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NOAA Scientists Study Deep Water Corals in First of its Kind Operation

NOAA Scientists Study Deep Water Corals in First of its Kind Operation
Efforts Underway to Learn More about our Earth’s Oceans

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) announced that scientists will be the first to use a deep-diving vehicle to study corals in the Aleutians. They plan to return to deeper waters near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands this month to continue pioneering exploration of the terrain and of the species that form an ecosystem on the dark, cold ocean floor. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an agency of the Department of Commerce.

Researchers from Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Auke Bay Laboratory who first documented the Aleutian Islands’ colorful undersea coral gardens two years ago plan to take their discoveries to new depths with the help of the deep-diving, remotely operated vehicle Jason II.

“We’re fascinated to see what these scientists find in the deep waters off Alaska,” said NOAA Fisheries Administrator Dr. William Hogarth. “They are looking at remote parts of the ocean never before recorded in such detail.”

In 2002 and in following years, Auke Bay Laboratory biologists used an occupied submersible to explore areas around the Andreanof Islands and on Petrel Bank in the Bering Sea. Going to depths of 365 meters, scientists found habitats of coral, sponges and other invertebrates previously undocumented in the North Pacific Ocean or Bering Sea.

The focus of this year’s cruise is to learn more about the deeper Aleutian coral habitats, including documenting their location and depth.

Principal investigators on the cruise are the cruise’s chief scientist Bob Stone and Jon Heifetz from the Auke Bay Laboratory, and Doug Woodby, Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Chief Marine Fisheries Scientist. The science team will also include Jennifer Reynolds, the Science Director for the University of Alaska-based West Coast & Polar Regions Undersea Research Center.

The initial discovery of the coral and sponge habitats fueled worldwide interest as well as debate about the degree to which such habitats need special protection from fishing methods--such as trawling and longlining--which use gear that contacts the ocean bottom.

“Any management decisions to be made to protect coral habitat need to have the best scientific information available on abundance and distribution,” said Heifetz.

NOAA is currently undertaking a 60 day public comment period ending August 13, 2004 on a rulemaking petition filed by Oceana regarding management measures to protect deep sea corals.

The cruise is scheduled to depart Dutch Harbor, July 24, on the R/V Revelle (operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography), and will conclude in Adak on August 8. The scientists plan to dive at 12 research sites in the central Aleutians, between Seguam and Semisopochnoi Islands, encompassing a cruise path of about 1000 miles. The researchers are hardly taking a direct route; as the crow flies, it’s about 350 miles between Sequam and Semisopoichnoi.

Previous research has been at depths up to 365 meters (less than 1/4 mile) beneath the surface. The deepest dive of this cruise is planned to go to a depth of 2,750 meters (about 1.7 miles) using the Jason II. The remotely operated vehicle will be used to record video and collect samples of corals, rock and other specimens.

The Jason II cruise is one piece of a larger, multi-year study funded by the North Pacific Research Board and NOAA Fisheries, with support from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Jason II mission is funded by the University of Alaska-based West Coast & Polar Regions Undersea Research Center, one of six regional centers in NOAA’s Undersea Research Program. Jason II is operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. This cruise will represent the farthest north that Jason II, or any of the organization’s remotely operated vehicles, has ever ventured, according to the Woods Hole Deep Submergence Lab.

The science team will post their progress frequently on the internet at and also after July 23.

Feature stories documenting the cruise will be posted as communication capabilities at sea permit. Media are invited to reprint the information to keep readers informed as the cruise progresses. High-resolution photos and other multimedia elements from the cruise may be available upon request.

NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to providing and preserving the nation’s living marine resources and their habitat through scientific research, management, and enforcement. NOAA Fisheries provides effective stewardship of these resources for the benefit of the nation, supporting coastal communities that depend upon them, and helping to provide safe and healthy seafood to consumers and recreational opportunities for the American public.

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