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Large colonies of bubblegum corals were observed on the walls of Corsair Canyon in 2014. Scientists have been seeing similar corals in early dives in 2017. Image courtesy of 2014 Bigelow-ROPOS US-Canada Gulf of Maine Collaboration.
Co-chief scientists Martha Nizinski (left) and Anna Metaxas stand by the front of ROPOS on the Bigelow deck shortly before departing on the cruise. Numerous cameras are visible at the top, and biological sampling boxes for collected specimens are visible at the bottom left. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Shelley Dawicki, NEFSC
Metaxas and Nizinski (center and right) see what's in the specimen boxes after a ROPOS dive in 2014. Another member of the science party holds a coral specimen. Samples are bing collected on the 2017 expedition as well. Image courtesy of 2014 Bigelow-ROPOS US-Canada Gulf of Maine Collaboration

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June 13, 2017
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

US-Canadian Scientists Explore Northeast Shelf Canyons, Gulf of Maine for Deep-water Corals

Live video from the seafloor will be broadcast during the first half of the expedition

U.S. and Canadian researchers will spend 14 days at sea aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow exploring canyons and slope habitats off the Northeast Shelf and in the Gulf of Maine with the Canadian remotely operated vehicle ROPOS, short for Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science.

Their goal: to survey and investigate known or suspected deep-water coral habitats off the coast of the northeastern US and Canada, map the seafloor where data are missing or incomplete, explore and photograph new areas, and collect samples of corals and other biological life for age, taxonomic and genetic studies.

“I am excited to be back aboard the Bigelow and continuing the work Anna and I started in 2014. It has taken us three years to organize this cruise, as it did the first one, but we anticipate another very successful effort,” said Martha Nizinski of NOAA Fisheries’ National Systematics Laboratory in Washington, DC. Nizinski and Anna Metaxas of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada are co-chief scientists.

“In addition to collecting coral samples for a variety of studies and assessing coral abundance, distribution, and size, we will be ground-truthing and validating the habitat suitability model, which suggests where corals might be located based on a variety of factors,” Nizinski said. “ It worked well on our 2014 cruise. We discovered several new areas where corals and other organisms were abundant and diverse. Some of these corals are very colorful, a bit of a surprise to many people given that these corals reside in total darkness in deep waters offshore. Most people think of corals as only occurring in warm tropical waters in reach of snorkeling or scuba diving.”

U.S. scientists on the expedition include two other NOAA researchers, ecologist Dave Packer from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s James J. Howard Laboratory in Sandy Hook, New Jersey and spatial ecologist Matthew Poti from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. Packer and Niizinski worked with Poti to develop the habitat suitability model, first tested in 2014 on the Bigelow cruise in the Mid-Atlantic region. The model uses habitat data to identify places where deep-water corals are most likely to occur. This allows researchers to select areas to study in an otherwise very large ocean.

Cheryl Morrison, a research geneticist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Leetown Science Center in West Virginia, will be collecting coral samples to study connectivity between populations in western Atlantic canyons and the Gulf of Maine. Elizabeth Shea, curator of mollusks at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, has worked with Nizinski on other coral cruises in the North Atlantic and is collecting samples of cephalopods around corals and sponges.

VIDEO: Co-chief scientist Anna Metaxas explains ROPOS.

Canadian scientists include Paul Snelgrove from Memorial University of Newfoundland, who will be collecting sediment cores for studies of organism that live in the mud on the ocean bottom, and Peter Lawton from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who will help direct ROV dives and document survey activities. Graduate students Marta Miatta and Joost Verhoeven from Memorial University, Arieanna Balbar from Dalhousie University, and the six-member ROPOS operations team complete the scientific team.

“Information collected on this mission will contribute to an improved understanding of these ecosystems and will inform resource management decisions in both Canada and the U.S.,” said Metaxas. “Organisms don’t know international boundaries. We want to survey and collect samples so we can understand the connections between biological communities in different locations and how they survive. Some of the corals we’ve seen on our earlier expedition can live for hundreds to thousands of years.”

The Bigelow departed Newport, RI on June 9 headed for smaller canyons between Munson and Nygren canyons, roughly 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod on the edge of the Northeast U.S. continental shelf. The vessel will then move north to Georges and Corsair Canyons in Canadian waters, and sites on the continental slope off Browns Bank, also in Canadian waters. A number of locations in U.S. waters in the Gulf of Maine will also be explored, including Jordan Basin, Outer Schoodic Ridge, and Mount Desert Rock, before the vessel returns to Newport on June 22.

The science team will spend about two days at each canyon area, taking still and video images and collecting biological and sediment samples with the two manipulators on ROPOS. The vehicle, capable of dives up to 5,000 meters or 16,404 feet deep, will send back live images of the seafloor to a command center aboard ship via an armored fiber optic cable.

Vehicle operations during the day are managed from the command center, set-up in the ship’s acoustics lab. The two co-chief scientists, the vehicle pilot, navigator and manipulator engineer work together during each 12-hour dive to take images and collect coral and other biological samples for later study.

When ROPOS is back on deck after a dive, the ship conducts multibeam mapping of the seafloor in areas where more data is needed, or deploys instruments to collect water and other environmental samples. Operations run 24 hours a day, depending on weather.

The seafloor maps produced on this cruise will help the current as well as future expeditions. The data will be shared with NOAA, the New England Fishery Management Council, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to help guide decision-making about the conservation of living marine resources in the waters of each nation.

The 209-foot Henry B. Bigelow is operated by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations.

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