S&T Themes

Research Theme I: Develop Advanced Underwater Technologies

The discipline of innovation is a basic principle that underpins the CIOERT value proposition. Innovation is defined simply as the "process of creating and delivering new customer value" (Carlson and Wilmot 2006); an end-to-end “Notion to Ocean©” process that includes ideation/conception, design, engineering, production, testing, application, and transition to users. Permanent innovation is the process of innovating continuously by setting strategic innovation goals, developing methods to capitalize on innovation, and making a habit of innovating on a continual basis through thoughtful repetition of the right methods (Morris 2006). Although there are many definitions of types of innovations, CIOERT will focus on two basic types: incremental innovations and transformational (or “disruptive”) innovations. The former are relatively low risk/low reward, and the latter are higher risk/higher reward efforts that break away from traditional wisdom and approaches, enable new approaches to existing challenges, lead to new discoveries and wisdom, and create exponential leaps through innovation and entrepreneurship. These types of innovation differ and overlap in expected outcomes.

CIOERT will design, develop, deploy, test, evaluate, apply, and transition to operational status in NOAA new and existing technologies (e.g., instrument systems, sensors, and platforms) to advance ocean exploration and research. Priority objectives include:

  • Identify and prioritize undersea technology needs and opportunities
  • Stimulate/support creative development of new technologies, including high-risk, high-payoff technologies
  • Improve existing technologies to enhance the ocean exploration and research capabilities for accessing and studying the frontier ecosystems of the eastern U.S. Continental Shelf
  • Test and evaluate technologies in “real world,” in situ exploration and research applications
  • Develop plans to transition technologies to appropriate users in NOAA and broader scientific community.

CIOERT technology development efforts will address these objectives, be driven by NOAA’s exploration and research needs, and utilize a systematic innovation process that engages NOAA in all stages of development.

Research Theme II: Exploring Shelf Frontiers

CIOERT’s expertise, experience, capabilities, and a long history of NOAA-funded exploration projects make this CI uniquely qualified to address NOAA’s priorities for exploring shelf frontiers:

  • exploration and research on ecosystems “within and beyond the eastern Continental Shelf,” including Large Marine Ecosystems on the east coast;
  • frontiers beyond depths of 40 meters and poorly known habitats;
  • connectivity of deep and shallow ecosystems, in terms of productivity and recruitment;
  • focus on priority locations to promote an ecosystem approach to management; and
  • frontiers of “economic, hazardous, scientific or cultural importance:
    • economic—frontiers that contain significant resources (e.g., food, energy, minerals) that are new or potential targets for exploitation and may warrant conservation/management (EAM);
    • hazardous—poses a threat to human life and property, or to the health of the ecosystem;
    • scientific—warrants protection or study based on scientific interest, unique features, extreme or poorly known ecosystems; and
    • cultural—maritime heritage resources with historic, educational, or economic value

The five Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) of the U.S. east coast, CIOERT’s area of responsibility, comprise over 1,000,000 km2 of EEZ. Exploration and research programs cannot currently cover this entire area (although CIOERT’s goal is to develop technologies that will enable exploration over a much broader geographic area). A priority will be to thoroughly study habitats that are important by the criteria listed above, often for more than one of the criteria, for example, major boundary current (Gulf Stream) confluence regions, productivity “hot spots,” established fishing grounds, marine managed areas, areas posing potential hazards, and/or submerged cultural resources.

Shelf Frontier Sub-Themes

Ecosystem Approach to Management

Ecosystem approaches to management use integrated approaches to study and manage resources of an entire ecosystem. Designation of an LME is based on 4 primary ecological criteria: bathymetry, hydrography, productivity, and trophically-related populations (NOAA 2005). The five east coast LMEs include the Great Lakes, Northeast Shelf, Southeast Shelf, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. A first order understanding for EAM requires information to designate an LME and its sub-regions— bathymetry, productivity (habitat maps), and trophic relations of dominant populations. CIOERT’s proposed exploration and research projects address these criteria.

