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Protecting Deep-Sea Corals with Fishermen: A Success Story

By David Stevenson, Greater Atlantic Region, Habitat Conservation Division

When you think about corals, do you picture sunlit coral reefs in crystal-clear tropical water teeming with schools of brightly colored fish? Did you know that corals also live deep at the bottom of the ocean where there is no light, it is very cold, and there is very little food to sustain life?

Bamboo coral at a depth of 3000 meters on the south side of Mytilus Seamount. Credit: NOAA

Like their shallow-water counterparts, these deep-sea corals are very fragile and can be easily damaged or destroyed. Unlike shallow-water corals, deep-sea corals grow extremely slowly, so it can take hundreds or even thousands of years for a coral colony to be replaced. NOAA Fisheries Habitat Conservation Division has been working with other NOAA partners and the two fishery management councils in the region for several years to protect these valuable organisms from the effects of fishing.

Recent Action to Protect Deep-Sea Corals

Most deep-sea corals in U.S. Atlantic waters live on boulders and rocky outcrops beyond the edge of the continental shelf that are inaccessible to current fishing activity. However, concerns about the possible expansion of bottom fishing into deeper water recently prompted the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council  to close 38,000 square miles of the ocean bottom in the mid-Atlantic to bottom trawling. Similar action has been taken to protect deep-sea corals in the southeast U.S. and Alaska, and will be on the agenda in New England in 2016.

Orange and yellow coral colonies in Nygren Canyon at a depth of 900 meters. Credit: NOAA

Research Paved the Way

Because deep-sea corals live in very deep, hard-to-get-to places, finding and studying them is very expensive. On the U.S. Atlantic coast, they have recently been the subject of an intensive NOAA-funded research program. Based on the results of a model that predicts the locations of the most suitable coral habitats, NOAA conducted a series of research surveys during 2012-2015 to map coral habitats and assess their distribution and abundance. The data provided by these surveys and by the predictive model were used to determine what areas should be closed to bottom trawling and where the boundaries for those areas should be. Habitat staff from the Greater Atlantic Region worked closely with staff from the Council and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center to select candidate deep-sea protection zones.

Collaboration Was the Key to Success

In the end, the success of the Council’s effort to protect deep-sea corals was a story not only of scientific research and collaboration; it was also a story of collaboration between the fishing industry and environmental organizations that have championed the cause of deep-sea coral conservation. Faced with concerns from fishermen, who agreed that corals deserve protection from fishing, but did not want to give up important fishing grounds on the outer shelf, the Council organized a workshop to try and resolve their differences. After serious negotiation and compromise, and some help from scientists and habitat managers, industry spokespeople and representatives of the environmental groups agreed to a new set of area boundaries that were approved by the Council two months later. Without the hard work by the workshop participants, the outcome could have been very different.

Cup corals (greatly enlarged). Credit: NOAA

Through the hard work of all interested parties, the Council was able to approve the compromised boundaries.  The Council will now submit their recommendation to NMFS for review.  After the Council submits the recommended coral protection action, NMFS will publish a proposed rule and seek public comment before final approval.  We look forward to continuing this collaborative effort to protect deep-sea corals.