DEEP-SEA CORALS IN ATLANTIC CANADA

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Deep-sea corals are found around the world at depths on the order of 200-1500 m and can be important components of deep-sea ecosystems. They occur off Atlantic Canada on the continental slope, in submarine canyons, and in channels between fishing banks. Until recently, most of the limited information available on deep-sea corals in Atlantic Canada was anecdotal, based primarily on observations made by the fishing industry (Breeze et al. 1997). Since 1997 DFO has been collecting video and photographic information of epibenthic communities on an opportunity basis at prime coral habitat sites in Atlantic Canada including the Northeast Channel, the Gully and Stone Fence. Corals are also occasionally collected during DFO groundfish surveys. Some preliminary results are reported by MacIsaac et al. (2001). Deep-sea corals can provide valuable paleoclimate and environmental information (e.g. Smith et al. 1997). Despite these and other efforts, knowledge of deep-sea coral ecosystems in Atlantic Canada and in general, is limited.

However, awareness of deep-sea corals and their ecological importance is growing rapidly. An international conference on deep-sea corals was held in Halifax on 30 July-2 August 2000 and over 100 scientists from around the world participated. Concern was expressed about the potential effects of human activities on deep-sea coral ecosystems, especially fishing and oil and gas activities. While there is considerable debate over the extent of past damage, it is clear that certain fishing activities can affect deep-sea coral ecosystems. The first offshore hydrocarbon developments in Atlantic Canada have been in shallow water. Although soft corals (Alcyonacea) can be common, these sites are generally too shallow for most corals. However, exploration activity is now moving into deeper water where horny (Gorgonacea) and stony corals (Scleratinia) can occur. Available information indicates that these corals provide important habitat and could play a critical role in the life history of many marine species, including some of commercial interest. The conservation community is calling for the establishment of MPAs to protect important coral habitats.