Life on the Edge

Exploring Deep Ocean Habitats

Previous research cruises off the southeastern US Region have provided some insight into the extent and nature of these deep water reefs, and over the past few years we have developed some understanding of the distribution and type of reef habitat and the myriad species that are associated with the coral structure.

The overarching objective of this research cruise was to discover more about the ecology and biology of these reefs. Scientists used small samples that are selectively collected by the submersible to determine information on past oceanographic conditions. That information, like with tree rings, is captured in long-lived coral skeletons, growth and life history of the corals and their genetic population structure. Some corals are thousands of years old.

The submersible allows us to visit the reefs and observe the habitat distribution and the diversity and abundance of the species that live within the corals, particularly any species that may be commercially valuable.

The information collected during this cruise will continue to be analyzed in the laboratories of the participating scientists, so we do not yet know that full import of our time at sea.

However, significant outcomes of the cruise include the discovery of three new vibrant shallow reefs comprised of car-sized coral colonies, potential new species of squat lobster and a species of Goosefish (a deep-sea angler fish) that has never been collected from this region. These discoveries, while significant are not surprising. Every time we visit these reefs we find something new.

There is still a long way to go, but based on this scientific data, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) has proposed that 23,000 square miles of coral habitat be designated a deep-sea Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern (CHAPCs). Such a designation will make this the largest protected deep-water reef system in the Atlantic and will prevent the damage from destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling that has impacted deep-water reefs elsewhere.

There are two commercial fisheries that use bottom tending gears around the deep reefs: the golden crab trap fishery and a trawl fishery for royal red shrimp. Members of both of these fisheries have been working closely with the SAFMC to define where they can operate without damaging the fragile corals, which so far appear to have suffered no damage from human activities.

This farsighted and cooperative approach by the SAFMC will help maintain these reefs in a healthy condition so they can better withstand the consequences of climate change.

This cruise was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s 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. The chief scientist was Dr. Steve Ross of UNCW.