More than 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface and 60 miles from the beaches in Maryland, New Jersey and New York, an unlikely ecosystem thrives in the dark, frigid waters. Far from the sun’s nourishing rays, diverse and colorful corals cling to the rocky seabed, obtaining nutrients floating past on deep currents or falling from the sunny waters above. Though few humans will ever see this unique habitat directly, it plays an important role in maintaining the health of the oceans.
Deep-sea coral gardens can be found in canyons, on continental shelves and along undersea mountains around the world. Like their shallow-water counterparts, deep-sea corals provide a vital habitat for other marine life. Their intricate branches create an ideal nursery for juvenile fish; they act as a foundation for sponges and anemones; and they provide food and shelter for a variety of species. Off the East Coast of the United States, dozens of deep canyons house coral gardens that teem with a huge variety of marine life. This habitat is the foundation of the ocean ecosystems that support a number of commercially valuable species, like mackerel and squid. Many U.S. coastal residents depend on the populations that originate and grow in these canyons for their livelihoods.
Even as new technology gives scientists better access to study and understand these deep-sea habitats, (even remotely via the internet!), advancements in fishing methods threaten to destroy these fragile corals. Reaching ever deeper, fishing trawls and dredges now threaten these ancient reefs, which grow only millimeters a year. Some coral colonies date back over 4,000 years — the oldest known marine organisms in the world. A single pass of a trawl net can wipe away centuries of growth. The destruction of deep-sea corals can jeopardize the survival of many marine species, as well as the jobs that depend on them, before scientists even have a chance to fully catalogue the diversity of the species. It’s not just commercial fisheries that are under threat. Some corals have been found to contain chemical compounds that have important applications for biomedical research. The next dredging could lead to the permanent loss of what could have been the source of powerful cancer drugs or vaccines.
Though our understanding of deep-sea corals is incomplete, the need to protect them is very clear.
Last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council recognized the imminent threat that expanding fisheries pose to deep sea corals. The Council approved a proposal to protect over 35,000 square miles of deep-sea coral habitat from fishing gears like bottom trawls and dredges. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, all trawling and dredging deeper than 450 meters will be prohibited as well as in shallower coral gardens in 15 canyons in the region.
This welcome development has been a long time coming. Oceana has been campaigning congress, the Obama administration, and the regional councils to secure these protections for over a decade. The work has paid off.
This new protected area is the size of Kentucky. Or nearly four times the size of New Jersey. The Council is the first of the eight regional fishery management councils to rightfully recognize the need to protect deep-sea corals. A new legal authorization included in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law governing the regulation of fisheries, grants the Council authority to make protections like this. The new area from Long Island to North Carolina, complements already protected deep sea coral habitats off Florida and Georgia that were created in 2010. Coast-wide, now more than 58,000 square miles of seafloor is protected for conservation deep sea corals.
The Council’s actions are encouraging, but celebration should be tempered with a reality check: fish and marine mammals in the same region are facing additional threats. Seismic airgun blasting in the hunt for offshore oil and gas can wreak havoc on these ecosystems, even if they are safe from trawlers’ nets. The decision to protect thousands of miles of deep-sea corals from fishing could amount to nothing if the Obama administration allows offshore oil and gas development to occur. Case in point: In the Gulf of Mexico, oil and dispersant from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been found fouling dead and dying deep sea corals miles away from the spill site
Bad-news stories about our oceans are an almost daily occurrence. Irresponsible fishing, warming waters and acidification associated with climate change, and contamination from agriculture and other human activities have left the oceans a shade of their former abundance and diversity. But when terrible losses are met with victories like the Council’s recent action, there is reason to hope that others in positions of power are paying attention, and that even more victories lie ahead.