Four Underwater Canyons in Atlantic Get Federal Protection from Bottom Trawling

Far offshore, miles underneath the waves, are miniature replicas of the pueblo villages of the Southwest. They have been created by tilefish - our "ocean engineers" - that industriously burrow into the clay to form these amazing structures that provide homes for lobsters, crabs and eels. Many of these "cities" are in a series of ancient submarine canyons that line the continental shelf offshore from Massachusetts to Virginia.

The canyons plummet down several miles and their solid undersea walls provide a hard substrate foundation for bottom dwelling species. This structure, combined with the fact that fast flowing currents carry in microscopic food and remove waste from the canyons, make these areas island oases for an astonishing diversity and abundance of animals - from various species of flounder, hakes, and skates to American lobster, colorful corals, sponges, and anemones. Endangered sperm whales, beaked whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals come to the canyons to feed on the schools of squid and fish that congregate there.

But these remote sanctuaries are in danger of irreversible damage from advanced fishing technologies and renewed oil and gas exploration. 

While the hearts of the Atlantic's submarine canyons have generally not been commercially fished because of their steep and rocky topography, bottom trawling advances are making it increasingly possible to fish challenging seafloor landscapes as commercial fishing enterprises seek out new populations or species to catch. Trawling nets stretching up to 40 meters in width and held open by pairs of seven-ton steel trawl doors crush or rip out habitat as they are dragged along the seafloor. Bottom trawling can remove in a few brief acts what took nature centuries to build, leaving bare, scarred sand, mud and rock where corals and abundant sponges once were.

This past Monday, the Obama Administration acted to close off 4 submarine canyons - one in the mid-Atlantic and three in southern New England - to bottom trawling. Many environmental organizations, including NRDC, worked over the course of a decade to encourage this outcome and we're thrilled that these precious places now have a degree of protection. We congratulate the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council on this important act. We hope they'll extend these same protections to the other canyons dotting the continental shelf that remain without protection from destructive bottom gear that would irrevocably damage the area's marine life with just one pass of the net.

We also need to ensure that these 4 canyons - and the others - are safe from oil and gas exploration and development. Until very recently, the entire Atlantic Coast was protected from oil and gas drilling by Presidential and Congressional actions, but during the Bush Administration these measures were removed and new oil and gas exploration, including drilling and seismic surveys, would introduce significant oil, toxics, and sound pollution into these delicate marine environments.

Right now, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is trying to protect from destructive fishing gear a remarkable 23,000-square-mile forest of coral reefs that stretches from North Carolina to Florida. Simultaneously, a South Carolina feasibility study committee set up by the state legislature has been looking at where exploratory drilling should occur off the coast - in this same coral landscape. Our canyons of Southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic face the same pressures from energy development.

Without swift action to protect our canyon habitats from the dangers of bottom trawling and oil and gas exploration and development, these ecosystems could disappear forever. We need to act now to protect them. You can let Department of the Interior Secretary Salazar know that the Atlantic Coast canyons (and other important biological areas) should be shielded from oil and gas exploration and development. The agency is accepting comments until September 21. Also, contact the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean at and let them know that you support their efforts to protect offshore canyons from bottom trawling and oil and gas development. The Mid-Atlantic governors from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia recently formed this council precisely to tackle issues that overlap state boundaries and have highlighted the need to protect sensitive areas, like the canyons, as part of their work.

Earlier this summer, the Obama Administration also announced it would develop a national policy to ensure the protection of ocean ecosystems. An interagency ocean policy task force is collecting public comments now on what that policy should look like. NRDC and other leading environmental groups have submitted their recommendations and hope the President will issue an executive order formally establishing a national policy to protect, maintain and restore the health of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes. Like the Clean Air Act for our air, and the Clean Water Act for our water, we need a national policy for our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes. Join us in telling the White House we support their efforts to create a policy like this: Also, tell the President that you support protecting the submarine canyons from bottom trawling and oil and gas development as an early initiative that would help translate the new national policy into action. 

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