ANCHORAGE — A federal agency has concluded that a petition seeking to list Alaska’s cold-water corals as endangered or threatened does not contain enough information to make the case.
The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Tuesday it had rejected the petition submitted in August by the Center for Biological Diversity, which sought a formal endangered species review for 44 cold-water corals because of threats from fishing trawlers, ocean warming, ocean acidification, shipping and oil spills.
The agency acknowledged much is unknown about the biology, population characteristics and distribution of Alaska corals but said the petition presented little species-specific information.
“The study of deep-sea corals in Alaska is a new science,” said NMFS Alaska spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.
Much more is known about warm water corals, she said, and they’re not the same. Alaska corals, for example, have an external tissue that protects them from acidic water and may not be as susceptible to the effects of acidic water as other organisms, she said.
“They’re very different than the shallow, tropical corals,” she said.
Biologist Kiersten Lippmann of the Center for Biological Diversity called the decision disappointing and illegal. A lack of understanding should not preclude the next step in the process — a 12-month review of corals.
“We’re going to go over what our next move will be,” she said.
Alaska has 134 unique corals at depths of 9 feet to 20,761 feet, according to NMFS. None form reefs. Lippman said that with sponges, Alaska corals form “reef-like,” impermanent structures that support a diversity of fish and species.
The petition sought protection for corals that cling to rock or form extensive groves in soft sediment.
NMFS said 22 of the 44 Alaska corals are new to science in the last decade and much is unknown about the others. Much of the coral sampling has come incidentally from fishing nets and the agency has not performed systematic surveys to assess coral distribution and population, the agency said.
The agency lacked information to determine if oil spilled on the surface would reach coral in deep water.
The petition understated how cold water corals benefit from conservation measures provided since 2005 to protect Steller sea lions, seamounts or sponge and coral habitat, the agency said. Federal managers have closed more than 600,000 square nautical miles to fishing. Many protect cold water coral habitat.
Lippman said those figures are misleading. Significant portions of protected areas are mudflats, she said.
“They don’t support corals and they don’t support fisheries,” she said.
Some areas closed to bottom trawling remain open to mid-water trawling and those nets spend significant time hitting the bottom or canyon walls breaking off coral, she said.