This redfish and other fish benefit from deep-sea coral reefs in the North Atlantic that are threatened by trawling. Photo: Science AAAS
This month (January 2015) the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council will decide whether and to what extent to protect deep sea corals. The New England Fishery Management Council and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the adjoining MAFMC to identify deep sea coral areas of consensus and common strategy. However, the Mid-Atlantic region will be first and thus set the bar for the other councils.
The Fishery Council is considering five alternatives to deep sea corals. Alternative 1A is status quo, do nothing and continue with no measures designed specifically for the protection of deep sea corals. Alternative 1B would protect corals at and below 200 meters. The other three Alternatives step down the protection depths to start at 300 meters, 400 meters and 500 meters. Let me take moment to explain why Alternative 1B protect at and below 200 meter is the best amendment.
Last summer Martha Nizinski, Ph.D., and researchers surveyed deep sea corals from Virginia north and east to Maine. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was lowered into the deep from their ship. They explored canyons that fringe the continental shelf diving 500 to deeper than 3,000 meters.
“We found areas that had corals meters tall,” Nizinski said. “Corals grow very slowly, so those could be hundreds, even thousands of years old.”
I recently attended the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council’s presentation by Dr Nizinski on deep sea corals. In the canyons of the mid-Atlantic region they surveyed for corals below 500 meters. Deep-water corals live in total darkness. Absent light, these corals lack the symbiotic algae that produce nutrients to feed shallow water coral. Instead, deep water corals feed themselves by capturing passing food. In the mid-Atlantic region corals were found to favor steep slopes of 30% or more and outcropping peaks – two habitats not conducive for fishing.
Deep sea coral communities are called biodiversity hotspots. They are considered essential habitats for commercially valuable fish stocks. Yet, only redfish were frequently seen with specific deep sea corals. It was, therefore, big news to learn from Dr. Nizinski that deep sea corals were observed with skate and hake. That these two relatively abundant commercially valuable fish were seen with deep sea corals gives hope for the importance of these essential communities for less numerous ground fish populations.
Please sign and comment on our letter urging the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to adopt Alternative 1B – “a broad coral zone would be designated with the landward boundary approximating the 200 meter depth contour. . .” We believe the most essential fish habitats with corals are the shallower slope waters. That fewer corals are found in waters shallower than 500 feet does not mean that the habitat is not suitable for corals. It may instead be indicative of more disturbances by humans. Below 200 meters is up on the continental shelf where most of the fishing occurs.
There is currently no ground fishing in waters more than 200 meters. Alternative 1B would not diminish currently fished areas and would in essence freeze current fishing zones with no add-ons. The far-away canyon waters over 200 meters have outcropping and are steeply inclined. These are areas not easily fished. Let’s give refuge to the fish that dwell with deep sea corals and not disturb the ancient marine life that dwells in waters below 200 meters.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Science AAAS reports marine biologist Jason Hall-Spencer of the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom, and two colleagues found large chunks of coral in the catch hauled up by two French vessels fishing off West Ireland. Radiocarbon dating of these fragments indicates the reefs are at least 4500 years old. Although only five of 229 hauls included substantial amounts of coral, Hall-Spencer says the extremely slow-growing coral can’t recover from frequent trawling. http://news.sciencemag.org/2002/02/bulldozing-deep-sea-reefs
 Nizinski, Martha. December 10, 2014, Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, Baltimore, MD.