Environmental Issues: Oceans

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Deep Sea Treasures

Protecting the Atlantic Coast's Submarine Canyons and Seamounts

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Teeming with an astonishing variety and abundance of marine life, the Atlantic Coast's canyons and seamounts are ocean oases. Their hard foundations make possible their most vibrant and vulnerable feature: a living seafloor of deep-sea corals, rare sponges, and vivid anemones. Even as such deep-sea coral ecosystems dwindle around the world, here there are tree-like black corals, gorgonian corals the color of bubblegum, and stony corals that have been growing for hundreds of years.

Lobsters, crabs, flounders, hakes, skates, monkfish, and countless other fish species find food and shelter in these complex and dynamic environments. Tilefish and various crustaceans construct burrows in clay canyon walls, giving them the appearance of miniature, underwater versions of the pueblo villages of the American Southwest. Endangered sperm whales, beaked whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals feed on congregating schools of squid and small fish.

Humans share in this bounty. Commercial fishermen troll the waters around the canyons for squid, mackerel, summer flounder, and tilefish, among others. Recreational fishermen visit the closer canyons for marlin, tuna, and other trophy gamefish. The coral and sponge communities have even contributed to scientific and technological advances in cancer treatments, artificial synthesis of human bone, and more durable optic cables. Because deep-sea corals live so long, scientists can learn about historic changes in global climate and ocean current systems through trace elements and isotopes incorporated into coral skeletons over time.

It is critical that we protect these treasures now, before it's too late. Learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Amendment 16, which aims to do just that.

Out at Sea, But Not Out of Harm's Way

The Atlantic canyons and seamounts remain largely unscathed by humans. Because of their depth and ruggedness, they have been off-limits to destructive bottom trawling, a type of fishing using heavily-weighted nets to target bottom-dwelling fish, crushing, ripping, and ultimately destroying fragile bottom habitats in the process. And the oil and gas industry has not been allowed in these areas since drilling dozens of exploratory wells near several of the canyons from the late 1950s to the early 1980s.

But that could change. A bottom trawl net could remove in minutes what took nature centuries to build, leaving barren, scarred clay, mud, and rock where rich gardens of corals, sponges and anemones once were.

Renewed oil and gas exploration has also been approved for the Atlantic, threatening the canyons with sound pollution and the prospect of future drilling. Seismic surveys, using high-decibel acoustic energy pulses blasted from ships, can damage or kill fish and fish larvae and have been implicated in whale beaching and stranding incidents.

NRDC is fighting to protect the unique and vulnerable resources of the Atlantic canyons and seamounts from these threats. To date, four canyons have been protected from bottom-trawling, and NRDC is working with regional fishery management councils to protect the others from destructive fishing gear.


Video: NOAA Deep-Sea Corals Exploration

NOAA Deep-Sea Corals Exploration
Video compilation from NOAA's Okeanos Explorer investigations of Atlantic Coast deep-sea corals (compiled and edited by NRDC). Watch the video »

Video: Ocean Oases

Ocean Oases
Ocean explorer Philippe Cousteau explains the urgent need to protect the precious and mysterious underwater canyons and seamounts of the Atlantic Coast. Watch the video »
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