Trawlers Destroying Deep-Sea Reefs, Scientists Say

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Another recent study by the MCBI reveals that bottom trawling is the most destructive fishing practice—closely followed by the use of invisible curtain-like gill nets and longlines. The longlines are threaded with many thousands of hooks and stretch for up to 50 miles (80 kilometers). In 2000 up to 2.3 billion pounds (one million tons) of unwanted sea life was discarded from nets in the U.S. alone, according to that research.

"The damage to our ocean floors is more extensive and perhaps even worse than tropical deforestation," said Elliott Norse, president of the MCBI. "We must bring these issues to the forefront of fisheries management before it is too late," he said. Scientists believe damage done to these deep-sea reefs may take centuries to correct, or be irreversible due to the slow-growing nature of the corals.

"Allowing trawling in coral forests is the worst thing we are doing in the ocean today," said Daniel Pauly, fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He also signed the petition. "Nothing could be dumber than destroying the habitats that depleted fish populations need to recover. Governments should stop pussyfooting around and do something useful," he said.

The statement commends nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Norway for offering some protection to deep-sea corals in their waters. But calls on the U.N. and other bodies to immediately curtail all bottom trawling until more study and mapping can be done of vulnerable deep-sea coral and sponge communities.

Reef Smothering in Shallows

Meanwhile, scientists have found new and compelling evidence that pollution is the major factor linked to declines of shallow-water coral reefs. Previous evidence implicated overfishing, linked to a reduction in seaweed grazing.

A new study published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology reveals that seaweed fertilized by nitrogen pollution from an inland pond is swamping coral reefs off the coast of the Bahamas.

Marine biologist Brian Lapointe, of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Florida, found that coral reefs progressively farther out from that pond's coastal outlet were increasingly healthy and less choked with seaweed. Other experimental work by his team revealed that the number of grazers on a given reef had little effect on the amount of seaweed, but rather affected the proportion of different types of seaweed found there.

Another long-term study soon to be published in the same journal shows that the strict enforcement of fishing bans in one Florida Keys marine park failed to reduce seaweed overgrowth.

"The reason this issue is so important is that we are losing our coral reefs at a very accelerated rate," said Lapointe. "These systems are … in catastrophic decline in many parts of the world." The research may help focus conservation efforts, he said. While slowing overfishing is important, efforts should be concentrated on minimizing pollution to restore overgrown reefs, he said.

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