Deep-Sea Corals Win Protection in Gulf of Mexico

Restrictions may help prevent destruction from damaging fishing gear

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Deep-Sea Corals Win Protection in Gulf of Mexico
Iridogorgia coral
Two squat lobsters sit on Iridogorgia coral, a type of octocoral.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Gulf of Mexico deep-sea corals won protections today in a first-of-its-kind plan to safeguard some of the region’s coral hot spots and restrict damaging fishing gear in most of those areas.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which governs fishing in the Gulf’s federal waters, unanimously approved the measure at its meeting in Key West, Fla.

These safeguards mark a major milestone in protecting ancient, fragile coral ecosystems that provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for wildlife ranging from sharks and crabs to fish such as snapper and grouper. The council has recognized these corals as valuable habitat that plays an important role in the health and vitality of the Gulf of Mexico.

The council designated 21 sites totaling 484 square miles (more than twice the size of New Orleans) as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern—a status that highlights priority areas for conservation, management, and research efforts. It also allows the council to recommend measures to avoid, mitigate, or offset any adverse impacts from activities authorized by federal or state agencies at these sites, including oil and gas exploration and drilling. In most of the new areas, the council restricted damaging fishing gear, such as trawls, traps, anchors, and longlines, which can break or smother corals. Trolling and other hook-and-line fishing will still be allowed, because those methods do not normally affect the deep ocean floor where these corals live. 

In the future, the council should restrict damaging fishing gear in all of the sites and consider more coral hot spots for protection. Today’s vote focused safeguards on sites that scientists, fishermen, and others agreed should be prioritized for protection. Experts have so far identified 47 significant coral hot spots in the Gulf that need safeguards. The council could eventually extend its coral management plan to cover those.

bamboo corals
Multiple species of coral, including bubblegum and bamboo corals, inhabit the Gulf of Mexico depths.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The plan was several years in the making. Scientists, fishermen, policymakers, and conservationists worked to identify the priority sites and set boundaries that would protect the most corals while allowing fishermen to access productive fishing grounds nearby.  The council hosted public hearings during May and June. About 1,700 people submitted written comments, the majority of which support coral protections. Pew collected more than 16,000 signatures from people who backed these protections.

Safeguarding coral ecosystems is important because they are fragile and ancient.Once damaged, slow-growing corals can take centuries to recover, if they survive at all. Some deep-sea corals can grow hundreds of feet tall, while others live for thousands of years. Coral ecosystems are also natural disease fighters, with some holding properties that are producing treatments for medical conditions, including cancer. 

By protecting these ecosystems, the council has shown its commitment to conserving vital habitat, which will benefit an array of marine life as well as current and future generations of people, all of whom reap benefits from a healthy ocean. Let’s hope that the U.S. Department of Commerce grants final approval so that the council’s plan can take effect.

Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. South Atlantic Ocean, and the U.S. Caribbean.    

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Ancient Corals Need Protection From Modern Threats

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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.

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