Why Deep Water Corals Matter

The Mid-Atlantic Council is considering one of the largest habitat protection actions in Atlantic history…  Anglers should be weighing in…

Ever done an overnighter at the Hudson?  Or any of the Mid-Atlantic’s canyons?  If you hit it right, it’s like something from another world.  Crazy concentrations of bait, squids, rays, sharks, tunas, billfish, etc., all showing on the surface at times, and there’s rarely a shortage of whales.  It’s one of those places where you are constantly catching yourself saying “holy (expletive)!”  The 100 square, to this day it may be my favorite place on earth.

It’s certainly no secret that the Mid-Atlantic Canyons are biological and fishing hot-spots.  But the sort of abundance of life described above is really just the tip of the iceberg.  Fairly recent discoveries have shown that what lies below is just as extraordinary, if not more so.

The Okeanos Explorer

The Okeanos Explorer – Image by Aaron Kornbluth, Sept. 2014

Deep sea exploration by large ocean-going vessels such as NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer, deploying remote operated subs, have discovered and documented astonishing coral communities over vast swaths of bottom, consisting of brightly colored structures, some as large as trees.  Such expeditions have recently identified more than 40 deep-sea coral species in the Atlantic’s offshore canyons, at least three of which are believed to be new to science.  These areas absolutely teem with previously-thought rare marine life.

While only a very small portion has been explored, mounting science suggests that such deep-sea coral communities exist in steep areas along the entire shelf edge and the slope of the Mid-Atlantic coast.  It seems like just about everywhere deep-sea explorers look, they find corals.

While such systems unquestionably provide habitat and support an abundance of marine life, we are only beginning to understand their importance to entire marine ecosystems.  Not just because low tropic level species like squids congregate and seek shelter here, but because they likely contribute to higher rates of biological diversity and productivity.

Deep-water corals are known to be essential habitat for commercially important Acadian redfish in New England, which use deep coral as shelter.  Live streaming feeds from Okeanos last year made it pretty obvious that lobsters, red-crabs, flounders, hakes, skates, monkfish, swordfish and countless other species find food and shelter in these complex and dynamic environments.

Deep-water corals have become extremely valuable in other respects as well.  Compounds in deep sea corals and sponges have produced models for artificial synthesis of human bone and are being experimented with to treat cancer and other human illness.


Rich sea life including an octopus hanging out around deep-water coral – Deepwater Canyons 2013 – Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

Because deep-sea corals live so long, researchers are learning more about historic changes in global climate and ocean current systems through trace elements and isotopes incorporated into coral skeletons over time.  And deep-sea corals have been shown to sequester carbon.

But coral communities are fragile.  They don’t stand up well to bottom-tending fishing gear.  One drag over a coral community and that’s it.  No mas.  Which is probably why observed coral presence is far less frequent in those shallower/flatter bottoms near the shelf edge where it’s been easier to drag nets.  That said, deep-sea coral communities have indeed been surveyed in relatively shallow areas.  For example, NOAA recently discovered massive coral formations 200 meters deep off Mt. Desert Island in the Gulf of Maine.  A similar find was made just last year in the mid-Atlantic’s Wilmington Canyon around 350 meters.  Unfortunately, there’s been very little research in this depth range, and most surveys are being done deeper.  So it’s not easy to know the footprint of current fishing and for managers to figure out where to draw the line and protect corals.

While the effects of current and historic fishing efforts on deep coral habitats have not been quantified, surveys have shown plenty of evidence of mass destruction of deep-sea coral reefs and complete removal of the coral framework in some areas.  Anecdotal accounts from American fishermen indicate corals had been more common in the past, when gillnets and trawls brought up large numbers of coral “trees”.  New deep-sea fisheries abroad have often been characterized by heavy by-catch of coral in the early years after discovery, but these have declined as the reef habitat has been raked over.  It’s pretty clear that corals have disappeared from many areas in the Mid-Atlantic before their occurrences could be documented.

Brooke FSU - crab and corals (2)

Deepwater Canyons 2013 – Pathways to the Abyss. NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

While corals can grow quite large and old, growth rates are very slow.  In most cases just a few millimeters per year.  Even if all these areas were left alone, it could literally take thousands of years for coral communities to rebuild.  So once they are gone, that’s it.  They aren’t coming back.

But I don’t wanna get stuck on the “doom and gloom” part.  As I said, there are still significant coral communities in the Mid Atlantic.  Yes, they have been largely sheltered from bottom trawling, but they are still threatened.  History has been clear in the fact that as traditional fish species become overfished or markets change, fishing has — and in our region likely will — move into deeper waters and more difficult terrain.  Technology advances at a rapid pace these days.  If there’s a buck to be made, gear will be developed that can fish edges and rugged bottom.  Some would argue that it’s already happening.  In recent years, scientists have found discarded fishing gear in Mid-Atlantic submarine canyons and apparent gear related damage to coral habitat.

So that leads us to where we are now.  The 2006 re-authorization of the Magnuson Stevenson Act addressed expanding national and international interest in deep corals by authorizing regional fishery management councils to protect them from fishery impacts, even if they weren’t officially designated as “essential fish habitat” for its managed species.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) is one of the first Councils to officially recognize the value and vulnerability of corals in its region, and would be the first in the country to draw on this new authority.  It is currently in the process of developing a regulatory vehicle to “minimize” fishing impacts to deep-sea corals in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Because the MAFMC’s squid, mackerel and butterfish fishery management plan manages major offshore trawl fisheries operating in areas of likely coral habitat, measures to protect deep-sea corals are being considered through an amendment to this plan.  Nevertheless, the alternatives being developed will apply to other federally regulated fishing activities in the region.

