Today Oceana petitioned the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to comprehensively protect, for the first time, deep-sea coral and sponge areas in U.S. ocean waters by locating and closing known and potential coral and sponge areas to destructive bottom trawling fishing gear. (Click here to read the petition.)
“This is a true emergency. Oceana is seeking this protection because destructive trawling gear is destroying deep sea coral reefs and gardens at an alarming rate,” said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, Oceana’s vice president for North America and chief scientist. “We think it’s outrageous that the federal government’s idea of taking care of this problem is to allow continued destructive trawling rather than requiring action to protect these vulnerable deep-sea locations.”
Bottom trawling or dragging is the most widespread human threat to deep-sea coral communities. Current federal regulations allow deep-sea draggers to mow down corals, sponges, and other living seafloor animals with fishing gear that can weigh well in excess of ten tons. Under these government rules, bottom trawlers rip millions of pounds of this rich living habitat from the sea floor every year.
As scientists learn more about corals and sponges, it is evident that this destruction by bottom trawling may not recover in our lifetime, if ever. Earlier this year, 1,136 scientists from around the world signed a letter that called for protection of deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems because they provide habitat for countless species of marine wildlife, nurseries for many commercially valuable fish, and promise for new medicines. The scientists presented the letter in February at the Seattle meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Deep-sea corals occur off all the American coasts and scientists discover more every year. Many dense masses of beautiful deep-sea corals and sponges live in the New England seamount chain, which extends southeast from Georges Bank off the coast of Massachusetts. The coral gardens off the coast of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska represent some of the oldest and richest marine ecosystems on earth. The extensive Lophelia reefs explored off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, include sponges, corals, sea plumes and other life.
From New England to Florida to Alaska, scientists have located many dense masses of beautiful deep-sea corals and sponges, which are some of the oldest and richest marine ecosystems on earth.
“This petition asks our government to save these rainforests of the deep,” said Dr. Hirshfield. “Oceana is going to use every available means to protect these biologically rich and complex areas on the deep-sea floor so we can have healthy, productive oceans.”
Under current law, the Commerce Department is supposed to protect deep-sea corals and sponges because of their value to America’s fisheries and because of the immediate threats to ocean health from destructive trawling gear. As demonstrated by Oceana’s regional fishery management proposals, it is possible to maintain vibrant fisheries while still protecting this important ocean habitat.
In addition to ensuring that deep-sea corals and sponges in U.S. territorial ocean waters are protected from destructive trawling, Oceana’s petition also calls for the federal government to put strict limits on the amount of corals and sponges fishermen are allowed to catch in the course of continuing fisheries, and to enhance monitoring systems for boats fishing in areas where corals and sponges are known or suspected to exist. The petition also asks for the necessary increases in enforcement and penalties to prevent deliberate destruction of deep-sea corals and sponges. Finally, the petition requests the Commerce Department initiate and fund additional research to identify, protect and restore damaged deep-sea corals and sponges.
Federal law also requires the U.S. fishery management councils to develop management plans that protect ocean habitat essential to a healthy fishery. Oceana continues to work through this process at the regional level. However, it takes years to finalize each plan and, notwithstanding limited actions by two councils, not one of the nation’s eight fishery councils has yet adopted a comprehensive plan that protects deep-sea corals and other essential fish habitat. As this process drags on, bottom trawling continues to decimate corals and sponges. As articulated in Oceana’s petition, the Secretary of Commerce has both the authority and responsibility to halt this destruction.
David Allison, director of Oceana’s Stop Destructive Trawling campaign, points out, “deep-sea corals and coral gardens are not just about the fish we eat. They are a vibrant, beautiful and valuable legacy for all Americans.”
Oceana is a non-profit international advocacy organization dedicated to restoring and protecting the world's oceans through policy advocacy, science, law and public education. Founded in 2001, Oceana's constituency includes members and activists who are committed to saving the world’s marine environment from more than 150 countries and territories. Oceana, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has additional offices in key U.S. coastal areas, a South American office in Santiago, Chile, and a European office in Spain. For more information, please visit www.Oceana.org.
Download Photos Below: click to enlarge and then right-click to save.
Photo Caption and Credit
Juvenile sharpchin rockfish making its home in red tree coral in Alaskan waters. Credit Victoria O’Connell, ADF&G.
Bamboo coral on the top of Davidson Seamount off Monterey at about 1300 meters deep. Courtesy NOAA/MBARI.
Northern rockfish taking refuge in a coral garden in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Credit Bob Stone NOAA.
Lingcod and hydrocoral in the Gulf of Alaska. Credit Victoria O’Connell, ADF&G.
Oculina reefs off the Southeastern United States. Credit NOAA/USGS.