BAR HARBOR — A research team from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), the University of Maine and several other academic institutions exploring the Gulf of Maine this summer has discovered a spectacular coral display not far from Mount Desert Island.
Using a small remotely operated vehicle, Kraken 2, a team of scientists aboard the 76-foot research vessel Connecticut explored areas of the Schoodic Ridges, Jordan Basin, northern Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the western Wilkinson Basin during a 15-day cruise. The team completed 21 dives and spent nearly 119 hours underwater visiting 13 distinct sites.
The highlight of the cruise was finding tall, dense hanging gardens of Primnoa coral at depths of about 200 meters (656 feet) blanketing vertical walls 8 to 12 meters (roughly 26 to 40 feet) high in the Schoodic Ridges area. Long popular grounds among Downeast fishermen, the inner Schoodic Ridges are located about a dozen miles southeast by south of Baker Island, the easternmost of the Cranberry Islands.
Primnoa corals, also known as sea fans, are found in many areas of the world, including the Arctic, North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans.
“Few people realize that the Gulf of Maine is home to many beautiful deep-sea corals, about which we know so little,” Dave Packer, a marine ecologist at the NEFSC’s Howard Laboratory in Sandy Hook, N.J., and co-chief scientist on the cruise, said in a statement from the NOAA Fisheries Service.
“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!”
The team began work in the western Jordan Basin and the Schoodic Ridges region a year ago, collecting real-time color video and digital still images with the ISIS 2 towed camera platform.
Fishermen have known about the presence of corals in the gulf for more than 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,” co-chief scientist Peter Auster of the University of Connecticut said.
This was the second of three cruises in 2014 funded by the Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program to survey and sample deep-sea corals in waters off the Northeast U.S. The first was a joint U.S.-Canadian effort June 18-July 1 aboard the 209-foot NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow.
The third cruise was conducted aboard the Bigelow Aug. 5-16. During those two weeks, exploration continued in the deep-water canyons off the Mid-Atlantic region, along with surveying areas predicted to be coral hotspots based on a habitat suitability model and other data and records.
Findings from these cruises will not only improve knowledge about deep-sea life off the Northeastern U.S., but will also aid the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils in their efforts to protect and conserve these sensitive habitats, which support a variety of fishes and other marine life.