The federal government took its final step late yesterday to protect sensitive deepwater canyons that lie along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Virginia. Specifically, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) took decisive action to close four deepwater canyons – Oceanographer, Lydonia, Veatch and Norfolk – to destructive fishing gear.
The landmark action, initiated by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and supported by Oceana, will take effect November 1, 2009 as part of a change to the management of Atlantic tilefish that will prohibit the use of bottom trawls and dredges in these areas year-round.
“These are four of the most well-documented canyons in the northeast region, rich with deep sea corals, sponges and hiding places for offshore lobster and fish,” said Margot Stiles, marine scientist at Oceana. “NMFS’ action makes it very clear that even a single pass by a bottom trawl or dredge can do irreparable damage. The use of these gears in canyon habitats is unacceptable.”
Offshore canyons are also important to the region’s recreational fishing community. The new regulations will have no impact on fishing for marlin, tuna or other gamefish that swim above the canyons.
“This is a significant step for marine conservation in the mid-Atlantic,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana’s Northeast representative in Boston. “Past actions that attempted to conserve these areas were unsuccessful because they only limited certain kinds of fishing. While this is an important first step, more must be done to achieve comprehensive deep sea ecosystem management. There are more than a dozen other canyons from the Canadian border to the Carolinas where Oceana has called for similar protections before expanded fishing activity threatens them.”
Bottom trawls and dredges are fishing gears that are dragged along the seafloor, catching fish and devastating all other ocean life, including coral, in their path. These areas include ecologically important coral and sponge gardens and the fragile clay burrows that tilefish dig into the ocean floor. Once disturbed by fishing gear, these areas can take centuries to recover, if they can recover at all.
“Oceana has worked for more than five years to highlight the need to conserve deep sea habitat off our nation’s coasts,” said David Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “This action shows that the ocean managers along the Atlantic coast have recognized the existence, importance and fragility of these canyons. Oceana is hopeful that this first step will be the beginning of an ongoing process to produce comprehensive protections for these and other valuable and vulnerable areas of the ocean floor.”