Texas A&M University Graduate Student Spotlight: Deep Sea Corals

Coral reefs, like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, are some of the most brilliant and biologically diverse ecosystems in the oceans, but did you know there are corals in the deep ocean, too? In fact, most species of coral are found at depths below 1600 feet, where they grow to be thousands of years old. These deep-sea corals are a very important habitat for deep-water fish, and they are of interest to scientists because, like shallow water corals, a record of past ocean climate conditions is stored within their skeleton. These coral archives can fill in gaps in our understanding of the deep ocean that help scientists piece together the history of Earth’s oceans and climate. Of course, living at such great depths makes these corals difficult to study. Using advanced technology like Remotely Operated Vehicles and deep-diving submersibles allow scientists to study the environment of deep-sea corals.

Locations of deep-sea coral communities along the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain. Photo provided by Sarah Hall
Locations of deep-sea coral communities along the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain. Photo provided by Sarah Hall

Researchers in the department of Oceanography at Texas A&M are currently engaged in research regarding deep-sea corals, specifically the effects of humans on deep-sea coral ecosystems. Current areas of interest include the Northwestern Hawaiian Seamounts, with a focus on Corallium, a precious coral sometimes known as red or pink coral. Precious corals are used for jewelry, but are also accidentally damaged or destroyed when deep-sea commercial fishers use nets that drag along the sea floor. Scientists study different areas of the Hawaiian seamounts, comparing non-fished areas with regularly-fished areas, and areas that have been recovering for the past 40 years following the expansion of the US Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, which limited fishing activities that fall within the EEZ. Studying deep-sea coral recovery after damage by fishing activities will help determine the sustainability of fishing practices, and help develop effective management and conservation strategies.

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Script Author: Sarah Hall

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Contributing Professor: Dr. Kathryn Shamberger