Marine Fisheries Review
Octocorals, also known as gorgonians and soft corals, were previously managed by the U.S. South Atlantic (SAFMC) and Gulf of Mexico (GMFMC) Fishery Management Councils through a joint Coral Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Because octocorals are mostly collected from Florida waters, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is currently tasked with managing octocoral collection, including the monitoring of colony landings, in the Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) adjacent to Florida. Collection of 70,000 colonies per year total, which applies to both state and EEZ waters off Florida, is permitted under Rule 68B- 42.006 of the Florida Administrative Code, but has never been exceeded according to available landings data. Before octocoral management responsibility was transferred to the State of Florida, the SAFMC was concerned that octocoral landings data, as opposed to population data, were being used to set Acceptable Biological Catch limits and Overfishing limits under the new Federal fishery management standards. An additional concern with the octocoral fishery and other organisms captured for the marine aquarium and ornamental fisheries is that large taxonomic groups are lumped together, including species with potentially different life histories and ecological functions. This study assessed some of the characteristics of the octocoral fishery by evaluating FWC Trip Ticket data, conducting interviews with octocoral collectors, and analyzing octocoral life history information and available fishery-independent data on population densities and sizes. Based on interviews with collectors, a synthesis of trip ticket results, and population abundance estimates, the long-term stability of the octocoral fishery is not likely to change significantly. The social dynamics of the aquarium industry to seek colorful, rare, and exotic marine species for home aquaria places octocorals at the lower end of the list of desired species. Octocoral distribution and abundance information obtained from an extensive search of the literature, along with available age, growth, and habitat data, suggests that current information is comprehensive and definitive, such that stock assessment or population dynamic modeling could be considered but are probably not required to assess the status of collected octocoral species. For multiple sampling periods, over a decadal period (1999-09) in the Florida Keys, where most octocoral collection occurs, abundance estimates presented for 15 species illustrate that population sizes are large (tens of millions to hundreds of millions of colonies, per species) and abundance is stable or increasing. For example, the numbers of colonies collected in the Florida Keys in two of the collector categories represented < 0.004% of the estimated population sizes. The collectors and aquarium hobbyists interviewed stated that they would welcome and use a field guide to help with octocoral identification, which would ultimately provide better fishery-dependent taxonomic resolution for collected species. The collection of octocorals below the State of Florida quota of 70,000 colonies per year threshold, which has yet to be reached according to landings data, likely does not adversely affect the octocoral populations targeted. This conclusion is based upon the large population estimates determined for octocorals relative to the small number of colonies collected. This conclusion assumes that the distribution and population sizes of targeted species will continue to be relatively stable or increase. Information collected by the State of Florida through trip tickets is probably adequate to understand and manage the octocoral fishery. Minor reporting clarifications and better taxonomic resolution in reporting would help improve the accuracy of collecting data, but improved accuracy is not required to assess the current state of the fishery-the octocoral fishery is sustainable and would likely remain sustainable at colony collection levels orders of magnitude larger.
Mark Chiappone, Paola Espitia, Leanne M. Rutten, and Steven Miller. 2018. The Octocoral Fishery in the Southeastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico .Marine Fisheries Review , (3) : 18 -62. https://nsuworks.nova.edu/occ_facarticles/991.