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Mid-Atlantic Deepwater Coral Protection

canyon_wallSeveral basket stars rest on a bubblegum coral in Norfolk Canyon, with a colony of the stony coral Lophelia pertusa in the background. Image: Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS - See more images.

Posted 8 June 2015 by Carol Brighton - UPDATED 6.12.15

It’s often reported that we know more about the surface of the moon and mars than what lies deep below the ocean surface here on Earth. With ever increasing demand for energy resources, access to remote and difficult locations beneath the sea are being sought.  While there’s a great deal of fear associated with offshore drilling, it seems that the push for oil and gas extraction is driving research that will enrich our knowledge about a vast and unique ecosystem right off the mid-Atlantic. 

A newly released documentary on a research project conducted at Norfolk and Baltimore Canyons is embedded below. Until recently, little was know about the deepwater canyons off the East Coast. They are home to a surprising ecosystems that operate in complete darkness including profuse communities of deepwater corals. According to senior team scientist, Stephen Viada,”the whole crux of the project is to locate, to describe and ultimately, to protect these biological communities."

The research and documentary were sponsored through the partnership of  the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and United States Geological Survey (USGS). Atlantic Canyons: Pathways to the Abyss chronicles a three year study conducted between 2011-2013 aboard 4 research vessels.  Using remotely operated vehicles and benthic landers deployed over the course of year, more than 70 scientists representing 20 different agencies, including 12 independent universities and research institutions, gathered data.

Image: Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council

Preliminary findings are showcased in the 20+ minute documentary embedded below. Watch the fascinating footage that features thriving discreet sea floor communities.  The corals are likened to old growth forests. While providing important fish habitat for numerous species, they also record environmental data. Similar to a tree, as they grow they deposit bands or rings. Data about local conditions can be derived over an expansive time frame. In addition to sea life reliant on shipwrecks, another truly unusual community is explored. Chemosysnthetic ecosystems sustained by methane seeps exist in the deep canyons. Dense aggregations of mussels are supported not by photosynthesis like most life on earth but by bacterially derived energy generated around the seeps.   A final report on the study is expected to be issued in late 2015 or early 2016.


On June 10, the Mid-Atlantic Marine Fishery Council met in Virginia Beach to take final action on the Deep Sea Corals Amendment. The landmark action to protect diverse and distinct marine ecosystems off the East Coast was approved just steps from the Atlantic at the Hilton Hotel. Through a long process, the quasi-governmental organization agreed to measures that will safeguard deep cold-water corals.

Certain bottom fishing activity around 15 canyons and broader areas deeper than 400 meters will be limited. The Red crab fishery was exempted from the action in the short term, but some areas could be closed to the fishery in the future. The effected areas lie about 100 miles off the coast. Covering over 35,000 sq. miles of the sea floor stretching from Virginia to Rhode Island, the newly protected area represents an area almost the size of Virginia. Once approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the measure will go into effect. More info.


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