News of Discoveries from the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster

Researchers aboard the NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster, under the direction of Dr. Sandra Brooke, Marine Conservation Institute’s Director of Coral Conservation and Dr. Steve Ross (UNCW), reported today that they have rediscovered a methane seep off America’s East Coast that has not been seen for the last 30 years! 
Mussels at a methane seep

Methane seeps are fascinating undersea ecosystems, in which methane naturally emerges through the ocean’s floor. The methane seeps support unique ecosystems where some invertebrate species have evolved a close relationship with bacteria that use methane to make energy. These bacteria live in the tissues of animals like seep mussels and allow them to use methane as a food source. Seep-dependent species are ‘endemic’ – found only in these unusual habitats and nowhere else. 

A map illustrating the location of Baltimore Canyon

In the early 1980s Dr. Barbara Hecker conducted a survey of Baltimore Canyon, a deep marine canyon off the coast of Delaware and New Jersey, using a towed camera. When she processed the analog film at the completion of the cruise, she saw a type of mussel that lives only in seep habitats – a clear indicator of a methane seep in the Canyon. The location of the seep could only be estimated using the location of the ship and a depth sensor on the camera. Since the location data from the early 1980s cannot be converted to modern GPS coordinates, no one has seen the seep since.

The ROV Kraken II
Dr. Brooke is the co-Principal Investigator in charge of biological sciences for the 2012 Mid-AtlanticDeep-Water Canyons project. The 2012 research cruises are pursuing a variety of biological, geological, and archaeological objectives – including rediscovering this methane seep using modern technology. The team is using the Kraken II, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) owned by the University of Connecticut, to record the exact coordinates of the seep, collect high definition video, and retrieve specimens of the surrounding marine life.   
In two dives, they were able to rediscover the long-lost methane seep. In the first dive on Sunday, August 26th, at a depth of over 400 meters (1300 feet), they found mussels that thrive in methane seeps. During this first dive the ROV’s cameras also recorded anemones, sponges, hydroids, and multiple species of fish.
An exciting and unique environment
In the second dive they found the main part of the seep, with a dense thriving mussel bed. Researchers peered intently at the high-resolution video being sent from the Kraken II, showing the ocean floor covered with patches of white bacteria. Methane gurgled up from the sediment, and there were dense patches of mussels dominating the seafloor. The marine seep is estimated to be quite large and relatively shallow in comparison to other Atlantic Ocean seeps.
Patches of bacteria grow in methane seeps utilizing the methane to produce energy
The discovery of this seep highlights how little we know of the ocean floor – even the oceans offshore of our largest cities and in our own national waters. Sites like the methane seep in Baltimore Canyon are hot spots of productivity and diversity, where new species continue to be discovered. They are also close to areas of intense recreational and commercial fishing, but are currently unprotected from impacts of fishing activities. They also fall within an area of potential oil and gas leases, but have some protection from damage under federal regulations. New discoveries from the deep-water canyons demonstrate how little we know about these unique ecosystems, and how responsible federal agencies should work to limit or restrict damaging activities near these sites. 

Crabs trying to pry open dinner, methane seep mussels
One of Marine Conservation Institute’s conservation themes is to Identify Vulnerable Ecosystems  and then to advocate for their protection. Research and exploration of irreplaceable ecosystems within Baltimore Canyon is an essential first step to informing policy makers, to help them make good decisions for the health of our oceans.
What can you do to help? You can take a variety of actions to make a difference in ocean health. The most important is to contact your Congressional representatives today and encourage them to support NOAA’s Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology Program and other federal efforts. You can also support organizations that protect these precious marine resources, support ocean-friendly businesses, stay informed, and spread the word!


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