Regulators vote to protect more corals in Atlantic

NEFMC graphic/The New England Fishery Management Council approved a 600-meter minimum depth broad zone to protect deep-sea corals south of Georges Bank. Four seamounts and 20 deep-sea canyons are protected with the zone.

The New England Fishery Management Council has approved a deep-sea coral protection amendment that will close a wide swath of the continental slope and canyons south of Georges Bank to almost all bottom-tending fishing gear in waters deeper than 600 meters.

The omnibus deep-sea coral amendment, approved by the council Tuesday, will protect 25,153 square miles of deep sea corals and was hailed by conservationists and environmentalists despite the fact that their alternative proposal would have protected even more area off the coast of New England.

“Today’s action is a strong step toward coral conservation, however it was unfortunate that the council did not select the stronger option that was available to them,” Gib Brogan, Oceana’s fisheries campaign manager, said in a statement. “The council missed the opportunity to approve a plan that would have truly stopped the expansion of current fishing and would have protected more corals.”

The deep-sea coral amendment, which requires NOAA Fisheries review and approval, covers 75 percent of the known corals within the designated area, 75 percent of the area’s most suitable habitat for soft corals and 85 percent of the area’s canyon slopes pitched at greater than 30 degrees.

It protects four seamounts and 20 deep-sea canyons.

If approved by NOAA Fisheries, the designated protection areas will be closed to all bottom-tending gear, including mobile gear such as trawls and dredges and all fixed gear such as traps and gillnets.

The lone exception, approved by the council, allows the Atlantic deep-sea red crab pot fishery to continue harvesting in the area.

Fishermen, however, will be able to continue fishing with bottom-tending gear from the Massachusetts coast to the designated protected areas, unless they are in areas already restricted by regulations apart from the coral amendment.

“Oceana calls on NOAA to approve the coral amendment and commit to revisit this important action in the near future to ensure that coral conservation in New England is effective and provides these beautiful and ancient corals the protection that they deserve,” Brogan said.

The protective actions for the canyons and continental slope are the final piece of the over-arching omnibus deep-sea coral amendment.

In June, the council approved protective measures for the Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock, as well as the Jordan Basin dedicated habitat research area which the council envisions as a site for future research on the impact of fishing gear on corals.

The protections applied to the Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock were described as a “discreet coral protection zone” where mobile bottom-tending gear such as trawls and dredges will be prohibited.

Lobster traps and pots, as well as other types of gear, will be allowed.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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