NEW YORK (June 10, 2015) — The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council today voted to protect 27 named deep sea canyons divided into 15 protection zones, as well as a vast swath of surrounding deep sea habitat, off the region’s coast. These areas are home to rare, ecologically-important and highly vulnerable coldwater coral communities as well as a range of other remarkable sea life. At approximately 38,000 square miles and extending from the edge of the continental shelf to the boundary of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, this will be the largest ocean area in the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico protected from destructive bottom fishing.
The Council, together with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), manages U.S. fisheries resources in the region and initiated development of the protection plan three years ago to safeguard deep sea corals – which grow very slowly and can be hundreds or thousands of years old – against bottom trawling and other destructive bottom fishing. The protection plan is the first to rely on special legal authority to protect deep sea corals that was added to the federal fisheries management law in 2006. The plan now goes to NOAA, where approval is expected.
The following is a statement by Brad Sewell, fisheries policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council:
“History was made today. Protecting this series of exquisite coral canyons and other vulnerable deep sea habitats marks a milestone in ocean protection efforts. It is the most sweeping move to date to protect ocean habitat off our most populous coastline.
“These precious coral communities are highly vulnerable to harm from fishing gear. One pass of bottom-trawling gear can destroy corals that have been growing for thousands of years.
“At a time when our oceans are under tremendous stress from overfishing, acidification, and pollution, it’s critically important that we seize opportunities to preserve some of the most valuable, pristine, and vulnerable parts of our living ocean.”
More than two dozen undersea canyons cut into the continental shelf off the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States, part of a series of such canyons that stretches up to the Canadian border. The canyons can extend more than 100 miles long and plunge as deep as the Grand Canyon. The canyons’ steep walls are excellent habitat for a rich array of coral species that thrive in cold Atlantic waters thousands of feet below the ocean surface.. Many of these corals have the same vibrant colors and tree-like shapes of their tropical cousins, yet do not need sunlight to survive. These coral communities are sanctuaries for marine life, providing food, foraging and breeding habitat, and shelter for a range of fish, crustacean, and other deep-sea creatures.
Since 2011, NOAA has led a series of dives into the Atlantic canyons to research, map and characterize the undersea canyons. The result has been a steady stream of discovery and revelation: new and rare species, new understandings about ecological relationships and the diversity of ecological settings in the canyons and seamounts, and new appreciation of how special these deep-sea ecosystems are. According to NRDC’s issue brief, “The Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures: Discoveries From A New Frontier of Ocean Exploration,” dozens of coral species have been identified, at least three of which are believed to be brand new to science. Some are so abundant that scientists described them as coral “forests.” Species of red, black, bubblegum, stony, and soft corals have all been found, a number of which were never before known to exist in this region.
According to NOAA’s 2010 Strategic Plan for Deep-Sea Coral and Sponge Ecosystems, bottom trawling – the practice of pulling a trawl net along an ocean floor – is the “major threat” to the health of these vibrant deep-sea coral communities. One pass of a trawl net can destroy corals that have been growing for thousands of years, eliminating fragile and important deep sea communities for any ecologically relevant period of time.
To read NRDC’s issue brief, “The Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures: Discoveries From A New Frontier of Ocean Exploration,” click here: http://www.nrdc.org/oceans/files/mid-atlantic-deep-sea-ecosystems-FS.pdf
To view a short video and a slideshow of images from NOAA's explorations, click here (and scroll to the bottom right of the screen): http://www.nrdc.org/oceans/mid-atlantic-deep-sea-ecosystems.asp