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MESA: Human Impacts & Current Research on Deep-sea Coral Communities

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This large bubblegum coral was found detached from the seafloor in Adak Strait (Aleutian Islands) using the Delta submersible
This large bubblegum coral was found detached from the seafloor in Adak Strait (Aleutian Islands) using the Delta submersible.

Threats to Deep-sea Coral Communities
All known threats to deep-sea coral communities in Alaska are directly or indirectly the result of human activities. While activities such as coastal development, point-source pollution, and mineral mining have the potential to affect nearshore habitats, the effects of these activities are geographically limited and occur (or are likely to occur) in areas with minimal coral habitat. Fishing activities, on the other hand, occur over vast areas of the seafloor and often in areas containing sensitive deep coral habitat. Human activities that may indirectly affect deep coral habitat include the introduction of invasive species and changes to the physical and chemical properties of the oceans due to global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases.

Large red tree corals are often snagged as bycatch in some of Alaska’s fisheries
Large red tree corals are often snagged as bycatch in some of Alaska’s fisheries.
 
The taxonomy of many of Alaska’s corals, such as this bamboo coral, is poorly understood
The taxonomy of many of Alaska’s corals, such as this bamboo coral, is poorly understood.

Research on Deep-sea Coral Communities
Directed research on deep coral habitat has been undertaken only during the past decade in the Alaska region. Geographical areas known to support abundant and diverse deep corals, such as the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska seamounts, have been the first priority for exploration and specimen collection. While specimen collections and direct observations of deep corals in those areas will provide important foundation studies on coral ecology and systematics, many research priorities remain for the region.

Recent research activities focused on completing taxonomic, genetic, and reproductive ecology analyses on more than 400 coral specimens collected during the 2003-04 Aleutian Island studies and 140 coral specimens collected during the 2004 Gulf of Alaska seamount cruise. Additionally, detailed examination of video footage collected from submersibles and ROVs during these studies is underway and will provide fine-scale data on coral distribution, habitat characteristics, species associations, and disturbance from both human and natural causes.

Several important areas of deep coral research are a high priority for the region. Studies on the growth rates and reproductive ecology from representatives of the major taxonomic groups need to be undertaken to estimate recovery rates for coral habitat. These data will provide a better understanding of the ability of species to recover from disturbance and recolonize areas set aside as mitigative measures. Studies on the effects of specific fishing gear types on coral habitat need to be undertaken to better understand the effects of fisheries on coral habitat. The AFSC is also currently formulating a research plan to forecast the effects of ocean acidification on coral populations in the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea.


Contact:
Bob Stone
Auke Bay Laboratories
Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries

Auke Bay Marine Station
11305 Glacier Hwy
Juneau AK 99801
Bob.Stone@noaa.gov


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