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  • Identification of deep-sea corals collected during the 2009 - 2014 West Coast Groundfish Bottom Trawl Survey


Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) Conservation Biology CB - Genetics and Evolution


Deep Sea Coral Genetics
Identification of deep-sea corals collected during the 2009 - 2014 West Coast Groundfish Bottom Trawl Survey
Data for this project resides in the West Coast Groundfish Bottom Trawl Survey Database. Deep-sea corals are often components of trawling bycatch, though their brittle skeleton and slow growth make them particularly vulnerable to such impacts. An understanding of the population structure of deep-sea corals will be critical to ascertaining the effects of habitat loss and genetic connections between distant populations, both of which are important to the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Act directive and the NMFS federal mandate. An initial species inventory of deep-sea corals off the United States coastline is a necessary first step toward a comprehensive understanding of the ecology and distribution of this diverse species assemblage. Quantifying species distributions from bycatch data and fisheries independent surveys requires accurate species-level identifications of the corals found in tows; however, the taxonomic identification of corals to the species level is often problematic. In some cases morphologically similar specimens may only be distinguished from one another using microscopic skeletal structures. In other cases, the taxonomic delineations of some families are so confused that accurate species-level designations are currently impossible. The use of genetic information combined with morphology is likely the best approach to decipher evolutionary patterns in these species.

Research Themes

Habitats to support sustainable fisheries and recovered populations
Healthy oceans, coastal waters, and riverine habitats provide the foundation for aquatic resources used by a diversity of species and society. Protecting marine, estuarine and freshwater ecosystems that support these species relies on science to link habitat condition/processes and the biological effects of restoration actions. The NWFSC provides the habitat science behind many management actions taken by NOAA Fisheries and other natural resource agencies to protect and recover aquatic ecosystems and living marine resources. The NWFSC also maintains a longstanding focus on toxic chemical contaminants, as a foundation for regional and national research on pollution threats to fisheries and protected resources.

Research Foci

Characterize relationships between habitat and ecosystem processes, climate variation, and the viability of organisms
Developing effective conservation and restoration strategies for species or populations requires a clear understanding of how ecosystem processes and climate change will influence the viability of organisms in the future. Key research needs include (1) evaluating the vulnerability of organisms and ecosystems to climate change and human impacts (e.g., fishing, pollution, land use), and (2) devising adaptation strategies that will help achieve conservation goals despite climate change and increasing human pressures. Understanding how climate change or trends in human impacts might influence organisms is based on an understanding of linkages between ecosystem processes, habitat conditions, and abundance, survival or demographics of organisms. This necessitates modeling influences of ecosystem processes on habitats and species, or developing models to examine influences of human pressures on population or ecosystem dynamics. With this foundation, vulnerability assessments can focus on understanding how interactions between climate change and human impacts influence vulnerability of species or populations. Adaptation strategies require knowledge of current conservation needs, predictions of how those needs might change as a result of climate change or future human impacts, and assessments of the robustness of alternative conservation strategies or techniques to climate trends.
Develop effective and efficient habitat restoration and conservation techniques
Maintaining and re-establishing viability and sustainability of living marine resources requires conservation and rehabilitation or restoration of habitats upon which species depend. Common habitat restoration approaches and tech-niques often presume that habitats are static features of the environment, and that creation of stable habitats is a desirable restoration strategy. However, riverine, nearshore, and marine habitats are created and sustained by dynamic landscape, climatic, and oceanographic processes and biota are adapted to changing habitats that are within the range of natural variability. Hence, current restoration strategies often have limited success, in part because they fail to recognize larger scale processes that drive habitat change, and in part because they fail to recognize intrinsic habitat potential of individual restoration sites. The main goals of this research focus are to: improve understanding of how large-scale processes create diverse and dynamic habitats that support marine and anadromous species, better understand how human activities alter habitat-forming processes and habitats, develop new restoration techniques that are compatible with sustainable habitat-forming processes, and understand the variety of actions needed to adequately conserve intact critical habitats. In addition, NWFSC’s research will improve understanding of how new and existing habitat restoration and protection techniques affect fish and habitat at multiple scales (i.e., reach, watershed, Evolutionarily Significant Unit).


fishery bycatch
deep sea coral
focus of study


None associated


Family Gorgoniidae
Family Stylasteridae
lace corals
Order Alcyonacea
gorgonians, gorgonians, sea fans, and sea feathers, horny corals, soft corals
Order Antipatharia
black corals, thorny corals
Order Pennatulacea
sea pens
Order Scleractinia
hard corals, stony corals


Aimee Keller
Ewann Berntson
Principal Investigator
Meredith Everett