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Atlantic coral detected off coast of Washington (Seattle Times - June 25, 2004)

Atlantic coral detected off coast of Washington

Scientists exploring underseas waters off the Olympic Peninsula have made a rare Pacific sighting of a classic hard coral found in the deep Atlantic, a branching white species known as Lophelia pertusa.

The research that ended yesterday was one of the most concerted efforts yet made off Washington's coast to document coral — deep-sea formations that can help provide shelter and food for a wide range of fish and other sea life.

It comes at a time of expanding awareness of the important niche the coral can play in sustaining life in deep-water ecosystem, and increased concern over the effects that decades of fishing may have had on the coral.

The cruise, which began earlier this month, was organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aboard the 224-foot ship, McArthur II. Scientists used a refrigerator-sized remote-controlled submersible to relay live-time videos and take samples.

"I, personally, am excited about the mission," said Jeff Hyland, a federal marine ecologist who served as co-chairman of the cruise. "I've been struck by the high degree of biodiversity — not only in terms of the creatures that live on the surfaces of the rocks but also those that are lying down in the sediments."

The scientists did detect signs of damage to the patch Lophelia pertusa, with rubbled, broken coral alongside the live coral that grew some 4 to 5 inches off the sea bottom. Scientists do not know what caused the disruption, possibly from commercial bottom fishing that has occurred there in years past, and is still approved in the area.

In the Atlantic, Lophelia pertusa, if left undisturbed coral, can form reefs more than 30 feet tall. And hundreds of species have been documented clustered in and around these formations. The coral is also found in oceans around the world.

The Pacific coral appeared to be growing right on the bottom, with no obvious evidence of a reef.

"What we saw had been disturbed," said Ed Bowlby chief scientist on the cruise. "Whether the disturbance kept it from growing like it does in the Atlantic, or it just doesn't grow (in the Pacific) like it does there, we don't know."

Scientists had hoped to get a longer look at the site. But the submersible — buffeted by strong currents — was having trouble staying on the bottom. So it had to be retrieved.

The cruise is part of a broader effort to try to map undersea coral formations as federal fishery councils try to come up with plans to protect more of these sensitive areas from bottom-dragging trawl nets, long lines set along the bottom and other gear.

Underseas areas off Alaska's Aleutian Islands, in recent years, have been the scene of some startling discoveries of deep-water corals and sponges that rise like multicolored underseas gardens that cover acres upon acres of seabed.

Off Washington state, there has been relatively little underseas work dedicated to charting coral. But surveys that dredge up sea-bottom materials and commercial fishing records have helped researchers gain rough ideas of hard-bottom areas where coral might be amid the broader expanse of muddy, softer-bottom zones.

During this month's research cruise, scientists picked 12 offshore areas. All were within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which covers about 3,300 square miles off the Olympic Peninsula to a distance of about 35-miles offshore.

Bad weather and equipment problems kept the federal, university and tribal researchers from checking out six of those areas. But they found a lot of life at the other six, according to scientists who spoke by telephone yesterday as their vessel headed for an early evening mooring at Port Angeles.

Aside from the hard coral, scientists found impressive samples of sponges, including one slow-growing funnel shaped sponge that rose off the sea floor. They also may have discovered a new species of sea slug.

The scientists were also impressed by the grab-bag of species found as the submersible retrieved sediment roughly the size of a sheet of notebook paper. There were 18 such bottom grabs, which yielded species from 19 invertebrate organisms.

"We're seeing a very small area of the sea floor," Bowlby, the chief scientist, said. "But we definitely want to go back and spend more time."

Another research cruise would probably be scheduled for next year.

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