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Mid-Atlantic canyons harbor 'treasure trove' of deep-sea corals

Saving the treasure: Report urges protection for Mid-Atlantic deep-sea corals.

With ocean policymakers mulling new protections for deep-sea canyons off the East Coast, a new report portrays them as vulnerable "treasure troves" of marine life at risk from fishing trawlers.

Drawing on a series of exploratory scientific cruises the past few years, the Natural Resources Defense Council says more than 40 different species of corals, at least three newly discovered, have been found in the submarine canyons cut into the continental shelf 100 miles off the Mid-Atlantic coast.

"These canyons are treasure troves of discovery," said Brad Sewell, the NRDC's fisherires policy director. 

Besides the corals, scientists on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cruises have glimpsed a bonanza of other creatures in the canyons, including the elusive Greenland shark, endangered fin and sperm whales, lobsters and such exotic species as whiplash squid, dumbo octopus, sea butterfly, sea toad and tonguefish.

The corals, more commonly known in warmer tropical waters, are among the most spectacular finds, scientists say. Species of red, black, bubblegum, stony and soft corals have been seen, sometimes scattered but other times in thick "forests."  In Baltimore canyon, off Maryland's coast, scientists found 15-foot tall pink bubblegum corals growing on the bottom, according to the report.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which is meeting this week in Baltimore, is weighing a plan to protect deep-sea coral communities from damage by fishing gear. Fishing interests have pushed back against recommendations to bar any harvests in the canyons' vicinity.

The council plans a listening session on the deep-sea corals at 5 p.m. Wednesday, with a presentation by Martha Nizinski, a fisheries zoologist who led an exploratory cruise last summer off the Delmarva Peninsula.

The council is meeting at the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court hotel, 550 Light Street. You can find an agenda here.


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