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Abundant 'Lophelia' coral and anemones. (Photo: Lophelia II 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM)

Scientists find coral deeper than ever in Mexican Gulf

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Monday, August 13, 2012, 22:40 (GMT + 9)

A team of federal and university scientists on a 10-day expedition in the Gulf of Mexico has discovered Lophelia coral growing deeper than previously seen anywhere in the Gulf. Newly available information on Lophelia’s growth rate and conditions will inform future environmental review and decision-making for the protection of deep-water coral habitats. 

The overall goal of the mission, which left Freeport, Texas, on 14 July and returned to Pensacola, Florida, on 24 July, was to examine coral ecosystems and related habitats that developed over several decades on or near actively producing deep-ocean oil and gas production platforms. Undersea structures supporting energy production platforms provide some of the scarce hard surfaces in the Gulf, where Lophelia pertusa, a deep cold-water coral that lives where there is no sunlight, can grow.

Scientists imaged corals in both high-definition video and still photography and also took samples for DNA sequencing to better understand the biology, growth and distribution of deep-sea corals. Through cameras on a remotely operated vehicle used to survey coral growth on oil and gas platforms, scientists observed Lophelia coral at a depth of 2,620 ft on undersea structures supporting the Ram Powell platform, which was built in 1997 and is one of the deepest platforms in the Gulf.

The previous record depth for Lophelia in the Gulf was about 2,066 ft. Scientists also visited four other deepwater platforms.

“Finding Lophelia at this depth was very exciting for the whole team, especially for those of us who have been studying coral habitat for decades,” said Gregory Boland, a biological oceanographer in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) Environmental Studies Programme, who has overseen this and other coral studies. “Our findings complement previous joint research on coral ecosystems and will help policy-makers manage and protect ocean resources on the outer continental shelf.”

The expedition included scientists and technicians from BOEM, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, and the US Geological Survey (USGS) operating jointly under the National Oceanographic Partnership Programme, which fosters the use of pooled federal resources such as funding, ships, equipment, and personnel to best meet agency and national priorities in ocean stewardship. Scientists from Temple, Pennsylvania State and Florida State universities were an integral part of the team.

For BOEM, the expedition was the culmination of a series of research missions taking place since 2002, when the bureau launched its first deepwater Lophelia coral studies in the Gulf. The new data will be incorporated into a final report BOEM plans to publish in 2013. The bureau plans to monitor deepwater corals periodically through other studies it will undertake in the region.

In the last 12 years, BOEM completed 13 studies of platform corals, fish and habitat; six platform biology studies are ongoing.

The cruise augments the ongoing USGS programme Diversity Systematics and Connectivity of Vulnerable Reef Ecosystems (DISCOVRE), dedicated to the study of deep-sea coral environments in the Gulf and the Atlantic.

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Photo Courtesy of FIS Member  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA/NMFS
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