By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
Photos courtesy of NOAA.
Dr. Sandra Brooke earned her Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre, UK in 2002. Her current assignment as Associate Research Faculty at Florida State University (FSU) has her working with a mosaic of government agencies including; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Brooke’s spot on the team that discovered a deep water coral reef 160 miles off SC’s coast made her the perfect speaker at an event at the College of Charleston Oct. 15, curated by CofC and the SC Small Business Chamber of Commerce (SCBCC).
“The Chamber has been actively fighting this since 2015. Tourism is, by far, the single biggest industry in the state, and not something we want to risk,” said Frank Knapp, President and CEO of the SCBCC. Knapp thinks discovery of the fragile eco-system is another link a long chain of reasons to prohibit offshore drilling along the east coast. Knapp had just finished his thought when Jimmy Carroll, mayor of Isle of Palms strode in, agreeing and dovetailing nicely with Knapp’s assessment.
“… Tourism brings $19 billion a year to SC,” said Carroll. He continued by saying opposition to offshore drilling is one of the reasons he endorsed Joe Cunningham (SC-1) for congress. “We’re concerned about the environment more than anything else. Our coast should be above politics all the time,” said the mayor in defense of his constituents’ interests.
Knapp made a point of opening the meeting with a who’s who list of additional sponsors including; “Mayor John Tecklenburg (Charleston), Mayor Tim Goodwin (Folly Beach), Mayor Jimmy Carroll (IOP), Mayor Bill Woolsey (James Island), Mayor Jimmy Braswell (Pawleys Island), Mayor Jane Darby (Edisto Beach), Mayor Billy Keyserling (Beaufort), Mayor David Bennett (Hilton Head Island), Mayor Samuel Murray (Port Royal), Mayor Lisa Sulka (Bluffton), Mayor Marilyn Hatley (North Myrtle Beach), and Mayor Huston Huffman (Briarcliffe Acres).
“… Brooke (FSU) studies deep-sea coral ecology and is one of the team of scientists working on the federally funded ‘Deep Search’ project. This team is tasked with exploration and research of sensitive ecosystems, such as deep-sea corals, in areas that are open to future energy activity [offshore drilling and seismic testing] off the southeastern US [coast]. Information from ‘Deep Search’ will help inform management of the valuable habitats,” said Knapp before leaving Brooke alone at the podium.
Brooke didn’t dodge the expense of mapping the ocean floor; it’s expensive, she confided. Surface vessels go on months long missions, using sonar to ping the bottom until an image suggests the presence of coral. Identified areas of interest are further investigated by unmanned vehicles, photos and samples are taken, and in some rare cases, manned vehicles can be used.
The most interesting area at the moment and the location of the latest discovery is just beyond the ‘Blake Escarpment,’ explained Brooke. The continental shelf gradually slopes away from SC shores before dipping approximately 1,600 feet to the Blake Plateau. The plateau itself then slopes away to a depth of nearly 3,000 feet to the Blake Escarpment where the depth plummets to the sea basin. Voila; 160 miles due East is Brooke’s latest find.
Beautiful photos showing miles of multicolored corals made Brooke’s fascination with the topic easy to understand, though she lamented some of the pictures included plastic shopping bags. “Animals in the cnidarian classes Anthozoa and Hydrozoa that produce either calcium carbonate (aragonitic or calcitic) secretions resulting in a continuous skeleton or as numerous, usually microscopic, individual sclerites, or that have a black, horn-like, proteinaceous axis,” said Brooke citing Dr. Stephen Cairns (2007). She talked about three different “orders” of corals each with dozens of “families” and thousands of “species.” The dark and cold of deep-water they live in means the corals are slow to develop, slower to recover when disturbed, and are affected by human activity.
Drag and trawl fishing decimate the bottom where corals grow, and mining activities destroy habitat and many precious corals. Hundreds to thousands year-old corals are harvested for jewelry and curios, and climate change is having a negative impact Brooke said before adding “oil sticks to coral.”
However, the scientist stopped well short of hoisting a picket sign and boycotting fossil fuels. The bottom line seems to be: We’re studying the corals because we don’t know all the answers and that’s why ongoing study is important, (e.g. they didn’t even know the SC field was there until July of this year, after all).
The Department of Natural Resources has established some areas where fishing/ mining are discouraged, and seismic testing does affect corals, she said, but how, and how much has yet to be determined. “It’s more than simple matter of drawing lines on a map. To make a recommendation, we have to be able to;
- Describe the oceanographic, geological, geochemical, and acoustic conditions of the study area
- Explore and study the biological communities of each habitat
- Examine their sensitivity to natural and human disturbances and
- Predict the distribution of sensitive habitats in the region”
For more information visit scsbc.org/, cofc.edu/academics/colleges-and-schools/#ssm, or marinelab.fsu.edu/people/faculty/sandrabrooke.