New world record: Malta has the deep­est known pop­u­la­tions of pre­cious red co­ral

Malta Independent - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE -

A new depth record for the pre­cious red co­ral has been set, and it be­longs to Malta! The deep sea around the Mal­tese Is­lands was in­ves­ti­gated dur­ing two sep­a­rate ex­pe­di­tions, in 2015 and 2016, as part of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project. Dur­ing th­ese sur­veys an un­der­wa­ter ro­bot equipped with a video cam­era was used to ex­plore the seabed down to depths of more than 1 km. The project sci­en­tists were sur­prised to find nu­mer­ous colonies of the pre­cious red co­ral (Co­ral­lium rubrum) grow­ing down to depths of 1016 m – over 200m deeper than the pre­vi­ous record, also from Mal­tese waters.

The team of sci­en­tists from the NGO Oceana, who un­der­took the sur­veys, and the Univer­sity of Malta’s De­part­ment of Bi­ol­ogy, who were re­spon­si­ble for analysing the data, re­cently pre­sented their find­ings at the 41st Congress of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion for the Sci­en­tific Ex­plo­ration of the Mediter­ranean (CIESM), which took place in Kiel, Ger­many from the 12 – 16 Sep­tem­ber 2016.

Prof. Pa­trick J. Schem­bri, from the Univer­sity of Malta’s De­part­ment of Bi­ol­ogy, ex­plained that ‘red co­ral colonies are usu­ally re­ported from depths rang­ing be­tween 15 m and 300 m depth, and had never been recorded at depths be­yond 800 m be­fore. The colonies were part of a di­verse com­mu­nity of liv­ing corals at depths of 300 to 1000 m. This record was a sur­prise to us all but it goes to show just how lit­tle we know about the sea which sur­rounds our own is­lands.’

Sev­eral other in­ter­est­ing find­ings made dur­ing the LIFE BAĦAR for N2K sur­veys were also pre­sented at the CIESM congress. Th­ese in­cluded the dis­cov­ery of a fos­silised sponge reef at a depth of ca. 300 m, deep-wa­ter caves lo­cated at depths down to 450 m, as well as vast ex­panses of sand/mud habi­tats, in­hab­ited by di­verse com­mu­ni­ties of species in­clud­ing some rare and threat­ened ones.

Ri­cardo Aguilar, ex­pe­di­tion leader and re­search direc­tor at Oceana in Europe, re­marked that ‘Most of the sites where we en­coun­tered di­verse co­ral reefs had never been re­searched be­fore, and the find­ings of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project in­di­cate that the deep-sea around Malta rep­re­sents an im­por­tant bio­di­ver­sity hotspot’.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project, through which th­ese ex­pe­di­tions were funded, ul­ti­mately aims to en­sure that vul­ner­a­ble marine habi­tats, in­clud­ing deep wa­ter reefs, ac­quire pro­tec­tion through the des­ig­na­tion of marine pro­tected sites un­der Natura 2000, the Euro­pean Union net­work that col­lec­tively safe­guards the EU’s most valu­able nat­u­ral ar­eas. The in­for­ma­tion gath­ered dur­ing the sur­veys will en­able the for­mu­la­tion of more ef­fec­tive con­ser­va­tion mea­sures to ad­dress the iden­ti­fied pres­sures, in­clud­ing from marine lit­ter and dis­carded fish­ing gear.

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project is co-fi­nanced by the EU LIFE+ Fund­ing Pro­gramme, and is led by the En­vi­ron­ment and Re­sources Au­thor­ity (ERA), with the Min­istry for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment, the En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change (MSDEC), the De­part­ment of Fish­eries and Aqua­cul­ture (DFA), the De­part­ment of Bi­ol­ogy of the Univer­sity of Malta (DoB-UoM) and Oceana as part­ners.

Re­search ves­sel and un­der­wa­ter ro­bot

Liv­ing red co­ral at 1010 m depth

Deep-wa­ter co­ral reef with red co­ral

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