Florida’s Deep Coral Reefs

The inaugural CATALYST expedition launched on December 4, 2008 and utilized the Waitt Institute’s autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to create the first-ever high definition side-scan sonar maps of deep-water Lophelia and Oculina coral reefs off the coast of eastern Florida. This charter mapping effort will provide the data necessary to enable lawmakers to protect these unique, diverse and incredibly fragile reefs from bottom trawling, fossil fuel exploration and other destructive activities. CATALYST ONE was a collaboration between the Waitt Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

UPDATE: Florida’s Deep Reefs One Step Closer to Full Protected Status

Press Release: Council Approves Measures to Protect Largest Deepwater Coral Reef in the South Atlantic

Science Objectives

CAT 1.1 – AUV Survey of Deep-Water Lophelia Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern, Part I
Map areas within and adjacent to the proposed Deep-Water Lophelia Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern, where low-resolution NOAA bathymetric charts indicate the possibility of undiscovered deep-water reefs.

CAT 1.2 AUV Survey of Deep-Water Lophelia Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern, Part II
Map the western edge of the primary Lophelia reef zone within the proposed Lophelia Habitat Area of Particular Concern, where commercial fishery interests (royal red shrimp) overlap known and possible deep-water reefs.

CAT 1.3 AUV Survey of Deep-Water Oculina Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern
Map a portion of the Oculina Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern where nearly 100 concrete reef balls have been placed for restoration experiments in areas of damaged corals. 
Investigate the effectiveness of deploying these concrete structures as reef-starters for Oculina coral larvae.

CATALYST ONE Results
The Waitt Institute’s CATALYST ONE expedition resulted in the discovery of three never-before identified Lophelia coral reefs. 
The three Lophelia coral reefs range in size from 40-60 meters (150-200 feet) tall and sit in water about 400m (1300 feet) deep. Individual Lophelia can grow to several meters in diameter and one to three meters high. Based on radiocarbon dating, live Lophelia coral off the coast of Florida is estimated to be 700 years old and is home to thousands of species of fish and invertebrates.

cat1reefs068Principal Investigator, Dr. John Reed, has studied these fragile ecosystems off Florida’s coast for more than 30 years and will use the mapping data from CATALYST ONE to support his policy efforts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to delineate the region as a Deep Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC). The CATALYST ONE results will also assist Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in determining exact locations to revisit and explore in person with their Johnson Sea Link submersibles on future HBOI expeditions.

Read HBOI’s CATALYST ONE Blog

From the Expedition Leader – Dr. John Reed
In the past 10 years, scientists from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in collaboration with NOAA and many others have discovered hundreds of deep-water coral reefs, some up to 200 ft tall, off the coast of the southeastern U.S. These are irreplaceable resources that are thousands of years old, ecologically diverse and vulnerable to physical destruction.

Activities involving fish trawls, oil and gas production, pipe laying, mining, or harvest of reef resources could negatively impact these reefs. Unfortunately, deep reefs worldwide are being impacted by destructive fishing methods, such as bottom trawling for shrimp and fish, which destroys the delicate corals. These reefs are deserving of the highest level of protection as they are a national treasure, equivalent to old growth red wood forests, but at 2000 feet deep. Based on this research, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council recently has proposed a 23,000 nm2 region from North Carolina to South Florida as a marine protected area for deep-water coral reefs. In addition, President Bush is considering designating this same region as a marine national monument.

Our project, made possible by the Waitt Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, will provide detailed bathymetric maps for a portion of these reefs where data is critical due to possible overlap of fishing interests and an especially high concentration of healthy reefs. Deep-sea coral ecosystems are at a disadvantage in gaining public empathy because most people will never see them. It is the responsibility of scientists to educate the public about these valuable resources. This project therefore also includes an element of education/outreach toward teachers, students and the public.

During CATALYST 1 mission, we were excited to have a television crew aboard from the PBS documentary series Changing Seas. You can view the final 25-minute program that aired about the expedition on their website – Episode 103: Corals of the Deep