What Lies Beneath

by John Hocevar

November 6, 2017

Snowy groupers and invertebrates are visible in this image from the Snowy Grouper Wreck Marine Protected Area, 90 miles off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina. The image was made at a depth of approximately 250 meters. The image was made with a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) in collaboration with scientists from University of North Carolina, Wilmington, University of Rhode Island, and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

On the morning of Halloween 2017, the Arctic Sunrise arrived at the Snowy Grouper Wreck Marine Protected Area to explore a small part of the mystery and little known beauty just off our shores. Shortly after the wreck in question was discovered in the 1990s, the snowy grouper that lived there were quickly depleted by overfishing. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council closed the area to bottom fishing in 2009.     

Equipment for the Remote Operated Vehicle on the Arctic Sunrise during a leg of the tour to a ship wreck off the North Carolina coast. The ship tour focus was on the urgent issue of single-use plastics and microplastics in our waters, and the need to protect our coasts and climate from seismic blasting and offshore oil drilling. The tour will also support an effort led by our allies in the environmental justice movement to deliver critical rebuilding supplies and expertise to rural communities in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria’s devastating impacts to the region.

A ten hour trip out into the Atlantic from Wilmington, North Carolina, the 330 foot long wreck lies upright in the sand in about 835 feet of water. Believed to be a cargo ship about a century old, it is unusual for a wreck of this size to be unidentified. Everyone loves a good mystery, so we spent Halloween exploring the wreck and documenting the nearby marine life. University of Rhode Island archaeologist Rod Mather was with us to survey the wreck. UNCW marine biologist Steve Ross was on board to study the fish population, and to assess how much it had ‘recovered since the area was protected. And Chip Collier, a fishery biologist with the South Atlantic Council, was there so he could assess how well the MPA they’d established was working.

The water was too deep and the currents too strong for SCUBA, so we used a UNCW Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to explore the wreck. It was a little eerie watching the video monitor as the ROV moved around the wreck of a ship twice the size of the one we were on. We saw a huge crack that may have formed when the stern hit the bottom. Some of the portholes still had glass in them, while others had been taken over by coral. If we could have looked inside, would we have seen the remains of the unknown sailors who almost certainly went down with the ship?

Anemones and a deepwater coral species (Lophelia pertusa) are visible in this image from the Snowy Grouper Wreck Marine Protected Area, 90 miles off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina. The image was made at a depth of approximately 250 meters with a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) in collaboration with scientists from University of North Carolina, Wilmington, University of Rhode Island, and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. The wreck, which is an as yet unidentified cargo vessel that is roughly 100 years old. The area was quickly overfished after the wreck was discovered, but is now teeming with life after being protected from bottom fishing in 2009.

The most remarkable thing we saw, though, was the massive population of snowy grouper swarming all over the wreck. From overfished and depleted to a huge school numbering in the thousands in just a few years, it was clear to all of us that the protected area was a huge success. We wondered where and how far the larvae from these big groupers would travel, and if fishermen would someday understand that this protected area was responsible for producing them.

If you love the ocean, you’ve probably been troubled and maybe even outraged by the Trump Administration’s efforts to open up our sanctuaries and monuments to companies wanting to drill, mine and fish. As we spent Halloween out at sea, it was the thought of the east coast being handed over to oil companies for seismic blasting and drilling rather than ghosts or shipwrecks that filled us with dread. Together, we can remind Trump and his allies that protected areas are good for fishermen as well as for fish and other creatures. Take action here!

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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