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You are here: /main/research expeditions/July 2007/Jeff Drazen Interview

Interview with Jeff Drazen of the Oceanography Department, University of Hawaii, Manoa

by Keeley Belva

Jeff Drazen drop camera preparation
Jeff Drazen preparing the bait station for the drop camera

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1. What is your affiliation and where are you from?
I am an assistant professor with the Oceanography Department at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.   My specialty is the study of deep-sea fish ecology and physiology.  I moved to UH 3 years ago from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute where I was doing my post-doctorate work in the deep canyon off the coast of California.  Before that I did my doctorate work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.   Hawaii has been a fantastic place to do research because we are surrounded by the ocean and you can reach very deep water only a few miles offshore. 

2. How did you become interested in your particular field/profession?
I have always been interested in the ocean and the animals that live there.  My grandparents lived on the Puget Sound in Washington State where I grew up.  My summers were spent exploring the tide pools, setting up aquariums and fishing.  I could spend hours watching an anemone unfurl its tentacles or a fish set up and defend its territory in one of my aquariums.   My first introduction to the deep sea was in college.  I was lucky enough to have professors who showed us deep-sea animals in class and took us to sea to collect them in trawls.  Wow, the amazing shapes, strange adaptations, the fangs of the viperfish, the vivid red of a deep-sea shrimp!  And they all lived in a habitat that was perpetually cold, dark, under crushing pressure, and with little food.  I dug more into what we knew about the deep sea and its inhabitants.  It became apparent that there was a lot that wasn’t understood about how these animals make a living down there and there were huge areas that weren’t explored.

Viperfish, Jeff DrazenViperfish, Chauliodus macouni. Credit: Jeff Drazen

3. Have you worked in the Hawaiian Archipelago before? Or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?
Most of my work has been done off of California because I have only recently moved to Hawaii.  However, my graduate students and I have been investigating deep-sea communities in the main Hawaiian Islands since I arrived, including both oceanic and bottom living deep-sea animals.  This research cruise is my first venture to the NWHI. 

4. Have you worked on a ship at sea before, such as this one?
I started going to sea on oceanographic vessels 15 years ago as an undergraduate student.  Since then I have been to sea many times in California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Mexico and two research cruises to Antarctica.  I spend about 30-40 days a year at sea.  A highlight of my career was diving in the Alvin and the Pisces submersibles.  Several dives were 2.5 miles deep off of California. 

5. What are your areas of interest, or your expertise?
My focus is the ecology and physiology of deep-sea fishes.  I’ve always been fascinated with fishes and deep-sea species are incredibly diverse and important members of the deep-sea ecosystem.  I want to understand how they are adapted to the conditions of the deep ocean and what role they play in deep-sea food webs.  My work began using traps and trawls to catch fishes and study what they eat, how much they eat, and whether this changes between summer and winter as it does for many shallow water fishes.  Since that time I have studied fish communities using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), submersibles, and autonomous cameras.   I have also developed ways to capture and maintain deep-sea fishes alive in captivity, including a high pressure trap that can catch an animal at up to 2.5 miles deep and return it to the surface alive.   

6. What excites you about working with these organisms?
Working in the deep sea is a bit like being an explorer on another planet.  Around every corner lies another alien life form, sometimes undescribed, with a unique way of participating in the community and living under extreme conditions.  I love discovering new things and the deep-sea is full of them.

7. Any favorite stories about a particularly unique organism from your field of interest, such as a unique story of working with them, their ecology or unique adaptation the organism may have?
I was studying the feeding of a rattail fish from about 3500 feet off of California.  Studying diet means a lot of tedious work identifying half digested animals that the fish ate.  It’s hard but fun if you like puzzles and if you can get past the smell.  I remember one day I had a piece of rattail food that I couldn’t identify.  It was long and fibrous and at the top it had lots of little round structures, almost like tentacles and mouthparts of a sea cucumber, but I couldn’t find a head to the thing.  After consulting books and comparing its features to nearly every phylum in the animal kingdom, I remained stumped.  I started asking some of my colleagues for help.  One friend looked through the microscope and in about 2 seconds stated, “It’s a piece of broccoli.”  Sure enough, once I stopped considering only animals forms, it was obviously a piece of broccoli!  The fish had been collected from near a shipping lane off San Diego and must have eaten the kitchen scraps tossed overboard by a passing boat.  Later I found onion and orange peels in other fishes’ stomachs from the same area.  This was funny but also interesting.  I further determined that many of these rattails ate surface living fishes and squids that had died and sunk to the deep-sea floor.   This species scavenged to make a living, in a place where food was in short supply.   But most importantly, what the broccoli showed me, was that despite the apparent remoteness of the deep sea, thousands of feet below and out of sight, it is affected by what we do at the surface.

