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Submarine takes area researchers deep in Salish Sea

September 20, 2018

Pema Kitaeff of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs takes notes while observing the seafloor from within the Cyclops 1 research submarine last week. A squid-like fishing lure outside the submarine helped Kitaeff determine the direction the water was moving.

Beneath the shimmering waters west of Skagit County, a group of university researchers spent the past week exploring the world of marine life at depths of up to 950 feet.

Through a partnership between regional research organization SeaDoc Society and nonprofit OceanGate Foundation, the researchers got to spend several hours observing the underwater world from a research submarine called Cyclops 1.

The researchers — from the University of Washington, University of Oregon and California State University System’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories — set out on the dives to learn more about red urchins, Pacific sand lance and the impact trawling has on the seafloor.

Alex Lowe, a frequent scuba diver and University of Washington researcher, said the experience was “mind-blowingly cool” and allowed him to see his research subject, red urchins, in a whole new territory.

While Lowe has encountered red urchins at up to 130 feet, the Cyclops 1 took him about seven times deeper.

“We tried to go to depths where we thought we couldn’t access red urchins ... and started looking at the bottom and within about 6 minutes we saw a red urchin at about 930 feet,” he said.

Lowe and fellow University of Washington researcher Aaron Galloway said they also saw floating pieces of kelp, called drift kelp, at that depth. Because the plant only grows at depths of 60 feet or less, that finding suggests that the urchins — which are known to eat the plant in shallower areas — also rely on it for food along the seafloor.

“We now know the kelp forests of the San Juans are influencing the entire depths that things can live. ... If you go to the bottom of Haro Strait, the kelp that’s growing at 60 feet is still influencing that ecosystem,” Lowe said. “It really broadens our understanding of the impact of kelp on the Salish Sea ecosystem.”

SeaDoc Society Director Joe Gaydos said although the Cyclops 1 dives were done in the waters of San Juan County, the research will provide insight relevant to neighboring Skagit County.

“Dives looking at what depths red urchins can survive and how they survive has implications for all of the rocky reef habitat in Skagit where red urchins reside,” he said.

Red urchins are an important species for commercial and recreational fisheries managed by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife. Sand lance are an important forage fish eaten by salmon.

The recent dive project, called the Salish Sea Survey Expedition, provided an opportunity for the researchers to get a new look at their marine subjects.

“Just like the space shuttle provided a unique perspective for scientists to understand space, Cyclops 1 provides our only opportunity for direct human observation of these deep-sea environments,” Gaydos said in a news release about the project.

While in the submarine, researchers also observed sand lance in the water and gathered video footage to compare areas where the seafloor has been trawled for research purposes with areas that have been left untouched.

Trawling is when a net is drug behind a boat.

Some areas of the seafloor off the San Juan Islands has been trawled for scientific purposes as much as 10 times per year for the past 30 years, according to the release.

The results of that study could help resource managers and researchers decide whether trawling is the best way to obtain certain information, or if the impact is too great.

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