28 September 2009 - CHARLESTON, South Carolina. (ENS) - Protection for over 23,000 square miles of complex deepwater corals located off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and eastern Florida was advanced last week by a unanimous vote of the members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, SAFMC, a federal government advisory body. Upon implementation by the Secretary of Commerce, the measure will protect specific areas of sensitive habitat, designated as Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern, inhabited by coral species living in waters ranging from 1,200 feet to 2,300 feet deep. Known as the Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 1, the measure could take effect in early 2010, creating the largest deepwater coral protected area off the Atlantic Coast. "I am delighted, after five years of effort, that the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has taken this historic step in the protection of deep sea coral habitat," said Council Chairman Duane Harris. The protective measure aims to shield these areas from fishing practices that drag heavy gear across the sea floor. "This effort involved working closely with golden crab and royal red shrimp fishermen and coral reef experts to craft measures that allow continued fishing while ensuring these coral areas, some of which are thousands of years old, are protected," he said. "The measures will also protect against any possible future shifts of fishing efforts to these coral areas." A coral hake, Laemonema melanurum, swims near deepwater coral off the South Atlantic coast. (Photo by Steve Ross courtesy UNCW) The South Atlantic region holds what the council believes to be the largest contiguous distribution of deepwater corals in the world, including the common Lophelia coral, largely responsible for reef mound construction in these cold water areas. "This landmark decision is a win for the oceans and those in the southeast who rely on it for their livelihoods," said Dave Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. "The crushing of these ancient coral reefs would be a serious loss to the ocean ecosystem and could threaten the survival of golden crab and wreckfish fishermen that catch other species on these deep reefs." Deep sea corals off the southeast coast include hundreds of pinnacles up to 500 feet tall, say Oceana scientists. These corals are inhabited by a variety of marine species, including sponges with unusual chemistry now being tested to develop drugs for the treatment of cancer and heart disease. At the beginning of the decade few people knew of the existence of these vast areas carpeted with corals in deep waters off the South Atlantic coast of the United States. In 2003, the council asked two scientists, Dr. Steve Ross, with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and John Reed, of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, to compile two reports on what was known about the deepwater coral ecosystems in the region. Based on these two reports and following the recommendation of its Habitat and Coral Advisory Panels, the council chose to protect the area from fishing impacts. A collaborative process involving conservationists, scientists, managers, and fishermen over the next five years, culminated with the development of the Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 1, which was approved last week. "In both the process involved and the results achieved, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has set a new standard for management of valuable ecosystems," said Dr. Doug Rader, chairman of the Council's Habitat and Environmental Protection Advisory Panel. "I know of no other example where the finest science available was translated through interactive work with managers and fishermen into world-class protection," Rader said. "This impressive 'win-win' should be celebrated by all those who love the sea, and who appreciate eating seafood they know is harvested in ways that protect its bounty." Crab, Eumunida picta, perched on Lophelia pertusa deepwater coral, a deepwater species (Photo by Steve Ross courtesy UNCW) For many years fishermen targeting golden crab and royal red shrimp have set their traps and hauled their nets in areas now known to provide suitable habitat for the deepwater corals. These small traditional fisheries operate in distinct areas where fishermen can be sure their gear will not become tangled and possibly damaged. So the council has designated "Allowable Golden Crab Fishing Areas" and "Shrimp Fishery Access Areas" within two of the proposed Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern as part of the proposal to ensure the continued existence of these fisheries and the communities they support. "The council itself initiated efforts to alert us of all the ramifications of the developing process and to minimize the impact on the golden crab fishery," said Bill Whipple, chairman of the Golden Crab Advisory Panel. "After dozens of meetings and hundreds of hours with numerous affiliates of the SAFMC, the outcome includes invaluable learning for all involved, deep-rooted respect, and a resolution of the problem which, given the limitations and complexities involved, preserves and maximizes the interests of everyone," Whipple said. An international team of deepwater coral researchers, led by Dr. Ross, is currently conducting a series of research cruises that include exploration of the proposed deepwater coral protected areas off the South Atlantic coast. Using Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution's manned submersible, the Johnson Sea-Link, scientists were able to collect coral samples at depths over 1,000 feet and record previously unseen portions of the expansive reefs during the first cruise in August 2009 off Cape Canaveral, Florida. Coral samples allow scientists to chemically measure environmental changes such as ocean temperatures and productivity, often over thousands of years. The reefs may act as barometers for impacts associated with ocean acidification and climate changes. Scientists are also studying habitat distribution and the composition of deepwater communities. Observing that fishing practices have damaged deepwater coral areas in other parts of the world, Dr. Ross said, "The council is spearheading efforts to define the boundaries and protect these areas. We're ahead of the game. These deepwater reefs are irreplaceable." Only decades after being discovered and despite eventual protection by the SAFMC, Oculina Banks, hundreds of square miles of deep sea corals off Florida's east coast, was destroyed by bottom trawl and dredge fishing gear.