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Soft coral on the edge of Hendrickson Canyon. (Photo: Nizinski et al, NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC, WHOI)

Deepwater canyons off northeast US coast harbour coral hotspots

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Friday, September 28, 2012, 00:50 (GMT + 9)

For the first time in decades, researchers have conducted an extensive exploration for deep-sea corals and sponges in submarine canyons off the northeastern coast of the US. The survey revealed coral "hotspots," and found that a new coral habitat suitability model could help predict where corals are likely to occur. The model is being developed by the Northeast Fisheries Science Centre (NEFSC) and the National Ocean Service's Biogeography Branch.

Among the canyons surveyed during the 6-18 July cruise aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ship Henry B Bigelow were Toms, Middle Toms, and Hendrickson canyons off New Jersey, and Veatch and Gilbert canyons off Georges Bank. All of these were known or suspected habitats of deep-sea corals.

More than 70 deepwater canyons, ranging in depth from 100m to more than 3,500m, exist along the Northeast US continental shelf and slope. Few are well studied.

"The deep-sea coral and sponge habitats observed in the canyons are not like those found in shallow-water tropical reefs or deep-sea coral habitats in other regions," said Martha Nizinski of NEFSC's National Systematics Laboratory in Washington, DC, a zoologist and deep-sea coral specialist who served as the chief scientist on the recent research cruise aboard the NOAA ship Bigelow. "We know very little about the distribution and ecology of corals in the canyons off the Northeast coast."

Sponges (yellow) and deep-sea corals on the edge of Middle Toms Canyon at a depth of approximately 1600 meters (5,249 feet). Image taken in July 2012 by TowCam deployed from the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow. (Credit: Nizinski et al, NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC, WHOI)

Findings from this cruise will aid the New England and Mid-Atlantic fishery management councils in their efforts to manage these habitats.

The July survey on the Bigelow was the culmination of a larger mission to explore deepwater canyons, and gain increased knowledge of deep-sea corals. During February-June 2012, the NOAA ships Okeanos Explorer and Ferdinand R Hassler extensively mapped offshore areas designated as priorities by the NEFSC deepwater coral research team and external partners.

Using high-quality multibeam sonar maps, NEFSC scientists and collaborators explored the deepwater canyons in the Northeast. Cruise objectives included gaining a better understanding of deep-sea coral diversity and distribution in the region, and testing the accuracy of a habitat suitability model to predict where deep-sea corals exist in the Northeast.

Bottom topography, as well as various other environmental factors, historical coral records, and model predictions helped guide the search and sampling of coral habitats. The science team aboard the Bigelow, using TowCam, a towed deep-sea digital imaging system operated by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), was then able to photograph what was on the bottom at the sites they chose, which is important for groundtruthing the modeling data.

Deep-sea corals (possibly Paramuricea) in Gilbert Canyon at roughly 1687 meters (about 5,535 feet) depth. Taken in July 2012 byTowCam aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow. (Credit: Nizinski et al, NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC, WHOI.)

More than 38,000 TowCam images will be analyzed in the coming months. Data derived from these images will be used to evaluate the presence or absence of corals in areas having historical records; to quantitatively verify the habitat suitability model; and to enhance knowledge of the diversity and distributions of deep-sea corals in the region. These data will also provide the baseline information for a three-year research effort in the Northeast funded by NOAA's Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology programme.

The researchers will also use the bathymetry data collected by the Okeanos Explorer and the Hassler at other deepwater canyons to refine and revise their coral model. Work has already started on a revised model incorporating the new findings.


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