8. Why were you interested in coming on this expedition?
The deep sea is the largest environment in the Monument but it is the least explored.  Throughout the world the deep-sea is the single largest living space.  70% of the earth’s surface is oceans and 90% of that covers oceans deeper than 500m.  The Monument is similar.  The island chain is more than the sandy atolls and rocky islands that we see above water.  It is also a complicated terrain of under water mountains, ridges, and abyssal plains.  The Hawaii Undersea Research Lab has worked in the NWHI and has conducted submersible dives to about a mile deep.  We are exploring the Monument’s deep-sea communities to 2.5 miles depth for the first time.   This cruise was an incredible opportunity to study this region and provide some of the first descriptions of what lives there.

Drop camera off Lisianski Island
Bighead grenadier, Coryphaenoides rudis, cutthroat eel, Synaphobranchus oregoni, king crabs, Lithodes nintokuae, deep-sea shrimp, Aristeaopsis sp. Taken off Lisianski Island at 4,650 feet below the surface. Credit: Jeff Drazen

9. What do you hope to find during this research trip?
Because the Monument’s deep-sea habitats are relatively unexplored the first step is simply to describe what is there.  Our primary data collection tool is a baited camera system.  This instrument is dropped from the ship to sink to the seafloor.   The camera takes images every 2 minutes for about a day.   Most animals in the food poor deep-sea are attracted to the bait.  So despite relatively low numbers we can photograph, identify, measure and count many of the animals that live in the area where the camera was dropped.  By using some statistics that incorporate when a particular type of animal arrives and how many are attracted we can estimate the density of the species in the area.  To retrieve the instrument we send a coded sound pulse down to it, which tells the system to drop its anchor and float back to the surface where the ship can pick it up.   Although this approach is not as comprehensive as a submersible, it is relatively inexpensive and can be done as part of a cruise with many other research objectives.  We can drop the cameras in the morning and then other scientists can conduct dive operations during the day.

We hope to describe the diversity and community composition of the animals living in the Monument’s deep-sea areas.  This is the first step in understanding how these communities function and how their members are adapted to their environment.  Camera studies, such as ours, have focused on temperate relatively productive areas of the oceans.  The NWHI are in the middle of the subtropical pacific where productivity is very low.   This means comparatively less food for the deep which could affect the types and numbers of organisms that live there.  Depth strongly affects diversity and community composition, so we will deploy our cameras from about 1500 ft to 2.5 miles deep.  We should see changes in the community with depth.  It is also likely that we will find some species previously thought to be rare or those from the deep Pacific but not yet recorded from the NWHI.  The deep sea is rather consistent over large expanses so we certainly expect to see many of the animals that live in the main islands in the Northwestern Islands.  What will be more interesting is to determine if some species from the equatorial or far eastern Pacific are also present in the Monument.  Certainly there could be new species to be discovered.   

10. What do you think is the benefit of this work to conservation in the Monument?
In many parts of the world the deep sea is under threat.  Fishers that have overexploited shallow water stocks move into deeper water, often times before managers even know what the resources are, let alone how to manage them.  Orange roughy, grenadier, and Chilean seabass are all deep-sea fishes.  The deep sea has also been used for a sewage dump, a trash dump, for radioactive waste disposal, and as many people in Hawaii know, as a dumping site for explosives, chemical agents and military ordinance.  To understand the impacts of our activities on these ecosystems we need to have a baseline of information from relatively undisturbed areas.  The NWHI are relatively free from these impacts but the main islands are certainly not.  By studying both we may be able to assess the magnitude of our impacts where they do occur.  The NWHI should provide a baseline for how the system should function in a natural state.

The Monument is not protected from global climate change.  As we add carbon dioxide into the atmosphere some of it enters the oceans.  This has the effect of making the oceans more acidic, or lowering its pH.  The oceans are already more acidic than they were 100 years ago and the trend is accelerating.  Some of the studies that scientists have done on the metabolism and physiology of deep-sea species suggests that they can not cope with rapid changes in pH.  These animals have evolved in an environment that has been relatively stable for 1000’s of years and does not experience daily or even yearly changes in pH.  The increasing acidity will reduce their ability to extract oxygen from the water and could impact their activities and growth.  By describing these communities now we can gauge any future impacts. 

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Coral bleaching

Galapagos shark

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