Prince of the low seas

May 28, 1999

Julia Hinde reports on plans for a JIF-funded vessel for monitoring shallow shelf sea ecology

After 32 years of service, the Prince Madog is finally being retired to the sun. A little long in the tooth with a leaky oil pipe and sleeping quarters not big enough to swing a cat, the university research vessel, currently in dry dock for one of her all-too-frequent repairs, may soon be heading for retirement in the hands of new owners in the tropics.

Her replacement, a state-of-the-art new research ship, 34 metres long, with cutting-edge research equipment and room for up to ten scientists and seven crew, is now firmly on the drawing board.

Almost Pounds 2.8 million from the Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF) - the government and the Wellcome Trust's new joint initiative to replace run-down university research equipment - means that scientists at the University of Wales, Bangor, which itself is investing Pounds 300,000, will soon become the proud owners of Prince Madog 2.

It means they will enter the 21st-century with the kind of equipment needed to lead the way in shelf sea research. As the world's coastal populations increase, this, says John Simpson, head of the school of ocean science at the University of Wales, Bangor, is the kind of knowledge that will be crucial to maintaining the shallow oceans and their fish supplies, and preventing them from turning into "abiotic cesspits".

"The shallow shelf seas are only 8 per cent of the oceans," explained Professor Simpson. "But they are disproportionately important. They see a lot of the primary production and plant growth, and therefore the fisheries tend to be here.

"But they are also the regions of the seas with which man interacts most actively. They are the areas on which we put the most burden. We therefore need to understand them to manage them."

Researchers at the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor, which includes physicists, chemists, geologists, biochemists and marine biologists, are trying to build up a systematic and comprehensive picture of how the shelf seas work, how the tides and currents interact, and what this means for water mixing, sedimentation, pollution, plant growth and marine life. The models will help them predict how the shelf seas will respond to future climate change and pollution.

The new boat - which will be fitted with acoustic equipment for measuring water velocity, particle concentration and zoo plankton, as well as automatic probes to measure temperature, salinity and light penetration at different depths - will be big enough to take a range of scientists on each cruise.

"The school is interdisciplinary," explains Professor Simpson. "So it doesn't make any sense to go to sea, as we sometimes have to at the moment, and do biology research one week and physics the next. You want to have the different disciplines together. In many instances the interesting research questions come from having them together."

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