A guide to the deep-water sponges of the Aleutian Island Archipelago

Robert P. Stone, Helmut Lehnert, and Henry Reiswig

The first dedicated collections of deep-water (>80 m) sponges from the central Aleutian Islands revealed a rich fauna including 28 novel species and geographical range extensions for 53 others. Based on these collections and the published literature, we now confirm the presence of 125 species (or subspecies) of deep-water sponges in the Aleutian Islands. Clearly the deep-water sponge fauna of the Aleutian Islands is extraordinarily rich and largely understudied. Submersible observations revealed that sponges, rather than deep-water corals, are the dominant feature shaping benthic habitats in the region and that they provide important refuge habitat for many species of fish and invertebrates including juvenile rockfish (Sebastes spp.) and king crabs (Lithodes sp.). Examination of video footage collected along 127 km of the seafloor further indicate that there are likely hundreds of species still uncollected from the region, and many unknown to science. Furthermore, sponges are extremely fragile and easily damaged by contact with fishing gear. High rates of fishery bycatch clearly indicate a strong interaction between existing fisheries and sponge habitat. Bycatch in fisheries and fisheries-independent surveys can be a major source of information on the location of the sponge fauna, but current monitoring programs are greatly hampered by the inability of deck personnel to identify bycatch. This guide contains detailed species descriptions for 112 sponges collected in Alaska, principally in the central Aleutian Islands. It addresses bycatch identification challenges by providing fisheries observers and scientists with the information necessary to adequately identify sponge fauna. Using that identification data, areas of high abundance can be mapped and the locations of indicator species of vulnerable marine ecosystems can be determined. The guide is also designed for use by scientists making observations of the fauna in situ with submersibles, including remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles.

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