U.S. EEZ Mapping and Exploration in the Aleutian Islands

PI: Cantelas, Frank : Medley, Rachel (NOAA Ocean Exploration)
Co-PI(s): Mayer, Larry (University of New Hampshire and Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute)
Start Year: 2021 | Duration: 3 years
Partners: NOAA, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, University of New Hampshire, Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute, Saildrone Inc., Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Project Abstract:

The Aleutian Island chain in western Alaska is one of the most remote and understudied regions of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As an oceanic-arc subduction zone, the chain has consistently been identified as a priority area for NOAA programs such as the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology Program, and the Office of Coast Survey, as well as other agencies with cross-disciplinary interests. Before any substantive exploration and characterization work can be completed, however, high resolution bathymetry coverage is needed across almost the entire region. At just 28% percent mapped, Alaska is the least mapped region of the U.S. EEZ by far. This project proposes using the recently launched Saildrone Surveyor, a 72-ft autonomous surface vessel that is equipped with both shallow and deep water multibeam mapping systems and a full suite of oceanographic sensors, to map remote areas of the Aleutians that have been identified as priorities for multiple NOAA programs, interagency partners, and external stakeholders. Priority polygons covering approximately 78,000 sq km (~95 days at sea) have been identified at varying depth ranges (200-6000 m). The exact amount of coverage achieved from this project is fully scalable depending on ultimate funding received and will capitalize on the recent philanthropic donation of data acquired and submitted to the National Centers for Environmental Information in the Aleutian Trench by Caladan Oceanic. Additional exploration and characterization projects are planned for the region starting in fiscal year 2023, and these projects will be accelerated by this initial investment as they will not have to expend costly sea days collecting mapping data and can instead focus their efforts on more intensive surveys using remotely operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles, and other sensor technologies. The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey has funded a five-year study through its Environmental Studies Program for further data collection in support of marine minerals exploration in and around the Aleutian area from fiscal year 2022 to fiscal year 2025. NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is anticipated to be in the region in fiscal year 2023 and will rely on the Saildrone data to plan remotely operated vehicle exploration missions.