Gulf Deep Sea Corals Deserve Protection

Gulf deep sea corals

Photo: Gulf deep sea corals, via NOAA

Many people would probably be surprised to learn that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council occasionally takes up issues that are not related to red snapper allocation.

Of course I’m being a bit sarcastic, but a lot of the Council’s time does seem to be dominated by spats between competing commercial and recreational interests.

That is why it is so refreshing to report on a Gulf Council amendment that should be relatively uncontroversial, would help protect some beautiful and unique fish habitat, and would benefit both recreational and commercial fishers.

Thanks to advances in remotely operated underwater vehicles, we have discovered thousands of species of deep sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico. These corals grow at depths deeper than 164 ft (50 m), and have been found as deep as 6,000 ft (1830 m) where water temperatures can reach 30.2° F (-1°C). At these depths, sunlight does not reach the coral. This makes deep sea corals both slow-growing and fragile.

These coral communities are also habitat for marine life, including snapper and grouper. Protecting them should be priority for both recreational and commercial fishers.

Corals are believed to have potential for biomedical advances, but scientists have discovered only a fraction of potential applications, such as bone grafting and antiviral and cancer treatments. They can live for hundreds or thousands of years, so they provide information about how oceans have changed over time.

Deep sea corals mostly grow on hard-bottom surfaces, and with 95 percent of the deep Gulf bottom being soft mud unsuitable for corals, they are extremely rare in the Gulf.

All over the world, corals face threats from rising ocean temperatures, which cause bleaching and increasing ocean acidification due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But Gulf deep sea corals in particular were hit hard by the BP drilling disaster and the dispersants used to “clean it up” that only compounded the harm.

Additionally, corals may also be harmed by bottom-contact fishing gear, which is why the Gulf Council is currently considering Deep Sea Coral Amendment 9, which would restrict the use of certain fishing gear at 15 coral hot spots. When this kind of heavy gear interacts with the ocean floor, it can break or smother fragile corals, which grow very slowly and take decades to recover, if they recover at all, once damaged. Eight additional sites in deeper waters are proposed for special place designations but without gear restrictions.

It is critical that we take action now to protect these unique organisms and essential fish habitat.

Take a moment and tell the Gulf Council to protect deep sea corals. The Gulf Council is currently soliciting public comments on its website.

About Kendall Dix

Kendall Dix is a line cook based in New Orleans. He is also the fishery associate for Gulf Restoration Network, a group committed to uniting and empowering people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf Region.

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