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NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-296

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Assessment of a pilot study to collect coral bycatch data from the Alaska commercial fishing fleet

Abstract

The North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer Program is a potentially huge source of coral location data that could provide much needed information on high diversity hotspots and vulnerable marine ecosystems. We implemented a pilot project in 2012 and 2013 with experienced fisheries observers to improve data collection on coral bycatch by the Alaskan commercial fishing fleet.

Observers were provided with coral identification training in a classroom setting and taxonomic field guides and instructed to collect and identify each unique coral taxon encountered when possible. Specimens were frozen and shipped to the Alaska Fisheries Science Center where they were identified. Specimen identifications were used to gauge the potential capabilities and limitations of the observers and resolve problems with coral identification training and collection protocols. Over 240 observers received training during this project and they observed 20,945 gear hauls during the study period. Trained observers reported corals in less than 10% of sampled hauls, and more than 70% of reported corals were sea pens and sea whips (pennatulaceans).

Samples collected by observers indicate that identification accuracy was relatively low, with 74% of corals correctly identified to the requested taxonomic level. Misidentified specimens included a variety of benthic invertebrates such as hydroids, bryozoans, and sponges. The highly variable success rate among observers and relatively low overall accuracy rate indicates that the level of training was insufficient to provide consistently reliable results at the requested level of taxonomy. Long-term implementation of a coral identification protocol, like the one tested for this project, would require a significant investment of training resources.


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