In a long awaited decision, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) today, putting the fate of rare deep sea corals off the South Atlantic coast in the hands of the public. Last month, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council advanced a proposal – five years in the making – to protect more than 23,000 square miles of known deep sea coral from North Carolina to Florida from destructive fishing gear.
“These beautiful and fragile deep sea coral and sponge habitats are valuable in their own right,” said Dave Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “Immediate protection of this rare ecosystem is also necessary to generate healthy fisheries that support fishermen and coastal economies and cultures.”
After the 45-day comment period, the Council will take a final vote at its September meeting before sending its recommendation for the “Habitat Areas of Particular Concern” (HAPC) to the Secretary of Commerce. Oceana anticipates its adoption by the end of 2009.
“This is the only place in the U.S. where reefs like this exist,” said Margot Stiles, marine scientist at Oceana. “These are bustling underwater cities full of animals that would otherwise have nowhere to live, including commercially valuable snapper and grouper.”
Deep sea corals off the Southeast coast include hundreds of pinnacles up to 500 feet tall. These corals provide important habitat for a variety of marine life, including sponges with unusual chemistry currently in testing to develop drugs for cancer, heart disease and other medical needs.
The Case of the Oculina Banks:
The importance of Council action is seen in the South Atlantic where there was a failure to protect hundreds of square miles of similarly vulnerable habitat. The Oculina coral banks off Florida suffered virtually irreversible destruction from bottom trawl and dredge fishing gear, only decades after being discovered. This is one of the clearest examples of vital ocean ecosystems being destroyed for short-term fisheries profits before its long-term value was fully understood.