Diving Deeper into Deep-Sea Reefs

by Sierra Winters

When the average person opens Instagram or Facebook, they are often greeted with at least one image of someone vacationing at the beach. That person may be holding a freshly fallen coconut, snorkeling in turquoise waters, or wearing exotic flowers in their hair. These images frame our collective conception of coastal environments and our oceans. But what the average person doesn’t see in Instagram photos, or even during their travels, is deep-sea reefs.

Deep-sea reefs are found at a depth of at least 30 meters; thus, their vulnerability may be explained by the old adage, “out of sight, out of mind.” But just because they are out of sight doesn’t mean they aren’t critical to life as we know it. Deep-sea reefs teem with biological diversity, and shallow reef species may even find refuge there as climate change drives them into deeper waters. Some species (particularly sponges and sessile invertebrates) can feature antibacterial, antifungal, or antitumor properties that may be useful for treating cancer!

Despite their importance and the fact that deep-sea reefs are more widespread than shallow-water reefs, they currently receive very little governmental protection. Deep-sea fishing, pollution, the oil and gas industries, climate change, and seabed mining all pose threats to deep-sea reefs.

What is needed to ensure their survival? More research and more advocacy. Humans only know the minute details of about .05% of the seafloor, meaning we continuously find new species as we get to know our oceans better. Once we know more about our oceans, we will have more data and rationale to support our conservation efforts.

To this end, Smithsonian scientists are employing the Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP) to learn more about species that live as deep as 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Scientists are also finding ancient specimens (up to 4,265 years!) that contain information about what our oceans have looked like over the past several millennia. These time capsules can help inform us about what our oceans may look like in a future shaped by climate change.

Though rarely seen, deep-sea reefs are rich ecosystems that can both indicate and affect the health of our oceans. Therefore, they should not be forgotten in our fight against climate change and conservation efforts. Thank you for taking the time to learn about them!

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