Corals in deep trouble

Posted by Willie — 24 March 2009 at 11:28am - Comments

Rainbow Warrior documenting cold coral formations off the Norwegian coast, March 2009

Rainbow Warrior documenting cold coral formations off the Norwegian coast

To most people, the word 'coral' conjures up images of clear, shallow tropical seas, glistening white sandy beaches beneath a blazing sun, and an array of colourful fish that would resemble the cast of Finding Nemo. Sun-drenched places like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia immediately spring to mind.

If I told you that you get coral in cold, dark, deep seas too, you might be a little taken aback. But it's true. 'Cold water corals' as they are somewhat unwelcomingly known are every bit as important as their cousins who form reefs in shallow tropical seas. They both form large reefs, are composed of slow-growing colonies of lots of little animals, that provide vital habitat and shelter for a myriad of other species.

Okay, granted, you don't get clownfish living in the coral reefs in the seas off Norway and Scotland, but they are every bit as important. Reefs can act as a substrate for other things to attach themselves to – other corals, sea anemones, and shells like mussels; they also provide shelter for other sea life, and in doing so attract the species that want to feed on them. But because they take so long to grow, they are very susceptible to damage – and impossible to replace if they are trashed. So, cold water corals are one of the sorts of ocean habitats that are internationally-recognised as being worthy of special protection, and are included in the EU's Habitat Directive as the sort of areas that need protected.

Back in 2005 we sent our ship, the Esperanza to the bottom-most of the Outer Hebrides with an intrepid bunch of scientists from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and our own laboratory in Exeter, armed with an ROV (a Remote Operated Vehicle, carrying video and photographic equipment) and a drop-cam (an underwater camera array which a skilled operator can 'fly' on a wire over the seabed to get close up images of the sea bed). They were there to try and find and document some of this precious cold water coral, and establish if there were reefs in the area – as they had never been recorded before. The trip was a remarkable success, and they were able to document the reefs with video imaging and by taking small samples.

Right now our flagship vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, is in Norwegian waters attempting to document some more of these coral reefs. This time they're keen to see what state they are in, as it's been estimated that between a third and a half of these reefs have been damaged by fishing gear. This is a scandal – in only a few minutes a heavy bottom trawl net could destroy corals that have taken many thousands of years to develop.

Norway, as well as EU countries like the UK, recognise that these are important an vulnerable ecosystems … so just what are they doing to protect them properly? The team from Greenpeace Norway are telling us something that we've heard before – that the politicians responsible are being slow to give any real protection to ocean habitats like cold water coral reefs. Deep out of sight, and deep out of mind, it seems.

Keep up with the latest blogs from our coral-huggers on the Rainbow Warrior »

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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