New Rules For Fishermen Could Help Protect New York’s Coral Reefs

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Stephen Mallon’s Photographs Show A New Life for Old NYC Subway Cars

When you board a subway car deep below the surface of New York City, the first thing that springs to mind may not be “luxury accommodations.” But, if you happened to board that train deep beneath the surface of the ocean—and you also happen to be a sea bass, a blue fish, or one in a colony of mussels—things may look very different, indeed.

As it turns out, old subway cars—stripped of windows, interiors, wheels, and doors—make great reef building material: they’re heavy enough to stay put on the ocean floor, roomy enough to accommodate a wide range of fish, predators, and coral, and durable enough to last for decades.

Between 2001 and 2010, the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority sent more than 2,500 retired cars (many from the famous Redbird fleet) to coastal states from New Jersey to Georgia as part of an official artificial reef-building program. According to MTA Assistant Chief Operations Officer Michael Zacchea, the reef projects “presented the most economical and most environmentally-friendly reuse” of the cars.

Once underwater, the structures quickly become “luxury condominiums” for fish, ocean predators, oysters, mussels, and even coral. In Delaware, officials have noted a a 400-fold increase in the amount of marine life per square foot.

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A submerged subway car after five years.

Sadly, the MTA’s participation in this program ended in 2010. Newer subway fleets require “a more traditional abate-and-scrap disposal,” said Zacchea, because the cars contain a combination of plastic, fiberglass and asbestos not suitable for ocean-disposal.

But luckily, the subway-to-reef process has been documented! New York City-based industrial photographer Steven Mallon spent three years photographing the project for a collection he calls Next Stop Atlantic. Read on for a short Q&A with Mallon—and be sure to scroll to the end for his striking photos. You can also see more of Mallon’s work at NYU’s Kimmel Galleries, Feb. 6–March 15, 2015.


Next Stop Atlantic: Interview with Stephen Mallon

NYER: How did Next Stop Atlantic come about?
Stephen Mallon:
I was approached by a an agent that was interested in doing a book with me so I wanted to find a relevant theme that tied into what I was already shooting. My wife and I had been traveling around (we used to call it “picture-hunting”) looking for interesting industrial landscapes to photograph for a couple of years and realized that focusing on the re-use of space and material was a smooth transition.

NYER: What were the logistics of the shoot like? How did you take these amazing photographs?
SM:
The MTA preps the cars for over a month, removing windows, seats, heating and cooling systems, and more. They are then loaded onto a barge, which is towed from NJ to the artificial reef sights along the east coast. I would go out with the crew of the excavator on a separate boat and meet up with the barge in the ocean. The guys would climb up onto the barge and we would back off and wait for them. At that point I was able to position myself to where I wanted to shoot from.

NYER: Next Stop Atlantic takes place over the course of three years—what was happening during that time?
SM:
I started shooting it in 2008. In 2009 the project got delayed by another project—The Salvage of flight 1549. That shoot was only over two weeks but the following interviews and exhibitions took over a year of my life! In 2010 I was able to get back to Next Stop Atlantic.

NYER: What was the most challenging thing about the project? The most surprising?
SM:
Finding new and interesting angels for what was pretty much the same thing over and over again was probably the biggest challenge. The one thing that surprised me is that I am vulnerable to sea sickness if I try to look at my photos on a boat!

NYER: Any chance you’re going to go back and photograph these underwater, once they’ve taken on their new life as reefs?
SM:
Nope, not yet! I would love to get down there, I just need to get my “delusion of grandeur” lighting package together and head down.

NYER: What distinguishes this series from your other work?
SM:
This body of work resonates with a broad range of people. New Yorkers to New York fans to trainspotters to museum curators. Its been five years since the original solo show of the work and it continues to be recognized as a powerful project.

NYER: What are some of your favorite places in New York to photograph?
SM:
 Places I have to get special permission from. On top of the Manhattan bridge is good, barges are also handy.

NYER: What’s next for you?
SM
: American Reclamation Volume 4 has started with the conversion of the Fresh Kills landfill into a city park.

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All images courtesy of Stephen Mallon and Front Room Gallery.  One of the images from the collection will be featured along with other work by Mallon in the solo exhibition  “Patterns of Interest” at NYU’s Kimmel Galleries from Feb. 6 to March 15 in New York City.

More of Mallon’s work is available on his TwitterFacebook,and Instagram pages.