New England Fisheries

A Chance to Protect More Coral – Will the Council Take it?

Fan corals in Oceanographer Canyon. The fan on the right has most of it’s polyps retracted and provides a view of the coral skeleton. Image courtesy Northeast Canyons 2013 Science Team/NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

If you want to explore colorful coral reefs, you can skip the plane ride to the tropics – but you may need a submarine. New England’s continental slope and undersea canyons are full of vibrant, deep-sea coral communities that host myriad fish and invertebrate species. Most of the corals, however, live at least 200-300 meters below the surface and many of them even deeper.

At that depth, the corals may seem naturally protected – but these fragile organisms are still vulnerable to human impacts, such as destructive fishing gear. One accidental trawl or trap could destroy hundreds or even thousands of years of growth.

Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment

That’s why the New England Fishery Management Council is using its authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to protect deep-sea corals. Next week, the Council is scheduled to take final action on the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment. In June 2017, the Council voted on the Gulf of Maine portion of the Amendment, but at that time, decided to postpone final action on management areas for the canyon area south of Georges Bank.

Since then, NOAA and Council staff have been compiling data and analyzing a new broad zone alternative that was introduced during public hearings, now referred to as Option 7. It’s clear that Option 7 is the best option for the canyon area south of Georges Bank – and for New England.

But after nearly six months of work by staff, the Habitat Committee still prefers Option 6 – a 600-meter broad zone alternative that is solely based on what the industry claims it can tolerate. Next week, however, the Council has the opportunity to strike the right balance between protection for coral and fishing.

The Council can choose Option 7, and here’s why they should:

  • Option 7 uses the most recent available data on corals and fishing effort (through 2016) which has allowed managers to draw a boundary based on where corals occur or are likely to occur and where fishing occurs or is likely to occur.
  • Option 7 protects 85 percent of observed corals, 90 percent of the area likely to be suitable coral habitat, and 100 percent of the high slope habitat. Beyond corals, the increased protections will provide greater benefits for other managed species, such as redfish, that are found in these areas.
  • As a whole, a very small amount of fishing activity occurs in Option 7’s proposed boundary area. For the small difference in economic impact between Option 6 and Option 7, the latter provides far greater habitat protection.
  • Option 7 is consistent with NOAA guidance and the amendment’s purpose of “freezing the footprint” of current fishing effort, specifically mobile bottom-tending gear.
  • Option 7 is a simpler boundary which allows for better enforcement, and vessels will still be allowed to pass through the area as long as gear is stowed.

Choosing Option 7 will provide the greatest ecological benefit for New England’s ocean, while minimizing economic impact. But beyond that, choosing Option 7 will also demonstrate the Council’s commitment to management decisions that are based on the best scientific information available, which is a requirement of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. We hope that the Council will take the opportunity.


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