Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why US Might Protect 38,000 Miles of Coral Habitat in Middle of Atlantic

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why US Might Protect 38,000 Miles of Coral Habitat in Middle of Atlantic

Article excerpt

A panel that oversees commercial and recreational fishing along the United States' mid-Atlantic coast has approved a plan to protect 38,000 square miles of deep-sea canyons and surrounding sea floor from bottom-trawling and other fishing techniques that destroy sea- floor habitats.

It marks the first time that one of the nation's eight fisheries- management councils has exercised its authority to protect deep-sea- coral habitats in its jurisdiction, say fisheries-policy specialists.

The panel, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, voted Wednesday afternoon to recommend the restrictions. They cover 27 deep-sea canyons divided into 15 protection zones. The canyons run from the edge of the continental shelf and down the continental margins to the deep-ocean floor.

Like their shallow-water counterparts, corals in these canyons serve as nurseries for commercially valuable fish, such as red crab, lobster, flounder, and hake. They also host a range of creatures unique to the coral beds, which some researchers have dubbed the old- growth forests of the deep ocean.

The canyons host other habitats, such as cold seeps. There, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and other gases bubble up through the sea floor to nourish creatures that rely on chemicals, rather than sunlight, for energy.

The panel's move is preemptive, notes Brad Sewell, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Oceans Program.

"These resources are generally pristine," he says, noting that high-demand fish species in the region generally don't live in the canyons, so few if any fishing interests in the region use the deep- sea gear needed to exploit canyon resources.

But the gear needed to fish at least partway into the canyons exists and is used elsewhere around the world, including off the coast of Alaska, Mr. Sewell adds.

And consumer tastes in fish change.

"You don't know when some fish will become a new delicacy in Asia or somewhere else, and a market will explode," he says.

Scientific interest in deep-sea corals, which are found at depths of more than 6,000 feet, and their ecological roles has been building for years. …

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