Our understanding of pristine marine environments before human exploitation will grow when researchers from The University of Western Australia join an international expedition to the Indian Ocean's Chagos Archipelago, the world's largest fully protected marine sanctuary.
UWA Professor Jessica Meeuwig - recently appointed a Conservation Fellow of the Zoological Society of London - and Dr Tom Letessier will use stereo underwater video cameras to learn more about the Archipelago's fish populations.
The remote Archipelago is about 500 km south of the Maldives and was largely uninhabited until the late 18th century. One of the islands, Diego Garcia, has been used as a strategic military base since 1942, which has helped to protect the surrounding marine environment.
In the first visit by UWA researchers to the area, they will document the diversity, abundance and size of the fish life from the shallows down to about 100 metres.
The remoteness and low human impact on the Chagos make the Archipelago a rare scientific opportunity to understand the structure of untouched marine ecosystems. The Archipelago's ecological importance lies in its role as a reference area, and its potential to replenish other regions of the Indian Ocean that are heavily depleted of fish and sharks.
Studies of the shallow reef fish have been completed by scuba divers in the Chagos since the 1970s. However, as such divers are limited to depths of 20m, researchers have yet to study what lies below.
"Our camera systems will give us the first glimpse of the deeper-water fish. The Chagos Archipelago, with atolls, submerged banks and underwater pinnacles spread across approximately 60,000 square kilometers, provides a unique opportunity to learn how to better manage other, more exploited regions of the Indian Ocean," Professor Meeuwig said.
The UWA team, from School of Animal Biology, Centre for Marine Futures and Oceans Institute, will join researchers from the University of Warwick, the Zoological Society of London and James Cook University aboard the Swire Group's Pacific Marlin on the three-week expedition from 12 February to 7 March.