NOAA Expedition Discovers New Deep-Sea Coral Mounds

Last month, NOAA scientists used acoustic sonar to map several areas of the outer continental shelf edge off the coast of Florida. The team, on the latest mission of the research expedition “Extreme Corals 2011,” found and explored new coral mounds north of the Oculina Bank. With the help of a remotely operated vehicle””basically, an underwater robot””the team determined that the nearly 100 deep-sea coral mounds are Oculina varicosa. This is a branching stony coral species that builds mounds and acts as important habitat for economically important fish species such as grouper and snapper.

Deep-sea corals are threatened by damage from fishing gear such as bottom trawls, cable-laying activities, and energy exploration. Increased human impacts make it that much more important to further map, characterize, and protect these habitats. According to the expedition’s chief scientist, NOAA’s Andrew David, “Our goal is to better understand the location, distribution, status, and health of deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems. This information will help to guide future conservation and management decisions.”

This is the first time these coral mounds have ever been mapped and explored. The finding is also significant to the regional fishery management council, as it deliberates the future of deep-sea coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern off the southeastern coast of the U.S. A large portion of the Oculina Bank is already enclosed in a marine managed area, meaning it’s closed to fishing practices that may damage corals. The protected area currently extends from off the coast of Fort Pierce, Florida, north to near Cape Canaveral.

An educator from NOAA’s Teacher-at-Sea program was also on the NOAA Ship Pisces for the 12-day expedition. Sue Zupko of Huntsville, Alabama, conducted live interactive video teleconferences with schools in Alabama and North Carolina during the dives. She also maintained a blog detailing the phases of the mission.

NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, through the Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology Program, sponsored the research expedition in June as a part of a three-year regional effort conducted by NOAA and academic scientists.

Image Caption: Oculina Varicosa also known as Ivory Tree Coral.

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