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"Coral Hotspots" Found in Deepwater Canyons off Northeast U.S. Coast

NOAA researchers have conducted an exploration of the submarine canyons off the northeastern U.S. in search of deep-sea corals and sponges. This summer’s survey aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow revealed coral “hotspots” that likely serve as important habitat for a variety of fish species and other marine life.

Among the canyons surveyed were Toms, Middle Toms, and Hendrickson Canyons off the coast of New Jersey, and Veatch and Gilbert Canyons off Cape Cod. There are more than 70 deep-water canyons—ranging in depth from about 330 feet to more than 11,500 feet—along the northeastern U.S. continental shelf and slope, but few have been well studied.

“The deep-sea coral and sponge habitats observed in the canyons are not like those found in shallow-water, tropical reefs, or deep-sea coral habitats in other regions,” said Martha Nizinski of NOAA Fisheries National Systematics Laboratory. “We know very little about the distribution and ecology of corals in the canyons off the Northeast coast. Although our explorations have just begun, we’ve already increased our knowledge about these deep-water coral habitats a hundred times over.”

The science team used TowCam, a towed, deep-sea digital imaging system operated by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The team was able to capture more than 38,000 images of the seafloor for analysis. These images will be used to learn more about the diversity and distribution of deep-sea corals in the region. They will also provide a starting point for a three-year research effort funded by NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program, which gets underway in 2013.

The July survey was the culmination of a larger mission to explore deepwater canyons and gain increased knowledge of deep-sea corals off the East Coast. Earlier in the summer, several NOAA offices and partners in the Atlantic Canyons Undersea Mapping Expeditions (ACUMEN) identified priority frontier areas along the continental shelf and slope ripe for deep-sea coral conservation efforts as a part of NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint. NOAA ships documented and extensively mapped the deep-water canyons on the continental shelf and slope from Norfolk, Virginia, to New England.

Findings from this cruise will not only improve knowledge about deep-sea life off the northeastern seaboard, but will also inform the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils in their efforts to manage commercial and recreational fisheries that depend on these and other important habitats.

Posted October 1, 2012