Soft Coral Garden Discovered in Greenland’s Deep Sea

Examples of the various types of coral in the deep sea off Greenland. (Long et al. / Frontiers in Marine Science)

(CN) — A group of scientists announced Monday a breakthrough discovery of a deep-sea coral garden in the western waters of Greenland, the first of its kind to be found in the area.

According to their study published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, the team designed and developed a low-cost, state of the art deep-sea video camera to study this habitat up close. Their results raise serious concerns about the management of the deep-sea trawl fisheries that lie directly adjacent to the coral garden, which are vital to the economy of the region.

The authors said they hope that their findings will urge policymakers to establish 187 square miles of this area to be protected under United Nations guidelines.

“The deep sea is often over-looked in terms of exploration. In fact, we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the deep sea,” said doctoral researcher Stephen Long from UCL Geography and Zoological Society of London.

“The development of a low-cost tool that can withstand deep-sea environments opens up new possibilities for our understanding and management of marine ecosystems. We’ll be working with the Greenland government and fishing industry to ensure this fragile, complex and beautiful habitat is protected,” Long added.

As opposed to coral reefs which sit in sunny, shallow waters, this newly discovered soft coral garden lives more than 1,600 feet underwater at water pressure approximately 50 times greater than at sea level — and it exists within total darkness. Like all coral habitats, this garden’s survival hangs in an intricate balance and it supports an abundance of marine life including cauliflower corals, feather stars, sponges, anemones, brittle stars and hydrozoans bryozoans.

“Coral gardens are characterized by collections of one or more species (typically of non-reef forming coral), that sit on a wide range of hard and soft bottom habitats, from rock to sand, and support a diversity of fauna,” said co-author Chris Yesson from Zoological Society of London. “There is considerable diversity among coral garden communities, which have previously been observed in areas such as northwest and southeast Iceland.”

This discovery contributes significantly to the limited knowledge scientists have on the deep sea, one of the most unexplored habitats on Earth due to its sheer size and depth. The authors note that this research is especially important because so little is known about the intricate workings and relationships of Greenland’s deep sea habitats.

“Given that the ocean is the biggest habitat on earth and the one about which we know the least, we think it is critically important to develop cheap, accessible research tools. These tools can then be used to explore, describe and crucially inform management of these deep-sea resources,” said Yesson.

This study’s biggest achievement is the development of their low-cost deep-sea video camera, as most technology used for surveying this ecosystem has been expensive and difficult to come by. A large factor of the difficulty comes from the immense ocean pressure which increases by one atmosphere, or atmospheric pressure at sea level, every 10 meters down, making deep-sea surveys only possible with costly remote operating vehicles or manned submersibles able to take the pressure.

“A towed video sled is not unique. However, our research is certainly the first example of a low-cost DIY video sled being used to explore deep-sea habitats in Greenland’s 2.2 million square kilometers of sea. So far, the team has managed to reach an impressive depth of 1,500 meters. It has worked remarkably well and led to interest from researchers in other parts of the world,” said Long.

The research team built this innovative deep-sea survey device with a Go-Pro video camera, lights and lasers built around a steel frame and designed to withstand pressure. The lasers were designed at UCL’s Institute of Making by a mechanical engineering team and have high-powered laser pointers for scaling and imaging.

The finished device was about the size of a Mini Cooper and was placed on the seafloor for 15-minute surveys across 18 different locations. From the video footage it acquired, the scientists took 1,239 still images to be analyzed further.

From all the data collected, the team identified a total of 44,035 sightings of local fauna. Most consist of anemones (15,531) and cauliflower corals (11,633).

“Greenland’s seafloor is virtually unexplored, although we know it is inhabited by more than 2,000 different species together contributing to complex and diverse habitats, and to the functioning of the marine ecosystem,” said Martin Blicher from Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

“Despite knowing so little about these seafloor habitats, the Greenlandic economy depends on a small number of fisheries which trawl the seabed. We hope that studies like this will increase our understanding of ecological relationships, and contribute to sustainable fisheries management,” Blicher said.

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