Southeast Deep Coral Initiative: Exploring Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystems off the Southeast U.S.

Background Information

The essays below will help you to understand the goals and objectives of the mission and provide additional context and information about the places being explored and the science, tools, and technologies being used.

  • Mission Plan

    NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, which will support the 18-day mission to map, survey, and sample deep-sea coral ecosystems off the Southeast United States.

    In August 2017, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science will lead an 18-day expedition aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster to map, survey, and sample deep-sea coral ecosystems in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic Bight, focusing on management priority areas.

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  • NOAA’s Southeast Deep Coral Initiative

    A diverse assemblage of deep-sea corals on the West Florida Escarpment at a depth of 1,800 meters.

    In 2016, NOAA launched a new four-year initiative to study deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems across the Southeast United States. This multidisciplinary effort, known as the Southeast Deep Coral Coral Initiative, is led by a science team from multiple NOAA offices, working in close collaboration with partners from multiple federal and academic institutions.

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  • Coral Reef Ecosystems in the Deep Sea

    Photograph of a large colony of a deep-sea bamboo coral taken south of Florida. The coral colony was over one meter wide.

    Deep-sea corals are defined as corals that live at depths greater than 50 meters, but most species live in depths several hundred meters deep, in cold, dark, rocky habitats, often far from shore. Unlike shallow-water coral reefs, deep-sea corals are found throughout the world’s oceans, from tropical to polar regions.

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  • The Management Importance of Surveying Deep-sea Coral Ecosystems on the West Florida Shelf

    Photograph of deep-sea coral and a squat lobster on the West Florida Shelf at a depth of 550 meters. The photograph was taken during a 2014 expedition in an area that is currently being considered for designation as a habitat area of particular concern by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

    The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is responsible for managing fishery resources in the U.S. federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which extend from state waters to the 200-mile boundary of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.

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  • Mapping the West Florida Shelf

    Multibeam echosounders map the seafloor by emitting a beam of sound from the hull of the ship and recording the sound signal after it is reflected off the seafloor. Based on the time elapsed between when the sound is emitted and when it is recorded, oceanographers can determine the depth of the seafloor. Additionally, the intensity of the reflected sound signal can be used to the determine the hardness of the seafloor, which is indicative of the type of habitat that is found on the seafloor.

    Using multibeam echosounders, oceanographers map areas of the ocean floor to support their research, particularly areas that have never been mapped before. Located about 150 miles off St. Petersburg, Florida, the West Florida Shelf is mostly unknown, as a large portion of the area remains to be mapped.

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  • The Oculina Bank: A History of Research and Protection

    Scamp, snowy grouper, and other fish swimming amongst Oculina coral thickets.

    The Oculina Bank, named after the slow-growing ivory tree coral, Oculina varicosa, is a narrow strip of coral reefs located off the central east coast of Florida. Oculina coral thickets at depths ranging from 75-90 meters. These thickets support diverse communities of finfish and invertebrates, and consequently have been designated as essential habitat for many species of fish.

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  • Modeling Habitat Suitability for Deep-sea Corals

    Example map depicting the predicted likelihood of suitable habitat for Lophelia pertusa in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico from a habitat suitability model. Warmer colors indicate areas predicted to be more likely to contain suitable habitat.

    Data describing the distributions of deep-sea corals and other species that live in the deep ocean are often limited by the prohibitive costs and logistical difficulties of surveying the deep ocean. Habitat suitability modeling has become a cost-effective tool for identifying potential locations of deep-sea corals and other species, particularly for areas that have never been explored.

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