The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved a plan late last night to protect more than 23,000 square miles of known deep sea coral from North Carolina to Florida from destructive fishing gear. Five years in the making, yesterday’s vote will restrict the footprint of bottom trawls – one of the most nonselective fishing gears currently in use, capable of destroying thousand-year-old coral reefs and moving 18-ton rocks – and help to restore the long-term productivity of commercially valuable fish that take refuge in these rare corals.
“This landmark decision is a win for the oceans and those in the southeast who rely on it for their livelihoods,” said Dave Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “The crushing of these ancient coral reefs would be a serious loss to the ocean ecosystem and could threaten the survival of golden crab and wreckfish fishermen that catch other species on these deep reefs.”
These protections resulted from collaboration and negotiation among fishing, scientific and environmental representatives that worked tirelessly with the Council to reach an agreement. The Council’s decision will now be sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for its stamp of approval and implementation. Oceana anticipates the new regulation will take effect by the end of 2009.
"The history of fishing has too frequently been blind to expansion into deep waters as nearshore areas become exhausted,” said Margot Stiles, marine scientist at Oceana. “The Council showed exceptional leadership by protecting the reefs NOAA has called ‘America’s largest deep sea coral ecosystem’ before they are harmed, while allowing room for fishing to continue."
Deep sea corals off the southeast coast include hundreds of pinnacles up to 500 feet tall. These corals provide homes for a variety of marine species, including sponges with unusual chemistry currently in testing to develop drugs for the treatment of cancer, heart disease and for other medical needs.
The Case of the Oculina Banks:
The Oculina banks – hundreds of square miles of similarly vulnerable deep sea coral habitat off the East coast of Florida – suffered virtually irreversible destruction from bottom trawl and dredge fishing gear, only decades after being discovered and despite eventual protection by the Council. This is one of the clearest examples of vital ocean ecosystems being destroyed for short-term fisheries profits before their long-term value was fully understood.
About the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council:
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, headquartered in Charleston, S.C., is one of eight regional Fishery Management Councils in the United States established under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. The Council prepares fishery management plans designed to manage fishery resources within the federal 200-mile limit off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and east Florida to Key West. These waters are also known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
To learn more about deep sea corals in the southeast, please click here. For more information about the threats of bottom trawling and the comprehensive ecosystem amendment in the south Atlantic, please click here.