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For Immediate Release, August 20, 2012

Contact: Kiersten Lippmann, (907) 274-1110

Protection Sought for 43 Imperiled Alaska Coral Species

Deep-sea Trawling, Climate Change Threaten Cold-water ‘Coral Gardens’

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal petition today to protect 43 imperiled coral species under the Endangered Species Act. These stunning corals, which all occur in Alaskan waters, face a growing threat of extinction due to large-scale climate change effects and fisheries activities, especially deep-sea trawling that can destroy many square miles of these corals in a single day.

Fishing, ocean acidification, ocean warming, changes in marine productivity, and other effects of human-caused climate change threaten to wipe out these sensitive corals within the next 50 years.

Bicknell's thrush
Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Photos are available for media use.

“Most people have no idea that cold-water corals even exist in Alaska, but they do and they need our help to survive,” said Kiersten Lippmann, a biologist with the Center. “Researchers in the Aleutians were so excited to see the beauty and abundance of cold-water corals in some areas that they called them ‘coral gardens.’ But now trawling and climate change could push these amazing species off the planet.”

Coral communities in Alaska are some of the most diverse ever discovered; they form complex, three-dimensional habitats, similar in structure and function to tropical coral reefs. These coral communities function as habitat for fishes, crabs and other marine species, including commercially important rockfish, Pacific Ocean perch and king crab.

“Alaskan corals are so important to the places they live that some scientists consider them potential ‘keystone species’ that play a crucial role in the diversity and abundance of sea life around them,” said Lippmann. “When a keystone species is removed, the entire ecosystem fails to function — the same way an arch collapses without its keystone.”

Alaska corals occur in greatest abundance and variety a few miles off the Aleutian Islands, in underwater canyons in the Bering Sea, and on the slopes of submerged volcanoes in the Gulf of Alaska. Because of the depths at which they grow, few people ever see living Alaska corals. Photos and video from submersibles show astounding color and variety.

Among the recently identified species in today’s petition:

  • Alaskagorgia aleutiana, a sturdy, copper-colored, tree-shaped coral up to 3 feet in height that is similar in appearance to large branching corals found in tropical areas. It’s found near the Aleutian Islands at depths from 410 to 1,680 feet.
  • Stylaster repandus is a fan-shaped coral that grows up to 1 foot tall with a light pink central stem and orange branches. This delicate coral has only been found off Amukta Island in the Aleutians at depths from 1,230 to 1,558 feet.

Human impacts on cold-water corals are devastating, in particular the destructive fisheries practices that can wipe out many square miles of coral habitat in a single day. Each year, at least 90 tons of corals are hauled to the surface as bycatch by fishers in Alaska. Even more corals are damaged underwater by fishing activities, with long trenches of corals destroyed by the heavy doors used for trawling. Corals are also snagged by longlines and pot-fishing gear as they’re dragged along the seafloor.

But the greatest threat to Alaskan corals is human-caused climate change. Ocean acidification and ocean warming are progressing rapidly in the North Pacific and Arctic oceans — changes that threaten the survival of many calcifying marine organisms, including corals, and the plankton that make up their major food source. If emissions continue at their current rate, water suitable for cold-water coral growth in Alaska is expected to vanish by mid-century.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would prompt coral conservation, as destructive fishing activities continue to occur in areas of known coral abundance. Protection would also prompt greater research into these corals, since the vast majority of coral locations in Alaska remain unexplored. Also, the Endangered Species Act would require federal agencies to ensure that their actions do not harm the coral species, which could result in agencies requiring projects with significant greenhouse gas emissions to consider and minimize such impacts on vulnerable coral species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must respond to the Center’s petition to list 43 species of coral in 90 days and determine whether listing is warranted for each of the coral species within one year.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 375,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.


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