An integrated approach to ecosystem management is highlighted as one of the near-term priorities for research in the Joint sub-Committee on Ocean Science and Technology’s “Comparative Analysis of Marine Ecosystem Organization” (JSOST 2006) and should include:

  • Construct and apply various classes of energy budget and dynamic models to managed marine ecosystems;
  • Compare systems where ecosystem management strategies have been enacted (e.g., inter-regional studies of MPAs); and
  • Understand underlying dynamics controlling: productivity of various trophic levels; predator-prey interactions; connectedness of subpopulations; impacts of natural climate variation; and various anthropogenic pressures.

Innovative, integrated, in situ approaches using advanced undersea technologies and new ways to manage, report, and share data products are required for these EAM objectives. Nets, grabs, and dragged gear cannot provide the scope and resolution of the scientific data and underpinning required. Accurate habitat maps, distribution of fish species and life stages, fish-habitat associations, and determining how fish and other commercially-important species are using habitats are examples of tasks best done using in situ observations and sampling.

Priority objectives of CIOERT’s EAM exploration and research program include: (1) apply and refine non-destructive technology to survey fish and marine benthic organisms at select habitats that will be mapped as part of the overall CI effort; (2) link species, functional groups, and trophic guilds to specific habitats and ecosystem processes at varying spatial/temporal scales; and (3) compare and contrast marine ecosystem organization and functions across habitats and space/time scales. Metapopulations, ecosystem approaches to management (EAM) conceptual frameworks, and predictions from coupled bio-physical and ecosystem numerical models will guide hypothesis testing. Sampling will use existing and emerging undersea technologies that are integrated with habitat-mapping, pelagic sampling, and bio-physical modeling efforts.

An important benefit of this research is that we will establish a baseline of the dominant species in frontier ecosystems, against which future change can be monitored. As invasive species are becoming an ever-increasing phenomenon in the pelagic (Grosholz 2002) and benthic habitats (Whitfield et al. 2002), there is urgency to describe resident members of the ecosystem in order to assess impacts of new residents.

New Ocean Natural Resources

Although new pharmaceutical agents are constantly reaching the market, it is clear that given death rates, emerging multi-drug resistant diseases, the cost of treatment and lost productivity, more efficacious drugs are still required. NOAA’S 20-Year Vision predicts that “oceans will present unexpected opportunities to benefit mankind—perhaps pharmaceuticals mined from ocean biota, new sources of energy generation, or new food resources.” After more than two decades of exploration and research, the “potential” of marine biotechnology is now being realized. Three compounds derived from marine sources are currently approved for clinical use (Ara-c is a drug used to treat leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma; Prialt™ is used in the treatment of chronic pain; and Yondelis™ is used for the treatment of soft tissue sarcoma). Numerous additional marine natural products are in pre-clinical and clinical evaluation primarily in the areas of cancer, infectious disease, and inflammation.

Voyages of biodiscovery will be integrated with shelf frontier expeditions, particularly to poorly studied shelf frontiers, including midwater habitats. Discovery of new resources will be an integral component of EAM by contributing to an understanding of the biological and chemical diversity of lesser explored habitats. Characterization of the microbial natural products found in these habitats may lead towards a better understanding of the role, if any, of natural products production on ecosystem health and assist with management of these vulnerable ecosystems.

Culturally Important Frontiers

NOAA is the federal agency responsible for preservation of maritime heritage. In particular, National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) Program Regulations [15 CFR 922.2 (c)] define submerged cultural resources (SCR) as those "possessing historical, cultural, archaeological, or paleontological significance, including sites, structures, districts, and objects significantly associated with or representative of earlier people, cultures, and human activities and events." Priority NMS objectives include:

  1. map sites at the highest possible resolution (enough to detect change in wreck status at sub-meter scale); and
  2. get scientists to the sites to do required archaeological surveys and monitoring of living resources associated with SCR, and
  3. assess potential impacts of wrecks that may have a negative impact on living resources (e.g., fuel or cargo leaks, chemical leaching). CIOERT’s partners have demonstrated expertise in the study of SCR, and will provide support to meet NOAA’s goals.

