Ancient Corals Need Protection From Modern Threats

Deep-sea communities face risks from industrial activity, fishing, and ocean warming and acidification

Ancient Corals Need Protection From Modern Threats
Last Updated October 16, 2020
Golden crab
A golden crab finds shelter under Lophelia coral in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
USGS Diversity, Systematics, and Connectivity of Vulnerable Reef Ecosystems

Gulf of Mexico deep-sea corals form diverse habitat communities consisting of reefs, mounds, and undersea forests that are home to starfish, squat lobsters, crabs, sharks, and many species of fish, including grouper and snapper. These fragile and slow-growing corals thrive in the cold, dark ocean depths.

However, deep-sea corals face many threats and once damaged may take centuries or longer to recover. They are susceptible to warming waters and ocean acidification, and can be harmed by oil spills, underwater pipelines, and communications cables that are dragged along the seafloor and kick up sediment that can suffocate marine life. Similarly, boat anchors, crab traps, and some methods of deep-water fishing, such as trawling (dragging large nets along the seafloor), may also stir sediment or break corals. Fishing lines and weights deployed on the bottom can harm corals, too.

Current policies safeguard only some of these fragile coral communities in the Gulf by prohibiting anchoring or the use of certain types of deep fishing gear in these areas. The Pew Charitable Trusts is encouraging the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing policy in the Gulf’s federal waters, to consider extending similar protections to areas where scientists have identified important dense communities of corals.

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Deep-sea corals are home to an astonishing array of marine life that science is just beginning to explore. But some fishing and energy development practices can damage these ocean treasures. Once harmed, deep-sea corals can take centuries to recover, so it’s vital that we protect them fully now.