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NOAA Completes Multi-year Study of Deep-sea Corals, Sponges in Southeast US

Published on: 01/25/2022
Research Area(s): Marine Spatial Ecology / Coral
Primary Contact(s): peter.etnoyer@noaa.gov

NOAA's Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program completed its multi-year effort to explore and characterize deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems in U.S. waters of the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean. Projects conducted in partnership with universities focused on seafloor mapping, species identification, habitat suitability modeling, environmental and oceanographic monitoring, and data analysis.

Researchers discovered thriving Lophelia pertusa reefs in a region farther offshore and in deeper water than other known Lophelia reefs in the U.S. Atlantic. This image of “Million Mounds” shows healthy habitat with extremely high live coral cover. Credit: NOAA Ocean Exploration.

Researchers completed a total of 21 expeditions to survey deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems using ships, submersibles (including remotely and autonomously operated vehicles), and other equipment.

Major accomplishments of the initiative include the following:

  • Expeditions resulted in a 450 percent increase in the number of coral and sponge observations in the West Florida Wall, an area of particular interest to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council due to its significant coral aggregations. These records informed the Council’s decision to combine three small proposed protected areas into one much larger and more effective one.
  • Mapping revealed that the central Blake Plateau, which was originally thought to be soft sediment, is actually covered with extensive mound features composed primarily of Lophelia pertusa coral communities. Researchers have named this ecosystem “Million Mounds” and it contains some of the thickest Lophelia aggregates in the region.
  • In a collaborative research project in Puerto Rico, local anglers deployed GoPro™ drop cameras to record video of deep-sea habitats. The project improved the understanding of relationships between commercially important snappers and coral and sponge communities.
  • Successful telepresence-enabled expeditions allowed real-time participation from shore. Scientists involved more than 45 students, from the high school to Ph.D. level, by inviting them to viewings and holding laboratory classes to give the students hands-on experience with deep-sea corals.
  • Researchers developed a web-accessible public geodatabase to share habitat suitability models, coral and sponge observations, submersible dive locations, and managed area boundaries.

These collective efforts provided important information needed to support the management of fishing and other activities that may affect deep-sea coral ecosystems throughout the region.

The program published its final report for the Southeast Deep Coral Initiative, which began in 2016 and was led by NCCOS, in collaboration with NOAA Fisheries, NOAA Ocean Exploration and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. This effort was made possible through a variety of funding sources, and extensive local, academic, and federal partners.

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