Role of cold-water Lophelia pertusa coral reefs as fish habitat in the NE Atlantic

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Abstract

The rate of discovery of reefs of the cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa (Linnaeus, 1758) has been remarkable, and attributable to the increased use of underwater video. These reefs form a major three-dimensional habitat in deeper waters where little other ‘cover’ for fish is available. They are common in the eastern North Atlantic, and occur at least in the western North Atlantic and off central Africa. There are also other non-reef records of Lophelia in the Atlantic, and in Indian and Pacific oceans. Thus, not only are these reefs a significant habitat on a local scale, but they may also provide an important habitat over a very wide geographic scale.

The present study examined the association of fish species with Lophelia in the Northeast Atlantic, including the Trondheimsfjord and Sula Ridge in Norway, Kosterfjord in Sweden, Darwin Mounds west of Scotland, and Rockall Bank, Rockall Trough and Porcupine Seabight off Ireland. The fish fauna associated with a shipwreck west of Shetland was also studied. Data were collected from 11 study sites at 8 locations, using 52 hours of video and 15 reels of still photographs. Video and still photographs were collected from (1) manned submersible, (2) surface controlled remotely operated vehicle (ROV), (3) a towed “hopper” camera, (4) wide angle survey photography (WASP), (5) seabed high resolution imaging platform (SHRIMP), and (6) an in situ time-lapse camera “Bathysnap”. It was possible to identify 90 % of fish observed to species level and 6.5 % to genus or family level. Only 3.5 % of the fish were not identifiable. A guide to the fishes is given at http://www.ecoserve.ie/projects/aces/. Twenty-five species of fishes from 17 families were recorded over all the sites, of which 17 were of commercial importance and comprised 82 % of fish individuals observed. These commercial fish species contribute 90 % of commercial fish tonnage in the North Atlantic.

The habitats sampled were comprised of 19 % reef, 20 % transitional zone (i.e. between living coral and debris zone), 25 % coral debris and 36 % off-reef seabed. Depth was the most significant parameter in influencing the fish associated with the reefs, both at the species and family level. There was a complete separation of sites above and below 400–600 m depth by multi-dimensional scaling (MDS) analysis. Less distinct assemblages of fish species were associated with each habitat. Fish species richness and abundance was greater on the reef than surrounding seabed. In fact, 92 % of species, and 80 % of individual fish were associated with the reef. The present data indicates that these reefs have a very important functional role in deep-water ecosystems as fish habitat.