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A characterization of deep-sea coral and sponge communities along the California and Oregon coast using a remotely operated vehicle on the EXPRESS 2018 expedition

December 1, 2021

Deep-sea coral and sponge (DSCS) communities serve as essential fish habitats (EFH) by providing shelter and nursery habitat, increasing diversity, and increasing prey availability (Freese and Wing, 2003; Bright, 2007; Baillon et al., 2012; Henderson et al., 2020). Threats to these long-lived, fragile organisms from bottom contact fishing gear, potential offshore renewable energy development, and ocean warming and acidification have increased the need for DSCS research along the U.S. West Coast (Gomez et al., 2018; Salgado et al., 2018; Yoklavich, et al., 2018; Gugliotti et al., 2019). The focus of these studies has varied from species distribution and abundance (Yoklavich and Love, 2005; Tissot et al., 2006) to developing and validating predictive distribution models (Huff et al., 2013; Rooper et al., 2017; Kreidler, 2020) to finding medicinal uses for corals and sponges (Essack et al., 2011; Shrestha et al., 2018). Due to the vast area of unexplored seafloor within the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ; 200 nautical miles off the coast) and the technological requirements and expanse of deep-sea research, there is still much to learn about the distributions and biology of DSCS. This information is critical to resource managers for effective conservation and management of DSCS habitats. Protections are provided by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) designation of groundfish EFH conservation areas (EFHCA) and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA). Areas designated as EFHCA are closed to bottom trawl fishing to protect and preserve seafloor habitats. Recently the PFMC adopted Amendment 28 to the Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (GFMP; Pacific Fishery Management Council, 2019) which modified EFHCAs by closing new areas identified as vulnerable and reopening areas deemed not vulnerable. The NMSA prohibits bottom disturbance from certain activities within areas designated as national marine sanctuaries, such as oil and gas exploration or extraction, cable laying, and other forms of seabed alteration or construction that disturb benthic communities.

NOAA’s Deep-Sea Coral and Research Technology Program (DSCRTP) began a 4-yr funding initiative for the U.S. West Coast in 2017. The goals of the West Coast Deep-Sea Coral Initiative (WCDSCI) were to: 1) gather baseline information on areas subject to fishing regulation changes prior to the implementation of Amendment 28; 2) improve our understanding of known DSCS bycatch “hot spots”; and 3) explore and assess DSCS resources within NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries with emphasis on areas of sanctuary resource protection and management concerns. During the first year of the program, a research cruise was developed to survey the West Coast from Oregon to California studying the DSCS ecosystems in priority areas. The 31-day expedition (9 Oct – 8 Nov, 2018) was launched from the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada, beginning in Newport, OR and ending in San Diego, CA.

The science team assembled for this cruise were members of the EXpanding Pacific Research and Exploration of Submerged Systems (EXPRESS) campaign, which brings together researchers from federal and nonfederal institutions to collaborate on scientific expeditions targeting the deepwater areas off California, Oregon, and Washington. EXPRESS supports researchers leveraging funding, resources, personnel, and expertise to accomplish more science than would have been possible by a single entity alone. The 2018 coastwide expedition included research partners from National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) and Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC), National Ocean Service (Channel Islands, Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries), Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

Research objectives for the cruise were to:

1) Collect DSCS baseline information at 10 of the EFHCA sites undergoing protection modifications by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

2) Collect DSCS and fish data at previously unexplored sites within West Coast National Marine Sanctuaries.

3) Revisit a subset of previously surveyed sites to document if changes in DCSC have occurred over time.

4) Collect information to validate BOEM supported cross-shelf habitat suitability models for DSCS.

5) Collect samples to help in identifying (and understanding) West Coast DSCS and expand use of new technologies (ROV, AUV, and environmental DNA [eDNA]).

6) Collect water samples for coastwide eDNA, nutrient, and carbon chemistry studies.