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Battle for the Deep Seafloor

Human interest in the marine environment originally focused on the highly productive coastal zone, where food and energy resources were readily available.

The deep sea was left in relative peace. Over time, we began to use up our coastal resources and started looking further offshore for unexploited fish stocks and oil reserves. This industry migration precipitated the need to understand the distribution and sensitivities of deep-sea ecosystems to prevent damage from human activities.

In the United States, fisheries and mineral reserves in federal waters are managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) respectively. Although their management objectives are distinct, these agencies often collaborate together, and with other entities, to explore and study deep-sea ecosystems. Information generated through these efforts is used to inform management practices.

Since the 1980s, scientists have used submersibles and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to study the extensive areas of deep-sea coral reefs in the US southeast region. Deep reefs perform many similar functions to their shallow-water counterparts; stony corals construct the complex reef framework, which provides habitat for diverse and abundant communities of invertebrates and fishes, some of which are economically important. Industrial bottom trawling for these valuable fish stocks has caused severe damage to many deep reefs. Since deep corals are very slow-growing and long-lived, ecosystem recovery could take centuries, if it happens at all. In the southeast region, most of the known deep coral habitat was protected from bottom-tending fishing gear in 2009, through the establishment of deep coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC); however vast areas of the Blake Plateau, a massive carbonate platform that dominates the southeast region, remains unmapped and unexplored.

Continue reading article in the Deep Sea issue [January/February 2019] of ECO magazine by following this link.

Words by Sandra Brooke, Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab

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