The stated purpose and goal of the Deep Sea Corals Amendment to the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, And Butterfish Fishery Management Plan is to “identify and implement measures that reduce, to the extent practicable, impacts of fishing gear on deep sea corals in the Mid-Atlantic region.”

The document includes alternatives for “deep sea coral zones” in which fishing gear use would be restricted, including potential for both “broad” coral zones and “discrete” coral zones.

The discrete zones generally follow the shapes of the canyons and encompass areas where corals have either been observed or are highly likely to occur based on a verified “habitat suitability” model.

Broad zones cover areas where limited bottom fishing has occurred, following a depth contour as the landward boundary and extending outward.

The idea is to provide protection for areas where corals are known to occur with discrete protection zones, while the broad zones would theoretically “freeze-the-footprint”, preventing the expansion of bottom-tending gear into as yet not heavily fished areas until we know for sure whether or not corals are present.

These two types of deep-sea coral zones should be implemented simultaneously.

Both discrete and broad zones are needed because each canyon has unique topography and biology so some discrete zones go shallower than broad zone alternatives.   And many undocumented and relatively pristine coral systems may exist in unmapped areas relatively untouched by bottom-tending gear.

In the document there are five sets of alternatives we should be paying attention to:

  1. Designation of broad deep sea coral zones,
  2. Restrictions within broad zones,
  3. Designation of discrete deep sea coral zones,
  4. Restrictions within discrete zones,
  5. Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) requirements to aid in enforcement.

I’ll try and briefly break them down/simplify them.

Excluding the “no action/status quo” alternatives, there are four Broad Coral Zone Alternatives.  1B would offer protection from 200-meters out (about 650’), Alternative 1C from the 300-meters out (about 980’), Alternative 1D, from 400m out (about 1300’), and Alternative 1E from 500-meters out (about 1600’).

There are five Alternatives dealing with what sort of restrictions we’d want to have in those broad zones.   Alternative 2B would prohibit all bottom tending gear (both mobile gear like draggers and fixed gear like pots).  Sub options 2B-1 and 2B-2 offer exemptions (read, “allow”) for red-crab pots and tilefish long-lines. Alternative 2C would prohibit just mobile bottom tending gear (e.g., draggers) and allow for pots and other fixed gear.  Alternative 2D would require a vessel monitoring system (VMS) so that NOAA Fisheries would know whether or not vessels were fishing in restricted areas, thus making enforcement easier.

There are two Discrete Coral Zone Alternatives.  Alternative 3B would designate Discrete Coral Zones identified though the NOAA coral habitat prediction model, which represents the best available science on not only where corals are, but where they are highly likely to be based on direct observation, as well as substrate, slope, and a host of other predictors of coral presence.  Sub-alternative 3B-1 would implement fishing industry-proposed boundaries in several canyons which leaves unprotected, areas where corals have been observed and are smaller than what the habitat suitability model tells us should be protected.

Regarding Discrete Coral Zone Restrictions, there are two alternatives.   Alternative 4B would prohibit all bottom-tending gear, and Alternative 4C would prohibit just mobile bottom tending gear.


Deepwater Canyons 2013 – Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

Regarding vessel monitoring alternatives, Alternative 6B would institute an electronic monitoring requirement that would really help with enforcement of whatever restrictions the Council approves.

So…  Without getting any further into the weeds, as anglers/Captains we should be keenly aware of the habitat value of hard structure, or perhaps more accurately the propensity of such structure to draw life and create better fishing opportunity, even if in this case such benefits may be indirect.  Thus, we should advocate for the following alternatives.

Under the Broad Zone Alternatives Alternative 1B, a protection zone starting at 200 meters deep offers the greatest protections for remaining coral communities.  As described earlier, while most of the observed corals occur in waters at 300-plus meters, there are observed corals as well as other evidence that such communities exist between 200 and 300-meters deep.

Under Broad Zone Restrictions, we should advocate for Alternative 2B, which would prohibit all bottom tending gear (both pots and bottom trawls), as both cause damage.

It’s important to advocate for Alternative 2D and 6B requiring electronic vessel monitoring, as it would simply make enforcement of gear restricted areas possible.

Under Discrete Coral Zone Alternatives, it’s only reasonable to go with Alternative 3B which would designate distinct coral areas based on NOAA’s coral habitat suitability model, which is really the best available science on determining areas of coral existence.  Under Discrete Zone Restrictions, we should be advocating for Alternative 4B which would prohibit all bottom tending gear.

The Council will be making its final vote on alternatives to recommend to NOAA for the Deep Sea Corals Amendment to the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, And Butterfish Fishery Management Plan” on Feb 11th at 1pm at the Doubletree Hilton in Raleigh, NC.

It would be awesome if some of you North Carolina Anglers came out to speak in favor of the above alternatives.  But ALL anglers should be submitting written comments, which can be as easy as cutting and pasting from above.  Of course, it’d be helpful if you introduce yourself to the Council as an angler and explain why you want to see that deep-sea corals in our region don’t get destroyed.

Written comment on the Amendment will be accepted until January 28th.  Best way is to email them to kdancy@mafmc.org, with ‘‘Deep Sea Corals Amendment Comments’’ in the subject line.  You can also sign a petition here:  Deep Water Corals Petition.

If you’re an angler and/or a Captain, it’s stupid to think that such corals don’t affect you.  Everything is connected. Preventing long-term damage to critical vulnerable ecosystems on a large scale is just the right thing to do.  For us, for our kids, for the world.

A strong chorus of support from the angling community could be critical to the success of this amendment.  Please take a moment to comment.




After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Conservation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *