SYDNEY (Reuters) - The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, though fruitless in terms of finding the aircraft, should provide fishermen in the Indian Ocean with detailed sea-floor maps, and help them land huge catches.
Australia, Malaysia and China ended the search for the Boeing 777 airliner on Tuesday, after a $150 million hunt over almost three years failed to find any trace, leaving one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries unanswered.
The suspension of the underwater search has left families of the missing in anguish, but the information gleaned should provide fishermen with unprecedented insight into the habitats of the valuable species they seek.
“It brings an extraordinary new level of detail to our knowledge of the area,” said David Carter, chief executive of Austral Fisheries, whose fleet seeks toothfish in the waters near the search area.
The plane disappeared in March 2014, en route to Beijing from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, with 239 people on board. Analysis of radar and satellite contacts suggested someone on board may have switched off its transponder before diverting it thousands of kilometres out over the Indian Ocean.
The search area covered 120,000-sq-km (46,000-sq-mile) of remote southern Indian Ocean, west of Australia.
Charitha Pattiaratchi, professor of Coastal Oceanography at the University of Western Australia, said the details of the deep sea contours were invaluable for fishermen.
“If you know where these mounts are, it means money,” said Pattiaratchi.
“They are areas where you can find high-priced fish.”
The search for MH370 was led by engineering group Fugro, which built up detailed sonar mapping data in an area that would have normally been too remote and expensive to map in such detail.
“A vast amount of data has been collected throughout the search, it will be published once it has been processed and prepared for public release,” the agency that has been coordinating the search, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), said in a statement.
The ocean is up to 6.5 km (4 miles) deep in the search area with towering underwater mountains, sub-sea volcanoes and long rift valley.
Currents push nutrients along contours that attract fish which, in turn, attract bigger predator fish.
Huge distances and inhospitable weather mean the fleets seek only the most valuable fish in the open waters – tuna, toothfish, orange roughy, alfonsino and trevally.
Knowing where the ocean-floor features are located will be a huge advantage.
“It will be great interest to the commercial sector,” said Neil Patrick, one of Australia’s best known game fishermen.
“Fish can be worth thousands and thousands of dollars a piece out there.”
Taiwanese, French and Spanish fleets ply the rough waters, along with boats based out of Mauritius and nearby Rodriguez and Reunion islands.
Many illegal boats, which don’t conform to the rules set down by relevant regional fisheries management organisations, also operate in the waters.
The fishing fleets routinely hampered the search vessels, Fugro operations manager Paul Kennedy told Reuters. .
“The boats are chasing tuna, and tend not to respond to radio calls,” he said. “Most of them are illegal, that’s why they don’t talk to you on the radio.”
Fugro said it lost about two weeks of search time in one summer period after being delayed by the presence of fishing boats.
The search team came across a sunken fishing boat, the ATSB said, although government agencies have not been able to identify it.
Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Robert Birsel