The Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) – the zipper-like structure that runs the length of the Atlantic Ocean – is the most prominent geological feature of the Atlantic and provides key habitats for deep-sea biological communities. The Azores, perched at the triple junction where the European, American and European tectonic plates meet, offers a unique setting in which the influence of this underwater mountain range on deep-sea life can be studied.
Launched via a press conference on 17 May 2021 that featured video presentations from the Portuguese Minister for Sea Affairs, Ricardo Serrao Santos, and the new President of the Government of the Azores, Manuel Bolieiro, an exciting scientific expedition will shed new light on this unique but complex area of the Atlantic Ocean. On 19 May 2021, a team of researchers from Instituto do Mar (iMAR) in the Azores will set sail on the research vessel RV Pelagia for a 5-week mission to assess the distribution of deep-sea ecosystems along the MAR in the Azores region.
The varied seafloor topography and complex oceanography patterns surrounding the Azores has generated an extraordinary diversity of benthic organisms, making this area a hotspot for cold-water corals in the North Atlantic. Differences in the distribution and ecology of deep-water coral fauna on either side of the MAR have been noted in previous studies, raising the question of whether the MAR presents a physical boundary to biological dispersion between the east and west Atlantic. However, to date there has been comparatively little exploration on seamounts, ridges and other topographic features along the MAR – something which researchers on board Pelagia plan to change. This expedition will evaluate the role of the MAR in shaping the patterns of deep-sea life in the region and how it affects ecosystem connectivity.
Of particular interest are vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) in this area: groups of species, communities or habitats that may be vulnerable to impacts from fishing activities. This mission will map and characterise deep-sea coral and sponge communities discovered on hitherto unexplored seamounts and ridges, and seek to identify new areas that fit the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s definition of VME. The condition of benthic communities will be assessed by looking at evidence of fishing damage to fauna, presence of lost fishing gear and marine litter, and the team hope to gain new knowledge on the environmental drivers that determine the spatial distribution of deep-sea benthic biodiversity on and around the MAR.
The results of this mission will directly contribute to iAtlantic’s aim to understand the factors that control the distribution, stability and vulnerability of deep-sea ecosystems, and consequently inform sustainable management throughout the Atlantic.
The iMAR expedition “The Integrated assessment of the distribution of Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the Azores region” will take place aboard RV Pelagia of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research on 19 May – 23 June 2021. This expedition is funded by the SEA OCEANS program of Eurofleets+ and the European project iAtlantic, will be led by IMAR and Okeanos from the University of the Azores (Portugal) in collaboration with the Hydrographic Institute and University of Porto (Portugal), the University of Aarhus (Denmark), the National Oceanography Center (United Kingdom), GEOMAR (Germany), the University Museum of Bergen (Norway), the PP Shirshov Institute of Oceanology (Russia), and the University of Vale do Itajaí (Brazil).