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NOAA SCIENTISTS DISCOVER EXPANDED RANGE OF DEEPWATER CORALS OFF WASHINGTON STATE COAST

NOAA image of gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as a Paragorgia species.June 26, 2006 NOAA scientists have discovered areas of deep-sea corals in the NOAA 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. (Click NOAA image for larger view of gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as a Paragorgia species. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

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.

NOAA image of red gorgonian coral branch supporting attachments of a whitish basket star, crinoids and several shark egg cases."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." (Click NOAA image for larger view of red gorgonian coral branch supporting attachments of a whitish basket star, crinoids and several shark egg cases. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

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

NOAA image of rosethorn rockfish resting next to a gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as a Callogorgia species.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. (Click NOAA image for larger view of rosethorn rockfish resting next to a gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as a Callogorgia species. Laser dots for sizing are 10 cm apart (approx. 4 inches). Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

"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 the NOAA 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."

NOAA image of a single gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as an Umbellula species.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 rockfish 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. (Click NOAA image for larger view of a single gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as an Umbellula species. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

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

Gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as a Paragorgia species.
Gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as a Paragorgia species.
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Extended polyps of a gorgonian soft coral.
Extended polyps of a gorgonian soft coral.
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Hydrocoral, tentatively identified as a Stylaster species, entwined by red brittle star arms.
Hydrocoral, tentatively identified as a Stylaster species, entwined by red brittle star arms.
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Gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as a Primnoidae with attached crinoids and associated rockfish.
Gorgonian soft coral tentatively identified as a Primnoidae with attached crinoids and associated rockfish.
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Rosethorn and redbanded rockfish adjacent to the reef-building coral Lophelia pertusa and a giant cup coral.
Rosethorn and redbanded rockfish adjacent to the reef-building coral Lophelia pertusa and a giant cup coral.
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Two color phases of a soft coral, tentatively identified as a Swiftia species, rising above a carpet of brittle sea stars.
Two color phases of a soft coral, tentatively identified as a Swiftia species, rising above a carpet of brittle sea stars.
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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-NOAA image of extended tentacles of polyps of the reef-building coral Lophelia pertusa, entwined with red arms of brittle sea stars.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. (Click NOAA image for larger view of extended tentacles of polyps of the reef-building coral Lophelia pertusa, entwined with red arms of brittle sea stars. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

The President’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.

NOAA image of aurora and redbanded rockfish nestled in the branches of a gorgonian soft coral.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 more than 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 NOAA 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. (Click NOAA image for larger view of aurora and redbanded rockfish nestled in the branches of a gorgonian soft coral. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

NOAA image of darkblotched rockfish nestled in the branches of a gorgonian soft coral."These new regulations are a major step in protecting these newly discovered regions," notes Thomas Hourigan, coral reef coordinator in the NOAA Fisheries Service 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." (Click NOAA image for larger view of darkblotched rockfish nestled in the branches of a gorgonian soft coral. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

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

This mission also is a superb example of collaboration and of leveraging funds and other required resources in that the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration partnered with the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and NOAA National Undersea Research Program.

In 2007, NOAA, 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 the 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.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration

NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program

NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Media Contact:
Bob Steelquist, (360) 457-6622 or Sarah Marquis, NOAA Ocean Service, (949) 222-2212