Feds Vote to Protect More Corals in Atlantic Ocean

A coral located 165 nautical miles southeast of Cape Cod, Mass. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (CN) – Federal authorities approved a regulation Tuesday that they say will expand coral-habitat preserves in the Atlantic Ocean while also protecting fishing interests.

Voting on an area south of Georges Bank, which is one of the most important commercial fishing areas in the Northeast, the New England Fishery Management Council sent the final piece of its omnibus deep-sea coral amendment to the National Marine Fisheries Services for final approval.

Tuesday’s vote comes seven months after the council adopted coral-protection zones for the Gulf of Maine in a June vote.

Though the original George Island zone was first proposed in June, a decision was withheld so that the council could consider information for a second proposal that covered more bottom and included shallower depths, ranging between 300 meters and 550 meters. This option would have prohibited mobile bottom-tending gear but not fixed gear.

The final zone of the set approved Tuesday sets a 600-meter minimum depth limit in an area that encompasses 25,153 square mile. The approval includes an exemption for the Atlantic deep-sea red crab pot fishery.

“Once the amendment is implemented, this zone – with one exception – will be closed to all bottom-tending gear, meaning both mobile gear such as trawls and dredges and fixed gear such as traps and gillnets,” the board said in a statement.

The Council’s Habitat Plan Development Team, using trawl vessel monitoring system data to identify fishing grounds, edited the boundary to reduce economic impacts.

Conservationists at the Natural Resources Defense Council have said the regulation is insufficient to protect coral.

“The New England fishery council actually voted down the better protection plan that had been developed by its scientific committee over the last six months,” NRDC director Brad Sewell said in a statement. “This alternative plan was designed to allow a certain category of commercial fishing gear known as bottom-tending mobile gear, which includes bottom trawl nets and dredges, to continue to be generally used where it is currently. However, this alternative also was intended to prevent any significant expanded use of this bottom gear into new areas of coral habitat.”

Pro-conservation Pew Charitable Trusts said the new protections mean 100,000 square miles of deep-sea coral habitat would be protected from the Canadian border to Florida.

Preservation of New England’s slow-growing, canyon-dwelling corals has long been a subject of debate, and interest in it accelerated a few years ago when then-President Barack Obama planned a national marine monument dedicated to saving corals and preserving ocean biodiversity. Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, created in 2016, protected about 5,000 square miles off New England, but its future is uncertain because of legal challenges and a review by Republican President Donald Trump’s administration.

Oceana called the newly approved protections are a step in the right direction Tuesday, but said the council could have done more to keep fishing gear that dredges the ocean floor away from corals.

“Protecting deep-sea corals is a win-win for both fishermen and healthy oceans,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana’s fisheries campaign manager.

Peter Auster, a marine-science research professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, said the council may have missed a chance at more dramatic protection for corals.

“In all these kind of things, getting some is better than getting none,” he said. “Future actions could still take place.”

Fishing groups at Tuesday’s meeting meanwhile said they were glad the council backed off protections that would have displaced more fishermen from the area.

“We need room to maneuver,” said Meghan Lapp, a representative for North Kingstown, Rhode Island-based fishing company Seafreeze.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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