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Posted by - on February 13, 2005 at 02:38:48:

Daily Breeze Article

Team documents surprising trees of the deep

Two marine biologists diving in a submersible off the coast noted strange growths while counting fish populations and made a discovery.
By Lee Peterson
Daily Breeze

Down they went, hundreds of feet deep, two marine biologists looking for rockfish at home among the sand and rocks at the bottom of the ocean.

Aboard the two-person submersible Delta, they were there to count the fish: cow cod, rock cod, bocaccio and other varieties, which are becoming increasingly scarce off the shores of Southern California.

The dives are 1 to 2 hours long, typically spent with one person as pilot and one as fish spotter, recording sightings of more than 50 kinds of rockfish, all the while fending off any thoughts of claustrophobia or oxygen deprivation.

But something besides the fish kept catching Mary Yoklavich and Milton Love's attention.

It was tall, sometimes more than 7 feet high and 20 feet wide and it came in a variety of colors, either white, pink, red or black, with huge, graceful branches.

Since 1995, the two ichthyologists had been noticing it.

"Immediately the first year, we all started seeing this large imposing organism. It's the biggest thing down there that is alive. It's hard to miss," Love said.

They called them "Christmas trees."

Yoklavich, a Torrance native and biologist from the National Marine Fisheries Service's Santa Cruz Laboratory, and Love, a Santa Monica native and a University of California, Santa Barbara research biologist, wondered if they really could have found something that no one had formally discovered before.

After all, they were looking just about 40 miles and more off the coast of Los Angeles County, not exactly uncharted waters.

They figured it was some kind of invertebrate, and they found it growing abundantly in its distinctive shape on some of the underwater ridges or "banks" that are some of the most popular fishing spots around. It was from 300 to 725 feet deep.

The bottom at these banks off Los Angeles County is a mosaic of sand, mud, boulder fields and eroded exposed rock, Yoklavich said.

For the researchers, taking the submersible down deep into this alien world, beyond the reach of scuba divers, is the best part of the job.

"It's really the most exciting thing to go down and look at the ocean floor in person," Yoklavich said.

"It's always amazing, even if you have to do a survey on mud where there are no features, on most dives you learn something new," Love said.

It's not enough to tally up the commercial and recreational landings of rockfish, or do fishing surveys to assess what is going on with the diminishing rockfish population.

The submersible trips are a necessary part of the research.

Love, who also studies the reef-like habitats of oil platforms, surveys the natural off-shore banks to compare them to the oil rigs.

So the biologists get grants and other funding to take the craft down, as much as 1,200 feet deep, to see and count the fish in their habitat.

In the course of inspecting eight major banks, in the late summer to early fall, from off the Orange County coast to near Santa Cruz Island, they kept seeing the curious invertebrate growing.

It was hard to miss.

When it's alive, it can be one of a variety of colors, including pink, red and pinkish-orange. When it's dead, it is black, and will provide a home to other organisms, like crabs, feather stars and shark egg cases.

Alive or dead, its shape reminds one of a Christmas tree.

"It's a really cool and beautiful organism," Yoklavich said.

Finally, at a seamount not far from Anacapa Island, they took some samples.

Suspecting they may have discovered a new species, the two fish experts enlisted the help of Tennessee taxonomist Dennis Opresko.

It was a type of coral, the tiny organisms that can build huge structures by interlocking themselves. But this was unlike any coral that had been described before.

They had discovered a new species, maybe two: the Christmas tree coral.

It was the first such new-species discovery for Yoklavich, an alumna of Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance who has worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries agency since 1989.

"It's very exciting," she said.

"It just tells you that, here we are right off Los Angeles, yet there are a lot of things we have not discovered," said Yoklavich, who was the National Marine Fisheries Services' employee of the year in 2002 for her accomplishments.

Love has found new species of fish parasites in the past, but this work on the Christmas tree coral has led to a shift for both Love and Yoklavich, to focus more study on invertebrates, such as corals and sponges, and their role in the deep.

Opresko told the duo that they still had some work to do. They had to name the new species.

Since they were already calling it that, it became Christmas tree coral. And that was the basis for the scientific name, the first part being the predetermined "Antipathes" for the coral genus, and the rest being "dendochristos" for Christmas tree, in Greek.

It takes years for a new species discovery to be officially announced to the public.

The defining dives were made in fall 2002, and it's just this month that the official article in a scientific journal, in this case Zootaxa, is coming out, authored by Opresko, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

It was a welcome discovery for Love and Yoklavich, who often have to be the bearers of bad tidings about declining fish populations.

"Most of the work I do is not happy. All of the big fish are gone, no one wants to hear that the reefs are overfished. But this represents the fact that these reefs haven't been beaten down by pollution or trawling," Love said.

By late summer, they will be taking the Delta down again, hunting for more clues about the corals and sponges of the deep-water banks.

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