Council Approves Measures to Protect Deepwater Corals in the South Atlantic

SAFMC logo South Atlantic Fishery Management Council  
News Release  
September 24, 2009 CONTACT: Kim Iverson
Public Information Officer
(843) 571-4366

Council Approves Measures to Protect Largest Deepwater Coral Reef in the South Atlantic

Historic measures aim to protect over 23,000 square miles of coral habitats

Click to download Members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted unanimously last week to approve the Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 1, a move that will bolster the layer of protection for over 23,000 square miles of complex deepwater corals located off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and eastern Florida. The amendment, upon implementation by the Secretary of Commerce, will protect specific areas of sensitive habitat, deemed Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs) that house an invaluable array of deepwater coral species living in waters ranging from 400 meters (1200 ft.) to 700 meters (2300 ft.) deep. 
     The South Atlantic region is home to what may be the largest contiguous distribution of deepwater corals in the world, including the common Lophelia coral, largely responsible for reef mound construction in these cold water areas. The parameters defined within the amendment aim to shield these areas from impacts associated with bottom-tending fishing practices. 
     “I am delighted, after five years of effort, that the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has taken this historic step in the protection of deep sea coral habitat,” said Council Chairman Duane Harris.  “This effort involved working closely with golden crab and royal red shrimp fishermen and coral reef experts to craft measures that allow continued fishing while ensuring these coral areas, some of which are thousands of years old, are protected.  The measures will also protect against any possible future shifts of fishing efforts to these coral areas.”
     At the beginning of the decade few people knew of the existence of vast areas carpeted with corals in deep waters off the South Atlantic coast of the U.S.  Scientists at that time were beginning to realize the extent and importance of these “hidden” ecosystems.  In 2003, the Council tasked two of those scientists, Dr. Steve Ross, with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and John Reed, of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, to compile two reports on what was known to date about the deepwater coral ecosystems in the region. 
     Based on these two reports and following the recommendation of its Habitat and Coral Advisory Panels, the Council quickly chose to move forward to protect the area from fishing impacts.  A collaborative process involving conservationists, scientists, managers, and fishermen ensued and, over the following 5 years, culminated with the development of the Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 1.  If approved for implementation by the Secretary of Commerce, regulations to establish the Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern would likely become effective in early 2010. 
     “In both the process involved and the results achieved, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has set a new standard for management of valuable ecosystems,” stated Dr. Doug Rader, chairman of the Council’s Habitat and Environmental Protection Advisory Panel.   “I know of no other example where the finest science available was translated through interactive work with managers and fishermen into world-class protection.”  This impressive ‘win-win’ should be celebrated by all those who love the sea, and who appreciate eating sea food they know is harvested in ways that protect its bounty.”
     For many years fishermen targeting golden crab and royal red shrimp have set their traps and hauled their nets in areas now known to provide suitable habitat for deepwater corals.  These small traditional fisheries, however, operate in distinct areas where fishermen can be sure their gear will not become tangled and possibly damaged.  Therefore, “Allowable Golden Crab Fishing Areas” and “Shrimp Fishery Access Areas” within two of the proposed Coral HAPCs are included in the proposal to ensure the continued existence of these fisheries and the communities they support. “The Council itself initiated efforts to alert us of all the ramifications of the developing process and to minimize the impact on the golden crab fishery,” said Bill Whipple, chairman of the Golden Crab Advisory Panel.  “After dozens of meetings and hundreds of hours with numerous affiliates of the SAFMC, the outcome includes invaluable learning for all involved, deep-rooted respect, and a resolution of the problem which, given the limitations and complexities involved, preserves and maximizes the interests of everyone.”
     An international team of deepwater coral researchers, led by Dr. Ross, is currently conducting a series of research cruises that include exploration of the proposed deepwater coral protected areas off the South Atlantic coast.  Using Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s manned submersible, the Johnson Sea-Link, scientists were able to collect coral samples at depths over 1,000 feet and record never before seen portions of the expansive reefs during the first cruise in August 2009 off of Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Coral samples allow scientists to chemically measure environmental changes such as ocean temperatures and productivity, often over thousands of years.  The reefs may act as barometers for impacts associated with ocean acidification and climate changes. Scientists are also studying habitat distribution and the composition of deepwater communities.  Certain species associated with the corals, such as sponges, may have biomedical applications in the treatment of cancer. “The Council is spearheading efforts to define the boundaries and protect these areas,” said Dr. Ross, noting that fishing practices have damaged some deepwater coral areas in other parts of the world. “We’re ahead of the game. These deepwater reefs are irreplaceable.”
Additional resources:

High resolution images and video clips are available from the Habitat and Ecosystem Section of the Council’s Web site. 

Note: Copies of the award-winning film "Revealing the Deep" about deepwater coral exploration and a separate CD with high resolution images and video clips from recent cruises are available by contacting the Council office.

For daily cruise logs from the research vessels, visit: U.S. Geological Survey DISCOVRE or the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' Life on the Edge



Council Approves Measures to Protect Largest Deepwater Coral Reef in the South Atlantic