The vote will lead to the protection of over 90,650 square kilometers of ocean from trawl and dredge fishing.
Affected areas are situated along the Atlantic coast of the U.S., and the vote will provide protection for deep-sea ocean corals. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted for the protection of an area which reaches from Long Island, New York to the southern border of Virginia, according to Reuters.
A triumph for environmentalists
Environmental activists who supported the legislation celebrated a famous victory which will provide for the protection of an area as large as Kentucky. Although commercial fishing does not yet take place in the area, seas of a similar depth in New Zealand and Europe are currently threatened by trawling, said Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager for Oceana, an environmental non-profit based in Washington.
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“It’s a precautionary measure,” he said. “They’ve drawn a clear line in the Atlantic Ocean and said you can’t go fish in that area until the scientists have determined there aren’t corals in that area. It’s a very big piece of ocean.”
Similar protection for deep water corals off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida was implemented in 2010, however no protection is currently in place for North Carolina.
Coral subject to ongoing scientific studies
Deep sea corals grow hundreds of meters below the surface of the ocean, and are related to jellyfish. Studies into the role of coral in the deep sea ecosystem are ongoing, according to Brogan. “They provide shelter and cover and they are the subject of an emerging field of biomedical research,” he said.
A variety of marine life is supported by the fragile ecosystems formed by the coral. Certain kinds of commercial activity, such as squid fishery, use a technique known as bottom trawling, which poses a threat to the coral. Scientists and conservation groups have been campaigning for the protection of the coral for years. Coral do not recover easily from damage given the fact that they are slow-growing and long-lived.
Despite initial opposition from the squid industry to any restrictions on its fishing activity, a deal was later struck which protected 15 deepwater canyons. Now the latest deal will extend this protection to a wider area which overlaps those distinct sites, and a representative of the New Jersey squid fishery has expressed his support.
Gregory P. DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, said that the new area covers “the most valuable and unique habitats in the region.” However he rejected calls from environmentalists that the protected area should be extended even further.
Brad Sewell, fisheries policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, claimed that the vote “marks a milestone in ocean-protection efforts.”
Labyrinthine regulations complicate marine conservation efforts
The fishery management council is an independent body which works alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to draw up regulations for ocean waters between 3 and 200 kilometers from the shore. Its jurisdiction does not rule out lobster fishing or other kinds of underwater activity.
Regulations defining what can and cannot be done in our oceans are subject to federal and state rules, and the situation is complicated further by the fact that a multitude of different agencies regulate different activities.
The current protection is not related to oil or gas drilling, the laying of underwater cables or other underwater activities. The battle to protect deep-sea coral faces a number of different threats, including from the highest level of government.
Earlier this year, President Obama floated plans to allow drilling in an area of the Atlantic which is part of the protected area. Although the vote is an encouraging sign for conservationists, their battle to protect the coral is far from over.