Coral Reef NOAA
June 01, 2016  

NOAA Scientists Go to Extremes to Study Deep-Sea Coral

submersible being lowered to the water's surface from a ship crane and a close up of a scientist sorting specimens collected on a mission
The Jason II preparing for a dive and scientists sorting specimens retrieved during the mission. Photo credits: Art Howard

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A team of scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown returned on November 23 from a 15-day expedition to explore previously uncharted deep-sea coral ecosystems from Pourtales Terrace off the Florida Keys to the Jacksonville Lithoherms.  Explorations were conducted using Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's remotely operated vehicle, Jason II. The expedition, called Extreme Corals 2010, was sponsored by NOAA's Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program and was the final field effort in year two of a three-year mission focused on the southeast region of the United States.  During the transit to the first Atlantic Ocean site, one ROV dive was made at a recently discovered deep coral site in the Gulf of Mexico off Tampa. 

The expedition was developed in consultation with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and concentrated on the new Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern established in July. This year's mission was 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. 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."
— Andrew David, NOAA research fishery biologist.

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 Wilmington. "These ecosystems represent thousands to millions of years of development and once damaged, they may never recover," said Ross.

Several discoveries were made during the expedition, including the location of a deep coral ecosystem at a depth shallower than previously known in the southeastern US, probably due to a localized and persistent upwelling of cold, nutrient rich bottom waters.  This and other findings may, "help federal managers refine the protected areas and include some of the new reefs that were discovered," Ross added.

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