Finding and Protecting Deep Sea Corals

Covering 70% of the earth’s surface, the oceans regulate temperature, drive climate, and provide food. Yet,  95% of our ocean is still to be explored!   This last Tuesday, Marine Conservation Institute invited National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program to educate other organizations and academic institutions about their efforts to explore the deep and share their recent discoveries.

Photo Credit: Steve Ross

What is a deep sea coral?
Deep sea corals inhabit the colder waters in the deep sea (50 m to 2,000 m). They take many forms, including reefs formed by branching stony corals, “trees” that grow over ten feet high, thimble-like cups, whips that rise straight out of the seafloor, and broad fans.  Deep sea corals can live for hundreds to thousands of years.

Why are deep sea corals so important?
Deep sea corals provide important habitat for many fish, crustaceans, sea anemones, brittlestars, and sponges by offering food and protection from strong currents and predators.  They have also been shown to have characteristics that may aid the development of cancer and heart disease drugs.

Why do we need to protect our deep sea corals?
Deep sea corals can be harmed by fishing gear, anchors, water temperature and chemistry change, and oil and gas development.  The greatest immediate threat to deep water coral ecosystems is destructive fishing gear, particularly bottom trawling.  Bottom trawls drag across large areas of the seafloor with each pass, crushing and flattening much of the seafloor structure in their path.  A single trawl pass can crush centuries of coral growth.  For example, a single trawl event dragged up over 2,200 lbs of deep sea coral in a fishing area off Alaska.

What is the Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program?
The Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program was established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006.  They are charged with mapping and monitoring locations where deep sea corals are likely to occur, developing technologies designed to reduce interactions between fishing gear and deep sea corals, and working with fishery management councils to protect coral habitats. Check our their recent accomplishments here.

How is Marine Conservation Institute involved?
Marine Conservation Institute works closely with NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program by advocating for deep sea coral protection by closing areas off to bottom trawling, creating predictive models of likely locations for deep coral habitats, and even participating in many deep water dives. See Marine Conservation Institute’s work here. Also, read about Dr. Sandra Brooke’s, our Coral Director, recent expedition to find additional deep sea corals in the Atlantic Ocean.

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