On the Radar for 2017: New England’s Deep-Sea Coral Amendment

Allison Lorenc

Deep-sea corals are beautiful and complex organisms that serve as vital habitat for myriad marine species, including commercially important fishes and invertebrates such as crab, hake, and shrimp. What you may not know is that you don’t have to travel to the tropics to find them. In fact, deep-sea corals span the Atlantic Ocean from Maine to Florida. They thrive in cooler waters and do not need sunlight to survive. New England’s waters harbor vast communities of coral species, some rare and unique to our region – such as the Vaughanella margaritata – and many are vulnerable to irreparable harm from lobster traps, crab pots, and other fishing gear.

Conservation Law Foundation has long been dedicated to protecting special ocean places for the importance of sustaining our regional fisheries, but also – and especially – for the benefit of the ocean ecosystem as a whole. In the face of climate change and a rapidly warming Gulf of Maine, protecting habitats like deep-sea corals has become even more important.

In September 2016, the Obama Administration took a major stride towards safeguarding some of New England’s corals and charismatic marine life when it designated the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, an area roughly 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The canyons and seamounts area is a particular hotspot for deep-sea corals and its designation as a marine national monument affords it the highest level of federal protection. CLF, working with our partners, is proud to have been a part of this victory.

Despite the Administration’s historic action, New England’s many corals remain vulnerable to destruction. In recognition of the importance of corals and the habitat they provide, regional fishery management councils along the Eastern seaboard have begun work to protect these fragile ecosystems. Last summer, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council created the largest protected area in the U.S. Atlantic in a scientifically-known region of high coral abundance.

Now, it’s New England’s turn.

The New England Fishery Management Council, under the authority of the U.S. federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, is developing the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment to protect designated coral areas in New England waters from potentially harmful fishing gear. As with most fishing practices, it is never the intent to damage the marine habitat – after all fishermen rely on a healthy ocean – but unfortunately, modern fishing gear does not allow for particular care and caution.

As of now, the Amendment is in the development phase, but its completion is a Council priority for 2017. The Council is analyzing the environmental, economic, and social impacts of different management alternatives. This analysis needs to be completed before any decisions are made and final recommendations put forward.

That required analysis process, however, is not stopping industry members from already working to potentially weaken a final Coral Amendment. At each of the Council’s last two meetings, motions were made to exempt the lobster and crab fisheries from proposed management areas – even though the Council’s analyses are incomplete. CLF, and our partners, commented at the meetings that any exemptions at this point are premature, and we are glad to report that the Council voted down the motions.

The research and analysis that will inform the final amendment are expected to continue well into 2017. We commend the Council for its intent to safeguard New England’s corals, but we will also be closely following the process to make sure that the final amendment enacts meaningful protections for these fragile habitats.

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