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Cold Water Corals Growing In Abundance Off Porcupine Bank

23rd June 2015
Cold Water Corals Growing In Abundance Off Porcupine Bank

#MarineScience - An international team of scientists led by Prof Andy Wheeler of University College Cork have discovered a new habitat for coral in Irish waters – possibly doubling the amount of cold water corals previously thought to exist in the area – while on the Marine Institute's RV Celtic Explorer during the QuERCi survey.

While conducting research on Irish cold water coral reefs, Prof Wheeler investigated a submerged vertical cliff 800m below the sea surface and found it covered in coral.

"The seabed just falls away into a deep chasm. We couldn't wait to take a look down there, using the Holland I remotely-operated vehicle [or ROV] which is equipped with cameras and robotic sampling arms," he said.

Prof Wheeler and his team have been investigating Irish cold water coral reefs for over 15 years. In the deep, cold, dark Atlantic, these corals form reef habitats supporting a diverse and abundant ecosystem.

It was while mapping and inspecting some previously unconfirmed reefs on the edge of the Porcupine Bank Canyon, 300km offshore from Dingle, that the scientists decided to venture further into the canyon itself.

The ROV Holland I was manoeuvred from a 2,100m water depth in the middle of the canyon, up the canyon wall to the coral reefs clustered around the canyon top at 700m water depth. The bottom of the canyon was choked with organic-rich particles flushing down the canyon on the way to the abyssal plain.

"It was like flying the ROV through a snow blizzard," said Dr Chris McGonigle of Ulster University, "but we just pushed up the canyon and it got steeper and steeper and steeper until we faced this vertical cliff face several hundred metres high."

The cliff face, never seen by humans before, was covered in corals and other associated organisms.

"These near vertical habitats hardly feature on maps yet can be hundreds of metres high and extend for tens of kilometres. This is a massive habitat, barely explored, yet full of ocean life", said Dr Agostina Vertino of the University of Milan-Bicocca. "We found many species of coral, sponges, crabs and fish."

Prof Wheeler believes it is "not unfeasible that there is over 100sqkm of coral habitat that was previously unaccounted for."

The coral discovery site has already been designated a Special Area of Conservation due to coral reefs in the vicinity. Yet despite its protection, the international team lead by Prof Wheeler found snagged fishing gear and litter.

"It is a great shame, we are the first people to see this place yet despite of its remoteness there is still evidence of human impacts," he said.

The RV Celtic Explorer is Ireland's state-of-the-art research vessel and has been recently equipped with new seabed mapping sonars giving unprecedented views of the seabed. The ship is also the dive platform for the Holland I ROV.

"The quality of the data that this ship and ROV can now collect is phenomenal," said Dr McGonigle. "We were seeing details on the seabed that a few years ago we could only have dreamed of.

"This increase in data quality will allow us to develop a much greater understanding of the processes controlling the distribution of life in these unique environments."

Congratulating Prof Wheeler and the team on their discoveries, Mick Gillooly, director at the Marine Institute, said "we are delighted to see the recent upgrade of the Celtic Explorer and the ROV Holland's multibeam sonar suite producing such amazing results for this expedition.

"The high resolution images produced are fundamental in helping scientists with their research as well as helping us provide a better understanding our ocean."

Published in Marine Science
MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy is a contributor covering all things on the water, from boating and wildlife to science and business

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.

 

At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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