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Gardens of the deep

GEO CENTRE exhibit deep-sea corals and sponges to light


By Kelly Foss

A new multimedia exhibit is creating awareness of Atlantic cold-water corals and sponges in the waters off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador and their importance to the health and integrity of the marine ecosystem.

Gardens of the Deep was unveiled at a recent event and is a collaboration between the GEO CENTRE and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Memorial University, Oceans Learning Partnership, The Production Group, World Wildlife Fund Canada, the provincial Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agrifoods, the Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Mysterious and diverse ecosystem

“In the Northwest Atlantic, off Canada’s East Coast, there is a mysterious and diverse ecosystem that does not get the attention it deserves,” said Ashley Wright, manager, relations, GEO CENTRE. “At this very moment there are over 60 species of corals and an even greater assortment of sponges living and thriving in the rugged reaches of our coastal waters.

“In addition to being simply beautiful, these organisms are a critical component of benthic ecosystems that form vast and varied communities,” she added. “They serve to provide habitat for shelter as well as nurseries and foraging areas for small fish and invertebrates.”

A few of the many species of deep-sea sponges found in Newfoundland and Labrador waters.
Photo: Chris Hammond

The exhibit highlights ongoing deep water research and the conservation measures that have been put in place to protect these cold-water corals and sponges.

Protecting our oceans

Stephen Snow, regional manager, oceans division, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says developing an educational display around cold water corals and sponges in the Northwest Atlantic was of great interest to his department.

“The Government of Canada is committed to conserving and protecting our oceans for the benefit of all Canadians, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada is the leading federal government department responsible for research and conservation of corals and sponges in Canada,” he said.

“As our knowledge of corals and sponges in the Northwest Atlantic has grown, so, too, has our need to ensure their conservation and protection. A key to this is education and awareness, and that is what we hope this exhibit will help achieve.”

Flabellum alabastrum solitary cup corals are the most common stony corals in the Newfoundland and Labrador region.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Comprehensive education program

Maria Giovannini, executive director, Oceans Learning Partnership (OLP), congratulates the team involved in creating the exhibit and notes the education it provides speaks to the mandate of the OLP.

“The particular audience we’re targeting is Newfoundland and Labrador students in the K-12 school system,” she said. “We brought our team together in the fall of 2012 because of the recognition that there was very little content, courses or programs in our school system for young people to become aware of the amazing resources in the ocean at our doorstep.

“Certainly they would have very little idea that in that world off our shores is the potential for future careers as scientists, researchers, technicians, scientific divers and so on,” she added. “Four years later, we have the beginnings of what we hope will become a very comprehensive education program in our schools.”

From rocks to sponges

Dr. Evan Edinger, a professor with the departments of Geography, Biology and Earth Sciences at Memorial, is a co-founder of the N.L. Deep Sea Corals Research Group and the Marine Habitat Mapping Group.

He credits Vonda Wareham, an alumna of Memorial and the co-ordinator of coral sponge research at DFO, for much of the work behind the exhibit and says there are many reasons to put an exhibit of corals and sponges at the GEO CENTRE.

Dr. Evan Edinger
Dr. Evan Edinger
Photo: Chris Hammond

“Deep-sea corals and sponges are long-lived and highly sensitive — threatened by fishing and other human activities, including oil and gas production, and climate change,” he said.

“Most, but not all, of the corals and sponges in our region live on hard rocky bottoms, and hard-bottom environments are actually pretty rare in the deep sea. So, knowing the geology of the places where we have found corals can predict where to expect more corals and sponge habitats.”

Sensitive habitat

Figuring out the relative importance of geological and oceanographic factors affecting coral and sponge distributions has been one of the questions Dr. Edinger has been studying within the joint Memorial-DFO coral research group. Another focus is figuring out how long they live, and how fast they grow, or more precisely, how slowly they grow.

“We know that deep-sea corals and sponges provide important habitat for other marine life, including some commercial fish species.” — Dr. Evan Edinger

“Obviously, species that live for 200 years will take a lot longer to recover from damage than species that live for 20 years,” said Dr. Edinger.

“We know that deep-sea corals and sponges provide important habitat for other marine life, including some commercial fish species. We also know that the first time a trawler goes through a sensitive habitat on the bottom is when it does the most damage.

“So, describing the corals and sponges in our waters, and figuring out why they are where they are, and therefore where we can or cannot fish or drill for oil without causing irreversible damage, becomes important to protecting marine biodiversity and fish habitat, and ultimately, to protecting our fisheries and other activities on the sea floor.”

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