Finding Coral: The Race to Save Deepsea CoralJune 30 2017
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Like their shallow-water cousins, deep-sea corals support a high diversity and abundance of life, including many fish and invertebrates of commercial importance. Their dark, cold, nutrient-poor habitat means that deep-sea corals grow extremely slowly, though they can live to great age – a black coral taken off Hawai’i was estimated to be 4,265 years old, and thousand-year old specimens are common.
Deep-sea corals are globally threatened by the expanding footprint of bottom trawling. A single pass of a trawl net can destroy a coral habitat that has taken millennia to grow. Consequently, the United Nations has declared that deep-sea corals and their associated ecosystems need immediate protection from destructive fishing practices. The challenge is to find the corals before they are trawled so that they can be protected.
Since the seafloor is far less well known than the surface of the moon, scientists have turned to modeling to predict where deep-sea corals are likely to occur. In the summer of 2016, Marine Applied Research and Exploration (MARE) attempted to locate deep-sea corals off the California coast using a model-based approach developed specifically for the US West Coast by scientists in the United States and the UK. The attempt was unsuccessful – no corals were detected at any of the sites predicted by the model to be likely coral habitat.
MARE believes that the ability to predict and verify the location of deep-sea corals can be rapidly and substantially improved, with important implications for the conservation and management of these fragile ecosystems. We propose to demonstrate this via a two-year pilot effort to locate and map deep-sea corals within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) off the coast of California.
MARE staff, working in partnership with scientists in the US and elsewhere, will apply machine learning algorithms to our large existing data set, derived from 13 cruises over the past decade focusing entirely or in part on documenting corals off the California coast. Once analyzed, these data will be used to develop new predictive maps as the basis for further exploration.
The revised predictive maps generated by our algorithms will be ground-truthed and validated by direct observation using our fleet of robotic deep-sea exploration vehicles. Data collected will be analyzed and fed back into our predictive algorithms, further enhancing their accuracy.
Key outcomes of this project will be precise maps and supporting video documentation of corals within the CINMS that can be used as the basis of future management actions, and a more robust and cost-effective method of documenting the occurrence of corals elsewhere in the world.