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Aleutian Coral Discovery Highlights Need for Habitat Protection

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Evidence Shows Fishing Practices Impacting Reefs in Aleutian Archipelago


August 9, 2002
Alaska
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( [email protected] | 907-586-4050)




The discovery of coral reefs off the Aleutian Islands has scientists excited and environmentalists pleading for protection. The coral and sponge communities, comparable in size and structure to reefs in the Tropics, highlight the need for federal and state action to protect this important fisheries habitat, said Jim Ayers, North Pacific Regional Director for Oceana. Ayers stated “Researchers Bob Stone and Dr. Jon Heifetz of Juneau's NMFS Auke Bay Lab should be commended for their explorations and discoveries in this valuable habitat in the world's most productive marine ecosystem.”

The Aleutian Archipelago teems with millions of seabirds, marine mammals, and contributes to the most productive fisheries in North America. The nutrient upwelling from the Aleutian Trench, strong currents through the passes, and the unique seafloor habitat together produce an unparalleled source of wildlife and food for the world.

Corals and sponges are animals that live for hundreds of years and provide critical habitat for northern rockfish, Pacific ocean perch, golden king crab, Pacific cod, and many other marine species in the Aleutians. Corals are large colonies of tiny animals up to 10 feet tall (500-1000 years to grow) that are crucial to the functioning of the Aleutian marine ecosystem. Sponges, the first multicellular animals on Earth, are ancestors of all animals.

“We've known about deep sea corals in Alaska waters for years, but the fact that there are actual coral reefs in the Aleutian Island waters is an amazing new discovery,” said Kris Balliet of The Ocean Conservancy.

The reefs are composed of at least one hundred species of corals and sponges that live off the nutrient-rich currents between the Aleutian Trench and the Bering Sea. Scientists think the reefs may occur throughout the Aleutian chain and possibly in other parts of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. They are found from 300 feet to over 5000 feet in depth. “These reefs create the complex seafloor structures that juvenile fish need for protection.”

Unfortunately, the scientists also saw clear evidence of coral reef destruction by fishing gear, including trawl door marks, broken coral skeletons, sponges sheared off, and large tracts where all corals had been stripped.

“Destructive fishing practices are known to destroy coral and sponge communities and this destruction continues to be permitted in waters in the Aleutians,” Ayers said. “We cannot continue to deny the scientific fact that the failure of state and federal agencies to take conservation action to protect these ocean habitats is leading to disastrous impacts on fish and non-commercial marine species.” NMFS observer data that shows that over one million pounds of coral and sponge are incidentally caught as bycatch annually from state and federal waters off Alaska, 97 percent caused by bottom trawling. A single trawl tow can remove tons of deep-sea coral. Over half of all Alaska coral and sponge bycatch comes from the Aleutians.

The National Academy of Sciences 2002 report Effects of Trawling and Dredging on Seafloor Habitat recommends that bottom trawl gear be banned from areas with fragile marine habitat. The National Academy of Sciences report states that:

    * “Closures are particularly useful for protecting biogenic habitats (e.g., corals, bryozoans, hydroids, sponges, seagrass beds) that are disturbed by even low levels of fishing effort;” and
    * “The lack of area-specific studies on the effect of trawling and dredging gear is insufficient justification to postpone management of fishing effects on seafloor habitat.”

The loss of important coral habitat could have disastrous long-term impacts on commercial fishing and other resources. These “rainforests of the deep sea” are regions of incredible biodiversity, sources of new medicines for human disease, and information about our evolutionary history, and are worthy of protection for these reasons alone. Marine biologists are finding new species of coral just about every time they explore the deep sea in the Aleutians, where their abundance and diversity is highest.

“Research is the key to our future. We must know what is down there and where the undiscovered reefs and other resources are so we can protect these biological treasures for future generations,” said Ayers. “We don't need to stop all fishing, but we must become more careful in our fishing methods to protect the Life on the seafloor.”

In letters sent today, Oceana is calling on the Governor and NMFS Administrator Bill Hogarth to designate the Aleutian Archipelago as a Special Management Area.

Oceana is asking that a comprehensive Aleutian Archipelago Special Management Plan be developed that includes:

    * Maintaining all current Conservation closures in the Aleutian region.
    * Prohibiting bottom trawling in State waters and known areas of concentration of coral and sponge.
    * Requirement that all vessels fishing in the Aleutian Archipelago have onboard observers and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS)
    * Comprehensive Aleutian Archipelago ocean habitat research program. (Including strategic sea floor habitat mapping program.)
    * Development of an Aleutian Archipelago Fisheries Ecosystem Plan
    * Funding Sources for Research (NOAA Coral Reef Initiative; Stellar Sea Lion funds; North Pacific Research Board)

Oceana is an international non-profit organization protecting the world's oceans. For more information, visit www.oceansatrisk.com