Cold-water coral off the coast of the southeast United States were not discovered until the early 1900s. However, researchers were not able to examine the coral extensively until the 1970s, when they were able to use cameras and submersibles. Such a discovery helped prove that coral could grow in areas other than in warm waters.
These coral grow in depths of 2,500 feet or more and are very slow growing. Scientists have estimated that these coral can take millions of years to form. This area of coral is estimated to be the largest coral reef in the world. A single section of the reef stretches from Florida to North Carolina, consisting of 23,000 square miles.
Scientists and environmental groups are hoping to ensure the survival of these coral by protecting them before them are harmed. Thus far, the coral remain essentially unharmed by fishing, crabbing, trawling and other activities. Other deep water reefs in the United States have been harmed by such activity, giving groups all the more urgency to protect this area. The plan for protection is being reviewed but could be approved by the U.S. Commerce Department and in effect by 2010.
A current program to study the coral is underway, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Florida Atlantic University and the U.S. Geological Survey, along with others. The groups wish to attain more knowledge about the coral and hope to discover new species of fish, corals and other various creatures. In addition, researchers are hoping some discoveries will be able to be used for medicinal purposes.
Steve Ross, a scientist from the University of North Carolina and the leader of the expedition, stated: “We’ve barely seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of new species out here. We’ll find out five or 10 years from now that we made an amazing discovery and we just didn’t realize it. A lot of our pharmaceuticals come from a tropical rainforest environment. The same people are looking for these in the deep sea, and there are expectations that there will be drugs made that could potentially provide cures for some types of cancer.”