Deep-Sea Discovery: Atlantic Coast Ocean Canyons Teeming with Newfound Marine Life and over 40 Species of Vibrant Deep-sea Coral

New Effort Underway to Protect East Coast’s Coral Canyons

NEW YORK (December 9, 2014) -- Recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-led explorations into deep undersea canyons off the East Coast have uncovered a steady stream of scientific discoveries, including over 40 different species of corals, some potentially brand new ocean species and rare sightings of elusive creatures, such the Greenland shark, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  Armed with these new findings, ocean policymakers in the Mid-Atlantic are currently considering ways to protect these vulnerable and biologically-rich ecosystems, which are at growing risk of harm, including from certain fishing practices.

“These canyons are treasure troves of discovery. Known as biodiversity ‘hotspots,’ they contain huge and diverse concentrations of marine life, which are still largely untouched and unknown to science,” said NRDC Fisheries Policy Director Brad Sewell. “Research is showing that these mysterious canyons are home to everything from the giants of the ocean, such as endangered fin and sperm whales to ‘ecosystem engineers’ like tilefish and lobsters and rich coral communities that serve as sanctuaries for sea life. It’s critical that we protect them before they suffer irreparable harm.” 

Cut into the continental shelf off the Atlantic coast of the United States lays this series of deep undersea canyons, teeming with an astonishing variety and abundance of marine life. Coral communities have been found in particular abundance in the region’s more than two dozen submarine canyons, which can stretch more than 100 miles long and plunge as deep as the Grand Canyon. Since 2011, NOAA has led a series of dives into the Atlantic canyons to research, map and characterize these deep-sea coral habitats.

According to NRDC’s issue brief, “The Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures: Discoveries From A New Frontier of Ocean Exploration,” these dives revealed a rich collection of coral species that thrive in cold Atlantic waters as deep as 1.5 miles below the ocean surface. Over 40 coral species have been identified, at least three of which are believed to be brand new to science. Some are so abundant that scientists described them as coral “forests.” Species of red, black, bubblegum, stony and soft corals have all been found, a number of which were never before known to exist in this region. In Baltimore Canyon offshore Maryland, scientists found a colony of “bubblegum” coral—so named for their bulbous pink branch ends—nearly 15 feet tall. Many of these corals have the same vibrant colors and tree-like shapes of their tropical cousins, yet do not need sunlight to survive. These coral communities are sanctuaries, providing food and shelter for a range of deep-sea creatures that were also found during the expedition.

The menagerie of sea life found during these expeditions includes dozens of exotic deep-sea species, such as the whiplash squid, dumbo octopus, sea butterfly (which is actually a snail), sea toad and tonguefish. Potentially new species of sea stars and sea slugs were also identified, as well as rarely seen creatures, such as the Greenland shark, considered the slowest of all fish species, and a species of hydromedusa jellyfish that had last been reported in the region almost a century ago. 

According to NOAA's 2010 Strategic Plan for Deep-Sea Coral and Sponge Ecosystems, bottom trawling – the practice of pulling a trawl net along an ocean floor – is the “major threat” to the health of these vibrant deep-sea coral communities. One pass of a trawl net can destroy corals that have been growing for thousands of years, eliminating fragile and important deep sea communities for any ecologically relevant period of time.

To address this risk, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which manages U.S. fisheries resources in the region, is currently developing a plan to protect deep-sea coral communities off the Mid-Atlantic coast from fishing gear damage. Called “Amendment 16,” the Council intends to add this to an existing fishery management plan and will submit it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for approval.

“Today, we have the opportunity to protect these highly vulnerable, distinctive, and pristine ocean ecosystems before industrial technologies devastate them,” said Sewell. “We are hopeful that Amendment 16 will be a precedent-setting marine habitat protection initiative for our Atlantic Ocean.”

To read NRDC's issue brief, “The Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures: Discoveries From A New Frontier of Ocean Exploration,” click here:

To view a short video and a slideshow of images from NOAA's explorations, click here (and scroll to the bottom right of the screen):



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