scientific article | Bull Mar Sci
Reed JK, Weaver DC, Pomponi SA
Expeditions from 1999 to 2004 for biomedical research explored various deep-sea coral ecosystems (DSCE) off the southeastern U.S. (Blake Plateau, Straits of Florida, and eastern Gulf of Mexico). Habitat and benthos were documented from 57 dives with human occupied submersibles and three with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and resulted in ~100 hrs of videotapes, 259 in situ digital images, 621 museum specimens, and > 400 microbial isolates. These were the first dives to document the habitat, benthic fauna, and fish diversity of some of these poorly known deepwater reefs. Fifty-eight fish species and 142 benthic invertebrate taxa were identified. High-definition topographic SEABEAM maps and echosounder profiles were also produced. Sites included in this report range from South Carolina on the Blake Plateau to the southwestern Florida slope: 1) Stetson Lophelia reefs along the eastern Blake Plateau off South Carolina; 2) Savannah Lophelia lithoherms along the western Blake Plateau off Georgia; 3) east Florida Lophelia reefs, 4) Miami Terrace escarpment in the Straits of Florida; 5) Pourtalès Terrace off the Florida Keys; and 6) west Florida Lophelia lithoherms off the southwestern Florida shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. These are contrasted with the azooxanthellate deep-water Oculina reefs at the shelf-edge off central eastern Florida. The fisheries and biopharmaceutical resource potential of these deep-water habitats remain relatively unknown. Although these habitats are not currently designated as marine protected areas (MPAs) or coral habitat areas of particular concern (HAPCs), they are ecologically diverse, vulnerable to physical destruction, and irreplaceable resources. Activities involving bottom trawling, pipelines, or oil/gas production could negatively impact these reefs. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council are currently developing priority mapping sites of the DSCEs within this region, and these data may provide potential targets for new MPAs and HAPCs.