Field Initiative Title: Alaska Coral and Sponge Initiative (AKCSI) 2012-2014

The U.S. EEZ in Alaska (3.3 million km2) contains more than 70% of the nations’ continental shelf supporting a diverse collection of abundant fishes and invertebrates many of which are harvested by commercial fishing.  Deep sea coral and sponge ecosystems are widespread throughout most of Alaska’s marine waters. In some places, such as the western Aleutian Islands, these may be the most diverse and abundant cold-water coral and sponge communities in the world.

A number of important research questions that need to be addressed for effective management of these ecosystems have been identified by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Essential Fish Habitat Research and a September 2010 Deep Coral and Sponge Priorities Workshop. The Alaska Deep Sea Coral and Sponge Initiative (AKCSI) will address the region’s objectives by undertaking eleven research projects and will be carried out in FY12-14.

The AKCSI fieldwork will locate and characterize deep coral and sponge ecosystems in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands through a systematic field survey supporting a probabilistic distribution model. The AKCSI will also incorporate projects that research the biology and ecology of deep coral and sponge ecosystems by identifying population level recovery rates and sustainable levels of impacts for Primnoa and studying species associations and production of commercial fish and invertebrates from coral and sponge communities. Projects that improve understanding of deep coral and sponge biodiversity and ecology will be included through collection of specimens to resolve taxonomic issues and genetic connectivity between North Pacific populations. Finally, the potential effects of climate change and ocean acidification will be addressed by projects that set up cost-effective long-term monitoring for environmental variables that impact deep coral and sponge communities.

At the conclusion of this initiative, we hope to have advanced knowledge of deep sponge and coral ecology in Alaska so that management of these resources can be based on a scientific understanding of how human and climate effects influence the communities. 

Fiscal Funding:
  • FY 2012 @ $900,000
  • FY 2013 @ $850,000
  • FY 2014 @ $850,000
  • FY 2015 @ $8,811
Total Funding:


  • North Pacific Council
  • Aleutian Islands
  • Bering Sea canyons
  • Gulf of Alaska
Many species of fishes, including rockfishes (Sebastes spp.) and prowfish (Zaprora silenus), are associated with red tree corals in the eastern Gulf of Alaska. This thicket, which included these approximately 5-foot tall specimens, is located at a depth of 722 feet near Cape Ommaney, Baranof Island, and was observed using a stereo drop camera aboard the research vessel Medeia.
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Field Initiative Title: Alaska Coral and Sponge Initiative (AKCSI) 2012-2014
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Fish and corals in the Gulf of Alaska
Many species of fishes, including rockfishes (Sebastes spp.) and prowfish (Zaprora silenus), are associated with red tree corals in the eastern Gulf of Alaska. This thicket, which included these approximately 5-foot tall specimens, is located at a depth of 722 feet near Cape Ommaney, Baranof Island, and was observed using a stereo drop camera aboard the research vessel Medeia.
Field Initiative Title: Alaska Coral and Sponge Initiative (AKCSI) 2012-2014

This project will use a deep-diving ROV (or submersible) to verify the location of red tree coral (Primnoa pacifica) thickets, black coral (Chrysopathes speciosa, C. formosa, Bathypathes patula, and Lillipathes wingi) groves, and bamboo coral (Isidella tentaculum) groves that are apparent from bycatch rates from the annual NMFS sablefish stock assessment survey. 

The objective of this work will be to:

  1. Develop and parameterize a model to predict coral and sponge presence using existing data on a 1 km by 1 km grid in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. 
  2. This initial model will then guide fieldwork to consist of a systematic underwater video survey of areas of predicted high abundance and diversity to ground-truth the model. 
  3. This survey will collect additional environmental variables useful for predicting coral and sponge abundance. 
  4. Finally, the new data will be incorporated into the existing model to provide a more accurate model-based description of spatial distribution of the presence, diversity and abundance of sponges and corals in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. 

The research will use a combination of field surveys, and ecosystem modeling techniques to evaluate recovery potential of high-density Primnoa thickets in the Gulf of Alaska. Field surveys will estimate coral biomass through visual means, using a stereo-camera mounted on an ROV or submersible. Addition of a stereo camera to the ROV or submersible will allow us to collect the data necessary to complete the project on the same dives and transects will be used as in Project #1 at little additional cost. Profiles of colony size-class structure at all sites will be examined in relation to their history of fishing status (e.g. some sites have been closed to bottom trawling since 1996, others have been closed to all fishing activities since 2007). Two additional days of vessel and ROV or submersible time will be allotted for deployment of settlement plates at four sites in Year 2. These will be recovered in Year 3 and hopefully in future years if funding permits. Recruitment to settlement plates, published growth rates, and size-class structure will be used to infer recovery rates of the Primnoa habitat. Recovery rates will then feed into computer simulations of coral recruitment and mortality using Ecopath with Ecosim modeling software. The computer simulations will seek to identify the maximum level of fishing intensity to sustain size class structure in a Primnoa thicket. This project would piggy-back with Project 1 in 2013 and 2014.

A comparative approach will be utilized to examine the productivity of FMP species found within two biotic (coral and sponge) complex habitats and one non-biotic (boulder, rocky) complex habitat located within the central and/or western Gulf of Alaska.  

The goal of this project is to examine the behavior of longline gear in situ in coral and sponge habitat. These observations will assist researchers in identifying longline disturbance in situ, provide additional estimates of damage rates, and provide insights regarding possible gear modifications to minimize interactions. 

This study will build on an ongoing study using microsatellite DNA markers to generate data on the spatial scale and pattern of genetic connectivity across a large portion of the range of P. pacifica in the North Pacific Ocean.

This project deploys O2 and pH sensors as an add-on component to the other planned Alaska field projects and on bottom trawl surveys of the Gulf of Alaska (FY13) and Aleutian Islands (FY12 and FY14). This will allow a region-wide collection of data during the summer months hopefully collecting up to 800 deployments of pH and O2 data per year from Dixon Entrance in SE Alaska to Stalemate Bank in the far-western Aleutian Islands. These data will be incorporated into the Coral and Sponge Distribution Model Validation Fieldwork conducted in FY12-14 and will be compared to information on coral and sponge health collected in the Gulf of Alaska HAPC Study.

This project will establish a long-term program of oceanographic observations in shallow water in several glacial fjords of Southeast Alaska.

A team of scientists will identify the taxonomy of coral and sponge specimens collected during the 3-year fieldwork initiative.

This project seeks to construct a potential habitat map for deep-sea coral and sponge, based primarily on substrate, covering the depth range 50 – 1500 m or deeper.

In the eastern Bering Sea several hundred miles from shore, the seafloor descends into the abyss. Most of the continental slope makes a gradual descent, but in several places, canyons interrupt the regular topography. The seafloor of the slope is primarily composed of sand, mud, gravel or other coarse materials. In recent years the advancement in technology has allowed us to peer deeper into the depths and study bottom dwelling creatures like corals. Because these species are vulnerable to fishing impacts, resource managers in Alaska were eager for scientists to use this technology to identify areas where corals were concentrated, particularly in relation to two eastern Bering Sea canyons -- Pribilof and Zhemchug. In 2014 a team of NOAA Fisheries scientists to conduct a research survey in the eastern Bering Sea. The team collected 225,000 (3-D) video images of the seafloor, the continental slope, and several underwater canyons at depths of around 300 feet to just over 2,600 feet. The study area spanned depths where a lot of the fishing activity takes place.

The final report for this survey is published as a NOAA Tech Memo: Results of the 2014 Underwater Camera Survey of the Eastern Bering Slope and Outer Shelf.