Federal fisheries regulators have approved a plan granting new protections to some of the Gulf of Mexico’s oldest and most fragile stands of deep-sea coral.
The¬†Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council unanimously¬†voted to designate about 480 square miles as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern, a status that would make them a priority for conservation and scientific study. The protected areas are broken up into 21 sites, most off the Louisiana coast.
The council’s designations have been submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service for review. Final approval is expected after a two-month public comment period.
Environmental groups had been lobbying for the protections for years. The Pew Charitable Trusts, which gathered 16,000 signatures in support, called the council’s decision “a major milestone” for critically important marine habitat.
The benefits will reach far beyond coral, according to Oceana, a Washington D.C. ocean advocacy group.
“These areas also benefit fisheries, providing habitat for many commercially and recreationally valuable types of fish, such as snapper and grouper,” Alison Johnson, a campaign manager for the Oceana, said in a statement.
Approved June 21, the designation restricts certain fishing gear, such as trawls, traps, longlines and anchors, that can damage or smother corals.
“These harmful gears can wreak havoc on deep-sea corals, destroying centuries-worth of coral growth in only seconds,” Johnson said.
Trolling, hook-and-line fishing and other less-damaging techniques will still be allowed.
The designation lays the groundwork for the council to recommend ways to stop or mitigate activities authorized by federal or state agencies at these sites, including oil and gas exploration and drilling.
Unlike shallow-water coral, which often form hard, stone-like structures, many deep-see corals look more like tree branches. They need little or no light, allowing them to thrive in dark depths of nearly 10,000 feet. They grow exceedingly slow and can live for hundreds of years. Some of the Gulf’s deep-sea corals date back to the 1400s.
Corals¬†add complexity and structure to an otherwise barren deep-water seascape. They act in the same way forests do on land, providing places for crab, shrimp, fish and other animals to hide and shelter their young.
Largely a mystery until recent years, deep-sea corals are¬†drawing the attention of many scientists. Some corals have been found to have properties that can help in medical treatments, including ones that fight cancer.
When damaged, corals take decades to recover.
The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster took a heavy toll on the Gulf’s corals. Recent research indicates that the chemical dispersants used to clean-up the spill were more harmful to coral than oil alone.
Pew hopes the new protections are the first of many more. At least 47 significant coral spots in the Gulf need safeguards, the group says.