The NIWA Invertebrate Collection (NIC) had an estimated backlog of ~670 unregistered and unidentified coral specimens collected on wide-ranging fisheries and biodiversity research surveys in the New Zealand region over the past 70 years in storage. These specimens were essentially invisible to researchers, and through this project, which funded specimen registration and identification, their details have now been made available. After the registration process was completed and non-protected coral groups were excluded from exports, a total of 650 unidentified protected coral samples were located and made available to subject matter experts for identification. In the period from March–June 2023 a total of 652 protected coral samples collected from the New Zealand EEZ (1682 specimens) were identified by experts and updated in the NIC niwainvert database.
Data summaries of the recently identified samples are provided in tables and as maps, followed by summaries of all protected coral specimen data held in the NIC from the NZ EEZ. Taxonomic highlights are noted including the discovery of a new family within the order Scleralcyonacea (one of the orders of gorgonian corals originally placed in order Gorgonacea, then moved into order Alcyonacea before this was taxonomically redescribed. Gorgonian corals are now placed in two orders: Scleralcyonacea and Malacalcyonacea).
At the conclusion of the project a total of 9596 samples and 22,247 specimens of protected coral are now recorded in the niwainvert database, from observer, fishery trawl survey and biodiversity trip sources. The largest number of samples in the NIC were collected from biodiversity surveys, followed by observer collections, then fishery trawl surveys, and the widest spatial distribution of corals were collected from biodiversity surveys. Corals in niwainvert have been collected from shallow diving depths in Fiordland through to 5748 m in the Kermadec Trench and were collected from the years 1955 to 2023. Most records come from shelf to outer shelf and slope depths (201–1000 m depth range) with very few coral records from below 2000 m.
A total of 800 samples are not yet identified beyond family level and could benefit from further expert attention, especially the gorgonian coral groups Keratoisididae and Plexauridae. We recommend that international experts are invited to further identify these challenging protected coral taxon groups that are still poorly known and contain many undescribed taxa.
A core strategic objective of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Conservation Services Programme (CSP) is to understand and address the effects of commercial fishing on protected species in New Zealand waters, and this relies on robust data, and on gaining a good understanding of the distribution and abundance of protected species. This project supports the research priorities of the CSP Protected Coral Medium-Term Research Plan by providing accurate and consistent identification of live coral specimens collected in the New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone (NZ EEZ).
Mills, S., Connell, A., Bilewitch, J., Stewart, R., Marriott, P., Tracey, D. 2023. Deep diving into decades of uncatalogued corals.POP2022-04 final report. Prepared for Conservation Services Programme, Department of Conservation NIWA Client Report 2023211WN. 64 p.