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Protection of Deep Sea Corals in the Greater Atlantic Region

Cup corals on the west wall of Lydonia Canyon at a depth of 1200 meters

Unlike the tropical corals that we are most familiar with that grow and form reefs in shallow, warm, sunlit waters, deep-sea corals grow in deep, cold water where there is no sunlight.  Some species of deep-sea corals can form reef-like structures or occur in dense aggregations sometimes called coral “gardens,” but more often they occur as solitary individuals.  Because they live in such inaccessible locations, scientists do not know nearly as much about their distribution and abundance as they do about the shallow-water species. 

Because corals are extremely slow-growing and can live for thousands of years, it takes a very long time for them to recover from damaged or removal by activities such as fishing.  It is believed that many of the corals In the Northwest Atlantic that used to live on the continental shelf or in the Gulf of Maine were removed long ago by fishing gear such as bottom trawls, leaving the remaining individuals in locations that are inaccessible to fishing gear such as the submarine canyons on the outer continental shelf.  There is a great deal of interest worldwide in protecting deep-sea corals and their habitats.  Sharing this concern, NOAA is actively engaged in a nation-wide effort to learn more about the distribution and abundance of deep-sea corals and to implement management actions that will protect them from the adverse effects of present and future fishing activities.  Deep-sea coral research and management activities in the greater Atlantic region are currently underway (see below).

Bamboo coral at a depth of 3000 meters on the south side of Mytilus Seamount

For more information about deep-sea corals, see these websites:

NOAA’s commitment to deep-sea coral management and research

The Magnuson Act, as amended in 2006, also authorized the establishment of NOAA’s Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology Program (DSCRTP).  In 2008, NOAA published a five-year Strategic Plan for Deep-Sea Coral and Sponge Ecosystems that outlines the agency’s commitment to deep-sea coral research, management, and international cooperation.  This plan identifies activities that provide the information needed to implement appropriate management measures to protect and conserve deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems. 

Deep-sea coral management initiatives in the greater Atlantic region

Submarine canyon areas in the greater Atlantic region closed to bottom trawling

When the Magnuson Act was re-authorized by Congress in 2006, new language was added granting discretionary authority to regional fishery management councils to include management measures in fishery management plans that protect deep-sea corals from physical damage from fishing gear.  Previously existing provisions of the Act were only effective at protecting deep-sea corals if they were a harvested resource, were taken as by-catch in other managed fisheries, or provided essential fish habitat for managed species.  While other regions have successfully applied these other authorities to restrict fishing that impacts deep-sea corals, the two management councils in the greater Atlantic region are relying on the discretionary authority of the Act to develop deep-sea coral conservation measures. 

Portions of four submarine canyons on the outer continental shelf between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and Georges Bank are currently closed to the use of bottom trawls and dredges (see map). 

These closures were put in place by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in 2009 and 2011.  Although designed more generally as habitat protection measures, all of these closures have the indirect effect of protecting

deep-sea corals from current and future fishing activities.

  • The tilefish area closures were developed to protect the walls of Lydonia, Oceanographer, Veatch, and Norfolk canyons which are designated as habitat areas of particular concern (HAPCs) for tilefish, fish which live in burrows that they dig into clay substrates. 
  • The other two habitat closures that overlap the tilefish closures prohibit the use of bottom trawls in the offshore squid fishery and were designed to minimize the adverse effects of this fishery on essential fish habitat. 

Currently, both councils are using the discretionary authority of the Magnuson Act to develop additional management measures to protect deep-sea corals and their habitats in the region from fishing activities.  The two councils have agreed to focus their deep-sea coral management efforts in their own geographic areas of the region, but to collaborate and coordinate their activities as much as possible (see Memorandum of Understanding below).

Orange and yellow coral colonies in Nygren Canyon at a depth of 900 meters

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council expects to implement an amendment to their squid, mackerel, and butterfish fishery management plan in 2015 that would also restrict the use of certain gear types in specified canyons and off-shelf areas in the Mid-Atlantic area that provide suitable habitat for deep-sea corals, or where recent surveys have documented their presence (see below).

The New England Fishery Management Council developed a set of area-specific management alternatives during 2010-2012, but has since removed them and is expected to resume work on a separate deep-sea coral management plan for the New England region in 2015. 

To see the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Management of Deep-Sea Corals signed by the South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic, and New England Fishery Management Councils in 2013, go to our Publications page

Deep-sea coral research initiatives in the greater Atlantic region

Funding provided by NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program is being used to support a field research program in the region during 2013-2015.    The results of this research program will be used by the New England and Mid-Atlantic Councils to supplement information gathered from surveys on the outer continental shelf during the 1970s and 1980s as they develop area-specific deep-sea coral management measures.  Focus areas for the field work are the submarine canyons and inter-canyon areas on the outer shelf and slope, deep basins in the Gulf of Maine, and four seamounts that are located southeast of Georges Bank. 

Rocky habitat in Nygren Canyon with corals and other invertebrates

Research activities are being done in partnership with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the two regional fishery management councils, NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research, NOAA’s National Center for Coastal Ocean Science, and a number of academic colleagues.