Gulf of Mexico deep-sea corals win protection

Holly Binns

They are fragile, ancient and vital to the marine ecosystem. And now they’re protected.

Federal officials last week issued a final rule to safeguard Gulf of Mexico deep-sea coral hot spots — priority areas for conservation, management and research — by restricting damaging fishing gear in most of those areas.

A sea lily (Crinoidea) rests in the middle of a mushroom coral (Anthomastus sp.) 7,000 to 8,000 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists documented the pair on NOAA’s 2018 Okeanos Expedition during a research cruise to the West Florida Escarpment and DeSoto Canyon areas.

More than 11,000 people signed their names in support of the measure during a final round of public comment in fall 2019; the plan was initiated in 2014 and went through multiple rounds of public input and revision. The protections mark a milestone in safeguarding coral ecosystems that provide food, shelter and breeding grounds for wildlife ranging from sharks and crabs to fish such as snapper and grouper.

The U.S. Department of Commerce secretary approved the first-of-its-kind plan that won initial approval in June 2018 from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. Before the vote, almost18,000 people signed their names or wrote comments urging the council to act.

The decision designates 21 sites totaling 484 square miles (more than twice the size of New Orleans) as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern. It also allows the Gulf 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 still will be allowed, because those methods do not normally affect the deep ocean floor where these corals live. 

Safeguarding coral ecosystems is important because they are fragile, slow-growing and critical to the long-term survival of a wide variety of other species. Once damaged, 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 also are natural disease fighters, with some holding properties that are producing treatments for such medical conditions as cancer. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts has encouraged the council to take the further step of restricting damaging fishing gear in all sites with rich coral communities identified by scientists. The approved safeguards, which go into effect in 30 days, focus on sites that scientists, fishermen and others agreed should be prioritized for protection.

At a 2014 meeting, experts initially identified 47 significant coral hot spots in the Gulf that needed safeguards, including the most recent batch. The council eventually could extend its coral management plan to cover other coral areas identified by scientists.

By protecting these ecosystems, fisheries managers have shown their commitment to conserving vital habitat, which will benefit an array of marine life as well as current and future generations of anglers, commercial fishermen, seafood consumers, and countless others, all of whom reap benefits from a healthy Gulf of Mexico.

Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Caribbean.