Cold-water corals are highly sensitive to changes in water temperature, as it is an important determinant of their distribution. In recent years, several heatwave events have occurred in multiple marine ecosystems, including the northeast Pacific Ocean. However, the effects of elevated ocean temperatures on cold-water corals are largely unknown. Determining the upper thermal limits of cold-water octocorals is an important first step in identifying if warm-water events pose a potential threat. Temperature data were obtained from loggers placed in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) at 20, 50, 100, and 200 m prior to the 2015–2016 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event and used to characterize warm-water anomalies. Live colonies of the common gorgonian octocoral, Adelogorgia phyllosclera, were collected from the CINMS using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and transported to laboratory aquaria where they were maintained. A laboratory study was conducted to investigate the upper thermal limit of A. phyllosclera during a series of temperature assays using coenenchyme health scores, polyp activity, and estimated survival. Results of in-situ temperature analyses indicated that warm-water anomalies occurred frequently at 50 and 100 m, with most of these anomalies occurring during strong ENSO months. Based on the laboratory temperature assays, the upper thermal limit of A. phyllosclera was estimated to be 20 °C, with a time to effect of 96 hours. During the 2015–2016 ENSO event, this upper thermal limit was exceeded (21.1 °C) by warm-water anomalies at 20 m that lasted up to 14.1 hours, and approached (18.3 °C) by warm-water anomalies at 50 m that lasted up to 52.7 hours. Projections for future warm-water events suggest that the upper thermal limit of A. phyllosclera and other cold-water corals will likely be reached more frequently in the coming years. Thus, understanding the responses of cold-water corals to thermal stress will help predict the resilience of these species to future ocean warming.
Octocorallia (Soft Corals)
USA - Continental Pacific Ocean
Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV)