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Medically Valuable Organisms

Platforms could potentially serve as excellent facilities to culture some rare, commercially valuable, deep-water invertebrates, such as deep-water sponges currently being used for producing powerful anti-cancer compounds (discodermalide; Gunasekera et al., 2002; Paul et al., 2002; Lin et al., 2004).  Large plates could be seeded with coral larvae in the laboratory, and the spat could be reared to a point where they reach a size-refuge (Sammarco, 1982), carrying a higher probability of survivorship to the adult stage (Heyward et al., 2002).  They could then be transported offshore and attached on the platform (Sammarco et al., work in progress) at the appropriate depth for optimum growth for a periods of up to 23 yrs.

Secondly, a large number of reef invertebrates such as sponges, bryozoans, gorgonians (sea fans), soft corals, etc. are known to live on offshore platforms (Gallaway & Lewbel 1981, Driessen 1989, Bright et al. 1991, Adams 1996, Boland 2002).  The larvae of these organisms are carried by currents from their natal reefs around the Gulf of Mexico until they find suitable substrate upon which to settle (Lugo-Fernandez, 1998; Sanvicente-Anorva et al., 2000;  Lugo-Fernandez et al., 2001;Pederson and Peterson, 2002).  Many of these organisms are the same as those raised and sold commercially world-wide in the ornamental aquarium trade (Ogawa and Brown, 2001).  Coral and sponge culture could simultaneously include both raising target organisms of specific value to commerce or research, and harvesting wild organisms occurring naturally on the platform legs.

Current State of Coral Reefs on a Global Scale

Coral reefs, and particularly coral populations themselves around the world are suffering high levels of mortality due to over-fishing, under-grazing, nutrient enrichment, deforestation and resultant runoff, pollution, increased sea surface temperatures, which induce mass coral bleaching, chemical pollution, physical disturbance, disease both bacterial and fungal  Shinn, 2003; Sammarco, 1996; Wilkinson, 1999; Gardner et al., 2003; Whittingham et al., 2003; McClanahan et al., in press). The federal protection of corals from harvest (see Sammarco, 2003) combined with the international agreements not to trade them (Harriot, 2003) also restricts their supply to scientists to conduct research on many of the causes of these ill effects and investigate possible mitigation techniques. The mariculture of corals would help to meet the demand for scientific research in the U.S. and elsewhere. They would also help to supply a need for corals to be introduced on damaged reefs during reef restoration activities on U.S. coral reefs, particularly in the Florida Keys (Sammarco, 1996; Becker and Mueller, 1999; Sammarco et al., 1999; Zobrist, 1999). 

Role of Offshore Platforms

The purpose of culturing marine invertebrates such as these on platforms would be three-fold. Firstly, organisms such as these are in great demand within the ornamelive rock 2.jpg (27214 bytes)ntal aquarium trade. Many, such as corals and soft corals, are protected from harvest or take by federal legislation.  In addition, they are protected from international trade by treaty. This is due to the excessive harvesting that has occurred in past years, decimating populations in certain tropical countries possessing coral reefs (Bruckner, 2001; Daw et al., 2001; Simpson, 2001; Tissot and Hallacher, 2003). Mariculture of these organisms would provide a domestic supply for them, obviating the need for importation of Indo-Pacific soft corals and the like.  This would serve an additional function in that there is growing concern about the accidental or purposeful release of these Indo-Pacific ornamental species into coastal waters (Gulko, 2001; Semmens et al., 2004), with the possible impact of introducing yet more harmful species introductions (Minchin, 1999; Englund and Baumgartner, 2000; Shiganova, 2002).  The mariculture of such local organisms would also initiate a new industry for the northern Gulf of Mexico , creating a new source of employment and revenue in the region and the nation. The demand for the organisms already exists; at this point, however, most of the supply is coming from overseas and represents lost revenue to the US (Sammarco 2003).

conyac.jpg (123358 bytes)Potential Culture Species

In recent studies, it has been determined that scleractinian corals are expanding their geographic range within the northern Gulf of Mexico (Sammarco et al., 2003). In addition, from an ongoing study, it is also known that ahermatypic corals may be found extensively on platforms within 30 km  of the shoreline in the far-western Gulf and within 120 km of the coast in the central-western Gulf (Sammarco et al., submitted). Platforms at the edge of the continental shelf in the northern Gulf of Mexico plus those just off the edge of the shelf are now known to be able to support coral populations. We know that the biogeographic range of corals in the Gulf of Mexico for both hermatypic (reef-building) and ahermatypic (non-reef-building) corals) extends as far west as the Matagorda Island and Brazos, South Addition regions, as far north as the inner West Cameron region, and as far south as 210 kms offshore near the Flower Garden Banks region (Sammarco 2003).  The central and eastern regions of the northern Gulf of Mexico are scheduled to be surveyed soon to determine the limits of this group in this region.

Vision for Future

The ocean is Earth's last great untapped reserve. Many reef organisms possess natural chemical compounds which are unique to a given species (e.g., Faulkner, 2000). These are called complementary or secondary compounds (Sammarco and Coll, 1997). It is from these types of compounds that many valuable pharmaceuticals are derived (Shu, 1998; Duckworth, 2001; Dey et al., 2002; Haefner, 2003). Marine coral, sponges, mollusks, algae, and bacteria may possess bioactive compounds that can make a significant contribution to the health and nutritional industries (Pomponi 1999).  Simple and abundant marine algae, let alone a host of other organisms which occur on the platforms, represent potential sources of pharmaceuticals agents, agricultural chemicals, food, industrial chemical feedstocks, and other useful products.


Some of the organisms which produce bioactive compounds, such as certain sponges, occur in deep water, are unreachable by SCUBA and occur only rarely in their natural environment (Duckworth, 2001).  They require highly expensive equipment to gather such as manned submersibles associated with large tender ships. Some of the valuable compounds isolated from these species, which have been shown to be highly effective in the treatment of certain types of cancer, occur in very low concentrations within their tissues (S. Pomponi, pers. comm.).  In addition, they are so large and complex that it would be prohibitively expensive to synthesize and manufacture them, or even make functional derivatives in the laboratory (closely related compounds which function in the same way as the original, natural compound, but are patentable). Because of this, even the testing of these compounds for bioactivity and potential biomedical  use requires quantities of these organisms which are extremely difficult and expensive to obtain (Duckworth, 2001).  Nonetheless, they are required in order to extract appropriate amounts and this is causing a marked decline in some source populations.

Also see.......Medical applications of Live rock


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