Coral habitat in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska: depth distribution, fine-scale species associations, and fisheries interactions
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The first in situ exploration of Aleutian Island coral habitat was completed in 2002 to determine the distribution of corals, to examine fine-scale associations between targeted fish species and corals, and to investigate the interaction between the areas’ diverse fisheries and coral habitat. Corals, mostly gorgonians and hydrocorals, were present on all 25 seafloor transects and at depths between 27 and 363 m, but were most abundant between 100 and 200 m depth. Mean coral abundance (1.23 colonies m−2) far exceeded that reported for other high-latitude ecosystems and high-density coral gardens (3.85 colonies m−2) were observed at seven locations. Slope and offshore pinnacle habitats characterized by exposed bedrock, boulders, and cobbles generally supported the highest abundances of coral and fish. Overall, 85% of the economically important fish species observed on transects were associated with corals and other emergent epifauna. Disturbance to the seafloor from bottom-contact fishing gear was evident on 88% of the transects, and approximately 39% of the total area of the seafloor observed had been disturbed. Since cold-water corals appear to be a ubiquitous feature of seafloor habitats in the Aleutian Islands, fisheries managers face clear challenges integrating coral conservation into an ecosystem approach to fisheries management.