deep sea area and its natural resources", says Professor Keegan. "However, the Seabed Survey commenced by the Geological Survey of Ireland in 2000 represents an extraordinary first effort to understand this resource".
Under funding recently received from the Higher Education Authority, Galway's Martin Ryan Institute has formed and equipped a team of young graduates to carry out complementary studies of this kind. They will look to the Marine Institute for the use of its vessels, RV Celtic Voyager and RV Explorer and to the Geological Survey for its storehouse of newly won information on the sea floor.
According to Professor Keegan, the new ICOBES centre will take the obvious next step in bringing together all interested parties, and through a pooling of expertise and equipment, optimise on these new research opportunities. All interested organisations are being invited to have a representative on an ICOBES Advisory Group.
In addition to the actual researchers based in the Martin Ryan Institute, NUI Galway will also provide secretariat facilities, library, database and newsletter access. It will also maintain biological reference collections, in parallel with the National Museum and the Museum and Galleries of Wales and provide important technological support and training. "This is one instance where, given that Irish expertise is pretty thin on the 'sea-floor', the more cooks the better the broth", concluded Professor Keegan.