NEFMC deep-sea coral amendment provides sweeping habitat protections

Published on
June 19, 2020

A new amendment from the New England Fishery Management Council, which has been approved by NOAA Fisheries, will provide “sweeping protections” for deep-sea corals in areas off the New England coast, including the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

The new amendment, the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment, is expected to take effect this summer and applies to two regions in the Gulf of Maine and the Continental Slope area south of Georges Bank. The area protecting the Continental Slope area includes 82 percent of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, begins at a depth of 600 meters, and extends to the 200-mile exclusive economic zone limit.

In total, the amendment will protect 25,153 square miles south of Georges Bank.

In the Gulf of Maine, the new amendment will protect corals at Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock by prohibiting trawling and dredging in the area, and it also creates a new research area in Jordan Basin.

The amendment is made possible in the marine monument thanks to a recent proclamation by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which opened up the marine monument to commercial fishing – and thus management by the Magnuson-Stevens act and the regional fishery management councils.

“We’ve said from the beginning that fishery management councils are best-suited to address the complicated tradeoffs involved in managing fisheries, and we appreciate regaining our control to do so in the monument area,” NEFMC Chairman John Quinn said in a release.

The council also criticized some of the media coverage surrounding the rescinding of the protections for the seamount region, many of which claimed “devastating” impacts to the habitat in the area.

“This is not true at all,” Tom Nies, the council’s executive director, said in a NEFMC release. “The monument area will not be ‘wide open to industrial fishing.’”

The new amendment prohibits the use of bottom-tending commercial fishing gear within the area, including “otter-trawls; beam-trawls; hydraulic dredges; non-hydraulic dredges; bottom-tending seines; bottom longlines; pots and traps; and sink or anchored gillnets.”

It will also protect the majority of coral habitat in the region, including “75 percent of plotted occurrences of corals, 75 percent of estimated soft coral habitat based on a habitat suitability model, and 85 percent of the areas with slopes greater than 30 degrees. Steep slopes are a strong predictor of coral occurrence.”

“The prohibition on the use of bottom-tending gear types will provide substantial protection for deep-sea corals from being damaged by commercial fishing activities,” NEFM wrote.

Even before the new amendment, certain fishing activities had been prohibited in the region of the marine monument for more than a decade, according to NEFMC.

“Between these existing restrictions and the council’s Coral Amendment measures, only 10 percent of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument will be open to commercial fishing,” the council wrote. “No known fishing activity occurs in the seamounts.”

The council did grant one exemption for ocean-bottom activity: deep-sea red crab fishing. According to NEFMC, that fishery has only four active vessels, and the “canyons and slopes are vital to its operation.”

The amendment protects the corals, but leaves the region open for certain fisheries that utilize it that have minimal impact on the ocean floor.

“The council worked hard to walk that fine line between providing strong habitat and coral protections in the area while balancing the social and economic impacts to the industry,” Nies said.

He also criticized the immediate outcry from NGOs and the environmental community over the Trump administration’s proclamation.

“We don’t think the recent criticism from the environmental community since the announcement of the second monument proclamation is entirely warranted,” he said. “Existing fishery management measures provide strong protections for Lydonia and Oceanographer Canyons, and with the Coral Amendment, we’re preventing commercial fishing from expanding beyond its historical footprint. The council took this step while carefully weighing the associated impacts. We look forward to the implementation of our amendment.” 

Photo courtesy of the New England Fishery Management Council

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