Giuseppe Valiante, The Vancouver Sun

A team of Canadian and Spanish scientists has discovered forms of marine life previously unknown to science, some of which are more than 1,000 years old and hold the secrets to ancient underwater ecosystems.

The Fisheries Department and scientists from three Canadian universities and the Spanish Institute of Oceanography are on a 20-day expedition, using a robot to take pictures and to grab samples of coral and sponges up to three kilometres deep in the waters off the coast of Newfoundland.

The team is studying 11 areas under protection of the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) that are, collectively, about 11⁄2 times the size of Prince Edward Island.

These areas are important because they contain the “trees of the ocean,” says Ellen Kenchington, research scientist with the Fisheries Department, who is one of the leaders of the expedition.

The coral that grows in this area can be several metres tall and change the flow of water currents. It also give shelter to fish and other organisms.

“It’s a similar function a tree would serve in the forest, cutting down wind, providing branches for birds. We have the same type of communities that take shelter down there,” she said.

These coral and sponges — which are extremely fragile — are essential in keeping the areas abundant with the marine life that is fished by many countries around the world, including Canada, the U.S., the European Union and Japan.

Kenchington’s team is assessing whether more of these areas need to be protected from fishing in order to keep stocks sustainable.

During the course of the research, Kenchington’s team says it has discovered at least two new species of coral and six sponges in international waters, thousands of metres down.

Black coral, in particular, cements itself to the bottom of the ocean and can live more than 1,000 years. The coral has the equivalent of growth rings that can be revealed when sectioning its skeleton.

Kenchington said scientists can potentially look at the coral’s chemical composition and determine the temperature of the water and other data from as far back as 1,000 years.

“That’s how we are able to say if there is warming or a change in climate direction,” she said. “In order to understand the present we need to put it into context.”

http://www.vancouversun.com/mobile/iphone/news/top-stories/creatures+previously+unknown+humans+found+Newfoundland+coast/3302003/story.html

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