With breath-taking new footage just released, four brand-spanking new cold-water coral reefs have been discovered off the coast of Ireland!
By Amber Cobley
The montage above reveals never seen before still images from the gorgeous beast that is underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle ROV Holland-1. (For incredible footage, click here).
“The bottom of the deep ocean is 60% of the surface of the planet, yet we don’t know much more about it than how much water there is between it and the surface” say’s Nils Piechaud, PhD student at Plymouth University. “But what we do know is that each time someone sends a camera or a submarine or any sampling device in the deep, the results are astonishing and shows that biodiversity on earth has still a lot of things waiting to be discovered”.
The amazing part about this discovery is how the Deep Sea CRU (Deep Sea Conservation and Research Unit), lead by Dr. Kerry Howell at Plymouth University, actually discovered these ecosystems. How exactly did they pinpoint their little pots of gold?
With the little data we know about the environmental conditions these deep sea organisms need to live in, we can feed this into a predictive model and make a comprehensive map of where the right conditions exist to host these beauties.
Rebecca Ross, PhD student at Plymouth University explains that “this is similar to looking for cacti on land by discerning the location of all the deserts with conditions suited to hosting cacti (e.g. the right amount of rainfall and sunshine). Our reef model looked for the combination of environmental conditions that previously discovered coral reefs have been found to thrive in. The result, to our delight, is that we are able to locate new reefs and predict the extent and distribution of this important habitat.”
Why do we care?
But why does it matter where these reefs are found thousands of metres below in the icy depths of the North Atlantic? Coral reefs provide numerous “ecosystem services” to man-kind, which means we gain benefits from them in some way. An example is the protective habitat they provide to fish, especially juveniles of commercially important fisheries.
The problem is, deep sea bottom-trawling leaves huge scars through these delicate ecosystems. There is very little disturbance usually on the peaceful deep ocean floor, and so these delicate organisms cannot withstand the whirlwind of devastation the nets inflict upon them (see below). Furthermore, their slow-growing nature means if they recover at all, it can be over time periods of 100’s of years. This particular large orange coral in the photo below (Leiopathes sp.) is estimated to be 4000 years old, but could be destroyed by trawls in a matter of seconds.
So not only are we overfishing our stocks, but we are destroying them from every angle.
That is why the predictive maps produced by Deep Sea CRU are such a useful tool to policy makers and fisheries managers.
“The sheer hugeness and inaccessibility of offshore deep-sea waters means that we cannot possibly explore it all and know where all of our resources and marine habitats are found. The beauty of using models is that we can extrapolate from the little data we do have and discover where similar environmental conditions are located, and therefore where we are likely to find similar habitats” says Ross.
Marine managers can target their studies to points where we are likely to find these Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VME’s) in order to create a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas with less time and money – music to every politician’s ears!
Explaining his motivation for the work, Nils say’s “What would you do if the highest part of the UK was left blank on a map, not knowing if there is a forest, a meadow, a swamp or something totally unknown there and yet, it is getting trawled, mined and is facing dramatic environmental changes that might be irreversibly damaged in the near future? You would go check out what is going on there, see if there are cool new things to be found and try to predict how it will react to human pressure. That’s what we do. And what cool new things have we found and keep finding…”
I was actually on the RV Celtic Explorer for this cruise. I am privileged to have been able to share in the first special moment when ROV Holland-1 touched-down at ~800m and out of the blue, like a scene from Close Encounters, a coral reef appeared before our very eyes, exactly where it was predicted. The euphoric cheers woke up the night shift who came and shared the “eureka moment”. The gravitas of the expertise and hard-work dedicated by the Deep Sea CRU to this project should not be underestimated (even making BBC News!), and I know many more great discoveries are yet to come…