By Nathan Johnson
The deep sea might be cold and dark, but it's not barren. Down here, an incredible diversity of corals shelters young fish like grouper, snapper and rockfish. Sharks, rays and other species live and feed here their whole lives.
Crucial though they are, such deep-dwelling corals are rarely glimpsed and easy to overlook. They don't get much notice from us on the surface. Here are five reasons they are worthy of respect—and attention.
A peachy deep-sea coral in the Alboran Sea.Oceana
1. Deep Doesn't Mean Deserted
Deep corals are strikingly similar to their shallow, tropical relatives, but get much less attention. While they don't form typical coral reefs, aggregations of these species can transform the rocky seafloor into a neon garden, 10,000 feet down.
These "gardens" are crucial feeding grounds in a part of the ocean where food can be scarce. They also act as nurseries for juvenile fish, crabs and shrimp, and provide a hard surface where sea stars and crustaceans can settle.
2. If You Love Seafood, You Need Deep Corals
Shrimp, crabs, grouper, rockfish and snapper that rely on deep corals support the diets and jobs of hundreds of thousands of people. Eighty five percent of economically-important fish in Alaska's Aleutian Islands use deep-sea coral habitat at some point in their life cycle. And a 2010 article in the journal Marine Resource Economics concluded that these corals are essential habitat for redfish in Norway.
3. They're Catalysts for Scientific and Medical Advances
Deep-sea corals provide unique opportunities for medical and climate research. Bamboo corals, which have been found deeper than 1,000 meters, have skeletons like bone. By better understanding these corals, scientists may develop more effective bone-grafting techniques.
Deep corals can also live for hundreds or thousands of years. As they grow, their skeletons form additional bands or layers, like tree rings, that reflect the chemical environment around them. The skeletons of long-lived specimens give researchers a window into the ways that ocean conditions, like temperature and nutrient availability, have changed over time.
On Oceana's expedition to Malta in June 2016, expedition leader Ricardo Aguilar watches deep-sea coral on a feed from a diving robot. Oceana / Carlos Minguell
4. Living Deep Won't Save Corals From Human Harms
In some places, these deep gardens are dying.
Commercial fishing is one major threat. Bottom trawling ships drag large, weighted nets across the seafloor that indiscriminately catch anything in their way. Roller-frame trawls have heavy cylinders attached to the bottom of the net, which can bulldoze entire ecosystems in just a few hours.
Offshore oil drilling can also harm fragile corals. Oil spills hit deep-sea corals in much the same way they impact shallow, tropical reefs. In the Gulf of Mexico, a 2012 study showed evidence of tissue damage, stress, and coral death from samples collected 290 to 2,600 meters below the surface, likely from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Climate change adds additional challenges. Unlike their tropical cousins, deep corals don't have symbiotic algae living in their tissue, so they don't bleach and die when the water gets too hot. But they are vulnerable to changes in pH, which are also brought on by climate change.
As more carbon dioxide dissolves into the oceans, seawater becomes more acidic. Both deep and shallow corals have a harder time building their skeletons as a result. Since deep-sea corals grow slowly, it can take hundreds of years for them to recover.
5. Deep-Sea Corals Get Overlooked in Favor of Flashier Reefs
If deep-sea corals disappear, so will the fish, crabs, and sharks that rely on them. In a series of expeditions, Oceana and its partners have explored these lesser-known corals and their habitats in the Philippines, Canada, Europe and U.S. Pacific. But little has been done to protect these deep-sea corals. In 2015, less than 1 percent of total U.S. giving from private foundations was for ocean-related grants. More than half of the $17.6 million that private foundations gave for coral work that year went to tropical corals.
Deep corals might not offer the tropical-vacation allure of reefs in the Caribbean or Asia, but they're just as vital.
- Hope for Great Barrier Reef? New Study Shows Genetic Diversity of ... ›
- Hawaii Lawmakers Pass Ban on Coral-Damaging Sunscreen ›
By Holly Binns
Some of the deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico started growing when Rome still ruled an empire and Native Americans were constructing civilizations in the vast forests that would—centuries later—become the U.S. Southeast.
For countless generations, these structure-forming animals have thrived in the cold, dark depths, serving as homes to starfish, squat lobsters, crabs, sharks and many species of fish, including grouper and snapper. But modern-day threats loom for these fragile and slow-growing jewels, which may take centuries to recover from damage, if they recover at all. Of primary concern is fishing gear, such as trawls, traps, longlines and anchors, which can break coral. Fortunately, fisheries managers can do something about this.
While energy development and changing ocean conditions also pose threats to corals, fisheries managers have jurisdiction over preventing damage from fishing gear. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing policy in the Gulf's federal waters, prohibits anchoring or the use of certain types of deep-fishing gear near some coral communities. The council is considering extending similar protections to additional areas where scientists have identified dense communities of corals.
The council is taking public comment here and will host public hearings early next year. Protecting corals is an important part of conserving the Gulf's marine ecosystem.
You can see Gulf of Mexico deep-sea corals in the video below and learn more about them here.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.