Vulnerable deep-sea corals off Virginia and along the Mid-Atlantic just got final approval for federal environmental protection by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The move will protect a 38,000-square-mile swath of sea bottom from New York to the North Carolina border, or an area roughly the size of the state of Virginia. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council initiated the action for the deep-sea coral zone in 2015.
Many of these corals grow in underwater canyons, including Norfolk Canyon — a steep gouge in the side of the Continental Slope about 70 miles off Virginia Beach.
NOAA Fisheries has designated the region the Frank R. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area, after the late New Jersey senator who spearheaded ocean conservation legislation. It's the largest protection area in U.S. Atlantic waters.
John Bullard, administrator for NOAA's Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, said the action represents the efforts of a wide variety of stakeholders.
"This is a great story of regional collaboration among the fishing industry, the Mid-Atlantic Council, the research community and environmental organizations to protect what we all agree is a valuable ecological resource," Bullard said in a statement.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is one of eight regional bodies empowered by Congress in the 1970s to manage fisheries off the U.S. coast. It moved in June 2015 to adopt the Deep Sea Corals Amendment.
Bob Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a D.C.-based group that represents the commercial fishing industry, also praised the final designation Thursday as an example "of the right way to protect these resources."
"This is a situation where the industry came together with the council, with NOAA and with environmentalists and came up with a plan that created a compromise that everyone could live with," Vanasse said in a phone interview. "It's a bright, shining example of how to do it right."
Colorful cold-water corals grow slowly in the black depths of the Atlantic — mere fractions of an inch a year over hundreds or thousands of years — rendering them especially vulnerable to disturbances.
Marine advocacy groups are concerned that commercial fishing could cause irreparable damage. But commercial fishing interests, particularly commercial lobster, scallop and red crab fisheries, countered in the past that there's no evidence of such damage.
The new protections will prohibit most types of bottom-tending commercial fishing gear in the coral zone, but won't apply to commercial fishing gear that doesn't contact the sea floor, or to the American lobster trap fishery. It also allows exemptions for the deep-sea red crab commercial trap fishery. Recreational fishing is permitted.
The protected region includes 15 "discrete" areas, or individually named coral canyons, and the larger "broad" zones encompassing them.
Gib Brogan at the D.C.-based advocacy group Oceana praised the new federal designation.
"In addition to helping conserve these fragile organisms," Brogan said in a statement, "this rule will help build and maintain the health of many recreationally and commercially valuable fish populations that make corals their home."
The corals were a surprising discovery during a series of NOAA-led deep-sea expeditions from 2011 to 2014 to determine if there were any vulnerable coral habitats that needed protecting from proposed energy exploration.
Norfolk Canyon was explored in 2012 and 2013. It stretches down about 12 miles, with steep walls fanning out from a sharp head. It's unique for a particular stony coral found there and in nearby Baltimore Canyon, and for a massive cold seep at its base that bubbles up methane and sulfides that provide nutrients to creatures living there.
Last month, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach announced it will nominate the canyon for additional protection as a National Marine Sanctuary. Baltimore and Hudson canyons are also being nominated by other groups.
Those attempts, however, are being opposed by seafood groups and by seven congressmen from Mid-Atlantic states, including Virginia Republican Rob Wittman.
The congressmen sent a Dec. 7 letter to NOAA arguing the canyons are already protected from bottom trawling by the Mid-Atlantic Council, and that the National Marine Sanctuaries Act fails to provide legal protections to fishermen who have been fishing the waters surrounding sanctuaries for years.
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.