In recent news, the very rare, deep-sea coral habitats, along the North American east coast, are under examination by the New England Fishery Management Council. Deep sea coral habitats are often overlooked and forgotten since traditionally we think of coral reefs in bright environments near the surface, in tropical locations. However, when buried deep under the ocean’s surface, they are of no less importance to the ecosystems they support. In the regions under examination, scientists have found bio-diverse hot spots in the deep water. Fragile and slow-growing coral gardens of sea whips, fan, and pens have been observed along the steep rock walls.
The areas described above have become less common since fishing has become more advanced and not just a need for survival, but also a hobby for many. Many delicate, slow-growing deep-sea corals have been damaged and destroyed from centuries of colliding with fishing gear and overzealous fishermen.
The New England Fishery Management Council is currently considering a plan of action that could leave over 400 Maine lobster-men looking for a new fishing territory. The new proposals aim is to protect deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Maine from the heavy fishing the area gets.
The Council’s Plan for deep sea coral protection
The council is considering a protection plan that would ban fishing in four designated zones where coral resides. These zones span about 161 miles through federal waters in the Gulf of Maine including the notable regions: Mount Desert Rock, Outer Schoodic Ridge, Jordan Basin, and Lindenkhol Knoll.
The council presents finds that show the importance of these corals to the rest of the ecosystem. The protection of these corals is important because they not only provide shelter for adult organisms and refuge for larval fish, but also provide food for many organisms as well. The council argues this is a no-brainier, since a sister organization has already blazed the trail ahead, creating deep-sea coral protection zones in the deep mid-Atlantic ocean waters from Long Island, New York to Virginia.
If you picture Maine, and you’re like me, you probably think about lobster. The Gulf of Maine is a hot spot for lobster fishermen everywhere, many of which have been fishing for lobster for generations. Not surprisingly, the protection zones that the council are proposing are also home to many lobsters. Mount Desert Rock and Outer Schoodic Ridge, are two of the proposed zones that are also prime lobster real estate for Maine fishermen. The state Department of Maine Resources estimate over 100 lobster boats fish in this specific 49 square mile region. That may seem like a large number of boats and small square mileage, but that only makes up a mere percentage of the state’s complete lobster fleet which estimates about 6,000 commercial licenses issued.
“The lobster industry is the most important economic driver in this Down East area,” says Terry Stockwell, the DMR’s director of external affairs. He continues by saying, “Closing these two areas to lobstering would hurt more than dozen coastal communities, impact hundreds of jobs. These are important offshore fishing grounds for our year-round fishery. Maine doesn’t oppose the protection of deep-sea corals, but it strongly believes that lobstering should be exempted in these two areas.”
Education for deep-sea coral
While the protection of coral by laws and regulations is of the utmost importance, education can also go a long way in protecting coral and other marine organisms. When interviewing Jim Dow, a 52-year-old lobstermen that fishes specifically in the Mount Desert Rock region, he said, “It [the protection plan] would have a big impact on me, forcing me to find a new place for my gear in an area that’s already pretty well fished”.
Dow also spoke about the word of the coral protection plan spreading and how it would affect other fishermen in the area. He says that many of the men he spoke with didn’t even know there was coral in the deep canyons below the surface, let alone that they were potentially destroying it. Dow says he has never personally found coral in any of his lobster traps and neither have any of the other fishermen he has spoken to about the matter.
Researchers have begun surveys on the proposed protection zones to better understand what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be allowed in order to properly protect the corals. Using remotely operated underwater vehicles and cameras to photograph and sample the Gulf of Maine coral zones, scientists have started to gather enough data to make accurate claims about what should and shouldn’t be allowed.
“Is the footprint of lobster gear smaller than trawl gear? Sure, because traps are smaller, but their small size also means they are set in places where trawl gear can’t go, the places where the coral still exists. These are areas we’re trying to protect. Deep-sea corals are vulnerable. They grow very slowly. If they get damaged, they’re not going to come back anytime soon,” says Peter Auster, a marine sciences professor at the University of Connecticut.
To counter these claims, Stockwell argues that these new protection zones could have implications on other marine species in the area like the endangered North Atlantic right whale. This is because the protection zones would cause fishermen to be pushed out of their normal areas, most likely to areas where right whales feed. This could cause serious problems for the whales as they can become entangled in nets quite easily.
What comes next?
The council’s deep-sea coral protection proposal will go through a series of public hearings most likely this spring. Before the council takes its final vote, there will also be a proposed range of possible alternatives, including the exemption that would allow continued lobster trapping in protected areas. Next, if it gets approved, it goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service for a final vote as well as a public commenting period.