Oceana’s GOA expedition aims to protect habitat

Scientists from Oceana with a Remotely Operated vehicle used to document ocean life in the Gulf of Alaska. Photo courtesy of Oceana

Researchers from the ocean conservation entity Oceana say their Gulf of Alaska expedition to document the seafloor and ocean life found the waters teeming with life, from the surface to the ocean floor, from humpback whales to krill, squid and copepods.

“Oceana researchers discovered striking coral gardens in the Snakehead area of Albatross Bank, an area south of Kodiak Island in the open Gulf of Alaska,” said Jamie Karnik, Pacific communications manager for Oceana. “To our knowledge this is the first time this area of the seafloor has been photographed.”

Oceana’s concern is that with the area still open to bottom trawling that there is potential for adverse impact from huge trawl nets, which are dragged for miles along the seafloor to catch species like flounder or cod. Oceana contends that these nets destroy corals and other important habitat essential for fish and ocean life for nurseries, feeding areas, spawning areas and places to hide from predators.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and North Pacific Fishery Management Council are evaluating whether such habitat should be protected from bottom trawling. Oceana plans to present its expedition findings to fishery managers in coming months, to advocate for conservation of what the organization has identified as essential fish habitat.

Bat star, hydrocoral and anemone on the ocean floor in the Gulf of Alaska. Bat star is a scavenger that plays an important role in the ecosystem, helping clean dead animals and algae from the sea floor. Photo courtesy of Oceana

Every site examined by the expedition was filed with life, Karmik said.

Large groves of sea whips, a soft coral, were found in an area closed to bottom trawling to protect king crab.

“Those sea whip groves provide vertical structure in soft sediments on the seafloor and are used by fish and invertebrates to hide from predators,” Karmik said. “The same area had other organisms like sea pens, another type of coral that grows in soft bottom areas. Sea whips and sea pens are essential habitat as they can often be the only vertical structures in soft or sandy areas.”

Hydrocorals on the ocean floor. Photo courtesy of Oceana

At the surface researchers observed feeding humpback and fin whales, large groups of black footed albatross, Laysan albatross, tufted puffins, pupping northern sea otters, Steller sea lion haulouts and a single juvenile northern fur seal, a rare sighting in the open Gulf. Beneath the waves the water column was teeming with krill, squid, copepods, jellies and other small organisms, many of which are food for fish and marine life, Karmik said.

Ling cod and gorgonians on the ocean floor. Gorgonians are Cnidarians, which means stinging celled animals. Photo courtesy of Oceana

On the sea floor they found hydrocorals, sponge beds, brittle stars, anemones, sea cucumbers and many other animals spread across boulders, cobblestones and other areas of the sea floor, she said.

The expedition also observed coral rubble in flat, hard bottom habitat in areas still open to bottom trawling. The same areas have records of coral bycatch noted by fishery observers on trawl vessels, Karmik said.