Trawler tears off part of underwater observatory

23 May 2011

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An unknown fishing trawler veered off track and knocked out a platform of the CAD 100-million (USD 102.6 million) Neptune Canada observatory on the sea floor off British Columbia's (BC) Vancouver Island. The platform carried costly titanium instruments used for monitoring events ranging from earthquakes to tsunamis and was hit as the trawler pulled its colossal net across the sea floor in an off-limit area.

Reparations for the platform could cost anywhere from CAD 700,000 (USD 718,265) to CAD 1.7 million (USD 1.74 million), said Neptune Canada Director Chris Barnes. He said the event is a "major blow" for the observatory; the instruments on the "pod" have been on the sea floor since 2009 and were supposed to last 25 years.

The platform's supersensitive devices transmit data to Neptune headquarters over the Internet in real time. They picked up evidence regarding the trawler's approach and damage done against the observatory: a seismometer caught the vibrations and exact time when the trawler hit, and engineering data recorded when other instruments and cables were impacted and suddenly ceased functioning.

"We can actually detect how the instruments got disconnected, the precise time and the precise sequence of events," Barnes said, reports The Montreal Gazette.

The data shows in which direction the trawler was travelling and gives acoustic images of the massive fishing net falling from the surface.

Once the trawler is identified, there could be "legal implications," Barnes stated.

Neptune consulted with the fishing industry and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) when designing and constructing the observatory to try to avoid interactions with trawlers, which can drag giant nets across the seabed down to depths of more than 1,300 m, Barnes said. The observatory's cables stretch 800 km across the seabed and were strengthened and buried 1 m under the sea floor in fishing waters.

Further, the fishing industry was given warning and detailed navigational data so it could avoid interacting with Neptune's equipment.

The "pod" of instruments hit measured about 2.5 by 1.5 m and stretched about 2 m above the sea floor, connecting to nearby equipment.

The instruments may have been carried away in the net as bycatch.

Despite the accident, the overall system is still in good working order and continuing to gather data, reports The Victoria Times Colonist.

"It's around 10 per cent of the scientific capacity of our system that's represented in the damaged instruments," said Martin Taylor, president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada.

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