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Taxonomic and Genetic Identification of Fisheries Bycatch of Deep-Sea Corals

Project Goal

To compile a collection of samples (“vouchers”) of deep-sea corals from the North East Pacific Ocean that have been identified to the species level by using both morphology (form and structure) and DNA sequence “bar codes.”

Geographic Location

North East Pacific, from California to Alaska


Individual corals (entire specimens as well as tissue samples) are collected during the West Coast Groundfish Surveys, conducted by the Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NOAA Fisheries). Specimens collected during other cruises in the North East Pacific are included as they are made available. Scanning Electron Microscope imagery of skeletal structures is taken from selected individuals to assist with morphological identifications for voucher specimens. Genetic sequences for two mitochondrial genes are then determined and linked to the voucher specimens, to create a resource for researchers of deep-sea corals. Microsatellite loci are also being developed for a species of sea pen, which will allow analysis of population genetic patterns in deep-sea octocorals.


Initial concentration has been on identifying individual species within a group of red gorgonians that are fairly common in the North East Pacific, but which are difficult to differentiate without an expert taxonomist. Scanning Electron Microscope images of these species were created to help taxonomists make their identifications. A suite of eight microsatellite loci for a common species of deep-sea sea pen was also created to allow preliminary analysis of population genetic structure of deep-sea corals. As more species of octocorals are included in the voucher collection, additional microsatellite loci will be developed.

Importance to Management

A better understanding of population dynamics of deep-sea corals is necessary to further protection efforts for them, and reliable species designations are critical to that understanding. By creating a voucher collection for deep-sea corals and linking those vouchers to species-specific genetic sequences, taxonomic identifications can potentially be made using DNA sequences rather than sending individual specimens to one of the few (and continually overworked) morphological taxonomists in the country. Vouchers might also be used to assist with updating reference materials used to identify species as they are collected on the vessels involved with the surveys.

Fiscal Years 2009-2011 Funding


Point of Contact

Ewann Berntson, Ewann.Berntson@noaa.gov