Bounty of coral discovered in Bering Sea

Posted: Monday, August 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A research team has discovered more than 100 species of coral in three Bering Sea locations.

The discovery was made during a 10-day expedition in July in deep water off Adak Island.

A five-member team from Juneau's Auke Bay Laboratory and contractor Delta Oceanographics was on a mission to explore a few Bering Sea locales where coral had been taken as bycatch. With the help of a mini-sub, researchers found previously unknown concentrations of corals growing on the Aleutian sea floor.

''They're not really true coral reefs like you'd find in tropical waters, but they're similar in their structural complexity,'' said Bob Stone, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. ''A 'garden' is a good way to put it.''

The team made 36 dives at 20 locations. The dives ranged from 100 feet to nearly 12-hundred feet.

Stone said some of the species of corals and sponges that were found may be new to human eyes.

Several sites, including one of the gardens, contained corals and sponges that had been broken off, possibly by commercial fishing gear, Stone said.

''What caused the damage, we can't say with certainty,'' Stone told the Anchorage Daily News. ''In some cases, we did see paths that were mowed 5, 6, 7 feet wide, where 90 percent was dead or ripped up. In other places, there were only one or two sponges that were broken. And there were certainly places where there was no damage at all.''

The report of damaged coral, especially in one of the reeflike bioherms, alarmed several Alaska environmental groups. Bottom trawling should be prohibited in areas with known coral, and other protective measures should be taken immediately, said Jim Ayers, the North Pacific director for Oceana.

''We need to take a different approach in the Aleutians,'' Ayers added. ''Let's set aside all the legal arguments right now and agree that we're smart enough to realize that there's something very special about the area.''

Over the past five years, NMFS teams have been diving from Southeast Alaska to the Aleutians to document the relationship between fishing and coral, said Phil Rigby, groundfish program manager at the lab.

''We knew there were corals out there, but we had no idea that they were there in such great abundance or densities,'' he said.

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