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Marine Ecology & Stock Assessment Program

Recruitment and Response to Damage of an Alaskan Gorgonian Coral

Benthic habitats in deep-water environments experience low levels of natural disturbance and recover slower than shallow-water habitats. Deep-water corals are particularly sensitive to disturbance from fishing gear, in part because they are long-lived, grow slowly, and are believed to have low rates of reproduction. Limited data describes recruitment and recovery of deep-water corals. This information is critical to understanding long-term effects of anthropogenic disturbances, such as commercial fishing, on the population dynamics of living benthic habitat.

In 2009, ABL scientists initiated a multiyear study to examine recruitment and recovery of the gorgonian coral Calcigorgia spiculifera, a species broadly distributed in the Gulf of Alaska and along the Aleutian Islands. Calcigorgia spiculifera, as well as many other gorgonian corals, is found in areas and depths that coincide with trawl and longline fisheries and is often damaged by these fisheries.

The body plan of C. spiculifera is similar to many other gorgonian corals commonly found throughout the North Pacific Ocean. Therefore, sensitivity to disturbance, rate of recovery, and recruitment of C. spiculifera are likely to be similar to other coral species, and thus results from this research may be applied broadly. Recovery rate and recruitment data are necessary for modeling habitat impacts and forecasting recovery and will ultimately guide fisheries managers in making decisions regarding benthic habitat conservation measures. In this study, recruitment is being investigated by observing settlement of coral planulae onto rings equipped with natural stone tiles, and coral recovery is being examined by observing the response of colonies to damage treatments.

The study site, Kelp Bay, Southeast Alaska, offers hundreds of C. spiculifera colonies concentrated at depths easily accessible to scuba divers. Field operations in Kelp Bay began in August 2009 when a team of four divers located and tagged 48 C. spiculifera colonies. Of that total, nine colonies were fitted with settlement rings equipped with removable tiles. The remaining 39 tagged colonies were ascribed to three damage treatment groups and a control group.

The damage treatments were designed to mimic actual damage that can occur from a passing trawl. These treatments were performed in situ and included deflection, soft tissue excision, and branch severance. Video of each colony was recorded before and after the treatments were performed to establish baseline coral characteristics and to identify immediate treatment effects.

Since the initial site visit, the dive team has returned to observe the tagged corals on three additional occasions (June 2010, September 2010, and August 2011). On each visit, a subsample of the stone tiles was collected and preserved in solution for subsequent inspection in the laboratory for adhesion of coral recruits. Damaged and control colonies were also videotaped so that comparisons can be made to pretreatment images. At least one subsequent site visit is planned for 2013 to allow additional tile collections and to capture long-term effects of disturbance.

By Patrick Malecha

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