Protecting the Mid-Atlantic's Deep-Sea Ecosystems

Fact Sheet
November 19, 2014

The shelf edge and slope off the Mid-Atlantic coast is spotted with deep-sea coral communities with colors spanning the rainbow and some growing as lush and tall as forests. These corals -- and associated species like sponges and anemones -- are particularly abundant in the region's more than two dozen submarine canyons, which cut into the shelf approximately 60-100 miles from shore and can plunge as deep as the Grand Canyon. These deep-sea coral communities form the foundation of deep-sea ecosystems, offering shelter, nursery habitat, and food for countless species. The canyons are biodiversity "hotspots," with concentrations of different marine life, including squid and other forage fish; "ecosystem engineers" like tilefish, lobsters, and other crustaceans that create complex burrows in canyon walls; large pelagic fish, including tuna and billfish; and marine mammals, including endangered fin and sperm whales.

Deep-sea corals and sponges have produced scientific and technological innovations, including compounds for cancer treatments, models for artificial synthesis of human bone, and elements to design more durable optic cables. Because deep-sea corals live so long, scientists can learn about historic changes in global climate and ocean current systems through trace elements and isotopes incorporated into coral skeletons over time.