UK aquarium in native stony coral study

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A leading UK public aquarium has obtained specimens of an unusual stony coral found in the deep, cold waters off the north west coast of Britain in an effort to learn more about the biology of the species.

Hull aquarium, The Deep, worked with BP and the British Antarctic Survey Team to obtain specimens of Lophelia pertusa, a CITES Appendix II listed hard coral that forms large coral reefs not in the tropics but in deep, cold waters of the North Atlantic - including the coast of western Britain.

Lophelia pertusa lives at depths of between 400-1000m/1312-3281 ft, far beyond the reach of sunlight, where it feeds on particles in the water column.

Modern fishing techniques have seen commercial trawlers moving into deeper and deeper waters to fish, as species such as cod and haddock become over-exploited, and their heavy nets are believed to have caused significant damage to our native coral reefs. "We are particularly concerned about the significant threat to Lophelia reefs posed by deep sea-fishing..."Oil rigsThe Deep's science officer, Graham Hill, spent five weeks with a BP survey team aboard the British Antarctic Survey's research vessel, RRS Ernest Shackleton, while the BP team was undertaking a structural survey of oil platform legs.

Graham Hill said: "The Deep worked with the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) pilots to design and build a special frame attachment. The vehicle was sent down to depths of 160 metres to remove and retrieve samples of the coral. The specimens were then stored in a 'coral hotel' a purpose built container with its own life support system.

"The live specimens of this amazing coral are now on display in The Deep's Twilight Zone exhibition where it is thriving in carefully monitored conditions. Their natural habitat is replicated by maintaining low light levels and water temperatures in their normal range around 8 degrees."

Slow growthLophelia reefs are made up of thousands of frameworks of individual corals and can be tens of metres high and several kilometres across.

However, scientists believe that the corals grow at astonishingly slow rates of just 1mm per year, which makes the reefs unable to recover from the damage caused by trawlers. It was this slow growth rate that led to the team harvesting corals ethically from the legs of oil platforms, rather than taking them directly from reefs.

Dr Murray Roberts of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), who worked in collaboration with The Deep, said that the team hopes to gain a greater understanding of the delicate ecosystems of the deep oceans, which will provide important clues for their conservation. "...the corals grow at astonishingly slow rates of just 1mm per year...""We are particularly concerned about the significant threat to Lophelia reefs posed by deep sea-fishing and other activities as they take an enormous length of time to establish", said Roberts. "Surveys so far suggest typical Lophelia reefs are around 8,000 years old with giant carbonate mounds tracing their histories back for over a million years!"

Lophelia reefs are believed to act as a habitat for a wide range of species and may form an important part of the ecology of the deep waters of the North Atlantic.

However, with the exception of the Darwin Mounds, a series of underwater "sand volcanoes" located off northwest Scotland, none of the coldwater coral reefs have yet to receive protection through prohibiting bottom trawling.

For more details on the project visit The Deep or see the lophelia.org website.