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The Threats Facing Deep-Sea Corals Off New England's Coast

Undersea canyons and seamounts off New England's coast are home to rare, slow-growing deep-sea corals.
Dr. Les Watling, University of Maine
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration
Undersea canyons and seamounts off New England's coast are home to rare, slow-growing deep-sea corals.

About one hundred miles off the coast of Massachusetts, there are dramatic mountains and canyons, some larger than the Grand Canyon. Of course, they're hidden under hundreds to thousands of feet of water. And they're home to fragile and slow-growing deep-sea corals, and entire ecosystems that live on and around them.

Last September, President Obama declared nearly 5,000 square miles, encompassing three canyons and four seamounts, a marine national monument - the first on the Atlantic seaboard. The designation prohibited all commercial activity, including fishing and oil exploration.

Now, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended that President Trump amend the designation to lift the ban on commercial fishing. If the president takes the advice, it doesn't mean anything goes in that area. Instead, it returns oversight and regulation of fishing to the New England Fishery Management Council and federal officials.

As it turns out, the Council is in the process of discussing and adopting protections for deep-sea corals, not only in the canyons that are part of the monument, but for all canyons off New England's coast. Those measures would likely not ban all fishing, but might restrict fishing activity to shallower areas around the edges of the canyons.

That would be similar to what fishery managers in the Mid-Atlantic region have already done, and earned accolades from environmental groups in the process.

Tim Shank, a deep-sea coral biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, says such measures would likely protect New England's canyon ecosystems from the direct impacts of fishing. However, he notes that scientists surveying these areas routinely see trash from not only ships directly overhead, but washed all the way from on shore - something that no monument or fishing ban can stop.

Shank also cautions that the Trump administration is taking steps to revisit the ban on oil and gas exploration in the Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Park - a move he sees as far more worrisome than lifting the fishing ban. He says they have found many locations where methane seeps up from the seafloor, naturally, indicating the presence of oil/gas below. Based on what he's seen in the Gulf of Mexico, Shank says oil and gas mining could be extremely detrimental to New England's deep-sea corals.

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