Cold Water Corals Conference to be Held in Woods Hole

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October 22, 2008

On October 24, 2008, scientists from North America and Europe will meet
at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to develop the first
coherent plan for studying and conserving cold-water corals in the
Atlantic Ocean. The plan will lay the foundations for an international
research program beginning 2010.

As part of the Trans-Atlantic Coral Ecosystem Study project (TRACES),
these world experts will meet to discuss recent findings and outline
future research needs that require international scientific cooperation
across the Atlantic Ocean. Dr Murray Roberts, a Research Fellow from
the Scottish Association for Marine Science is leading the TRACES
project. “Some of the best developed and most studied cold-water coral
habitats are in the North Atlantic,” he said, “but they have never been
studied and compared across the ocean basin.” Dr. Roberts is supported
by a Marie Curie grant from the European Commission.

TRACES is needed now for many reasons, according to Dr. Roberts.
Research during the past decade has shown that deep coral ecosystems
host extremely high biological diversity that are increasingly at risk
due to human activities such as deep-sea fish trawling, energy
exploration and production. Once lost, recovery of these ecosystems can
take decades to centuries as these corals are among the longest-living
species on Earth.

Tim Shank, Associate Scientist in the WHOI Biology Department, is
unravelling how the conservation of these vulnerable deep-water
habitats requires an understanding of how they are genetically
connected throughout the Atlantic. “Understanding how these ecosystems
are interconnected, whether through the migratory routes along ocean
depths that ultimately support international fisheries or by shifts in
ocean circulation brought about by climate change, is critical for
conservation and management of these living resources,” Shank said.

Because these corals can live for a thousand years or more, they are
useful to scientists studying past climate conditions on Earth, as well
as for those seeking to understand how the planet will respond to
climate change. The corals contain a unique archive of ocean climate
history in their calcium carbonate skeletons. “We are able to use the
skeletons of cold-water corals to provide a historic record of how the
temperature and chemistry of the deep ocean has changed in the past,”
said Laura Robinson, Assistant Scientist in the WHOI Biology
Department.  “This type of record is tremendously important in
building models to estimate the impact of future climate change.”

In an era of concern over climate change, cold-water corals may be
among the first ocean species to be affected by increases in deep-water
temperature and chemistry. They use calcium carbonate to create their
stony skeletons. The ocean is the primary sink on earth for increasing
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide lowers the pH of
the ocean making it more acidic and more difficult to precipitate
calcium carbonate skeletons. This threat is doubled for deep corals
that rely on plankton for food, many of which also have calcium
carbonate shells.

To accomplish the TRACES science mission, state of the art
deep-submergence technologies and future advances will be needed.
Autonomous underwater robots (AUVs), Remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs)
and Hybrid ROVs outfitted with new sensor technologies will be
instrumental in the exploration and research planned by TRACES. The
international group meeting at Woods Hole will be able to see exciting
new technological developments including innovative Hybrid ROVs capable
of working to very deepest portions of the ocean.

The TRACES meeting at Woods Hole is sponsored by the British Consulate
in Boston with further support from the European Commission, UK Natural
Environment Research Council, Scottish Association for Marine Science,
Royal Society of Edinburgh, Canadian Department of Fisheries and
Oceans, NOAA National Undersea Research Center, Center for Marine
Science University of North Carolina Wilmington, US Geological Survey,
Environmental Defense, Oceana, Marine Conservation Biology Institute
and the US South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

For more information
On the TRACES project: www.lophelia.org/traces
On cold-water corals: www.lophelia.org
On the Scottish Association for Marine Science: www.sams.ac.uk
On the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution: www.whoi.edu

Contact details
British Consulate-General Boston, Dr Stefan Winkler: 617-245-4549 (stefan.winkler@fco.gov.uk)
Marine Technology, Dr Andy Bowen: 508 289 2643 (abowen@whoi.edu)
Cold-water corals, Dr J Murray Roberts: 910-799-7926 or 910-616-8748 (robertsjm@uncw.edu)
Climate archives, Dr Laura Robinson: 508 289 3265 (lrobinson@whoi.edu)
Genetic connectivity, Dr Tim Shank: 508-654-0447 (tshank@whoi.edu)

Press Office contact details
Scottish Association for Marine Science: Dr Anuschka Miller, +44-1631-559300 (anuschka.miller@sams.ac.uk)
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution: Stephanie Murphy, +1 508 289 2271 (samurphy@whoi.edu)

Pictures are available