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Voyage of discovery

By Kelly Foss

Memorial faculty and students will be spending 20 days aboard the Canadian scientific vessel CCGS Hudson using the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) ROPOS to explore deep sea corals off Newfoundland and Labrador.

For much of July, individuals from the departments of Geography, Biology and Physics and Physical Oceanography will join with colleagues from the Université du Quebec à Montreal (UQAM) and scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, to explore the geology and biology of previously unvisited areas of the Flemish Cap and the Orphan Knoll, while sending a live satellite feed of the ROV’s main camera to a public screen at The Rooms.

“A major emphasis of our expedition will be exploring the habitat of deep sea corals and deep sea sponges – both are very vulnerable to human disturbance, and both are long lived organisms, with some species living hundreds of years,” said Dr. Evan Edinger, an associate professor of Geography and Biology who studies marine conservation and coral biogeography. “Corals can’t swim away from trawlers, so the only way they can be protected is if we identify the most important areas where they are and set those areas aside. That way we protect the corals and continue to provide habitat for fish species and invertebrates.”
The south and east sides of the Flemish Cap contain relatively deep and steep areas relatively untouched by fishing trawlers. The scientists will be investigating the area to get a sense of what the coral fauna is in these unfished areas, and what it may have been like elsewhere in the region before the use of trawlers, as part of a NAFO exercise to identify vulnerable marine ecosystems for conservation.

“A second major goal is in the Orphan Knoll,” added Dr. Edinger. “The corals that live there are modern, plus there are sub-fossil corals, which range in age from less than 4,000 to more than 70,000 years.”

Dr. Edinger is also interested in getting a closer look at the coral’s habitat, which seismic records have shown to be made up of mysterious mounds, with the corals probably growing out of the sides of the mounds.

Dr. Len Zedel, an associate professor in Physics and Physical Oceanography, won’t be on the Hudson, but he will be watching the trip closely from his office through the live feed. On a similar trip in 2007, he deployed current meters at the bottom of a coral habitat and in an adjacent, equivalent habitat but without corals.

“Part of the importance of corals ecologically is that they create habitat, but they also alter the way the water flows over the bottom of the ocean, which we think enhances food delivery,” said Dr. Edinger. “In 2007, Dr. Zedel investigated an area on the southwest Grand Banks, which was a low current environment, what we call a bamboo coral thicket.”

This year, Dr. Edinger and his colleagues will deploy the current meters in an area off the Scotian Shelf, called The Gully, which is Atlantic Canada’s largest marine protected area (MPA). They will collect information for Dr. Zedel in an area that is bedrock excavated by post-glacial melt water resembling canyons filled with denser corals and more varieties of species.

The cruise will wrap up at Tobin’s Point, an historically important fishing ground for turbot and shrimp, off the Northeast Newfoundland Shelf, but also a place where black coral can be found, a relatively rare kind of coral that is protected by law in Canada and other countries.

Dr. Rodolphe Devillers from the Department of Geography will also be on the cruise and is bringing a new expertise to the project.

“I will be doing high resolution mapping using an acoustic system called multibeam sonar, which basically maps the whole sea floor, instead of mapping only points or soundings on the sea floor,” he explained. “I will be using these to derive measures of how flat or rough the sea floor is and try to match this with what is known about corals in trying to understand coral habitats.”

Funding was provided for the mission by NSERC and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. For the first time, the ROPOS has been configured to dive to 3,000 meters without a cage. ROPOS is equipped with two arms and associated tools, including those for sampling, two HD cameras and a digital still camera.

In addition to a live feed at the Rooms, the public can look forward to Twitter updates through http://twitter.com/Hudson0292010 and read the mission’s blog at http://hudson0292010.blogspot.com.
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