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Quake wipes all life from Kaikoura Canyon

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 26/02/2017

All seabed life in the Kaikoura Canyon was wiped out by huge mudslides following last year's earthquakes, scientists say.

A decade ago the canyon was considered to have one of the highest volumes of organisms living in mud anywhere in the world, about 100 times higher than anything reported at similar seabeds.

But scientists from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research now say November's quakes sent mud and debris into the canyon's central channel, smothering all life.

"We surveyed exactly the same area we did in 2006 and, while fish were still found in the area, this time didn't record evidence of a single organism living on or in the seabed over a stretch of nearly 6km of seabed," NIWA marine ecologist Dave Bowden said.

"Nothing. It was quite sobering, and a catastrophic event for the ecology of the canyon."

NIWA research trips to the area in January found almost every party of the upper slope lost mud following the magnitude-7.8 quake.

While the sea bed was previously covered in burrows, tracks and mounds, it was now smooth and barren.

Dr Bowden said the event would open up new research avenues and life was likely to eventually reappear.

"We suspect that events like this might happen every few hundred years in the Kaikoura Canyon. It will be very interesting to follow what happens from here, and I will be highly surprised if it doesn't regenerate," he said.

Ministry of Primary Industries science manager Shelton Harley says it will be important to understand how food chain in the area will be affected.

"There are few people who weren't shocked by the photos of exposed paua beds along the coast, but we know that there are other potential less obvious impacts that we need to understand."

Meanwhile, researchers also found the quakes had not worsened the risk of a damaging tsunami being generated from landslides in the canyon - near the road south of Kaikoura Peninsula - and that the danger may be lower than previously thought.

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