From: Marine Conservation Institute
Published October 9, 2012 05:52 PM

UNCW and OIMB Researchers, Colleagues Unlock Mysteries of Atlantic Deepwater Canyons

Wilmington, N.C. – 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.
For more specific details about the three phases of the 2012 Atlantic Deepwater Canyons Mission, please see page 3 below.


Daily logs and other information from the research trip may be found at this NOAA website: http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/12midatlantic/welcome.html and at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences website: http://deepwatercanyons.wordpress.com/


Interviews with the co-chief scientists and high-resolution underwater photography of deep-sea habitats will be available. B-roll [HD] video will also be available.


To access information about a previous Ross cruise, please visit www.newswise.com/articles/view/554859


*Partner agencies and institutions for the three phases of the 2012 Atlantic Deepwater Canyons Mission include:


  • Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
  • NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research
  • CSA International, Inc.University of North Carolina Wilmington, Center for Marine Science
  • Oregon Institute of Marine Biology
  • Marine Conservation Institute
  • University of Rhode Island
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of Louisiana at Lafayette
  • Bangor University (United Kingdom)
  • Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
  • ArtWork, Inc.
  • Hecker Consulting
  • University of Connecticut


Details of the Three Phases of the 2012 Atlantic Deepwater Canyons Mission


First Phase:
The Nancy Foster departed Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 15 for its first leg, which included 11 ROV dives. During round the clock operations a variety of other activities occurred, including the deployment of two benthic landers and two moorings to record continuous environmental and geological data. Researchers discovered the cold seep and several vast fields of bubblegum coral, some colonies measuring upwards of 15 feet across, near the head of Baltimore Canyon.


Second Phase:
During, the second leg, from Sept. 3 to 14, researchers conducted nine more ROV dives and recorded the first sighting of the coral Lophelia pertusa in mid-Atlantic waters. They also collected giant solitary corals, Desmophyllum cristigalli, in deep parts of Baltimore and Norfolk canyons. Two additional benthic landers designed and built at UNCW were deployed in Baltimore Canyon to study coral growth rates and collect continuous environmental data.


Third Phase:
The third leg of the research trip, from Sept. 17 to Oct. 2 (ending back in Charleston), focused on exploring wrecks from a fleet of captured World War I German warships that were sunk in 1921 by aerial bombardment experiments orchestrated by the controversial early proponent of air power, Gen. Billy Mitchell. By locating and investigating shipwrecks in the Virginia Canyons study area, valuable information was collected on the condition, state of preservation, and site formation processes in this area that will help resource managers in the future to design methods to best locate and preserve these cultural resources. This is the first extensive record of these vessels made since they were sunk over 90 years ago. The shipwrecks also will be assessed for their value as artificial habitat for fauna by comparing the fishes and invertebrates associated with the wrecks to those found in natural habitats. Huge numbers of catsharks were observed using the wrecks for spawning sites.



Due to an abundance of anemones in these canyons, and the lack of bamboo coral, we chose to collect and study anemones for this mission. Image courtesy of the Deepwater Canyons 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM.

Roughies can occur along the vertical walls in singles or pairs, but we have also seen very large aggregations in places in Baltimore Canyon. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM

Kraken II ROV in action on the NOAA ship Nancy Foster. Image courtesy of SW Ross, Deepwater Canyons 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM.

Submarine canyons are dominant features of the outer continental shelf and slope of the US East coast from Cape Hatteras to the Gulf of Maine. Image courtesy of Steve W. Ross, UNC-W.



Contact Info: Elizabeth King Humphrey, University Relations, University of North Carolina Wilmington
Phone: 910-962-7252, Email: humphreye@uncw.edu


Website : Marine Conservation Institute


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