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NOAA Scientists Go to Extremes to Study Deep-Sea Coral

A team of scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown has just returned from a 15-day expedition to explore previously uncharted deep-sea coral ecosystems from Pourtales Terrace—off the Florida Keys—to the shelf and slope off of Jacksonville, Florida using Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s remotely operated vehicle, Jason II. The expedition, called Extreme Corals 2010, is sponsored by NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program and has just concluded year two of a three-year mission focused on the southeast region of the United States.

The expedition was developed in consultation with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and will concentrate on the new “Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern” established this year. This year’s mission is the first time many of these reefs had been seen by scientists.

“Deep-sea coral reefs are some of the oldest and most fragile, yet least studied habitats on the planet,” said Andrew David, NOAA research fishery biologist. “Attaining a balance between protection and use of these areas is critical, and this expedition will advance our knowledge of and promote effective management strategies for these important ecosystems.”

Like shallow tropical corals, deep-sea corals provide habitat for fish and other marine life. Recent research has revealed the ecological importance of deep-sea coral communities and the threats they face, such as bottom-tending fishing gear. Sound management of these ecosystems requires scientifically based information.

“Because these deeper regions are at increased risk of exploitation, their ecological role and value need to be better understood,” said expedition chief scientist Dr. Steve Ross of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “These ecosystems represent thousands to millions of years of development and once damaged, they may never recover,” said Ross.

During the Extreme Corals 2010 mission, research teams used multi-beam sonar to map more than 800 square miles of deep-sea coral habitat inside and outside the protected area.

“High resolution maps greatly increase our ability to locate deep-sea coral reefs and are an invaluable tool for scientists and the management agencies tasked with protecting these ecosystems,” said expedition co-chief scientist Dr. Sandra Brooke of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

Deep-sea corals are delicate, branching deep-sea organisms that provide habitat for an abundant and diverse community of marine life. Some deep-sea corals grow only millimeters per year, and deep-sea corals can take thousands of years to form. The skeletons of deep-sea corals can be analyzed to study a history of environmental conditions.

Partners in this mission included the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research and Technology, Marine Conservation Biology Institute, the U.S. Geological Survey, and several other government and academic organizations.