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Project Details

Deep coral ecology, health, and diversity

Project Status: This project began in January 2004 and is Ongoing

We are surveying the deep seafloor to assess the health and diversity of deep-sea coral habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Alaska, and Northeast Pacific Ocean within the Olympic Coast and Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries. We use remotely operated vehicles equipped with high-resolution cameras to better understand and conserve these habitats. The resulting information is being used in the management and protection of these areas and the associated species they support.

Why We Care

Deep-sea corals are fragile seafloor creatures living in cold, dark ocean waters from 50 to over 8,000 meters deep. They provide crucial habitat, refuge, and spawning grounds for fish, shrimp, crabs, and other important sea life. Sea fans and sponges found in these habitats hold potential for the development of important pharmaceuticals.

Deep-sea corals range in age from hundreds to thousands of years, and, because they are so slow growing, they are slow to recover from damage caused by destructive bottom fishing, oil and gas exploration, climate change, and land-based pollution.

What We’re Doing

We are surveying the deep sea floor to assess the health and condition of deep-sea coral habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Alaska, and Northeast Pacific Ocean off Southern California, within the Olympic Coast and the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries. While the US southeast Atlantic harbors some of the largest areas of deep-sea stony coral reefs in the country, the North Pacific contains some of the most diverse.

In the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, we are exploring newly mapped seafloor habitats to determine the habitat preference and vulnerability of deep-coral and sponge aggregations. To date we have explored to 450 meters depth, collected more than 1000 seafloor images and 20 biological samples, including potentially new species of sponges.

In the Gulf of Mexico, we are working with NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Schmidt Ocean Institute, and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment to characterize and explore sensitive deep-sea coral habitats. We are also helping NOAA's Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology Program to develop a national database of known deep-sea coral locations throughout the region.

What We Found

At the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, our surveys have resulted in:

  • The first-ever records of several soft- and hard-coral species, including the classic habitat-forming stony coral Lophelia pertusa
  • Photographic evidence that deep-sea coral serves as habitat for commercially important fishes
  • Photographic evidence of human influence on the seafloor, including trawl marks in sediment, overturned rocks, lost fishing gear, and dead coral entangled in lost gear
  • More than 2000 records of octocorals and black corals being added to the Coral Reef Conservation Program national database
  • The initial planning of the Olympic 2 Groundfish Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) Conservation Area, established in June 2006.
  • Our data are playing a key role in marine spatial planning, such as the establishment of deep-sea coral marine sanctuaries that provide protection from bottom-fishing and other human uses.

Next Steps

Our future plans include:

  • An assessment of coral health and condition on mesophotic reefs in the Northwest Gulf of Mexico as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for Mississippi Canyon 252
  • Follow-up benthic surveys at Olympic Coast and Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary
  • New benthic surveys in Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Alaska
  • Studies of the influence of ocean acidification on deep-sea corals in Southern California

Related Regions of Study: Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, California, Washington

Primary Contacts: Jeff Hyland, Peter Etnoyer

Research Area: Science for Coastal Ecosystem Management (Marine Spatial Planning, Protected Species, Coral)

Related NCCOS Center: CCEHBR

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