Mysteries of the deep

Online seminars open new window on deep-sea coral and sponge habitat

Spring 2015

Scientists who have spent much of their careers peering out of deep-sea submersibles to learn about deep-sea coral and sponges recently turned their attention to the Web, watching each other share their experiences and expertise through an innovative series of online seminars.

The seminars, sponsored by NOAA Fisheries, are now publicly available online. They cover the latest research into the fragile corals and sponges that bring color, habitat, and three-dimensional beauty to the deep ocean floor, far beyond the reach of snorkelers or scuba divers.

The web-based seminars fostered new dialogue among researchers and revealed the wide diversity of their deep-sea observations. In some Alaskan waters, for instance, scientists have found dense accumulations of corals and sponges that appear in more isolated and sparse groups off California. The online conversations provided insights and raised new questions about how coral and sponge communities grow and evolve in various environments.

“These seminars were a great opportunity for researchers around the country to share information and experiences from their studies of deep-sea coral communities,” said Mary Yoklavich, a research fisheries biologist and deep-sea coral researcher with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. “These seminars have given us new insight into the ecological associations among corals, sponges, fishes, and the myriad of other marine organisms that make a living on the seafloor.”

For many people, corals and sponges evoke thoughts of tropical paradise. However, the reality is far more diverse. Corals and sponges also thrive in cold, deep waters off the West Coast from Southern California to Alaska and elsewhere throughout the world’s oceans. The online seminars highlighted intriguing differences. For example, in some areas off Alaska rockfish are commonly seen in association with coral or sponge habitat, yet off California this is rarely the case. Researchers want to know why.

“The better we understand these diverse and vulnerable communities, the more effective we will be at protecting them over the long term,” Yoklavich said.

Understanding the relationship between coral and sponge communities and other marine life, such as rockfish, will help inform decisions on the management and conservation of such species. Thanks to the seminars, researchers from different regions are now working together to answer such emerging questions. To watch the online seminars, please visit: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/DeepseaCoralSeminars/.

For more information on deep-sea coral and sponge research, please visit: http://www.habitat.noaa.gov/protection/corals/deepseacorals.html