Researchers Find Gulf of Maine Coral Gardens

Herring swim by Primnoa coral, Schoodic Ridges. Photo/NOAA
Herring swim by Primnoa coral, Schoodic Ridges. Photo/NOAA

NOAA: During 15 days of exploring the deep-sea waters of the Gulf of Maine this summer, a team of scientists discovered tall, dense hanging gardens of Pimnoa coral at depths of about 650’ blanketing vertical walls roughly 25’ to 40’ high in the Schoodic Ridges area.

During their cruise from July 23 to August 6, 2014, the team of scientists used the small remotely-operated vehicle Kraken 2 to explore areas of Jordan Basin, the Schoodic Ridges, northern Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and western Wilkinson Basin.

Colorful coral colors in the Jordan Basin. Photo/NOAA
Colorful coral colors in the Jordan Basin. Photo/NOAA

The Primnoa corals they discovered, also known as sea fans, are also found in many areas of the world, including the Arctic, North Pacific, and North Atlantic Oceans. Images of Primnoa and Paramuricea corals, sponges, fishes and other marine life were captured on video and digital still cameras on the ROV, and 134 samples of corals and other associated marine life were collected for taxonomic, histological, and genetic analyses.

“Few people realize that the Gulf of Maine is home to many beautiful deep-sea corals, about which we know so little,” said Dave Packer, a marine ecologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)’s Howard Laboratory at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and co-chief scientist on the cruise. “Off the Northeast U.S., the very deep submarine canyons and seamounts far out along the edge of the continental shelf exhibit a high biodiversity of deep-sea corals, some of which may be hundreds if not thousands of years old,” Packer said. “Seeing high densities of several of these species in relatively shallow waters close to shore is amazing. The hanging gardens were spectacular!”

Fishermen have known about the presence of corals in the gulf for over a century, as coral specimens were captured in their gear along with the fishes they harvested. What remains unknown is the ecological setting in which these fragile and vulnerable species occur and the limits of their distribution. “That we found these spectacular walls of corals for the first time in 2014, after 40 plus years of research with submersible vehicles in the Gulf of Maine, illustrates how much more we need to understand about the Gulf ecosystem in order to better conserve and manage our natural resources,” said co-chief scientist Peter Auster of the University of Connecticut/Sea Research Foundation.

“Right now we are analyzing photos and video and getting samples ready for laboratory analysis,” Packer said. “From what we’ve seen this year we have extended the overall boundaries from where these corals were found last year. It’s pretty exciting.”