Saving Deep-Sea Coral (entered
**This article was published in response to a briefing
on deep-sea corals held in NOAA Silver Spring on March 14. The briefing
was organized by NOAA Research (NOAA's Undersea Research Program
and the Office of Ocean Exploration) and NOAA Fisheries (Office
of Science and Technology).**
By Sara Marciz, The Washington Times
April 21, 2003
Scientists worried about declining global fish populations
are turning their attention increasingly to coral beds below the
cold, dark waters of the North Atlantic.
Cold-water coral looks much like the fast-growing, tropical
variety that long has fascinated scientists and recreational divers.
But, likened to a "redwood in the ocean" for its longevity,
cold-water coral grows less than a half-inch per year â€
much slower than tropical reefs.
In addition to overfishing, mammoth industrial fleets
could be exacerbating the decline of fish populations by ripping
up deep-sea coral
in the North Atlantic.
The problem stems from giant factory trawler ships,
often as big as a city block, that dredge the ocean floor, deep-freezing
nearly everything they pull up. The catch is processed into products
from cat food to fast-food fish fillets.
Those who own or work on small fishing boats are being
put out of business, in part because the big trawlers are destroying
the reefs, said Ken Sulak, biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey.
Last year, European Fisheries Commissioner Franz Fischler estimated
that declining fish resources cost the European Union 8,000 fishing
jobs each year.
The American fishing industry today is a "remnant
of itself because it has depleted ocean resources," said Phil
Kline, fisheries specialist at
Oceana, a Washington-based marine conservation organization.
Cold-water coral is sensitive to the heavy trawling
gear that flattens these deep-water reefs and rips them from the
ocean floor. Research
projects in various countries including Canada, Scotland and Norway
estimate that as much as half of their deep-sea coral already may
have been trawled to rubble.
Given that the coral is a habitat for rockfish, mackerel,
grouper and other deep-ocean species, there is the potential for
species extinction that has not been fully explored, said Peter
Auster, director of the Undersea Research Program at the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
One coral community can date back hundreds to thousands
of years, Mr. Sulak said.
"If you destroy it, it's not coming back in a human
time scale. If it's an essential habitat for these fishery resources,
it will be lost for that
purpose," he said.
Scientists and environmental conservationists, who have
focused on tropical-sea coral for decades, are just turning their
cold-water coral. Some may not even know of its existence.
"Even scientists don't realize that half or more
of corals occur in deep water, as deep as 4 or 5 miles," said
Stephen Cairns, research zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, reauthorized by Congress in
1996, lists provisions for determining and protecting essential
fish habitats. But it is difficult to prove a causal link between
damaged deep-sea coral and declining fish populations, which would
be needed to apply the law.
"If you cut down a forest, there is not going to
be any place for woodpeckers, but it would be hard to prove that
the forest is absolutely
essential to woodpeckers," Mr. Sulak said.
"We're only beginning to scratch the surface with
our understanding of the role that this [cold-water coral] habitat
plays in mediating
populations of managed fishes," said Mr. Auster. Data suggest
that cold coral plays a vital role as fish live, grow and reproduce
deep-sea havens sheltered from predators and the unrelenting current,
Absent the ability to cite exact figures, scientists
adhere to a "risk-averse" course.
"In our country, if you're going to market a drug,
you need to prove that the drug is not going to harm you. But when
it comes to environmental impacts, often the requirement for burden
of proof is reversed. It's up to the government to prove that what
you are going to do is going to screw things up; otherwise, you
should be able to go out and do it," Mr. Auster said.
He said this "free for all" on these ocean
resources should be checked by conservation efforts now rather than
later, when it could be too late for the habitat's recovery.
Logistics and inadequate funding hinder research on
"The people that work with [shallow-water] coral-reef
fishes can toss a tank on their back, jump off the side of a 16-foot
Boston Whaler and they're at work. But if you're going to work with
deep-sea coral, you've got to either wrap yourself in a research
submarine or an underwater robot system or some other pricey bit
of technology," said Mr. Auster.
Use of one such research submersible can cost $20,000
a day, far beyond the budget of any university or museum, Mr. Cairns
The first International Symposium on Deep-Sea Corals
assembled in Canada last year. The second symposium will be in Germany
"These kinds of symposiums bring scientists and
resource managers together to identify the common problems and to
highlight the research that is going on. The Europeans "the
French, Germans and Scandinavians have been doing this type
of research for maybe 10 years, Canadians four or five years, and
the U.S. is just beginning," Mr. Sulak said.
In 2002, the European Union crafted a new Common Fisheries
Policy for Europe, limiting access to waters containing exploited
deep-sea fish species and habitats. Canada also has drafted deep-sea
The Web site of the International Council for the Exploration
of the Sea notes that "Scientists from ICES have warned that
the only way to protect Europe's cold-water coral reefs is to accurately
map them and then close them to fishing trawlers."
Ireland, the United States and other countries considered
creating their own protected marine areas for cold-water coral habitats
after Canada's declaration of several coral preserves in 2001.
Choosing the right places for these preserves is difficult
without maps of coral distribution, and the current collection details
only the most
familiar deep-sea corals off the coasts of Nova Scotia, the United
Kingdom and Alaska, which is insufficient, scientists say.
The price tag on sea-floor mapping ($500,000 for less
than 6 square miles), has spurred researchers and conservationists
to piggyback on other projects.
In 1996, economic incentive led to sea-floor mapping
after Britain received funding for the project from the oil industry.
In the United States, the Sustainable Fisheries Act
requires sea-coral research and management through the National
Marine Fisheries Service, a department of the National Oceanic and
It is up for reauthorization, but scientists are concerned
that revisions of the act will make requirements for essential status
too stringent to provide for conservation of deep-sea coral.
Several interested groups, including the Recreational
Fishing Alliance, caution against legislation that involves "blanket
closure" of marine
areas. They advocate an approach involving cooperation between the
seafood industry and scientists, and continued fishing privileges
fishing companies that do not affect coral communities.
Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republican, introduced on
April 9 a bill before the Resources Committee to protect sensitive
cold-water corals and boulders from bottom trawls.
Some proponents of conservation point to cold-water
coral's vital ecological role, others to its effect upon fishery
resources. Still others
"like Mike Risk of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario"
laud its potential for benefits to humans.
Mr. Risk, an oceanographer, believes gorgonian and other
deep-sea coral species may shed light on climate change. These species
grow concentric rings similar to tree rings that may provide information
about changes in ocean temperature and nutrient levels over the
past several centuries.
Research has shown that these corals also may provide
sources for new biological compounds that can be used in medical
and pharmaceutical industries.
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Name: Kimberly Puglise