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September 2, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Hanging Coral Gardens in Gulf of Maine Add to Excitement of Summer Full of Deep-Sea Coral Discoveries

“Wow! Look at that…This is unbelievable!” Those words became a familiar refrain for Dave Packer and colleagues during a July 23-August 6 deep-sea coral cruise in the Gulf of Maine aboard the 76-foot research vessel Connecticut

Using the small remotely operated vehicle Kraken 2, a team of scientists explored areas of Jordan Basin, the Schoodic Ridges, northern Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and western Wilkinson Basin during the 15-day cruise. The team completed 21 dives and spent nearly 119 hours underwater visiting 13 distinct stations, including some in the central Jordan Basin along the U.S./Canadian boundary.

The highlight of the cruise was finding tall, dense hanging gardens of Primnoa coral at depths of about 200 meters (656 feet) blanketing vertical walls 8 to 12 meters high (roughly 26 to 40 feet) in the Schoodic Ridges area. Primnoa corals, also known as sea fans, are found in many areas of the world, including the Arctic, North Pacific, and North Atlantic Oceans. Images of Primnoa and Paramuricea corals, sponges, fishes and other marine life were captured on video and digital still cameras on the ROV, and 134 samples of corals and other associated marine life were collected for taxonomic, histological, and genetic analyses.

“Few people realize that the Gulf of Maine is home to many beautiful deep-sea corals, about which we know so little,” said Packer, a marine ecologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)’s Howard Laboratory at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and co-chief scientist on the cruise. “Off the Northeast U.S., the very deep submarine canyons and seamounts far out along the edge of the continental shelf exhibit a high biodiversity of deep-sea corals, some of which may be hundreds if not thousands of years old,” Packer said. “Seeing high densities of several of these species in relatively shallow waters close to shore is amazing. The hanging gardens were spectacular!”

Packer and co-chief scientist Peter Auster of the University of Connecticut/Sea Research Foundation, along with colleague Rhian Waller and graduate student Steven Auscavitch from the University of Maine, have been working in the Gulf of Maine for two years as part of a larger deep-sea coral research program funded by NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program. In July 2013, the team began work in western Jordan Basin and the Schoodic Ridges region, collecting real-time color video and digital still images with the ISIS 2 towed camera platform to help researchers assess the distribution and composition of deep-dwelling coral communities. 

Fishermen have known about the presence of corals in the Gulf for over a century, as coral specimens were captured in their gear along with the fishes they harvested. What remains unknown is the ecological setting in which these fragile and vulnerable species occur and the limits of their distribution. "That we found these spectacular walls of corals for the first time in 2014, after 40 plus years of research with submersible vehicles in the Gulf of Maine, illustrates how much more we need to understand about the Gulf ecosystem in order to better conserve and manage our natural resources," said Auster.

“Right now we are analyzing photos and video and getting samples ready for laboratory analysis,” Packer said. “From what we’ve seen this year we have extended the overall boundaries from where these corals were found last year. It’s pretty exciting.”

This was the second of three cruises in 2014 funded by the Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program to survey and sample deep-sea corals in waters off the Northeast U.S. The first was a joint U.S.-Canadian effort June 18-July 1 aboard the 209-foot NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow. Researchers surveyed and collected samples in eastern Jordan Basin and in the submarine canyons off of Georges Bank using the Canadian ROV ROPOS. Martha Nizinski from NEFSC's National Systematics Laboratory and Anna Metaxas from Canada’s Dalhousie University shared chief scientist duties during the cruise.

The third cruise was conducted August 5-16 aboard the Bigelow. During these two weeks, exploration continued in the deep-water canyons off the Mid-Atlantic region, along with surveying areas predicted to be coral hotspots based on a habitat suitability model and other data and records. Led by chief scientist Martha Nizinski, the Bigelow team included scientists from NOAA’s National Ocean Service and from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as well as NOAA Teacher at Sea Joan Le from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. 

Scientists towed a deep-water camera, measured water conductivity, temperature and density, and used multibeam sonar to obtain images in Washington, Wilmington, Lindenkohl, Spencer, and Carteret Canyons off Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. Work was done in water depths between 200 and 2,000 meters (roughly 650 to 6,500 feet). Survey locations were selected based on multibeam sonar data collected in 2012 and 2013 by the NOAA Ships Okeanos Explorer and Ferdinand R. Hassler

Findings from these cruises will not only improve knowledge about deep-sea life off the Northeastern U.S., but will also aid the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils in their efforts to protect and conserve these sensitive habitats, which support a variety of fishes and other marine life.

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