Scientists to monitor deep-sea plankton for ocean health

Researchers from some 20 countries will set up a global network of hundreds of buoys to measure plankton activity, using these microscopic plants to gauge the impact of resource development and fishing on the health of marine ecosystems.

The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology will develop an observation buoy in fiscal 2017. Hundreds of the roughly 1-meter-long cylindrical devices will be deployed in the Pacific Ocean, sinking to a depth of 2km. They will emit light during their gradual ascent to the surface and measure the light reflected from the pigment in nearby phytoplankton. The buoys will surface once every 10 days, at which point they will send data to the agency via satellite.

Concerns are growing that fishing and development of seafloor resources are harming ocean environments. A May statement by science and technology ministers from the Group of Seven developed nations discussed the need for an international network to monitor marine biodiversity.

Phytoplankton form the foundation supporting marine ecosystems. Examining their activity will give an idea of an ecosystem’s overall condition, letting authorities more quickly identify and respond to problems caused by overfishing or pollution.

In 2000, countries including Japan, the U.S., Germany, France and China launched the Argo project, a global network of roughly 3,800 buoys measuring ocean temperature and salinity to help refine climate change models. The current floats will be gradually replaced starting next year with new models that can also measure plankton photosynthesis. Teams in the U.S. and Europe are developing new buoys as well.

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