Theme III: Vulnerable Deep and Shallow Coral Ecosystems

Coral reef ecosystems (CREs) support vast amounts of the ocean’s biodiversity and exhibit exceptional variation in relative forms, functions, origins, and locations. Ecosystem processes and services of different coral habitats vary considerably and remain understudied, particularly in deep water. For more accessible reefs (i.e., shallower, Caribbean), exploration and characterization has advanced rapidly over the last 40 years. It is clear that CRE decline has accelerated over the past three decades (Gardner et al. 2003), threatening the ecological functions, ecosystem services, and quantifiable economic value of many shallow coral reef ecosystems (SCREs). For most mesophotic and deeper coral reef ecosystems (DCREs), much less is known regarding locations, ecological operations, health status, or resource potential (Lumsden et al. 2007). Therefore, we face two significant overarching challenges with respect to coral ecosystems: 1) advancing our understanding of coral ecosystems, and 2) improving our ability to successfully manage them. These two priorities are not only identified by NOAA in its Research Vision, Strategic Plan, and more specifically in the Coral Reef Research Plan, but also are the foundations for all other research goals and milestones described by NOAA.

The primary signs of coral reef degradation, particularly in SCREs, include: 1) low coral cover, sometimes, but not always, coupled with increased macroalgal cover, 2) discoloration and/or partial mortality of surviving corals, 3) increased incidence of disease, and 4) absence or low abundance of recruits of the major reef building coral species. Unfortunately, these metrics only provide information on the health of a reef after significant losses have taken place. Much of what is proposed herein is new technologies to assess coral health before the corals die.

Integrated ecosystem assessments that evaluate and compare anthropogenic stressors among regions that support coral reef ecosystems have been identified by NOAA as key information for the development of long-range, ecosystem based approaches to SCRE management. These new technologies are also needed in ecosystem assessments of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and associated unprotected habitats to determine the impacts of environmental stressors on coral health. NOAA needs tools to not only characterize the extent and composition of coral ecosystems, but also to evaluate coral health conditions in near-real time with tools (e.g., molecular, bacterial, lipid, spectral characterization) that go beyond simple visual assessments. The combination of novel technologies for coral health assessment with field and mesocosm experiments are required to assess the relative roles of temperature increase, ocean acidification, water quality (nutrients, turbidity, etc.), and microhabitat variation on coral health.

By focusing on the linkages between ecosystems and humans, CIOERT will identify and increase understanding of both anthropogenic impacts on CREs and conversely the ecosystem services that CREs provide. Our ultimate goals are to improve the ability to determine coral health, increase the capacity to identify significant stressors, and strengthen predictions of coral ecosystem responses. A key component of research needs is connectivity: connectivity among coral communities both vertically and geographically, connectivity between coral habitats and the fisheries (or other resources) they support, between coral ecosystem health and stressors, between current ecosystem assessments and future ecosystem conditions, and between scientific investigation and subsequence resource management.

Coral Sub-Themes

Shallow-water Coral Reef Ecosystems (SCREs)

CIOERT is committed to delivering novel tools and data that resource managers need to conserve and protect SCREs throughout the Tropical Western Atlantic. In addition to identifying the relative levels of stress and contribution of anthropogenic and natural stressors to reef decline, determination of the potential for resilience and recovery of coral reefs is critically important, particularly for evaluation of MPA success and selection of additional reef areas for designation as new MPAs. By understanding the natural and anthropogenic stressors that result in quantifiable changes in coral health and reproductive capacity, this research will provide tools for forecasting potential changes on SCREs and estimating impacts from climate change and changes in coastal use patterns. In addition these coral health tools can be used to determine the relative fitness of corals in both aquaculture and restoration programs, improving the probability of success for these endeavors.

