New coral photographic guide could help fishermen, scientists

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

A CD-ROM version of this guide is also available for $31.50 from the National Technical Information Service, U.S. Department of Commerce, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, VA 22161, or from its Web site at www.ntis.gov.

The first-ever field guide to Alaska's unique corals could help douse flareups between fishermen and scientific observers when the exotic and fragile organisms are hauled aboard Alaska fishing boats.

The 67-page photographic guide, "A Field Guide to Alaskan Corals," is the five-year effort of Juneau oceanographer Bruce Wing and Kodiak biometrician David Barnard.

It includes detailed information about more than 100 coral species. A new edition is likely in five to 10 years because of the routine discovery of new species.

"We are just trying to provide something that allows the observer, fisherman or scuba diver to identify what he has," said Wing, who works at the National Marine Fisheries Service's Auke Bay Lab.

Fishermen and environmentalists - who have clashed about how to manage fisheries inhabiting sensitive coral beds - applauded the new guide last week.

More on the guide

The guide may be viewed or printed from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center Web site at

www.afsc.noaa.gov/Publications/AFSC-TM/NOAA-TM-AFSC-146.pdf.

"I think the fishermen need to know what the (corals) are," said Al Burch, executive director of the Alaska Draggers Association. "If they can see from the book that the observer knows what he is talking about ... it's something they will accept."

"I think it's wonderful. It shows how people are beginning to realize the importance of these animals' value as habitat in the North Pacific ecosystem," said Jon Warrenchuk, a Juneau-based marine scientist for Oceana, the international environmental group.

It also could resolve some routine confusion. Corals often are difficult to identify because they change shapes in different environments.

Wing began studying Alaska corals long before scientists' discovery of their importance as groundfish habitat set off a three-sided tug-of-war between commercial fishermen, regulators and environmentalists.

His work began in the 1960s, when fishermen and scuba divers brought him coral fragments and asked him to identify them.

"I made the mistake of saying, 'Yeah, I'll help you identify it,' " Wing said, laughing.

Wing also was sought in the 1970s for information about Alaska's red tree corals, which were showing up in the global coral jewelry trade.

While Wing's taxonomical work - requiring a microscope and constant discussions with coral experts - quietly plodded onward, the controversy over Alaska's coral beds lay dormant.

"But it was simmering for a long time," Wing said.

In the late 1980s, an Southeast Alaska expedition of the Nekton Delta - one of the government's famed "little yellow submarines," showed trawling harmed red tree corals, which provided critical habitat for rockfish, Wing said.

But Wing and Bernard's Alaska coral studies didn't really take off until the mid-1990s, when the state Department of Fish and Game began its observer program on Aleutian crab fishing boats.

"They started bringing back corals of all sorts from the crab fisheries. I was asked to help identify them. It just kept growing," Wing said.

Barnard, who works for Fish and Game, started assembling photos and Wing gathered the taxonomical information about five years ago.

"It's a relief to see the first edition out," Wing said. "But it's also, 'Oh dear, I've got to start all over again.' "

That's because at least three more undescribed species have emerged and a whole new family of corals needs identification.

"There's going to be enough to keep a person interested and busy for quite a while," Wing said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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