Underwatertimes.com News Service - June 26, 2006 22:09 EST

NOAA scientists have discovered areas of deep-sea corals in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off the Washington state's Olympic Peninsula during a recent 12-day scientific research mission on board the NOAA ship McArthur II.

Results from the surveys were dramatic. At least six species of soft coral and one species of stony coral were observed. In some areas scientists encountered fields of erect soft corals known as "gorgonians" with individual colonies as high as three feet and in other areas isolated patches of coral colonies associated with scattered boulders. Corals observed included giant cup corals, branching soft corals such as "bubblegum coral" and the stony reef-building coral Lophelia, discovered during the earlier pilot cruise in 2004.

"We know that deepwater corals are an important part of the ocean ecosystem, but we know very little about them," said Timothy R. Keeney, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere, and co-chair of the United States Coral Reef Task Force. "Further study of this area shows promise in expanding our understanding of the ecological role of deep coral habitats, and perhaps even providing insights into the future impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on such important ecosystems."

During the mission, scientists used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in depths from 300 to 2,000 feet to photograph and videotape the coral and sponge assemblages while also collecting specimens with the ROV's manipulator arms.

This cruise followed up an initial pilot survey in June, 2004 when NOAA scientists found small samples of a stony coral, Lophelia pertusa, the most important reef-building deepwater coral in the Atlantic Ocean but rarely recorded off the Pacific Northwest coast or elsewhere in the North Pacific,

"We planned this research mission in the expectation that there would be more of these coral communities based on the limited information gathered in 2004 and from scientific literature," said NOAA investigator Ed Bowlby, who serves as Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator. "What we found, within the headlight of our ROV, confirmed that these coral communities are a significant portion of the ecosystem in the sanctuary. What lies outside of that headlight is intriguing, and makes us eager to return."

Researchers observed coral species supporting thriving populations of invertebrates as diverse as tubeworms, shrimp, brittle stars, sea slugs, crab, colonial and solitary sea anemones and feather stars. Some of the coral assemblages appeared to form aggregation sites for rockfishes of several species and pregnant females of at least three species of rockfish were observed nestled among the coral and sponge structure. On several occasions, researchers also saw egg cases of sharks attached to the coral colonies.

The researchers surveyed more than 15 sites and coral communities were found on portions of all but one of the sites.

Many of these areas showed signs of human impact. Abandoned fishing gear, trawl tracks in sediment, and disturbed habitat were common within the study area. In some cases, once-living coral communities appeared as fields of skeletal fragments, though exact causes of their demise are unknown. Researchers found a broad field of Lophelia and cup-coral rubble, as well as stalks and thick broken branches of what appeared to have been large soft corals.

President George W. Bush's Ocean Action Plan affirms a national commitment to expand efforts to research, survey and protect deep-water coral communities. The Ocean Action Plan encouraged all regional fishery management councils to take action to protect deep-sea corals when developing and implementing regional fishery management plans. The Pacific, New England, and North Pacific Fishery Management councils have taken action in response to this call.

Earlier this month, new essential fish habitat regulations implementing the Pacific Fishery Management Council's Pacific Groundfish Amendment 19 went into effect. This amendment protects over 130,000 square miles of essential fish habitat from bottom-trawling in a number of regions along the Pacific Coast, including important habitat in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary near the site of the current discovery. In consultation with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in central California, the council also placed additional restrictions on all bottom-contact fishing gear on Davidson Seamount, another area known for different types of deep coral communities.

"These new regulations are a major step in protecting these newly discovered regions," notes Thomas Hourigan, coral reef coordinator in NOAA Fisheries' Office of Habitat Conservation. "NOAA Fisheries is committed to working closely with the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the National Marine Sanctuary Program, coastal treaty tribes, fishing communities, and other scientists to understand the significance of these new findings, and ensure that these and other new information inform future management decisions."

Video and research results will be posted on the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration Web sites. The cruise will also be featured on a special Ocean Exploration education website with material including video, images, curriculum and lesson plan ideas.

In 2007, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, celebrates 200 years of science and service to the nation. From the establishment of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to the formation of the Weather Bureau and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in the 1870s, much of America's scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners and more than 60 countries to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes.