Deep Sea Coral Reef
Little is known about the natural resources of the deep ocean off the United States’ Southeast coast from Virginia to Georgia, so Deep Search 2018 was created to learn more by exploring the deep-sea ecosystems. The project, consisting of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the US Geological Survey, is nearing the end of its 15-day voyage aboard the research vessel Atlantis.
A pair of dives in a submersible called Alvin confirmed the existence of the coral reef and based on observations, researchers estimate the reef is at least 85 miles long.
When scientists Cathy McFadden, Erik Cordes, and pilot Bruce Strickrott surfaced nearly eight hours later, they had a sampling basket loaded with different coral species, including Lophelia, Enallopsammia, Madrepora, and octocorals (plexaurids, primnoids, Anthomastus). Lophelia was by far the most sampled coral on today’s dive, and for good reason—it is the dominant reef-forming coral in the deep sea, and many members of our team are interested in better understanding its presence here in the U.S. south Atlantic.
“This is a huge feature,” expedition chief scientist Dr. Erik Cordes told HuffPost. “It’s incredible that it stayed hidden off the US East Coast for so long.” Cordes said the ecosystem is unlike anything he has seen, with “mountains” of corals.
The discovery of the coral reef builds upon research by scientists working aboard the Okeanos Explorer, which mapped hundreds of deep-sea mounds formed by these corals.
So it exists. Now what?
A coral reef is a large community of live organisms that live in one location. Many fish and sea creatures choose to spawn here, because the protected environment of the reef means their eggs will be safe from predators.
The discovery of this Atlantic reef comes as the Trump administration is proposing to roll back a ban on offshore drilling, which would reinstate drilling leases in Pacific and Atlantic waters.
More than 140 municipalities have publicly opposed offshore drilling activities in the Atlantic, according to the environmental group Oceana. Environmental groups call the plan dirty and dangerous.
A Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spokeswoman said it funds this type of research to identify resources that must be protected should there be future energy activity off the coast, and new information from this reef study “could be useful in pre-leasing or post-leasing [oil and gas] decisions, such as those affecting sensitive habitats that are the focus of this study.”
Cordes also said this coral habitat must be protected from oil and gas development, and believes it is critical for the productivity of regional fisheries.
The reef itself still holds many mysteries, and researchers write that the discovery will keep members of the Deep Search team “busy for months, and even years, to come.” [CNN]