Scientists have discovered a previously unknown soft coral garden in the Davis Strait, off the coast of West Greenland. They described the ecosystem in a new study published in Frontiers in Marine Science.
The garden sits 1,600 feet (490m) deep. The researchers found it using a low-tech rig called a “benthic sled,” consisting of a GoPro camera, lights, and laser pointers, which they set into special pressure-proof cases, mounted on a steel frame and hung from their research vessel.
The team recorded video at 18 locations and when they looked back at the footage, they found an expansive garden roughly 190 square miles (490sq km) full of pastel soft corals, sponges, sea stars, anemones, rockfish, shrimps, and snails. In roughly 1,200 still images pulled from the footage, the team identified over 44,000 individual organisms.
The researchers’ benthic sled cost just $5,000, which is a fraction of the cost of other deep-sea sleds. “A commercially available deep-sea [remote operated vehicle] would cost at least six figures, and many models would go into seven figures,” Stephen Long, lead scientist and a PhD researcher at University College of London and the Zoological Society London “This is a huge barrier to research…it means that there are fundamentally only a small pool of researchers and institutions that can undertake this kind of research, which is a shame.”
In the future, the biodiverse habitat could be at risk because of bottom trawling, and researchers hope their DIY system will make deep sea research more accessible to scientists around the world.
“Typically, deep-sea species are characterized by traits, including slow growth, late-maturity, and longevity, which can render populations, communities, and habitats vulnerable to exploitation and disturbance,” said Long. “These characteristics mean that physical disturbance, such as by bottom trawling, can have significant impacts on deep-sea habitats and recovery can take a very long time, in the order of decades or even centuries.”
The authors call for the soft coral garden they discovered to be protected as a Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem under United Nations guidelines. They are also working with officials from the Greenland government and the local fishing industry, who have been receptive to putting protections for the garden in place. This “fragile, complex, and beautiful habitat,” Long said, must be protected.