Cold-Water Corals: Deepwater Coral Expedition in the Gulf of Mexico
The search for domestic energy sources is progressing to great depths in the Gulf of Mexico.
(From MMS Ocean Science / Volume 5, Issue 4, Oct/Nov/Dec 2008) — As economic interests move oil and gas operations into these previously unexplored areas, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) works to increase understanding of the organisms residing at these depths. By examining distribution, relative abundance, and population structure, MMS is better equipped to protect their habitat from potential future impacts.
In September 2007, MMS announced the release of a new report, Characterization of Northern Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Hard-Bottom Communities with Emphasis on Lophelia Coral (MMS 2007-044). This is the first dedicated Gulf study of deepwater corals designed to gain a better understanding of their biology and distribution. The resulting publication indicates that “Lophelia pertusa plays a significant role in the ecology of hard bottom habitats on the upper slope of the northern Gulf of Mexico.” The report suggests the need for additional research to address questions arising from the study and makes recommendations for further exploration and investigations at greater depths.
Now, a new MMS study is underway, exploring Gulf deepwater coral habitats from 300 to 3,000 meters (984 to 9,842 feet) deep. The new project, “Lophelia II,” or “Exploration and Research of Northern Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Natural and Artificial Hard Bottom Habitats with Emphasis on Coral Communities: Reefs, Rigs, and Wrecks,” is an exciting 4-year study, teaming MMS with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (NOAA’s OER). Funded by a $3.7 million MMS contract, researchers will use NOAA research vessels and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to explore both natural and humanmade (including shipwrecks and platforms) sites to better understand the deepwater coral communities.
Little is known about deepwater corals. In this first year of the Lophelia II project, the goal is to locate and explore new coral sites and discover more about the habitat characteristics, biology, ecology, and population connectivity of deepwater corals.
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