NMFS enacts ocean-bottom protections for Gulf of Maine corals

A map showcasing the area protected by the new Deep-Sea Coral Amendment

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has enacted the New England Fishery Management Council’s Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment, effectively protecting deep-sea corals in an area roughly 25,000 square miles in size.

The amendment was first approved on 20 November, 2019, after the council developed the action and the NFMS approved it. The final rule, published 21 June, implements the amendment, which prohibits the use of all bottom-tending gear – with the exception of red crab pots – along “the outer continental shelf in waters no shallower than 600 meters to the exclusive economic zone,” the final rule states.

The new final rule will effectively ban all use of multiple types of bottom-tending gear, including “otter trawls; bottom-tending beam trawls; hydraulic dredges; non-hydraulic dredges; bottom-tending seines; bottom longlines; pots and traps’ and sink or anchored gillnets,” the final rule states. In addition to the large area of the outer continental shelf, the rule has also designated an 8-square-mile area off Mount Desert Rock and a 31-square-mile area on the Outer Schoodic Ridge for protections.

Nonprofit group Oceana celebrated the decision to protect the area. A release from the group said it has been “campaigning for more than a decade” to protect deep-sea corals, and the new final rule represents a victory for that effort.

“Closing 25,000 square miles of ocean bottom habitat to destructive fishing is a significant win for deep-sea corals in the Atlantic,” Oceana Senior Campaign Manager Gib Brogan said. “We applaud NOAA Fisheries for stopping the expansion of current bottom fishing and protecting known deep-sea coral in this region. Fishing gear like bottom trawls and dredges act like bulldozers on the ocean floor, destroying centuries’ worth of coral in only a few seconds. Protecting deep-sea corals is a win-win for both fishermen and healthy oceans. Healthy corals will help sustain robust fisheries and ocean ecosystems for years to come.”

According to the NMFS, of the six comments on the rule, five were positive and one was a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of “no comment.”

The supportive comments included the aforementioned Oceana, in addition to the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, Conservation Law Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Wild Oceans.  

The comments did have criticism for the new rule, mainly that the rule could have gone farther to protect deep-sea corals.

“We agree that this action does not protect all deep-sea coral habitat in New England waters and allows the possibility of future expansion of fishing,” the NMFS final rule states. “We note that this action also allows for the possibility of further expansion of deep-sea coral protections. The council is not obligated to permanently protect all habitat suitable for deep-sea corals.”

The new protections come as the White House is considering a recommendation from U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to reinstate the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, a monument that was removed by former U.S. President Donald Trump. One of the maine motivators behind the monument are the deep-sea corals found in the area.

Oceana said that the new rule will protect corals, but that the monument is still necessary.

“Although the areas overlap, the marine national monument offered more protections to ocean wildlife and habitat as it closed the area to all commercial fishing,” the nonprofit said.  

Image courtesy of Oceana


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