Solving the Mystery of Deep Sea Coral Reefs; Professor Leads Unprecedented Research Efforts in the Atlantic

Released: 3-Aug-2009 11:25 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of North Carolina Wilmington
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Newswise — Scientists are delving into the mysteries of deep sea coral reefs in a race against time to protect these magnificent ecosystems and to better understand their benefits to the environment.

Steve Ross, research associate professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Center for Marine Science, will serve as chief scientist for four major cruises beginning in August ranging from North Carolina through the Gulf of Mexico. He will be joined by an international and multiagency team of scientists. "This year we are mounting an unprecedented effort to gain valuable data about one of the most amazing marine habitats in United States waters, a habitat that contains rich rewards for these efforts. All of these agencies and talented people involved will make this a model for future expeditions," said Ross.

The first cruise will take place August 6 through August 17, 2009 and will travel to the Lophelia coral reefs located off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Fla. Joining Ross on this cruise will be co-investigator John Reed, senior research scientist with Florida Atlantic University. The team will study and collect samples from deep sea coral reefs.

"Deep sea coral reefs are oases in the deep ocean, a province that was thought to be less diverse than shallower waters," said Ross. "It is more difficult for marine life to find food and habitat the deeper you go. The deep water reefs provide huge biodiversity, which is required for a healthy ocean." Reefs located deeper than 1000 feet are considered deep water reefs.

The coral reefs are part of more than 23,000 square miles of coral and hard-bottom reefs in the Atlantic Ocean proposed for protection. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has proposed that this area and four others be considered deep sea Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (CHAPCs). Such a designation would make this the largest protected reef system in the Atlantic and would protect vulnerable reefs from bottom trawling and other damaging fishing activities.

Scientists will combine new information and samples collected during this cruise with information from previous research to help conservation and management efforts in this area. A final decision on the CHAPC designation is expected in late 2009.

Research partners on the first expedition include UNC Wilmington's Center for Marine Science, Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Scottish Association for Marine Science, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Marine Conservation Biology Institute and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The team will use Harbor Branch's Johnson-Sea-Link manned submersible to study the reefs and collect samples of coral and marine life for further analysis once they return to shore.

Only in the last 10 years has seafloor mapping technology allowed researchers to find and properly study these amazing ecosystems, previously inaccessible due to their depth, allowing them to begin to investigate their role in the marine environment. The cold, deep water where these unique coral reefs live has so far sheltered them from the temperature increase and high levels of pollutants that have affected reefs in shallow waters; however, that may change in the future. Deep water reefs are particularly vulnerable to bottom trawling and ocean acidification. Increasing acidification associated with increasing carbon dioxide absorbed by seawater reduces the amount of calcium carbonate needed by animals like corals to create skeletons.

"What we are finding is that we not only didn't know how much habitat was down there, but that there were a lot of hidden new species that nobody knew about. The deep water reefs are irreplaceable. Once destroyed, it may be impossible for them to reestablish themselves," said Ross. "Once you incorporate a one-degree temperature change in the deep ocean, it may stay there for decades before that heat can be released. Corals are old and slow growing, so they may never recover from the damage at all. If they do it could take hundreds or thousands of years."

The calcareous skeletons of corals, have properties that allow scientists to chemically measure environmental changes over time. The corals may give scientists a several thousand year record of environmental changes such as ocean temperatures and productivity, volcanic activity and dust storms. The scientists will also study habitat distribution and the composition of deep water communities. Previous trips to the deep sea coral reefs in the Atlantic have yielded valuable scientific information, including the discovery of several new species of marine life. Team members, including UNCW's Steve Ross, discovered several new species of fish, starfish and crabs, including a new hagfish, a new eel and two small fish that hide in the corals.

This cruise is 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.

In an effort to educate and reach out to the public regarding the deep sea coral reef research efforts, daily logs from the scientists can be viewed at the U.S. Geological Survey, DISCOVRE web site; http://fl.biology.usgs.gov/DISCOVRE/cruise_plan_2009.html or the North Carolina Museum of Natural History site, www.naturalsciences.org.

A media day excursion to the research vessel will take place Wednesday, August12, 2009, weather permitting. The excursion will depart from Cape Canaveral, Fla. at 7:30 a.m. and return to the dock by 6:00 p.m. Spaces are very limited. For more information regarding the media day excursion, please contact Kim Iverson, Public Information Officer, South Atlantic Fishery Management Council at 843.571.4366 or by email at kim.iverson@safmc.net. Photo, video and interview opportunities will be available.

Members of the media unable to attend the excursion can obtain a media packet on or after August 12 and arrange an interview with UNC Wilmington researcher, Steve Ross. Ross will be available for interviews beginning August 19.


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