Remarkable diversity of life found in sea canyons off Northeast coast
The deep-sea canyons off the Northeast coast of the US are largely unexplored. A 36-day expedition currently under way is finding a rich trove of marine life.
Roughly 100 miles seaward of the beaches, boardwalks, and marinas along the Northeastern coast lie darkened canyons where corals and sponges cradle shark eggs, russet-red brittle stars wrap their arms around the white stalks of octocoral, and wide-eyed bobtail squid peer back at undersea cameras as if to say: Hey, you lookin' at me?Skip to next paragraph
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These are among the denizens scientists are finding during a project known as the 2013 Northeast US Canyons Expedition.
For all their proximity to some of the world's top marine research centers, the region's deep-sea canyons remain largely unexplored. The 36-day cruise, which began July 8, is designed to gathering images from 11 canyons and one seamount, as well as gather basic data on changes in seawater salinity and temperature with depth. The expedition is exploring these features at depths ranging from 500 to 2,200 meters (1,600 to 7,000 feet).
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The goal is to provide an initial look at the canyons' inhabitants and form some initial ideas about how the canyons' ecosystems function, explains Tim Shank, a marine ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., and one of the lead scientists for the expedition.
The results would help set up a second generation of expeditions to understand these workings in greater detail – with an eye toward managing what is likely to be a vital marine resource, he says.
Expeditions exploring canyons in the western Pacific have shown that they harbor a rich mix of species and that corals and sponges in the canyons act as relatively safe nurseries for young fish, just as corals closer to the surface do. The expedition to canyons off the Northeast coast aim to find out if these undersea features play an equally important ecological role here.
In the Northeast, "we've been able to obtain the fish we need without having to go deeper, into these canyons," he says. Now, fishermen can harvest from depths as low as 2,000 meters, giving them access to areas they couldn't reach in the past – including the canyons.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other stakeholders, "are saying: Wait, before we go and open up everything for fishing, let's go see what's out there," Dr. Shank says.
In addition, researchers are looking at the potential for undersea landslides along the continental margin, events that can triggered tsunamis.
In November 1929, for instance, a powerful undersea earthquake struck some 280 kilometers south of Newfoundland, triggering an undersea landslide that involved an estimated 200 cubic kilometers (48 cubic miles) of material. The tsunami snapped undersea telegraph cables and killed 27 people in Newfoundland and one person in Nova Scotia.
"There's a lot of evidence of past, large submarine landslides," says Jason Chaytor, a marine geologist at the US Geological Survey's Woods Hole Science Center. "We're trying to understand how old those landslides are" and whether the mechanisms that triggered them are still active.