International scientists en route to 'Bounty Trough' off Otago coast to discover and protect thousands of new marine species

A team of international ocean scientists are on their way to New Zealand's remote 'Bounty Trough' to discover and protect thousands of new marine species before they become extinct.

The voyage is led by Ocean Census, New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and Te Papa Museum - and is the first expedition of its kind in the Pacific region. 

They will spend 21 days investigating the unexplored Bounty Trough ocean system off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island. They will search depths down to 5000m for undiscovered marine species. 

NIWA voyage leader Sadie Mills told Newshub it's a special expedition. 

"We're going out with Ocean Census to try and accelerate the discovery of species in the deep sea - we're going to a very unexplored area of NZ," she said.  

The area just off the Otago coast - known as the 'Bounty Trough ocean system' - is 800km long. The scientists will be exploring it for three weeks using underwater cameras, multicorer equipment and fish traps. 

To date, just 10 percent of what lives in the sea has actually been found - about 2 million species are still undiscovered .

"We want to understand what species we have now before we lose them to some of these impacts of climate change," said Mills. 

The research mission is funded by the Ocean Census project - which aims to discover and describe 100,000 new marine species - and has selected New Zealand's Bounty Trough because there's so little known about it. 

 "I'm hoping we are going to find many many new species here  - everything from fish down to tiny worms and crustaceans," said Ocean Census science director Alex Rogers . 

And there's a sense of urgency to the mission. 

"We've got a legacy of 4 billion years of evolution in the ocean - so it really is urgent to get out there and document that life which we may well lose," said Rogers.

Describing new species usually takes about 11.5 years - but Ocean Census director Oliver Steeds said they've achieved it in just 36 hours on a previous voyage to the Atlantic.

"So we know we can do it faster, we know we need to be doing it faster and operating at speed and scale."

Steeds is excited about what might be awaiting the scientists in New Zealand waters. 

"It's the combination of modern science and traditional knowledge we hope that will bring to life what lives in the oceans around New Zealand," he said. 

Once samples are collected from the Bounty Trough, they'll then be put into cool storage on board and brought back to Te Papa Museum in Wellington where more international scientists can closely analyse the findings.

"We have a workshop straight after the voyage where we have experts waiting to see what we've collected and hopefully describe lots of new species," said Mills.