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Exploring Deep Sea Coral Ecosystems off the Southeast U.S.
This story entered on July 27th, 2009

Scientists are delving into the mysteries of cold water coral reefs in a race against time to protect these deep sea oases and to better understand their benefits to the environment. The expeditions are co-funded by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s (NOAA) Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) program and Deep Sea Coral Science and Technology Program, United States Geological Survey, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Florida Atlantic University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Dr. Steve Ross, research associate professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science, will serve as chief scientist for the four cruise program beginning in August ranging from North Carolina through the Gulf of Mexico. He will be joined by an international and multi-agency team of scientists. “This year we are mounting an unprecedented effort to gain valuable data about one of the most amazing marine habitats in United States waters, a habitat that contains rich rewards for these efforts. All of these agencies and talented people involved will make this a model for future expeditions,” said Ross.

The first cruise will take place August 6 through August 17, 2009 and will travel to the Lophelia coral reefs located off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Fla. Joining Ross on this cruise will be co-investigator John Reed, senior research scientist with Florida Atlantic University. The team will study and collect samples from deep sea coral reefs.

 “Deep sea coral reefs are oases in the deep ocean, a province that was thought to be less diverse than shallower waters,” said Ross. “It is more difficult for marine life to find food and habitat the deeper you go. The deep water reefs provide huge biodiversity, which is required for a healthy ocean.” Reefs located deeper than 1000 feet are considered deep water reefs.

The Lophelia coral reefs are part of more than 23,000 square miles of coral and hard-bottom reefs in the Atlantic Ocean proposed for protection. The South Atlantic Fishery Council has proposed that this area be considered a deep sea coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC). Such a designation would make this the largest protected reef system in the Atlantic and would protect the area from bottom trawling and other human-made damage. Scientists will combine new information and samples collected during this cruise with information from previous research to help make the case for the protection of this reef area. A final decision on the designation as a HAPC is expected in late 2009.

Research partners on the first expedition include UNC Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science, Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI), United States Geological Survey (USGS), Scottish Association for Marine Science, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, Marine Conservation Biology Institute and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The team will use HBOI’s Johnson-Sea-Link manned submersible and research vessel Seward Johnson to study the reefs and collect samples of coral and marine life for further analysis once they return to shore.

Only in the last 10 years has seafloor mapping technology allowed researchers to find and properly study these amazing ecosystems due to their depth, making their full impact on the environment and marine life a mystery for scientists to solve. The cold, deep water where deep sea coral reefs live has so far sheltered them from the temperature increase and pollutants that have affected reefs in shallow waters; however, that may change in the future. Deep water reefs are particularly vulnerable to bottom trawling, a technique used for fishing, and ocean acidification. Increasing acidification associated with increasing carbon dioxide absorbed by seawater reduces the amount of calcium carbonate needed by ocean life to create skeletons like corals.

“What we are finding is that we not only didn’t know how much habitat was down there, but that there were a lot of hidden new species that nobody knew about. The deep water reefs are irreplaceable. Once destroyed, it may be impossible for them to reestablish themselves,” said Ross. “Once you incorporate a one-degree temperature change in the deep ocean, it may stay there for decades before that heat can be released. Corals are old and slow growing, so they may never recover from the damage at all. If they do it could take hundreds or thousands of years.”

The coral, including bamboo and black corals, have rings similar to trees that allow scientists to chemically measure for environmental changes over time. The corals may give scientists a several thousand year record of environmental changes such as ocean temperatures, ocean productivity, volcanic activity and dust storms. The scientists will also study habitat distribution and the population construction of marine life. Previous trips to the deep sea coral reefs in the Atlantic have yielded valuable scientific information, including the discovery of several new species of marine life. Team members, including UNCW’s Steve Ross, discovered several new species of fish, starfish and crabs, including a new hagfish, a new eel and two small fish that hide in the corals.

Contact information:
Name: John Tomczuk, NOAA/OER Coral Program Lead
Tel: (301) 734-1009
john.tomczuk@noaa.gov


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Updated: July 27, 2009