"Natural 3-D Bottom: Mid-Atlantic Bight" -- 72 ft. depth, 10 miles southeast of Ocean City Inlet, MD -- 115 ft depth, 22 miles east of Ocean City Inlet, MD. Copyright Nick Caloyianis Productions, Inc. www.nickcaloyianis.com

A federal council took a preliminary step Monday toward protecting deep-sea corals off Maryland and the rest of the mid-Atlantic coast.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to seek public input on what should be done to prevent commercial fishing gear from damaging the fragile, slow-growing corals, about which until recently little was known. Research cruises over the past few years have documented their presence in several of the many deep canyons cutting into the eastern edge of the continental shelf, about 70 miles off the coast.

Options under consideration range from doing nothing to outlawing all bottom-trawling within protected zones, which could include specific canyons and possibly also broad areas of the ocean bottom below a certain depth. Fishing industry representatives urged the council to drop from consideration the most expansive protective zone, which would limit fishing in waters between 200 and 300 meters deep. They also urged delay so more information could be gathered on the economic impact of coral protections. But conservationists called on the council to move forward, and to consider protecting as much coral as possible by "freezing the footprint" of current fishing activities, because much of the bottom has yet to be surveyed.

Tim.wheeler@baltsun.com