The ultimate goal of the SCRE program will be to generate widely accessible data, improved methods of data acquisition, and experimentally supported recommendations that advance management strategies for valuable, yet vulnerable, SCREs. To advance both understanding SCREs and technological capabilities to study these habitats, the CI will integrate 4 research aims: 1) shallow coral reef habitats characterization, 2) development of advanced technologies for quantifying coral health, 3) assessment of reproductive capacity, larval supply, and recruitment potential, and 4) determination of impacts of ocean acidification on calcification within the benthic boundary layer. Innovative, targeted, broadly applicable methodologies for quantifying coral health, which combine traditional monitoring approaches and enhanced sensory technology, will make improved SCRE assessment an attainable goal.

Mesophotic Coral Ecosystems (MCEs)

Some of the same fauna and flora that live on shallow coral reefs extend into deeper depths where light eventually becomes limiting. With increasing depth, community structure transitions from organisms with some dependence on light to those that are primarily heterotrophic (hence, mesotrophic). Much of these deeper areas are steep slopes and walls inhabited as much by sponges and black corals as by scleractinian corals. Major components of the biotic assemblage are unknown, underscoring a critical need for taxonomic and systematic characterization. MCEs serve as important refugia for reef fishes that are overfished in shallow waters. There is reason to believe that these poorly studied deeper habitats may be as susceptible to habitat deterioration as the shallow coral reefs. Coastal development that results in increased turbidity and sedimentation are likely to have a substantial negative effect on light-dependent components through further reduction of light levels. Destructive fishing practices can have major, long-term negative effects on the slow growing organisms at these depths. Deep reef habitats represent a substantial undiscovered diversity; it is imperative to characterize them before it is lost.

Studies on (MCEs), typically found below 30 m along island and continental slopes, have been limited due to difficulties of sampling this depth with conventional SCUBA techniques. Advances in technical diving and instrumentation (mixed gas diving, rebreathers, AUVs, and ROVs), are increasingly providing easier access to study MCEs. They are far more extensive than generally appreciated, with some experts estimating that their linear extent could rival or exceed that of shallow water reefs. The varied depths and topographies of this ecosystem present challenges for sampling and measuring biodiversity, and there is a great disparity in the extent of our knowledge for different taxonomic groups and geographic regions. Limited data on taxonomy, distribution, population genetics, and the reproductive and life history biology of mesophotic reef species restrict our ability to address these issues and implement effective management.

NOAA/NOS Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research hosted a Mesophotic Coral Ecosystem Workshop in 2008 to develop information that will assist NOAA in its research prioritization and strategic planning for MCEs and to identify emerging issues and management needs (report on-line at http://www.mesophotic.org/). Objectives were to describe the current state of understanding of the processes that regulate MCEs, demonstrate their importance, and assess their vulnerability to exploitation and human disturbance. MCEs that serve as refugia may warrant special resource management attention and protection to help maintain local and/or regional biodiversity. Specific management needs identified were to identify bathymetric features that predict their occurrence, to understand the biological and ecological connectivity with shallow coral reefs, including extent of shared fauna and flora, to assess the status, trends, and threats to these communities, and to identify the users and value of the resources they provide.

Deep-Sea Coral and Sponge Ecosystems, >200 m (DSCE)

Better habitat definition (i.e., the total physical, chemical, and biological surroundings of an organism) and description are essential components for developing fishery management plans (Rubec et al. 1998), implementing Essential Fish Habitat initiatives (ASMFC 1996), and facilitating state and federal habitat protection goals. The Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program mandated by the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act of 2006 requires NOAA to conduct specific research, mapping, monitoring, technology development, and reporting related to deep-sea corals. The first report required by this act noted that deep-sea corals are abundant, important, and vulnerable, but that critical data (mapping, biology, ecology) were missing (NOAA 2008). A related NOAA report (Lumbsden et al. 2007) also indicated a lack of data for these ecosystems. The Magnuson-Stevens Act invokes Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) designations as a management tool, but a general lack of data has precluded the designation of most deep-sea coral habitat as EFH. SAFMC has mandated protection strategies, recently designating 23,000 square miles of deep coral areas as Habitat Areas of Concern, yet their efforts are limited by the lack of basic data about where the corals are, what shape they are in, and what other species live and rely on DSCE.