Protection voted for deep-sea corals off Mid-Atlantic coast

Mid-Atlantic coral "gardens" slated for protection from potentially damaging bottom fishing gear.

Cold-water corals growing in deep water off Maryland and the rest of the mid-Atlantic coast would be protected from most harmful fishing activity under a sweeping plan approved Wednesday.

Meeting in Virginia Beach, Va., the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to restrict fishing activity over a swath of deep ocean bottom stretching from Long Island to Virginia. Covering more than 38,000 square miles, the area includes "submarine" canyons cut in the rim of the Outer Continental Shelf, where in recent years scientists have discovered previously unsuspected "gardens" of corals. 

Conservationists hailed the council's recommendation, which comes after more than three years of study and debate about how best to protect the coral communities from bottom trawling and dredging.

"They protected the 15 canyon areas which have the most known biological richness, places like Baltimore Canyon that are rich with corals and organisms that depend on those corals,'' said Joseph Gordon of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

If enacted by the federal government, the council's proposal would create the largest area protected from bottom fishing in U.S. Atlantic waters -- about the size of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey combined. 

"These precious coral communities are highly vulnerable to harm from fishing gear," said Brad Sewell, fisheries policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "One pass of bottom-trawling gear can destroy corals that have been growing for thousands of years."

The move to set aside such a large area drew fire from some fishermen, particularly those who trawl deep mid-Atlantic waters for squid. They argued the restrictions would hurt their catch and were unnecessary.

Council staff and members said they wanted to "freeze the footprint" of current fishing activities, tailoring the protected zone boundaries and depths to let vessels continue to work in areas they do now but not allowing them to expand.  The council specifically proposed a two-year exemption from bottom fishing restrictions for vessels harvesting Atlantic red crab in the canyons as far south as Virginia.

Jay Odell of The Nature Conservancy called the council's action "a huge win for conservation,'' which he said came through an extensive effort to balance fishing rights with protections for corals.

"We have achieved our goal," Odell said, "protecting what remains of ancient deep sea coral communities – 500- to 1000-year old bubblegum coral trees up to fifteen feet tall, while not unnecessarily impacting extremely valuable fisheries for squid and other species."

The council's vote, however, would not protect seemingly scattered patches of coral found by fishermen and divers in shallower Atlantic waters 10 to 20 miles off Maryland's coast. Those corals may be in an area targeted for construction of massive offshore wind turbines. 

A decision on whether to enact the deep-water protected zone now falls to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, with advice from the National Marine Fisheries Service. 

"This council has really set a high bar when it comes to protecting the deep sea, and I hope managers elsewhere will take note,'' said Pew's Gordon. "Scientists have recently discovered large gardens of corals in the depths of the Gulf of Maine, for example, and officials in New England should act to protect those corals as well."

Conservationists noted that the council's action would only protect deep-sea corals from fishing activity. The Department of the Interior has proposed leasing an area of the Mid-Atlantic to allow exploration for oil and gas, which conservationists have decried as a threat to fish and marine mammals.

"We hope the Obama administration won’t reverse these important steps to protect deep sea corals by putting the region at risk from the impacts of seismic airguns and offshore oil and gas development," said Oceana's Gib Brogan. 

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