Deep-Sea Corals Gain Protection in the Gulf of Mexico

A squat lobster climbs on a deep-sea coral in the Gulf of Mexico      Photo: NOAA, via NOLA.com

By Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

Last week the federal government approved protections for 500 square miles of deep-sea coral habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, NOLA.com reported. The rules, approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), prohibit fishing with bottom tending nets and other fishing tools that rip apart fragile corals, some of which ae hundreds of years old, though they do not ban fishing per se. The newly protected habitats stretch across 13 reef and canyon sites from the Texas Gulf Coast to the Florida Keys and contain fish valued by commercial fishermen. Conservationists hope that these new rules will open a door to the protection of more threatened reefs in the region.

Why This Matters: Deep-sea corals live at depths up to 10,000 feet and protect a diverse array of marine life including shrimp, crab, and other fish caught and sold for consumption around the world. Without the protections afforded by the fan and feather-shaped corals, this sea life would become scarcer, not only harming ecosystems, but also fishing, trade, and the availability of seafood. Gib Brogan, a campaign manager for Oceana which has been fighting for these protections for 20 years, explains, “a single pass of a fishing net can wipe out a century or a thousand years of growth.” Some corals in the reefs date back to the 1400s; damage to these corals will not be repaired for many generations to come.

A Healing Process

The protections come at a crucial moment for the survival of these deep-sea habitats. The 2010 BP oil spill released damaging oil into the habitats, but subsequent research found that the clean-up efforts may have done even more damage to coral reefs. Dispersants used to remove oil from the waters, Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527, have been found to cause more damage to corals than oil alone. Before the 2010 spill, the impacts of dispersants were unknown and untested on sea life, but marine scientist Dennise Ruiz-Ramos says the effects are now obvious, “you can see it visually in the disintegration of the corals.”

A New Frontier

Despite their importance to the ecosystem, science knows very little about deep-sea corals. Until recent developments in undersea research technology, researchers had little ability to examine or take samples of the corals. Now, research is learning much more about this crucial deep-sea life. Some sponges living among deep-sea corals were found to have anti-viral and cancer-fighting properties, lending hope to new medical developments. Experts are still finding deep-sea coral habitats to explore and protect, and expect to find many more; only 0.05 percent of the seafloor has been mapped.

Brogan says it’s a time for celebration, “It’s like Christmas in October.” Other conservationists agree. Holly Binns, Gulf conservation director for the Pew Charitable Trusts said, “NOAA has shown their commitment to conserving vital habitat, which will benefit an array of marine life (and) current and future generations of anglers, commercial fishermen, seafood consumers, and countless others – all of whom reap benefits from a healthy Gulf of Mexico.” The Pew Charitable Trusts is eyeing at least 40 other coral “hot spots” in the gulf to receive future protections, which will be crucial to future marine life and research.

 

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