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Groundfish Assessment Program

The Alaska Coral and Sponge Initiative (AKCSI): A NOAA Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program Regional Fieldwork Initiative in Alaska

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Rockfish species with Primnoa pacifica within a rocky coral habitat in Southeast Alaska. Photo by Bob Stone.


Staff from the AFSC’s Groundfish Assessment Program and their collaborators will begin a 3-year study starting in summer 2012 of deep sea corals and sponge ecosystems in Alaskan marine waters.  Alaska’s regions, such as the western Aleutian Islands, may contain the most diverse and abundant deep-sea coral and sponge communities in the world. These communities are associated with important groundfish and invertebrate species. Because of their biology, corals and sponges are potentially impacted by climate change and ocean acidification; they also are vulnerable to the effects of commercial fishing activities. The challenges facing management of deep-sea coral and sponge in Alaska begin with the lack of knowledge of where these organisms occur, their abundance and diversity. Because of the size and scope of Alaska’s continental shelf and slope, the vast majority of the area has not been surveyed for deep-sea coral and sponge abundance; therefore, it is difficult to predict how and where human activities and climate impacts may affect deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems.

NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program (DSCRTP) will fund research in Alaska to examine the location, distribution, ecosystem role, and status of deep-sea coral and sponge habitats based upon regional research priorities identified by the DSCRTP, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Essential Fish Habitat-Environmental Impact Statement (EFH-EIS) process.

Research priorities include:

  • Determine the distribution, abundance, and diversity of sponge and deep-sea coral in Alaska (and their distribution relative to fishing activity);
  • Compile and interpret habitat and substrate maps for the Alaska region;
  • Determine deep-sea coral and sponge associations with species regulated by fishery management plans (especially juveniles) and the  contribution of deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems to fisheries production;
  • Determine impacts of fishing by gear type and test gear modifications to reduce  impacts;
  • Determine recovery rates of deep-sea coral and sponge communities in Alaska from disturbance or mortality; and
  • Establish a long-term monitoring program to determine the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on deep-coral and sponge ecosystems.

To date,  field research activities scheduled for 2012-14 for the Alaska region involve the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the NMFS Alaska Regional Office, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Office of Exploration and Research,  and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Projects include

  • Identifying and mapping areas of high abundance of Primnoa corals in the Gulf of Alaska using existing data, conducting new multibeam mapping and ROV transects;
  • Developing a model to predict the distribution and areas of high abundance and diversity of deep-sea corals and sponges in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands;
  • Verifying the model through field sampling using underwater cameras;
  • Estimating the recovery rates and sustainable impact rate for Primnoa corals in the Gulf of Alaska through a landscape ecology approach;
  • Determining how the presence and absence of corals and sponges affects the productivity of fish;
  • Incorporating an underwater camera system to examine the effects of commercial long-line fishing on benthic habitats in the Gulf of Alaska;
  • Using genetic techniques to explore the connectivity of Primnoa populations among the Gulf of Alaska, British Columbia,  and the west coast of the United States; and
  • Deploying oxygen and pH sensors on RACE summer bottom trawl surveys.

A number of smaller scale projects will be funded as well.

At the conclusion of this 3-year field effort we will advance the knowledge of the Alaskan deep-sea corals and sponges and improve the management of these resources using the most up-to date scientific information and understanding of human and climate impacts. We will produce distribution maps for important areas with deep-sea corals and sponges, describe the growth of select deep-sea coral species, and understand how deep-sea coral and sponge communities influence the productivity of important fish and invertebrate species.  Stay tuned for project updates!

By Chris Rooper and Wayne Palsson



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