U.S. Coral Eden Found; Others Saved From Destructive Fishing

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
June 28, 2006

Large and diverse coral communities have been discovered in the deep, cold waters of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off Washington State (map of Washington), scientists announced this week.

And in a separate but related development, coral and other seafloor communities in the North Pacific were today given sweeping new protections from destructive fishing practices.

Bottom trawling—fishing by dragging heavily weighted nets across the seafloor—has been a major concern for conservationists worried about protecting deep-sea ecosystems (read "Trawlers Destroying Deep-Sea Reefs, Scientists Say").

A new ruling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) bans bottom trawling in a 370,000-square-mile (958,000-square-kilometer) area off Alaska's Aleutian Islands (map of Alaska).

The closure creates the largest no-trawl zone in U.S. waters. The rule is intended to keep the region's deep-water coral and sponge communities safe, along with the marine life these ecosystems support.

A similar prohibition protecting 135,000 square miles (350,000 square kilometers) of seafloor stretching from California to Washington went into effect earlier this month.

But some environmental advocates say that the recent actions still fail to guard some of the most important areas of deep-sea coral habitat, including species-rich "coral gardens" discovered off the Aleutian Islands in 2002.

Deep Diversity

NOAA biologists first glimpsed the Washington coral communities in 2004 and recently completed a follow-up survey.

Working in sometimes heavy seas, the researchers used a remotely operated vehicle with powerful spotlights to observe and photograph marine life thriving in permanent darkness at depths ranging from 300 to 2,000 feet (91 to 610 meters).

In a teleconference Monday, the scientists said their most surprising find was the widespread occurrence of a stony coral called Lophelia pertusa.

This species provides the base for massive reef structures in the Atlantic Ocean but has only rarely been seen before in the Pacific.

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