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Coral Reef and Seagrass Ecosystems

We map U.S. coral reef ecosystems and work with state and territory management agencies to assess their condition. Our research on the sources and impacts of pollution, disease, and fishing pressure is used to protect and manage Sanctuaries, Research Reserves, and other special places.

U.S. coral reef ecosystems cover less than one percent of the earth’s surface, yet are among the most diverse and productive communities on Earth. They enhance biological diversity, fisheries, tourism, maritime and cultural heritage, and protect shorelines from storm damage. Stressed by human activities and extreme events, coral reefs are in decline worldwide. Excess nutrients and sediments, overfishing, coastal development, and increased coral bleaching threaten nearly 60 percent of the world’s reefs and the resources they support.

Seagrasses are also in decline world-wide, unable to withstand the cumulative toll of nutrient and sediment runoff, invasive species, disease, commercial fishing and aquaculture practices, and climate change. Ship groundings and prop scars are also problem. Seagrasses stabilize sediments, alter water flow and nutrient cycling, and provide habitat for fish and invertebrates.

NCCOS is working to understand these problems and evaluate possible solutions. We assess, map, and monitor coral reef ecosystems throughout the U.S. and the Freely Associated States. We led the development of the first national State of the Reefs reports and are key players in mapping U.S. shallow-water coral reef systems. With the release of the National Summary of NOAA's Shallow-water Benthic Habitat Mapping of U.S. Coral Reef Ecosystems, NCCOS and its partners have mapped nearly 3 million acres (or 12,100 km2) of coral reef ecosystem habitats across the nation. With respect to seagrass, we developed many of the techniques used in seagrass restoration and the monitoring and evaluation of restoration projects.

We are leading an effort to characterize and understand intermediate depth, mesophotic coral ecosystems found between 30-150 meters (100-490 feet). This includes publishing the first Mesophotic Coral Ecosystems Research Strategy to identify critical research needs to help inform management of these ecosystems and a dedicated theme section in the journal Coral Reefs focused on the state of knowledge regarding mesophotic coral ecosystems.

NOAA is locating and protecting many of the nation’s deep-sea corals for the habitat they provide to fisheries. To support this effort, NCCOS is building a national geo-database of deep-sea corals and sponges, and developing predictive models to identify places where deep corals are most likely to grow. This helps NOAA focus mapping and exploration efforts in areas where deep reefs are likely to occur. NCCOS conducts field surveys of deep-water habitats throughout the US, providing crucial scientific data and analyses of ecosystem diversity, health, and condition that support coastal ecosystem management.