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

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"Our [Pacific] Lophelia was primarily growing on boulders or rock substrate and not forming its own reef," said NOAA biologist Ed Bowlby.

"However, many areas have yet to be surveyed, so we may still locate other Lophelia areas that might resemble their Atlantic counterparts."

In addition, Bowlby says, at least six species of coral known as gorgonians were present.

The 15 areas surveyed also yielded a rich array of deep-sea creatures, including crabs, anemones, sea stars (stafish), and sponges (related photos: coral reef color).

Like other deepwater coral communities, the sites appear to provide important nursery habitat for fish.

"We saw large aggregations of rockfish, including pregnant females," Bowlby said. "Shark egg cases were laid and entwined on the soft corals."

The vehicle's headlamp also revealed scenes of destruction.

NOAA researchers say that two-thirds of the Washington coral community they surveyed showed damage from recent fishing activities.

The biologists observed tracks of lifeless seafloor where bottom-trawling gear had passed over. In several locations, fields of Lophelia coral had been reduced to piles of rubble.

The areas surveyed lie only partially within the large strip of seafloor along the West Coast where bottom trawling is now prohibited.

"Unfortunately it looks like maybe half of the new locations are outside of the currently protected areas," said Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist for the environmental group Oceana, based in Washington, D.C., and Juneau, Alaska.

"We certainly hope that NOAA acts quickly to close them."

A Victory, With Compromises

Meanwhile Hirshfield and other conservationists are celebrating what they say is a major victory in today's establishment of a no-trawl zone in the Aleutian Islands.

Oceana and other groups have lobbied for years for the new restrictions, ever since the discovery of coral ecosystems in the region. Their arguments were based on U.S. federal law that requires protection of essential fish habitat.

Hirshfield says the closure represents a compromise between conservation groups and commercial fishers.

"It's fair to say that not all the areas with known corals are as protected as we'd like to see," he acknowledges.

Still, Hirshfield says, the regulations will have an enormous conservation impact.

Bottom trawling is now prevented from spreading to greater depths and new areas where it doesn't already occur, and known coral gardens are protected, he says.

Directly or indirectly, the prohibition on bottom trawling is expected to benefit many of the Aleutian Islands' 450 species of fish and 26 species of marine mammals.

"We were able to close about 60 percent of the trawlable depths," Hirshfield said.

But John Guinotte, a biologist with the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Washington, says the closures in the Aleutians and along the West Coast are only first steps toward coral protection.

He says the majority of the closure area in the Aleutians is too deep to fish anyway and is not known to have a high abundance or diversity of deep-sea corals.

"The area closed to trawling is colossal, but many of the most significant coral areas were not included," Guinotte said.

"The devil is always in the details. The devil in this case is that most of the Alaskan corals are not protected."

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