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Deep-sea corals a growing area of expertise at Memorial

(L-R) Dr. Evan Edinger, Barbara de Moura Neves and Sandrine Baillon attended the recent International Symposium on Deep-Sea Corals.


By Kelly Foss

Memorial University made an excellent showing at the recent International Symposium on Deep-Sea Corals.

The conference takes place every three years. This year, while only six Canadians attended, all were directly connected to Memorial. Dr. Evan Edinger is a faculty member with the Departments of Geography, Biology and Earth Sciences, while Sandrine Baillon and Barbara de Moura Neves are both biology graduate students and Shawn Meredyk is an environmental science graduate student. Also attending were Aurelien Blenet, a student at Université du Québec à Montréal, co-supervised by Dr. Edinger, and Vonda Wareham, of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and a Memorial alumna from the environmental science interdisciplinary program.

The delegates gave four oral presentations and four posters, with Ms. Baillon winning the best student poster award in the biological theme for presenting part of her PhD results on Spatial Trends in Biometric Characteristics of Two Dominant Sea Pens in the Northwest Atlantic. Matthew English, a biology honours student, also contributed to the study. Dr. Annie Mercier, of the Ocean Sciences Centre, supervises both students.

"The conference is interesting because it covers the science and management aspects of deep-sea corals," said Dr. Edinger. "It includes everything from reproductive biology to spatial mapping and skeletal chemistry – basically from the microscopic to the very big picture in oceanography."

Europeans, according to Dr. Edinger, have primarily dominated the field because most of the large deep-sea coral reefs are found off Europe, particularly off the coast of Norway. In our part of the Atlantic the waters are a lot colder so he says instead of deep-sea reefs, researchers have found "coral forests."

"They have been recognized more recently as being of great ecological importance and are considered a vulnerable marine ecosystem and Canada has agreed to protect them," he said. "Unfortunately, we haven't really done much and thousands of kilograms of corals and sponges can be caught as bycatch in a single trawl."

The corals are vulnerable because they grow very slowly and a coral measuring approximately the size of a pencil can be 100 years old or older. If damaged, recovery time is very long.

"We know that the first time a trawl goes through an area is when the most damage is done," said Dr. Edinger."So we have to identify the areas that are sensitive and protect them before it is too late. So understanding the biogeography of these corals and where else they are likely to occur is a very important avenue of research."

The field has become a greater focus at Memorial University in recent years with the creation of a deep-sea coral research group made up of a number of faculty members, and their associated students, across several disciplines.

They work regularly with Ms. Wareham as the DFO co-ordinator of the deep-sea coral program for this region. Much of the research on corals is done by studying those that are landed as bycatch, but the university has also collected samples with the remotely operated scientific submersible, ROPOS, most recently in 2010. The research group is hoping to do that again in 2013.