On December 14, 2016, NOAA Fisheries announced publication of the final rule for the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (Council) action to designate a large offshore protected area for deep sea corals in the Mid-Atlantic. The Council approved the Deep Sea Corals Amendment to the Mackerel, Squid, Butterfish Fishery Management Plan in 2015 in order to protect deep sea corals from the impacts of bottom-tending fishing gear.
Most deep sea corals are slow-growing and fragile, making them vulnerable to damage from certain types of fishing gear that contact the sea floor, and according to NOAA Fisheries this final rule designates a large “deep sea coral zone” in areas where corals have been observed or where they are likely to occur.
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), regional fishery management councils have the discretionary authority to designate zones where fishing may be restricted to protect deep sea corals. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is the first of the eight U.S. regional fishery management councils to use this discretionary authority.
The Council named the protected area in honor of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, a five-term United States senator from New Jersey who was responsible for several important pieces of ocean conservation legislation, including the MSA provisions allowing for deep sea coral protections. The Frank R. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area encompasses areas of known or highly likely coral presence in underwater canyons or slope areas along the continental shelf edge, as well as deeper areas where the presence of corals is uncertain, but where little or no fishing effort currently occurs.
In total, the coral zone encompasses more than 38,000 square miles of federal waters off the Mid-Atlantic coast, an area approximately the size of the state of Virginia.
Within the protected area, commercial fishermen are prohibited from using most types of bottom-tending fishing gear such as trawls, dredges, bottom longlines, and traps. The rule does not apply to recreational fishing, commercial gear types that do not contact the sea floor, or the American lobster trap fishery. An exemption is provided for the deep sea red crab commercial trap fishery. Vessels may transit through the area if fishing gear is stowed and not available for immediate use.
"This is a great story of regional collaboration among the fishing industry, the Mid-Atlantic Council, the research community, and environmental organizations to protect what we all agree is a valuable ecological resource,” said John Bullard, Regional Administrator for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office.
As noted in editorials in the November and December issues of the New Jersey, Delaware Bay edition of The Fisherman Magazine, various fishing stakeholders worked with environmental activists in a collaborative effort to implement a sensible and science-based coral protection plan which would not adversely impact fishermen who use gear that wouldn’t come into contact with bottom-dwelling corals. In exchange for working together to move this deep sea coral protection forward, stakeholders were promised that efforts to turn the entire Mid-Atlantic canyon complex into a national marine sanctuary would be shelved by environmental groups.
In early November, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) hired Jason Patlis, former President and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, to head up their Marine Conservation Program. Later that month, the same organization submitted their original plan to nominate the Hudson Canyon as a federal marine sanctuary to the federal government for review.
“I was given assurances that if the deep water corals were protected by NOAA in an agreement with the Mid-Atlantic council things like the Monument designation would be off the table,” said John Nappo of Trophy Tackle, adding “I feel betrayed to be honest.”
Gear restrictions for the Frank R. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area are now officially in effect, while proposals by WCS and the National Aquarium in Baltimore to have the Hudson, Wilmington, Baltimore and Norfolk canyons designated under the National Marine Sanctuary Act are being reviewed by the federal government. While WCS and environmental groups continue to maintain their hope to see fishing allowed in any future marine sanctuary along the canyon complex, that determination would be up to a future advisory panel as it relates to the actual National Marine Sanctuary Act.
The actual law that guides the national marine sanctuaries process says it’s unlawful for any person to “destroy, cause the loss of, or injure any sanctuary resource managed under law or regulations for that sanctuary,” with a sanctuary resource defined as “any living or nonliving resource of a national marine sanctuary that contributes to the conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, educational, cultural, archaeological, scientific, or aesthetic value of the sanctuary.”