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NOAA Fisheries Announces Proposed Rule to Protect Deep-Sea Corals in the Mid-Atlantic

On September 26, 2016, NOAA Fisheries announced a proposed rule to designate a deep-sea coral protection area in the Mid-Atlantic. The area extends from the continental shelf/slope break off the Mid-Atlantic states (New York to North Carolina) to the border of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

If finalized, this rule, developed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, would be the first nationally to protect deep-sea corals under the new discretionary provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The public has until November 1, 2016 comment on this proposed rule, either online or by mail.  

It should be noted that 11 years ago, the New England Fishery Management Council used the essential fish habitat provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to protect deep-sea corals located in two offshore canyon areas (Lydonia and Oceanographer) through an amendment to the Monkfish Fishery Management Plan.

“This would protect 15 deep-sea canyons in a total area of about 24 million acres, about the size of Virginia, or about 20 times the size of the Grand Canyon National Park,” said John Bullard, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region.

Deep-sea corals live on continental shelves, canyons, and seamounts, especially between 200 and 6,000 feet deep, and provide habitat for starfish, lobster, grouper, rockfish, snapper, and hundreds of other species. These corals are extremely slow-growing, but can survive for thousands of years—some black corals have recently been estimated to be more than 4,200 years old—making them the oldest known living marine organisms.

“These deep-sea coral communities, which are hotspots of biodiversity, provide important habitat, refuge, and prey for fish and other marine life,” says Dave Packer, a marine ecologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)’s Howard Laboratory at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. “Because the corals grow so slowly, it can take hundreds or even thousands of years to recover from damage or removal.”

The Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council recommended that the area be called the “Frank R. Lautenberg Deep-sea Coral Protection Area” to honor the late U.S. Senator’s contributions to the development and implementation of the Act’s coral protection discretionary provision.

“Research paved the way for this proposal,” added Bullard. “This is also a story of regional collaboration among the fishing industry, the Mid-Atlantic Council, and environmental organizations to protect what everyone agrees is a valuable ecological resource. Great credit goes to former Council Chair Rick Robins, who led the effort to establish this largest protected area in the Atlantic.”

This proposed rule, which contains exceptions for lobster and crab pots, has been in the works for several years. It follows the Obama Administration’s proclamation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument on September 15. The Monument protects three canyons and four seamounts in an area of about 3 million acres, and is located 130 miles east-southeast of Cape Cod.

Both the proposed Amendment 16 and the Monument recognize that canyons and seamounts support highly diverse ecological communities with deep-sea corals, as well as a wide array of benthic marine organisms not found on the surrounding deep sea floor. The canyons and seamounts provide gradients that allow marine species to slowly extend their geographic range from the deep Atlantic Ocean toward the North American continent.

Read the proposed rule as published in the Federal Register and supplemental documents.

Comment by November 1 either online or by mailing comments to:NMFS, Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930. Please mark the outside of the envelope “Comments on MSB Amendment 16 Proposed Rule.”