New England Fisheries

Act Now to Protect Deep-Sea Corals in New England

A redfish hangs out under some Primnoa coral. Image via NOAA Fishwatch.

Update (June 1): On May 30, NEFMC’s Habitat Committee tasked the Plan Development Team to analyze a compromise alternative for the canyons south of Georges Bank. The compromise alternative, which had been presented at each of the public hearings, protects more known coral habitat and would not affect current fishing activities. The Committee also selected preferred alternatives for the Gulf of Maine that ignore the advice of the Council’s science advisers. The Committee selected smaller boundaries for the Mount Desert Rock and Outer Schoodic Ridge coral zones, and chose no action for the offshore Gulf of Maine. 

In the rocky crags and canyons of New England’s nutrient-rich ocean you can find vibrant communities of deep-sea corals, some hundreds – maybe even thousands – of years old. These corals are not only important marine life themselves, but they also serve as vital marine habitat for many fish and invertebrate species. They are highly vulnerable to human impacts – in particular, harmful fishing practices. With one drag of a fishing trawl, these ancient corals can be destroyed forever.

That’s why the New England Fishery Management Council is developing the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment. The amendment will comprise measures requiring some fishermen to take precautions in designated areas in order to protect the corals that live in those places. The Council is currently accepting comments on the amendment through June 5, 2017. The public comment period includes six public hearings and one webinar where the public is invited to learn more about the amendment and deliver comments.

While the Council’s preferred alternatives for the amendment make progress to protect some fragile coral areas in the Gulf of Maine, they fall short of what is needed in the canyon areas off Georges Bank and fall far short of the precedent set by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s counterpart amendment.

Gulf of Maine Alternatives

In the Gulf of Maine, where corals are genetically distinct from other areas, the Council is considering measures for four coral zones: Outer Schoodic Ridge, Mount Desert Rock, Lindenkohl Knoll, and Jordan Basin.

In each of the four zones, the Council is considering prohibiting mobile bottom-tending gear within the zone boundaries, while exempting the lobster fishery. To start, the Council needs to select the specific boundaries of each of the four zones. There have been attempts by Council members to shrink the size of some of the zones, claiming insufficient data on coral sites and concerns of economic impact to the industry. But there is no need to reflect on anecdotal information; there is physical scientific data on the corals that are there. The Council needs to follow the advice of its scientific advisors and select the original, larger boundary zones. According to the advisors, “a larger zone would be more precautionary and would increase the likelihood of fully encompassing seafloor features that function as coral habitat.”

We fully support a prohibition on mobile bottom-tending gear within the coral zones because trawling is one of the biggest threats facing corals in our region. We can also accept the exemption for the lobster fishery given concerns over economic impact, but a lobster trap that lands on a coral just as surely destroys that coral as a mobile trawl would. Those in the lobster fishery should be required to provide hard data on their fishing activities and revenues if they wish for the exemption to continue.

Georges Bank Alternatives

The Council’s preferred alternative for corals located in the incredible deep sea canyons and seamounts southeast of Georges Bank is important, but ultimately insufficient. There, the Council has chosen to prohibit mobile bottom-tending gear below 600-meters; however, there are corals, including some coral habitats that support the commercial redfish population, that occur in much shallower waters.

The science in the record before the Council documents that deep-sea corals are present in the canyon areas as shallow as 300-meters deep. The Council’s preferred alternative would do nothing to protect corals at this depth, when in fact these are the corals most likely to come into contact with fishing gear.

Early in the process, NOAA Fisheries provided guidance to the Council that they should “freeze the footprint” of fishing in order to protect deep-sea corals. A 600-meter depth boundary does not freeze the footprint but allows for the potential expansion of fishing into vulnerable coral habitat areas. There is no scientific rationale for this proposal.

The Council should select the alternative that prohibits mobile bottom-tending gear in all places where corals have been observed and predicted to occur, but permit fishing in the areas where historic fishing has been documented. This would provide the best balance for fishing and conservation. Such an alternative would not even require further analysis.

An Unorganized Process

It is also worth noting the many process blunders that the Council has made in developing the deep-sea coral amendment. While the environmental community would love to see coral habitat protected, the Council is determined to complete this amendment as quickly as they can, even if that means refusing new alternatives and skipping analysis that could possibly help inform better decision-making.

Due to the Council’s self-inflicted aggressive timeline, the public comment period was initiated without a public hearing document even being available. It took ten business days for that to become available on the Council’s website. Furthermore, the Council made note that if stakeholders even wished to have their comments considered by the Habitat Committee for recommendation to the Council in June, comments had to be submitted nearly two weeks before the close of the comment period (by May 24).

Also, back in March, the Council hosted two workshops to collect input on the amendment. The Mid-Atlantic Council hosted similar workshops that served as a great collaboration opportunity between the fishing industry and conservation groups to develop an alternative that satisfied both parties. In New England, however, these workshops served only as an opportunity for the fishing industry to control the process and essentially create its own alternative. At no point was there an attempt to collaborate with the conservation groups in attendance and work to find middle ground.

All in all, we are pleased to see the Council prioritizing protection of corals, but if they hope for their efforts to be effective, much work still needs to be done.

More information on the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment can be found on the New England Fishery Management Council’s website. We encourage you to submit public comment to protect our region’s deep-sea corals. To submit a comment electronically, send an email to comments@nefmc.org.


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