A Move to Protect Deep Sea Corals

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Proposed sites for protection based on coral assemblages. Credit: NOAA & The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council


This blog series has covered a variety of corals that live in the Gulf of Mexico. These corals are an amazing natural resource for the Gulf, but they are also under threat. Right now, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is considering extending new protections to 15 deepwater coral sites in the Gulf. An additional eight areas were identified as unique or important sites, but were not given any fishing regulations which would protect the corals - the logic being a lack of regulations due to a lack of current fishing efforts.

Many of the images used in this blog series have come from expeditions in the Gulf that is exploring these sites. More images of deep sea corals may be coming soon as there is currently an expedition off the Florida coast - live footage can be found here and here.

Many of the sites proposed for protection are unique in some way - either in terms of number of corals, diversity of corals, or other important ecosystem functions. The sites were picked by scientists and stakeholders by dividing the Gulf into four zones, and then identifying 47 specific locations for protection. The 15 sites that are currently up for protection were reached through conversations with the Shrimp Advisory Panel.

Pulley Ridge, located off Florida about 100 miles west of Key West, is one site up for additional protection measures.  While parts of the site are already protected, the current legislation is expanding the area to protect the numerous species of plate coral (a type a hexacoral) (left), black coral (right), and sponges. Additionally, parts of the extended area are known to have red grouper pits, which not only serve as the groupers home territory, but also add to the diversity of the seafloor by attracting a wide range of organisms.

Roughtongue Reef, (leftlocated off the coast of Alabama, is very steep and is dominated by black cup coral and stony coral, but also has octocoral, sponges, and other marine animals.  This site received its name due to the high occurrence of roughtonge bass observed at the site.

Viosca Knoll 862/906, also off the Alabama coast, has some of the densest live corals in the Gulf, and very high fish densities.  Some of the species associated with this site include snowy grouper, barrel fish, blackbelly rosefish, roughies, and tinselfish. Royal red shrimp are also commonly pulled up from around this site.

Green Canyon 852, located off Louisiana, is the only current site up for protection that has documented precious corals (right).  Precious corals, which can be polished to reveal a high luster and are thus valued in jewelry, tend to be quite slow growing (even for corals) making it harder for them to recover. Harvesting has not occurred in the Gulf, but does in other places where these corals can be found such as Hawaii.

Unnamed Bank (Harte Bank), located off southern Texas, is one of a series of sites that provide “biotic stepping stones for organisms migrating from the southern Gulf to the northern Gulf”. This site is unique from the others due to its fish and coral assemblage. Harte Bank has high fish diversity (in addition to high coral diversity) included of roughtonge bass, amberjack, and red snapper.

Below is a list of all the sites up for protection - more information at detailed descriptions about each ones and its individual coral assemblages can be found here.

Florida Banks:

          Long Mound

          Many Mounds

          North John Reed Site

          Pulley Ridge South Expansion

Northeastern Banks:

          Alabama Alps Reef

          L& W Pinnacles and Scamp Reef

          Mississippi Canyon

          Roughtongue Reef

          Viosca Knoll 826

          Viosca Knoll 862/906

Northwest Banks:

          AT 047

          AT 357

          Green Canyon 852

South Texas Banks:

          Southern Bank

          Unnamed Bank (Harte Bank)

Areas that were recommended to be HAPCs with no fishing regulations:

          South John Reed Site

          Garden Banks 299

          Garden Banks 535

          Green Canyon 140 and 272

          Green Canyon 234

          Green Canyon 354

          Mississippi Canyon 751

          Mississippi Canyon 885

Hannah Leis is GRN's Fisheries Associate.

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