Contact: Fred Gorell
NOAA News Releases 2003
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Scientists completed a NOAA-sponsored 64-day voyage to the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) where they studied the region’s virtually unexplored deep-sea corals, submarine canyons, ridges and seamounts. The expedition was sponsored by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as part of its mission to investigate the oceans for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge.

A multidisciplinary team of scientists sailed on the University of Hawaii's Research Vessel Ka'imikai-o-Kanaloa, with Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory’s (HURL’s) manned submersibles Pisces IV and V, remotely-operated vehicle RCV-150, and Seafloor Mapping Sonar System.

Amy Baco-Taylor of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution studied the reproductive biology and genetics of deep-sea precious corals. “We made exciting discoveries,“ she said, “including four new coral beds, gold corals found spawning in the sample jars on the surface, and beds with juvenile precious corals — something we haven't observed in the Main Island coral beds.

HURL scientists Chris Kelley and John Smith, and Smithsonian scientist and curator Stephen Cairns, joined Baco-Taylor in surveying bottom-dwelling invertebrates, near-bottom fishes and deep-water corals on seamounts — undersea mountains. In the first explorations of the NWHI below precious coral depths, the scientists saw incredibly dense, high biomass coral and sponge communities at 1500-1800 meters, with sponges measuring one to three meters across. “We discovered at least 16 new species of corals including at least two new genera,“ said Baco-Taylor. “At least one new crinoid (sea lily) was discovered, which is certainly a new genus and possibly a new family,“ she said.

The discoveries show that deep-sea corals in Hawaii harbor diverse invertebrate communities play an important role as a habitat, and that deep-sea corals are far more diverse than shallow water corals. “Hawaii's seamounts and deep-water coral beds need to be protected,” said Baco-Taylor.

Craig Smith of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Eric Vetter of Hawaii Pacific University studied submarine canyon and scavenger communities. Canyons are common along slopes of submerged seamounts, but have not been well explored. During dives in canyons off Nihoa Island and Maro Reef, scientists observed an abundance and diversity of life. “The results met our expectations that submarine canyons appear to have more diversity than areas outside canyons,” said Vetter. “The abundance of those organisms increased with depth rather than decreased as one might expect.” Vetter also described a rare sighting of what could be a “False Cat” shark (Pseudo triakis).

Frank Parrish, a fishery biologist with NOAA’s Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center, investigated how endangered Hawaiian monk seals use shallow and deep habitats for hunting and protection. He surmised that deep-sea corals were the reason seals clustered at certain places, but observed no monk seals near those corals. Scientists on the expedition’s next project were surprised and pleased to document the first known association between deep-sea corals and monk seals when a tagged monk seal suddenly peered into their submersible’s view port near a collection of gold corals more than 500 meters deep.

NOAA Research and NOAA Fisheries organized The Deep-Sea Corals Workshop earlier this year to begin formulating an International Deep-Sea Coral Action Plan, with international scientists now identifying and prioritizing the research required to unlock the secret of these ecosystems and underpin international conservation initiatives to ensure their long-term viability.

NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, managed by NOAA’s Ocean Service, is now in the process of designating the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve as the 14th national marine sanctuary. Thirteen national marine sanctuaries now encompass more than 18,000 square miles of America’s ocean and Great Lakes natural and cultural resources.

The day after the research vessel returned to port at Snug Harbor, Honolulu, scientists shared their findings and their images and specimens from the deep, with more than 200 local students who toured the ship’s science lab and submersibles, and interacted with scientists. Students also visited NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette, and an Ocean Education Fair where they were challenged at each exhibit to answer three science questions in an educational scavenger hunt.

Underwater research laboratories like the one in Hawaii are part of NOAA's Undersea Research Program (NURP). NURP is a unique national service that provides undersea scientists with tools and expertise they need to work in the undersea environment. Undersea research results in a greater understanding of the world's oceans, which make up more than 99 percent of the living volume of our planet. In spite of their prevalence, the oceans are still a frontier area. NURP-funded scientists are a part of this advance on the frontier.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources.

Editor’s note: seamount is a submarine mountain having a summit at least 1000 feet below sea level.

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