Atlantic Ocean Council Fails to Protect East Coast Coral Canyons


NEW YORK (February 11, 2015) — The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council today postponed a vote on a protection plan for rare, ecologically-important and highly vulnerable deep sea coral communities off the region’s coast. The Council 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 following is a statement by Brad Sewell, fisheries policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council:

“The Council’s decision to delay these protections because of pressure from narrow sectors of the commercial fishing industry is a missed opportunity. Protecting these vibrant and vulnerable coral habitats would have been a precedent-setting move, one which would have significantly helped to conserve our broader Atlantic marine ecosystem and its range of economically important fisheries.  We hope to work with all parties in the coming months to finally protect some of the most valuable and vulnerable parts of our living ocean.”


Cut into the continental shelf off the Atlantic coast of the United States lay more than two dozen deep undersea canyons, which can stretch more than 100 miles long and plunge as deep as the Grand Canyon. Since 2011, NOAA has led a series of dives into the Atlantic canyons to research, map and characterize these canyons and have discovered they are teeming with an astonishing variety and abundance of marine life including a collection of vibrant deep-sea coral habitats.

According to NRDC’s issue brief, “The Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures: Discoveries From A New Frontier of Ocean Exploration,” these dives revealed a rich array of coral species that thrive in cold Atlantic waters as deep as 1.5 miles below the ocean surface. 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. 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, providing food and shelter for a range of deep-sea creatures that were also found during the expedition.

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.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council intends to take up the Deep Sea Corals Amendment again in June, 2015.

To read NRDC's issue brief, “The Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures: Discoveries From A New Frontier of Ocean Exploration,” click here:

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):


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