Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program: 2022 Report to Congress
Deep-sea corals and sponges create habitat for countless species off every coastal state in the country, offering significant ecological value and supporting U.S.-managed fisheries. Known deep-sea coral species outnumber shallow coral species, with new ones discovered every year. These productive habitats provide spawning grounds, sustenance, and shelter for commercially important fish and invertebrates. They also harbor an unknown number of species that are new to science, many of which could be useful in ways we do not yet understand.
NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program is the nation’s only federal research entity dedicated to increasing our scientific understanding of deep-sea coral ecosystems. The Program works closely with the eight U.S. regional fishery management councils to address key fishery management needs and inform decision-making. The Program provides information on deep-sea coral locations to mitigate damage to these valuable and vulnerable habitats from a variety of ocean activities, including aquaculture, renewable energy, and prospective activities such as deep-sea mining.
This report summarizes fiscal year 2020 and 2021 activities that supported management decisions, improved our understanding of deep-sea coral and sponge communities, and leveraged partnerships to enhance operational efficiency and effectiveness. Operating through NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Habitat Conservation, and funded at approximately $2.3 million annually to support national-scale research, the Program collaborates widely and leverages substantial funding to study the role of corals in support of deep-sea ecosystems.
Supporting Management Decisions
Over its 13 years of operations, the Program has supported research that enables resource managers to refine seafloor protections while allowing fisheries to thrive. Program data informed recent habitat conservation in the Pacific, New England, and Gulf of Mexico fishery management council regions. NOAA implemented the Councils’ proposed regulations in 2020 and 2021, resulting in more than 160,000 mi2 (larger than the size of California) of new seafloor protections and the reopening of 3,000 mi2 of less vulnerable habitat for fishing. Program data substantially informed these decisions and operational aspects of seven proposed or existing national marine sanctuaries. Ultimately, the Program provides information that helps managers in every region of the United States enhance the sustainability of deep-sea fisheries and other ocean uses, while conserving vulnerable and biologically diverse habitats.
Improving Understanding of Deep-Sea Coral Communities
The Program supports exploration and research to improve scientific understanding of deep-sea coral ecosystems. Although 2020 and 2021 were challenging years for fieldwork due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NOAA and partners were still able to map more than 50,000 mi2 (approximately the size of Louisiana) of previously poorly understood deep seafloor. This valuable first step informs discovery of rich and diverse coral habitats. With maps and models as a guide, researchers described 12 new deep-sea coral and sponge species from U.S. waters during the reporting timeframe.
Building Partnerships to Enhance Efficiency and Effectiveness
With new challenges on the horizon—such as from climate change, including ocean acidification and warming temperatures, and expanding human activities in the deep sea—partnerships are more valuable than ever before. These alliances enable us to pursue joint priorities efficiently and effectively by leveraging complementary areas of expertise and resources. Working together makes the difference between simply locating unknown deep-sea corals and understanding and applying their ecosystem benefits to resource management issues. With this information, we can advance the state of deep-sea science and carry out NOAA’s mission to understand our ocean, share knowledge and information, and conserve and manage ecosystems and resources.
The Program has many partners, including NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Office of Ocean Exploration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, fisheries science centers, and fisheries regional offices. Our external partners include U.S. regional fishery management councils, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), United States Geological Survey (USGS), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ocean Exploration Trust, and numerous universities, tribes, industry groups, and nongovernmental organizations.