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New efforts in motion to protect little-known deep sea coral

Observations made during NOAA’s 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyon Expedition will help East Coast fishery managers to determine whether and where protection zones for deep sea coral are necessary. (Photos courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

(Aug. 9, 2013) Scientists know little about deep sea coral, but bodies governing fisheries on the East Coast are taking steps to protect it while they uncover its ecological roles and fisheries’ impacts on the coral ecosystems.

The chairmen of the South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic and New England Fishery Management Councils signed a memorandum of understanding last month in a landmark effort to protect deep sea coral.

“A lot of times a government agency takes action after damage has already occurred,” said Mary Clark, communication program coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic council. “It’s a real sign of progress.”

New research and funding have increased knowledge about deep sea coral at the same time the council has bolstered its emphasis on habitat protection, Assistant Fishery Plan Coordinator for the council Kiley Dancy said.

Taking steps to protect deep sea coral, which has been found in significant numbers off the coast of Ocean City, “fits in with our overarching goal of developing an ecosystems approach of fisheries management,” Clark said.

The coral live on the seabed, often more than 150 feet below the water’s surface on the continental shelf and its slopes, lining offshore canyons and near submarine mountains. Like its brighter-colored relatives in the shallows, deep sea coral forms three-dimensional structures that house fish and other species.

“Fishing is hugely important in Ocean City and deep sea corals provide critical habitat for a lot of important marine fisheries, especially the larval and juvenile fish,” Clark said.

Scientists don’t know how far offshore the corals grow, but have found them more than 3,000 feet deep, Dancy said. They also don’t know how many species of deep sea coral exist.

The coral is fragile, slow growing and found off the East Coast from Florida to Maine.

“For a long time, they (scientists) only believed deep sea coral to be in the South Atlantic, and just in the last four years or so… have discovered that there’s a lot more deep sea coral than was previously thought,” Dancy said.

The deep-water ecosystems are hard to study because of the time, money and equipment needed to tackle research at such great depths, she said. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in partnership with academic researchers, use ROVs to collect the data used by the fishery management councils.

They are studying what species of fish use the coral for habitat at what stages of their lives, among other topics, Dancy said.

“We don’t even fully understand the ecological roll of deep sea coral,” Clark said. “A lot of this research is incredibly new.”

A considerable number of coral records reside in Baltimore Canyon, one of the areas that the council is considering protecting with its deep sea corals amendment. (Image courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean)

What scientists do know is that some types of fishing can damage the coral, like bottom trawls that drag along
the sea floor.

The Fishery Management Councils are considering setting aside areas where deep sea coral is “present or highly likely to be present” for protection from those fisheries, including the nearby Baltimore Canyon, Dancy said.

That shouldn’t be a big problem, though, because areas with a lot of coral — called “snaggy bottom” — damage fishing gear, she said.

“The fishermen avoid those areas anyway,” she said.

The primary fishery affecting the coral in this area is squid, although other fisheries for red crabs and lobsters also affect the coral. Many New England and Mid-Atlantic fisheries overlap geographically and in the type of fishing gear used, so “you really have to have solid collaboration among fisheries involved,” Dancy said.

Other factors that might damage deep sea coral include climate change and pollution, though fishing gear has a much more tangible connection to the coral, Clark said.

The councils have not taken action yet, but are considering designating coral protection zones; defining deep
sea coral as part of NOAA’s Essential Fish Habitat or Habitat Areas of Particular Concern; creating special-access programs to allow fishing in coral-rich areas only for specific fisheries or gear types; and managing deep sea coral as a habitat according to a Fishery Management Plan, Clark said.

With added projects, like meeting with fishermen, and data analysis, the council hopes to have an amendment to consider management of deep sea coral slated for 2014, she said.

“There are many questions still,” Dancy said. “We’re beginning to have the answers to some of those questions, but the picture is still blurry.”

To learn more about deep sea coral, visit www.coralreef.noaa.gov/deepseacorals.

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