Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Talking Corals

Bubblegum coral can grow several yards tall and form dense gardens. Photo credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer.

Each year, millions escape the winter climates to the tropics from the Caribbean to the South Pacific. Some are drawn by the need to get a break from the cold but most also find opportunities to explore and marvel at the splendors of the tropical reefs from the sharks to the multi-colored and exotic corals. For many, coral reefs were their nursery schools for early learning about the planet’s vast oceans and its marine life. Those reefs are under severe stress from pollution, overfishing, and now climate change. Climate change will likely rewrite the books on tropical coral reefs and not in a good way.

No less exotic but certainly less accessible, the ocean off New England is the host of its own marine wonders, including an impressive array of soft and hard coral species. They have self-descriptive names like bubblegum coral and tree coral and octocorals and gorgonian soft corals. Unlike their tropical colleagues, New England’s corals are often at bone-crushing depths and only a small area of the ocean has been systematically surveyed to identify the locations of the corals, the various species present in our waters, or the condition of the corals.  With modern technology, spectacular new discoveries of coral hotspots are making headlines.

Recent explorations by NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer of Retriever Canyon, one of the most biologically important undersea “grand canyons” connecting the shallows of offshore Georges Bank to the abyssal plain have captured images of this ocean life never seen before. Given the vast expanses, most of the ocean floor off New England remains unseen, much less catalogued or mapped for its biological richness.

Primora corals can live for hundreds of years.

Primoa corals can live for hundreds of years. Photo credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer.

Like most structures on the bottom of the ocean, whether living or not, corals attract and support various life stages of fish that we associate with New England. They are part of the “essential fish habitat” that can make a difference between a highly productive and a low productive stock of fish. As many of these coral formations have been growing for thousands of years, they have likely been essential to fish production in New England for thousands of years.

In New England, where the climate change impacts on deep sea corals is far more difficult to predict than in the tropics, the single most significant threat to deep sea corals is direct human impacts. Most types of fishing gears can have some impacts of fragile hard and soft corals but the most significant is the otter trawl, which is designed to hug the ocean floor and sweep everything in its path. One pass by an otter trawl net in the wrong place and corals that may have been forming for hundreds and possibly thousands of years are gone.

It isn’t so much that fishermen want to catch coral—they don’t—or that they don’t care about the damage their mobile fishing gears might be causing to corals—they do. The problem is that many of the coral concentrations have not been mapped or protected. A coral “hotspot” by virtue of its benefits for fish production becomes known as a fishing “hotspot,” inevitably bringing the fishing gear of its own destruction.

But, you say, the government must be protecting these fragile coral sites off our shores as they do in the tropics, right? Well, it isn’t, at least not yet.

Canada took unilateral action in the Gulf of Maine a number of years ago closing a 420 square kilometer area with known densities of corals to bottom fishing. The United States, on the other hand with its cumbersome and fishing industry dominated regional fisheries management council system, has moved slowly to exercise its discretionary powers to protect deep sea corals. Delay, of course, directly equates to more coral loss.

The New England Fishery Management Council, for example, launched a deep sea corals conservation amendment process in the fall of 2010. That effort, however, has been sidetracked with no apparent action date in sight and little priority being given to the task. Every day of delay, more majestic and important corals will be destroyed.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council has been doing better and seems highly motivated to have deep sea coral protections in place as early as this year. That progress was stalled last week by some industry pushback, but the MAFMC is now shooting for a June vote. The council should follow through with a strong set of protections, as more than 100,000 members of the public have urged them to do.

Corals are not just important for their own sake. They are important to the health of our ocean and the productivity of our fish populations. Delay is not an acceptable stewardship policy position. Once again, short term profits are being allowed to trump long term wealth.

Images via NOAA Okeanos Explorer program and recently featured on The Pew Charitable Trusts.


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