New Safeguards for Old Corals

Desmophyllum and octopus on wall of Norfolk Canyon in the Deep Sea Coral Protection Area
Credit: Photo credit: Deepwater Canyons 2013 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

NOAA Approves Largest Ocean Protection Area in U.S. Atlantic

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency today finalized important protections for more than 38,000 square miles of ancient, fragile deep-sea coral habitat off of our nation’s most populated coastline.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area will be the largest area in the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico protected from a range of destructive fishing gear. It is named for the late U.S. Senator who sponsored ocean conservation legislation with the provision that allowed fisheries managers to put in place this sweeping protection measure. The announcement puts the perfect holiday bow on a nearly four year process to preserve these ecologically-important deep-sea coral communities.

A map of the Deep Sea Coral Protection Area can be found here.

Deep sea or coldwater corals grow just millimeters a year over hundreds—even thousands—of years, and can reach the size of small trees. These corals, as well as related species, like sponges and anemones, are abundant in the Mid-Atlantic’s submarine canyons that cut into the continental shelf about 100 miles off the coastline. The corals grow on the hard canyon walls and precipices—gardens of color in the pitch-black of the deep ocean. The coral colonies are shelter, breeding areas, and foraging habitat for countless species of fish and crustaceans.

The new protected area is also home to an array of marine mammals, including the endangered sperm whale, as well as sea birds, sea turtles, tunas, sharks, billfish, and countless other species.

Because they grow slowly and are fragile, deep sea corals are highly vulnerable to human disturbance. One pass of a weighted fishing trawl net can destroy coral colonies as old as the California redwoods in seconds. While the remaining deep sea corals off the Atlantic Coast are largely protected by rugged, deep terrain, new fisheries can develop quickly.

The new safeguards will prohibit the use of a number of types of fishing gear that touches the ocean bottom, such as bottom trawls, in the designated area.

The Deep Sea Coral Protection Area was developed with extensive scientific, public and stakeholder input and is the product of several rounds of public comment—one of which generated over 120,000 letters, virtually all in support of the protections. The boundaries were negotiated by the fishing industry and ocean conservation groups, including NRDC.

The protected area encompasses 27 underwater canyons and other deep sea bottom habitat in the region extending out to the nation’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone boundary—an area roughly the size of the State of Virginia. NOAA’s final rule implements the plan approved by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in June 2015.

Scientists still have a lot to learn about the deep sea environment. Recent U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-led explorations to the canyons and other deep sea areas off the Atlantic Coast identified more than 73 coral species, some for the first time in the region. These discoveries have had incredible applications. Coral and sponge communities have 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 also learn about historic changes in global climate and ocean current systems through trace elements and isotopes incorporated into their coral skeletons.

NRDC congratulates the Council and NOAA on this landmark move to preserve our nation’s ocean waters. Our oceans are home to spectacular wildlife, a vital source of food, and a source of wonder and enjoyment for all Americans. They are also under increasing stress from climate change and ocean acidification, and habitat protections like those announced today are a critical part of fortifying marine ecosystems against these threats.

Hydromedusa in the Deep Sea Coral Protection Area’s Washington Canyon
Credit: Photo credit: Deepwater Canyons 2013 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS