Underwater Eruption Covers Unique Area with Great Biodiversity

Video: Volcanic Eruption in El Hierro
El Hierro Underwater Eruption

Underwater Eruption Covers Unique Area with Great Biodiversity
The marine reserve in La Restinga has allowed excellent conservation of the area
El País: La erupción submarina cubre una zona única de gran biodiversidad
Bernardo Marín reporting from Valverde, Canary Islands October 14, 2011

Disquieting stains on the sea are evidence of an underwater eruption which close to the Sea of Calm in the southeast of El Hierro (Canary Islands). A place of enormous ecological interest, with “a very high level of biodiversity in an excellent state of conservation,”in the words of Alberto Brito, professor of Zoology and Oceanography at the University of La Laguna. A unique place where tropical species live together with others more characteristic to temperate waters. “There are populations of cetaceans living here permanently, like the bottlenose dolphin, two stable populations of beaked whales, Hierran lobsters, sometimes whale sharks, and a beautiful, little-eroded sea floor of black coral,” he says.

For the moment, Brito is not too worried about the health of this rich ecosystem and says that, if there is damage, it should recuperate as normal when the eruptions cease. “Today we were able to begin work with the beaked whale population in El Hierro, and everything was normal,” he assured. But he also says there is risk for species that live deeper down and the threat would increase if there is another eruption closer to the coast, where the reserve is located and where there is greater biodiversity, a possibility which scientists have not yet ruled out.

Santiago Hernández, Professor of Zoology at the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, doesn’t want to be an alarmist, either. In his statements to [press agency] Efe, he has stressed that there is no need to fear the gas emanating from the sea, which only affects fauna in a transitory and momentary way. Previous experience indicates to him that recovery will be rapid.

The secret to conserving the area is the creation, after a petition by fishermen, of the marine reserve in 1996. Fernando Gutiérrez, president of the fishermen’s association of La Restinga and one of the driving forces of that campaign, said the reserve was created to safeguard the sea. “We have eradicated longline fishing, fish traps, kites, and this has assured exemplary fishing which is totally sustainable,” he affirms. But the value of the reserve is not just piscatorial.

The marine reserve is 7.5 square kilometers. Only scientific diving can be done within its heart, called the integral reserve. Outside that is a so-called buffer, where fishing is restricted to catching tuna with hooks and live bait. Finally, there is the normal reserve, where several kinds of fishing can be practiced. The extreme southeast of the island has permanently good weather, without even wind, hence the water there is named the Sea of Calm. This circumstance encourages overfishing, which is why the reserve was created.

In addition to the piscatorial and ecological interest of the area, the south of the island is crucial to the economy of El Hierro, as it is an all-world mecca of diving. Before transit was canceled on Saturday, boats set out for Photo Sub, a photography contest of global reach. The divers enjoyed a bed of corals. Scientists of the National Geographic Institute showed a fractured black coral as evidence of the eruption.

This afternoon, this natural paradise appeared to be covered by a dark green and brown stain only a mile from the coast. It was much closer than the two made out yesterday. The Government of the Canary Islands has assured that this is not evidence of a new eruptive focus; it is merely a “fumaroliana emission” (of gas) and an evolution of the previous stains. While lacking analysis, the experts explained that volcanoes expel carbon dioxide composed of sulfur, nitrogen, fluorine, and chlorine in distinct proportions.

CSIC scientist Ramón Ortiz explained on the island that the stain “is anecdotal”, that there is a crevice, and that magma flows to one place in some cases and another place in others, and that one cannot predict whether it will advance toward the coast or the sea. He added that precautions can only be taken in a matter of hours.

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