Protection proposed for Atlantic reefs

Deep beneath the crystalline blue surface of the Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern United States lies a virtual rain forest of coral reefs so expansive the network is thought to be the world’s largest.

A 23,000-square-mile area stretching from North Carolina to Florida is just part of that entire reef tract now being proposed for protection from potential damage by deep-sea commercial fishing and energy exploration.

So far, it’s been relatively untouched by man because of its largely unreachable depths, providing scientists with a unique opportunity to protect an ecosystem before it’s destroyed.

“Most of the time, science is trying to catch up with exploitation,” said Steve Ross of the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Ross is leading a four-part research cruise that began Aug. 6 aimed at studying these deep-sea environments, hoping to find new species of fish, crab and corals that could lead to scientific and medical discoveries.

Environmentalists say crab pots and bottom trawling for shrimp are the most immediate threats.

Margot Stiles, a marine scientist for Oceana, an international environmental advocacy group, said other deep-water reefs off the United States have been severely damaged by trawlers.

“In this case, we have 23,000 square miles of known deep-sea corals, and it’s not too late to protect them,” Stiles said. “This particular reef is to the deep sea what the Great Barrier Reef is for the world.”

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is pushing the proposal to protect the region, about the size of West Virginia, in depths down to 2,500 feet and below, creating the largest deep-water coral-protected area off the Atlantic coast.

Specifics on regulations and restrictions are still being reviewed, but if approved by the U.S. commerce secretary, the plan could take effect by next year.

“As far as we can tell, there’s relatively little damage,” Ross said. “That’s very different from other parts of the world. In Scotland and Ireland … there’s been significant damage mostly from fishing and now those reefs are being protected.”

While fishermen have for centuries dragged up corals from the deep sea, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that scientists discovered these extensive cold-water reefs existed. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers were able to use submersibles and cameras to reach the seafloor to document them.