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To protect coral, bottom fishing gear banned near Delaware's coast

Courtesy of NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is banning commercial fishing gear that could drag along the seafloor in part of the Atlantic Ocean - including a portion 66 miles off the Delaware coast.

Deep-sea coral can live for hundreds to thousands of years, but once they are damaged, they can take decades or even centuries to re-grow.

To ensure these corals can live undisturbed, a section of the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Virginia - about the size of Virginia - has been designated as “protected”. The protected area is about 66 miles from Delaware’s shore and covers a portion of the Baltimore Canyon. Joseph Gordon, Pew Charitable Trust's manager of U.S. northeast oceans, said that means fishing gear that reaches down to the depths that deep-sea coral inhabit would not be allowed to operate there.

“They’ve lived a long time but they live in an environment that is cold, with huge pressure, without light,” Gordon said, about the coral. “And so fishing technology could damage them in a way that could take centuries to recover from.”

Some bottom-fishing technologies include rockhoppers and canyon-busters. They are designed to roll over boulders and canyons, and according to Oceana, they can weigh at least several hundred pounds. NOAA authorizes the gear that fishermen can use for commercial fishing, and documented almost 1,000 bottom-fishing technologies in use in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2016. That is up from 630 documented in 2013.

But areas of the Atlantic near Europe are more prone to bottom-fishing, Gordon said, and the technology has been found to cause more severe damage to deep-sea coral in these regions. That's why a protective measure is important, Florida State University researcher Sandra Brooke said.

“We want to get this process started early so that we can get there ahead of any damage that’s done, so that we don’t end up in the same position as some other areas where they have very badly damaged reefs that may not come back,” Brooke said.

Brooke said deep-sea coral provide homes for many species and foster a biodiverse environment in vast canyons of the deep ocean. As a result of designating an area of the ocean from New York to Virginia as “protected,” Gordon said he hopes it will allow the coral to be as strong and as biodiverse as possible.

“As the oceans change over time, we’ll have an area that will remain largely intact for the species that depend on it - some of which are important to commercial fishing and some that are important to the future of life on the planet,” Gordon said.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council initially approved this in June 2015, and it took over a year to get it finalized by NOAA. Protection will go into effect in January 2017.