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Researchers race to save Alaska’s coral gardens

Unique, vast cold-water corals contain unknown species, tropical hues – and unexploited stocks of fish.

Trawlers had brought up bits and pieces of coral. Researchers were astonished when they dove down to investigate.

Alberto Lindner, Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries/FILE

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To German naturalist Georg Steller, who accompanied explorer Vitus Bering on his 1741-42 voyage of discovery commissioned by Russia’s Peter the Great, the treeless islands that arc between mainland Siberia and North America were treasure troves of new plants, animals, and geology.

“I encountered wondrously strange views that at first glance were more like the ruins of large cities and edifices than a chance display of nature,” Mr. Steller wrote in his journal.

Nearly three centuries later, researchers continue to make new discoveries about the remote Aleutian archipelago that stretches more than 1,000 miles from the Alaska mainland.

Regular surveys of the Aleutian waters, such as the biannual trawl surveys by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, consistently turn up previously unknown life forms.

“It isn’t like the dark side of the moon or anything,” says Mark Wilkins, supervising research fishery biologist at NOAA’s Alas­ka Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Still, “it is relatively new in terms of being looked at carefully by biologically trained people.”

One of the most significant finds of recent years was the vast cold-water coral gardens on the floor of the sea shelf, 300 to 1,000 feet down. Scientists and fishermen had long known that corals grew here – grayish pieces had turned up in fishing gear. But it was not until 2002, when a pair of NOAA scientists plunged down to the site in a tiny two-person submarine, that anyone knew of the corals’ diversity and vivid hues.

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