When Gulf of Mexico fishery leaders approved a first-of-its-kind proposal to protect ancient deep-sea coral ecosystems last summer, more than 16,000 people submitted public comments supporting the plan. Now people have another chance to speak up to make sure those measures become final.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for the stewardship of marine resources, wants to hear from the public on the plan to protect 21 fragile coral hot spots by restricting damaging fishing gear in most of them. The secretary of commerce, who oversees NOAA, must sign off on the Gulf plan for it to become final. So NOAA is hosting a public comment period online until Nov. 25. Comments can be submitted here.
In June 2018, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which governs fishing in the Gulf’s federal waters, designated the 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 would still be allowed because those methods do not normally affect the deep ocean floor where these corals live.
The safeguards mark a major milestone in protecting coral ecosystems that provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for wildlife ranging from sharks and crabs to snapper and grouper. 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.
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 focused safeguards on sites that scientists, fishermen, and others agreed should be prioritized for protection. Experts have identified 47 significant coral hot spots in the Gulf that need safeguards. The council could eventually extend its coral management plan to cover those.
Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Caribbean.