Friday, 18 March 2016

Wreck: science and media, conclusion

Poster from (click to enlarge)
"Clearly we are in the midst of one of the great extinction spasms of geological history"
E.O. Wilson

"Once destroyed, slow-growing deep-sea species are either lost forever or unlikely to recover for decades or centuries. Stable, living habitats such as coral and sponge communities in particular tend to be both the most heavily damaged and the slowest to regenerate. To make matters worse, the deep sea's remarkable array of coral, sponge, and other habitat forming species are, in many cases likely to harbour undiscovered and endemic species. The risk of extinguishing whole species never before seen is, therefore, particularly high when bottom trawling strips the surface of seamounts of their coral and sponge habitat."

Bottom Trawling, Deepsea Conservation Coalition

"Shipwrecks become unintended artificial biological reefs associated with concentrations of organisms. Their remains, structures, cannon and artifacts provide surfaces on which algae and hard-bottom fauna, such as kelp, sea anemones and sponges, can develop. Fish are attracted to the artificial reefs in search of food and shelter. The subsequent colonizing biofouling community can strip nutrients and suspended material from passing water and plankton, generating epibenthic production. In turn, this process attracts nectobenthic fish and thus a biological oasis is formed." 
Benthic Species on the Wreck of the Victory (1744), Western English Channel, Odyssey Papers, 43, Odyssey Marine Exploration

Protection of the marine environment is a global issue and the organizations to which I have linked above are but a small sampling of what exists. But what of archaeological interests and practices?
At the outset of the media coverage on HMS Victory there was talk on raising the wreck. subsequent investigation eliminated that possibility because her hull had collapsed through natural agencies including that of marine organisms feeding on the timbers. Man adds to the damage of wrecks through bottom trawling which often drags cannons and other movable components some distance. The concentration of the objects of a wreck creates a biological oasis as the Odyssey paper shows, but as a wreck becomes ever more fragmented through trawler damage and scattering this oasis effect is lessened. Ships are sometimes deliberately sunk instead of being scrapped in order to create new reef environments so that local marine life can prosper.

When responsible divers collect live molluscs for study or for conchology collections, it is their practice when looking under some rock, to then return the rock to its original position. I have a small collection of cowries and those also came with the diver's information slip of where the shell was collected and at what depth. However, shells are also gathered through bottom trawling and this destroys entire populations while also damaging the sea bottom. A diver/shell dealer I knew went to great time and expense to travel to the remotest place on earth, Easter Island, mainly to gather samples of Cypraea Englerti which exists only at that location. He gathered only two of them and I paid him $40 for the one below.

Father Englert's Cowrie
Cypraea Englerti, Summers and Burgess, 1965
27mm,  collected on reef at 40 feet at night
100 yards off Anakena, Easter Island
In all of the media coverage about the possibility of raising the HMS Victory, I did not see anything about what should be left in its place so that the marine biological environment could eventually return. Perhaps the marine equivalent of forestry clear-cutting had been envisioned, instead. How much damage to the sea bottom is acceptable in order to provide people with something to look at in a museum?

But what about the knowledge which could be gained from removing a wreck? In Glenbow Museum here in Calgary is a large scale model of the other HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship. I used to look at it quite often as it was in the same room of the military department where I worked as a cataloguer. Even the knots on the rigging were accurately tied. We know quite a bit about eighteenth century ship construction and you can buy wooden kits of the whole ship, or cutaway sections of varying accuracy and construction difficulty levels.

Odyssey Marine Exploration took on the project of investigating the 1744 wreck because it believed that the gold coins it was reported to have been carrying in its cargo would pay for the considerable expenses of doing so while providing a profit to satisfy its shareholders. Gold coins do not really contribute much to marine life and their value is rather high per cubic centimetre. Science was served through the publication of the paper, and it provided completely new information about that environment.

To tie this series up in a bow, here is another 1744 wreck-inspired paper in the Odyssey Marine Exploration series: Deep-Sea Fishing Impacts on the Shipwrecks of the English Channel & Western Approaches by one of the same authors of the first: Sean A. Kingsley. It was Sean who arranged for the publication of my book on Coriosolite coins with the publishers of British Archaeological Reports after insisting to me that it really should be published in hard copy. He also got me write a corresponding article for Minerva magazine about my research for the book. None of that research would have happened at all had I not bought a lump of corrosion from Seaby in London containing an extremely fine condition Coriosolite stater when I was fifteen years old. Who can say what the purchase of a gold coin from a wreck excavated by Odyssey Marine Exploration might also inspire?

Have an ecologically sound weekend.

John's Coydog Community page

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