Research team to explore depths of NC waters

Posted by Heather Setzler - bio|email

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - An international research team plans to explore the North Carolina waters to document deep sea coral habitats before they're extinct.

The group will be led by UNCW marine scientist Steve Ross and will spend 10 days in December off the coast of Beaufort, NC.

Along with mapping the coral, the team will plant a stained coral that they can track and monitor the growth rate.

Typically, deep sea coral research is focused on more southern regions like the Gulf of Mexico.

Below is a news release sent out by UNCW about the exploratory mission:

In a battle to preserve the ancient treasure of deep sea coral reefs, an international research team will dive into a historic investigation of North Carolina waters Dec. 1-9. Led by University of North Carolina Wilmington marine scientist Steve Ross, researchers will employ innovative technology to characterize and map expansive deep sea coral habitats before they become extinct.

The venture comes mere weeks after the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) approved the largest protected deep sea area in continental U.S. waters. The mandate is designed to safeguard Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (CHAPCs) in deep sea regions from N.C. to Florida from damaging activities like unsustainable trawling and dredging.

Chief scientist Ross will be joined on the R/V Cape Hatteras by researchers from six other agencies and universities, including three European scientists who hope to apply their findings to the ever-decreasing coral populations off the European coast.

"We can't protect an environment if we don't know where it is or how large it is," Ross said. "Without that type of information, we can't even make a good judgment about its value or whether to protect it in the first place."

While scientists have documented the value of protecting coral ecosystems close to shore for more than 250 years, deep sea coral reefs represent virtually uncharted territory. The diversity of these regions have been explored only for the last 10 years. The management of these newly discovered resources has become a hot topic among environmentalists and ocean-dependent industries like fishing and oil.

"If we are going to manage these ecosystems for future generations or judge environmental impacts, we must know how they work," Ross said. "Our research is designed to explore the extent of these deep reefs and to investigate how the ecosystems function. We are characterizing these areas and linking animal abundance patterns to the environment of the area – temperature, depth, oxygen levels, species, etc."

Scientists have theorized that, like their coastal counterparts, deep sea coral mounds serve as a haven for spawning, house substances of biomedical value and are sensitive to environmental factors including global climate shifts, pollution and unsustainable fishing practices. While some of these theories are now being confirmed with new technology, the breadth and biodiversity of deepwater coral habitats, ranging in depth from 350 meters (1,600 feet) to more than 800 meters (2,625 feet), remain a mystery to even the most seasoned marine scientists.

Previous UNCW explorations of the "underwater wildernesses" of the Atlantic have resulted in the discovery of numerous new species of marine life, including fish, crabs and a new genus of starfish.

"These findings are just the tip of the iceberg. A decade ago we did not realize these deep sea coral habitats were so abundant, and now we know that these reefs are irreplaceable. They must be examined and protected before it's too late. These reefs are very old. Once they have been bruised by external forces like trawling, it might be hundreds or thousands of years before they recuperate – if they can," said Ross.

After departing from Beaufort, N.C., the research team will travel approximately 70 miles out to sea to deploy a number of innovative tools, including two benthic landers, which will be positioned for a year in the deep reefs to monitor and record physical, chemical and biological activity.

Researchers will also stain and "plant" Lophelia, a type of deep sea coral that can amass 500-foot tall mounds which serve as a foundation for deepwater habitats. Tracking the progression of the stained coral will enable researchers to monitor coral growth rate, sea life development and whether Lophelia can be successfully transplanted.

The December trek is Ross' fourth journey into the new CHAPCs this year. SAFMC cited the previous research of Ross and fellow deep sea researchers as instrumental in the initiation and approval of its new CHAPCs. Once implemented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these CHAPCs will help preserve more than 23,000 square miles of underwater habitats in the icy waters of the deep. Steve Ross is a research associate professor at UNC Wilmington's Center for Marine Science.

The Cape Hatteras is operated by the Duke-University of North Carolina Oceanographic Consortium. The cruise is being funded primarily by the Consortium, United States Geological Survey (USGS) and NOAA. Research team members are from UNCW, the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Heriot-Watt University of Scotland, UNC Chapel Hill and the University of South Florida.

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