[MARINE_BIOLOGY_INTERNATIONAL] UNCW and OIMB Researchers, Colleagues Unlock Mysteries of Atlantic Deepwater Can


Wilmington, NC – During a recent three-phase research cruise, marine scientists explored vast submarine canyons off the U.S. East Coast, yielding remarkable preliminary results, including a potential new species of mussel.

The international research team, led by co-chief scientists Steve Ross from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Sandra Brooke from the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology and Marine Conservation Institute, boarded the NOAA ship Nancy Foster for 43 days at sea.

"Besides the discovery of a potential new species, we discovered a cold seep and vast fields of bubblegum coral," Ross said. "It will take a couple months to determine if the species is new or not, and even longer to distill the huge amount of data collected."

High-resolution maps of Baltimore and Norfolk canyons, which Ross and Brooke collected in 2011, helped guide the use of the University of Connecticut's remotely operated vehicle Kraken II during 30 dives to explore unknown habitats and historic shipwrecks, record high definition video of the seafloor and collect samples for research. Other sophisticated tools were also employed to collect environmental data and samples, and to deploy experiments.

"This year—the second of a four-year project—we identified sensitive or vulnerable areas within and outside the canyons and gathered information to be used by regulatory agencies to better manage deep-water ecosystems and submerged cultural resources," said Brooke.

The mid-Atlantic canyons off the coasts of Virginia, Delaware and Maryland are ecologically significant features that support unique and bio-diverse habitats, as well as a number of productive commercial fisheries. They are also potential areas for oil and gas exploration.

Lead funding agencies are the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. The project is managed by CSA International, Inc. with lead principal investigators and cruise chief scientists at UNCW and OIMB/MCI (Ross and Brooke). The project benefits from significant contributions of the scientific partners from many institutions*, including those in Europe and from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Preliminary findings include:

•Location and exploration of a methane cold seep first discovered over 30 years ago and has not been visited since. This is only the third documented seep site along the U.S. East Coast, and this was the first detailed exploration of this unique community.

•Possible discovery of a new species of mussel at the cold seep, and other new species are likely from these poorly explored canyons.

•First records of colonies of the important reef-building coral Lophelia pertusa discovered in the mid-Atlantic region.

•Documentation of rugged canyon walls and large stands of deep-sea corals.

•Discovery of catshark spawning areas on coral and shipwreck habitat.

•First documentation of "Billy Mitchell shipwrecks".

•Documentation of the extensive impact of trawling on historic shipwrecks and coral habitats on the continental shelf and slope.

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