A recent post on David Guggenheim‘s website, the Ocean Doctor, highlighted the discovery by NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Association) scientists of an extensive 12 mile long deep sea (100-500 feet) coral habitat with high biodiversity along the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico. Why is this important?
Well, there aren’t many places around the world with healthy coral reef habitats. Most of the known coral reef habitat are shallow (10-50 feet) as the species in these habitats get there food and energy from the sun. These habitats aren’t in good shape due to many factors. The habitats are sensitive to environmental change such as temperature, pH, nutrients, etc. They are used to living within very strict settings and any change in the settings can kill the coral organisms, and in turn, destroy the reef. High sea surface temperatures in the water for long periods of time have killed many shallow water corals where changes in water temperature are felt much more. discharges of nutrients and sediments from land sources (storm water, resorts, and development) can also harm corals and destroy the habitat. Deep sea coral habitats on the other hand tend to be healthier as they do not feel the change in temperature as much and may be too deep for the effect of bad water quality to harm them. This doesn’t mean they can’t be harmed, it just means that they are deeper and more isolated from changes at the surface. Healthier deep sea coral reef habitats show that there are still healthy reefs.
The other important advantage of the discovery of deep sea coral reefs is that there is a possibility that the fish, shrimp, lobster, coral, and other organisms of these habitats may replenish the shallower reefs. How can this happen? Well, the Oceans are dominated by currents much like the wind dominates above the sea surface. Many organisms are dispersed via currents from their original place of birth to some other important habitat, such as shallow reefs. Upwelling currents are common along the continental shelf. These currents originate from the depths of the Ocean and move upwards towards the surface carrying nutrients, cold water, and any animal that wants to hitch a ride (similar to the currents in the movie Nemo where the Sea Turtles were “riding the currents” except this one moves from the bottom of the Ocean to the surface).
NOAA scientists would like to protect the deep sea coral reef habitats for their potential to restock shallow coral reef systems. Lots of work is still necessary as studies need to explore the currents direction along the shelf and which organism rides these currents and where to the end up.
Enjoy the NOAA article here