Deepwater Corals

Full Title: Population Connectivity of Deepwater Corals in the Northern Gulf of Mexico

This project will determine where the corals in different mesophotic (50-150 m) and deepwater  (150-2400 m) populations in the Gulf of Mexico originated from, which is critical information for conserving and restoring these important habitats that were damaged by the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) Oil Spill.

The Team: Santiago Herrera (Lead Investigator, Lehigh University,, Andrea Quattrini (Harvey Mudd College), Annalisa Bracco (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Peter Etnoyer (NOAA).

Technical Monitor: Janessy Frometa ( and Cheryl Morrison (

Federal Program Officer/Point of Contact: Frank Parker (

This project began in June 2017 and will end in May 2019.

Award Amount: $1,338,193

Why we care: Deepwater corals provide habitat for diverse and abundant invertebrate and fish communities, including refuge and prey for commercially valuable fisheries. These extremely slow-growing communities are becoming increasingly vulnerable to anthropogenic threats from increased ocean temperatures, fishing activities, and oil and gas exploration. Understanding how deepwater corals are genetically connected is critical to their conservation and restoration.

What we are doing: This project will focus on four species of mesophotic and deepwater corals that were directly impacted by the DWH Oil Spill. The project aims to help guide management decisions by addressing crucial gaps in the understanding of the processes that influence population connectivity patterns of habitat-forming deepwater and mesophotic corals. The team will achieve this by combining field sampling, population genomic analyses, and physical oceanographic modeling to 1) define spatial scales of coral populations, 2) infer directionality and relative rate of genetic exchange among the coral populations, and 3) integrate predictive models of larval dispersal with genetic data to estimate dispersal distances and connectivity patterns.

Expected Outcome:

This collaborative effort will enhance the understanding of Gulf of Mexico coral ecosystems with concrete restoration and conservation initiatives to ensure recovery of degraded deepwater coral communities. The information gained from this project will aid in decision-making regarding establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

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