New Jersey really has it all - even coral reefs!

When you think of coral, what comes to mind? Tropical islands and warm, turquoise waters, or maybe even Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (which, by the way, really can be seen from outer space). Oh, and of course New Jersey! What – you don’t think of New Jersey? Believe it or not, you should! Corals are not just warm-water creatures, and, even more surprising, they thrive off the coast of New Jersey.

That is exactly what scientists from the NOAA Laboratory on Sandy Hook discovered back in 2010. Working with researchers from Rutgers University, they found the first evidence of large, cold water corals deep in the Hudson Canyon, about 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey.

The Hudson Canyon is an extension of the Hudson River Valley. It runs from New York/New Jersey Harbor to about 300 miles out to sea. It contains the largest known underwater canyon in the world reaching depths in excess of 10,000 feet (compare that to the Grand Canyon, which is 6,093 feet at its deepest). Relatively little was known about this area until autonomous underwater vehicles – or AUV’s – came into being. AUV’s gave scientists the ability to explore depths that divers cannot safely reach. As a result, we’ve come to know more about the Canyon and its deep-sea life, including extensive and complex coral formations.

Unlike tropical corals, cold-water corals don't have algae living in their polyps – the thousands of tiny, individual animals that make up a mound of coral because, yes, coral is an animal – so they don’t need sunlight to survive. That’s handy since sunlight is slim to none in the Canyon. They feed solely by capturing food particles from the surrounding water. They grow slowly, tend to be much bigger than tropical corals, and like tropical reefs, they provide a home for many other animals, including sea fans, sponges, worms, starfish, brittle stars, sea urchins, crustaceans, and fish.

Rising ocean temperatures (a result of climate change) is a well-known, serious threat to coral reefs. Since the ocean warms from its surface, this is not as serious a threat to deep water corals. But ocean acidification is. By burning fossil fuels, we pump carbon dioxide into the air. The ocean absorbs much of it, but that makes ocean water increasingly acidic. Since acidic waters contain less carbonates (which coral polyps need to build their skeletons), New Jersey’s cold water corals will be unable to grow. So ride a bike, embrace renewable energy, and make your home more energy efficient. By reducing your dependence on fossil fuels, you can help prevent the earth from warming and protect New Jersey’s cold water corals.

To learn more about our great ocean, visit the NJ Sea Grant Consortium HERE!