Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Deep-Sea Corals: The French Connection

Deep sea corals in a canyon off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.

A new agreement in France to end bottom trawl fishing in deep waters could send ripples to this side of the pond, where fisheries managers and industry leaders are discussing ways to protect the fragile and fascinating deep-sea corals in American waters.

While the European Union is still debating whether to phase out deep-sea bottom trawling, one major fishing interest decided to act ahead of the politicians. The French fishing fleet Scapeche reached an agreement with French environmental groups to stop bottom trawling deeper than 800 meters (about 2,600 feet) by early next year.

Although it does not fully protect sensitive deep-sea habitat, the agreement was hailed as a positive step. “The fact that the leading French fishing fleet can commit to stopping deep-sea bottom trawling below 800 meters depth without compromising their activity should reassure politicians, who were particularly concerned about the preservation of jobs,” said Claire Nouvian of the conservation group Bloom.

Living things in the deep sea are extraordinarily vulnerable, especially slow-growing corals. As marine biologist Les Watling wrote in October in The New York Times, these animals build structures that can become more than 10 feet high and “sometimes very old, often reaching more than 100 years and occasionally more than 4,000 years.” And, Watling noted, these corals do not survive interaction with trawlers. “Bottom images of trawled deep-sea areas, and two seamounts I visited with a deep-diving remote vehicle, show that nothing is left standing in the wake of this type of fishing gear.”

Here in the United States the regional fishery management councils for the mid-Atlantic and New England states are considering several types of protection for deep corals. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is preparing a plan for public comment that will establish deep-sea coral zones where fishing is restricted to protect these fragile ecosystems.

The New England Fishery Management Council is considering similar protections for areas in the Gulf of Maine, canyons in southern New England, and the four New England seamounts inside the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

As these councils consider action, we are also getting a glimpse of what is at stake. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration exploration vessel Okeanos recently sent its deep-diving robot to the canyons and seamounts off the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts, bringing eye-popping images of coral gardens and the life they shelter. Nearly every dive revealed more of these amazing animals. Let’s make sure they get the protection they need.


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