Last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted on sweeping new regulations that could protect the health of deep-sea coral canyons stretching from Virginia all the way to New York.

The Deep Sea Corals Amendment establishes protected zones in areas where corals have either been observed or are likely to occur. According to the Council, within these zones, “fishermen will not be allowed to use any type of bottom-tending fishing gear such as trawls, dredges, bottom longlines, and traps.”

Map showing areas protected by the new ruling. Via Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council

If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the ruling would create the biggest protected area in U.S. Atlantic waters. In total, the areas proposed for protection encompass more than 38,000 square miles!

Kiley Dancy, Fishery Plan Coordinator for MAFMC, indicated that the measures could go into effect sometime in early 2016.

Wait, Back Up. New York Has Coral Reefs?

New York doesn’t just have coral reefs—New York also has a “submarine Grand Canyon” where corals live. Starting about 100 miles off the coast, a great chasm opens up in the ocean floor, extending over the continental shelf. This geographic spectacle is known as the Hudson Canyon.

Map showing location of Hudson Canyon (red box) and relative water depths in the area. Credit: NOAA

Essentially a drowned riverbed three-quarters of a mile deep, the Hudson Canyon is the largest of its kind on the Atlantic Coast, and rivals the Grand Canyon in size. It’s also a diverse wonderland of aquatic organisms.

According to The Nature Conservancy:

The Mid-Atlantic’s deep-sea coral habitats include bright pink bubblegum coral trees that grow up to 15 feet tall and are likely 500-1000 years old, along with many other coral species. They are home to diverse invertebrates, including giant Venus flytrap anemones, brittle stars, crabs and squid, and to deep-water fishes such as monkfish, hake, black belly rose fish and chimaera.

In addition to providing valuable habitat for diverse marine life, deep-sea corals are valued for their role in providing records of past ocean conditions and as potential sources for new drugs to fight cancer and other diseases.

Corals, including cup corals and bubblegum corals reside on the hard substrate near the edge of a mussel bed. Photo credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program/2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition

While scientists are still working on documenting what exactly lives in the canyon off of New York, Dancy notes that “[O]f all the canyons areas proposed for protection, it [Hudson Canyon] has one of the highest areas of high habitat suitability for deep sea corals, as predicted by a habitat suitability model.”

Trawling for Trouble

If enacted, the new regulations would ban certain types of destructive fishing practices in designated protected zones, including the use of all bottom-tending gear (trawls, dredges, bottom longlines, and traps).

Bottom trawling is an industrial fishing method where a large net with heavy weights is dragged across the seafloor, scooping up everything in its path—from the targeted fish to centuries-old corals and other endangered creatures.

Because deep-sea corals are generally slow-growing and fragile, they are particularly vulnerable to this kind of physical disturbance.

“Bottom-tending fishing has occurred and currently occurs in and around some of the proposed areas, mainly in and around the canyons proposed as protected ‘discrete zones,’” explained Dancy. “Most of this fishing activity is considered “deep water” fishing relative to other fishing effort in the mid-Atlantic, but relative to the proposed coral zones, it occurs mostly in the shallower parts of the proposed gear restricted areas.”

The new rules are the result of more than three years of collaboration between conservationists, scientists, fishermen, regional managers, and government agencies. “The Council attempted to balance protections for corals with the economic importance of these fisheries,” noted Dancy.

“I’ve worked in fisheries science and policy arenas for almost 30 years, and I’ve never seen such a high degree of consensus around such a contentious issue as new closed areas,” said Jay Odell, Mid-Atlantic Marine Program director at the Conservancy.

Time to Celebrate?

While these regulations are historic, it is important to note that the work of ocean habitat protection is not done.

The fishery council does not have jurisdiction over lobster fishing, and the protections for deep water corals do not extend to oil/gas drilling and other underwater activities (like cable laying or pipeline installation).

For example, just this past January, President Obama proposed opening an area of the Atlantic to drilling that overlaps the southern part of the protected area.

Oil drilling rig in the Pacific. Photo credit: Doc Searls/Creative Commons

In addition, the council granted an exemption to the red crab fishery, primarily because the industry takes place entirely within proposed coral areas. However, according to MAFMC, there are only three active vessels in this fishery and new entry is restricted. The council plans to review the exemption sometime in the next two years.