NOAA Expedition to Assess Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystems off the Southeastern U.S.
Off the Atlantic coast of the Southeastern U.S. are the best developed deep-sea coral reefs in U.S. waters. Stretching from Georgia to Florida, at depths between 200 – 1,000 m (650 – 3,300 ft), the coral Lophelia pertusa forms huge mounds that are home to myriad deep-sea creatures. In 2010, NOAA and the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council protected five areas, encompassing more than 23,000 square miles (about the size of the State of West Virginia), as deepwater Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern . NOAA’s Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology Program is conducting a three-year field research effort to assess the extent and condition of these unique habitats and provide this information to resource managers.
In early June, 2011, NOAA completed a twelve-day expedition aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces to explore potential deep-sea coral habitats out to 500 m (1,640 ft) depths off the east coast of Florida, between Jacksonville and Miami. The expedition surveyed areas that are still open to certain bottom fishing activities (Allowable Fishing Areas), and assessed the water column community associated with deep-sea coral habitat.
The remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) Sebastes and Arc, owned and operated by NOAA’s Southwest Fishery Science Center (SWFSC) Laboratory in La Jolla, CA , were deployed on 10 dives to document the diversity and habitat associations of the deep-sea coral communities through video, high resolution digital still imagery, and collecting samples of coral and invertebrates. Additionally, samples of nearby soft sediments were collected to understand the invertebrates that live there and measure potential contaminant levels. All dive sites were also mapped with a high resolution multibeam acoustic system and mid-water fishery acoustic surveys were conducted during crepuscular vertical migration periods (sunrise and sunset).
Dr. John Butler (SWFSC) led the ROV operation while John Reed (Harbor Branch) was the lead scientist during the dives. Drs. Jeff Hyland, Cindy Cooksey and Laura Kracker, from NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, led the benthic sediment studies and the fishery and mapping acoustic surveys. Andrew David, from NOAA’s Southeast Fishery Science Center, was the chief scientist for the mission.
Dives were made off Jacksonville, FL at the shallowest known Lophelia pertusa reef off the US east coast, discovered during the previous year's Extreme Coral Expedition. The cruise also surveyed the North Florida Deepwater Marine Protected Area (MPA) established in 2009, and an Allowable Golden Crab Fishing Corridor and a potential wreckfish spawning area on the Miami Terrace. The research team also conducted dives in the Oculina Habitat Area of Particular Concern (OHAPC), the world’s first deep-sea coral protected area, and surveyed approximately 25 previously unexplored Oculina coral mounds north of the OHAPC. Several restoration experiments deployed in the OHAPC in the late 1990s were surveyed for the first time in a decade and many colonies of deep sea coral were seen growing on these modules.
The expedition had a Teacher-at-Sea on the cruise. Our educator, Sue Zupko of Huntsville, AL, conducted live interactive video teleconferences with schools in Alabama and North Carolina during the ROV dives and maintained a blog detailing all phases of the mission. For more information and to view the cruise track visit: http://cioert.org/xcorals2011/.
Later in 2011, the Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program will conduct the final expedition of the three-year Southeast field research program.