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August 11, 2010

Mission assembles portrait of the cold-water coral in the sea surrounding the Azores


The crew aboard the oceanographic ship “Gago Coutinho” weighed anchor yesterday to study the “Condor” and “Voador” seamounts.

The Condor seamount, located along the island of Faial, is the first stop for the scientific mission that set sail yesterday from Horta aboard the oceanographic ship Gago Coutinho, of the Portuguese Navy. There, 22 miles from land, is where the ship is going to be until tomorrow. This is so the researchers from the Department of Oceanography and Fishing (DOP) of the University of the Azores, who are promoting the mission, can do the work that has been proposed in this first stage: to map and characterize the coral communities at several different depths.

From there, the mission continues toward the Voador, seamount, further afield; 123 miles from Faial. And the cold-water coral, that lives in very deep waters, at low temperatures, is once again the main objective. “The idea is to study the interaction of these organisms with fishing”, biologist and DOP director, Ricardo Serrão Santos proposed to Diário de Notícias.

The team is going to collect images and samples to make an exhaustive portrait of the cold-water communities that populate the seamount beds at different depth levels: 300, 500, one thousand meters, and even more. “We can go down to 1,500 meters”, says Serrão Santos.

To do so, the researchers aboard the Gago Coutinho are going to use the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) submarine robot Luso, that will collect high definition images and biological and geological samples.

In very deep waters, where the temperature is very low, cold-water coral organizes itself into communities in the shape of reefs. It joins together in extensive structures or congregates in gardens, as they are termed by biologists. There, they look more like bushes emerging from the sandy seabed. But reefs or gardens, these communities are home to a great biodiversity in addition to their own wealth of species.

“In the Azores over 150 species of cold-water coral have been described”, the DOP director tells us. And this is not going to stop here. At this very moment, the Azores researchers are finishing up the description of three new species of this type of coral, and it is very possible that on this mission that is going to last ten days there will also be news in this regard. But it will only be after their return “home” when the biologists will be able to perform the necessary studies for those verifications.

Given the biodiversity that they bring together, coral is a top-priority conservation objective. Therefore, to learn in detail about these communities and the impacts that fishing has on them, it is fundamental for fishing itself to be sustainable.

“The idea is to learn about the situation to be able to find solutions to the problems that we identify”, proposes Ricardo Serrão Santos.

On the 15th of this month, when the Gago Coutinho returns to Faial, the team hopes to bring with it “a good characterization of the coral communities”, but also biological materials that will later, in the laboratory, make it possible to undertake genetic and microbiological studies on these delicate marine organisms. One of the lines of work is to identify genes that protect against environmental threats.

Source: Diário de Notícias