ELLSWORTH — After years of debate, the New England Fishery Management Council last week took final action on new rules aimed at protecting deep-sea coral from damage by fishing gear.
Meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., the council adopted its Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment and voted to submit the document to the National Marine Fisheries Service for review and approval.
Last June, the council adopted three coral protection zones in the Gulf of Maine:
- Around Outer Schoodic Ridge southeast of the Schoodic Peninsula.
- Mount Desert Rock, south of Mount Desert Island.
- The Jordan Basin Dedicated Habitat Research Area of about 40 square miles, located some 50 miles offshore where the sea floor rises in a “bump” to a depth of about 208 meters or about 685 feet.
In its action last week, the council approved a 600-meter (1,969-foot) minimum depth “broad zone” for the continental slope and canyons south of Georges Bank. Once NMFS accepts the amendment, this entire zone — with one exception — will be closed to all fishing with any kind of bottom-tending gear, including both mobile equipment such as trawls or dredges dragged behind a boat and fixed gear such as traps, pots and gillnets. The council exempted gear used in the small but growing the Atlantic deep-sea red crab fishery.
The 600-meter minimum depth broad zone was one of several options considered by the council during its deliberations, Known as “Option 6” in the Coral Amendment, it was the council’s preferred alternative for protecting the continental slope and canyons prior to extensive public hearings last year. The council postponed taking final action last June so it could consider a proposal put forward by a coalition of environmental groups.
Known as “Option 7,” that proposal covered more of the ocean bottom, including shallower areas with depths ranging between 300 meters (985 feet) and 550 meters (985 to about 1,800 feet). It, too, would have banned mobile gear but not fixed gear.
In the end, the council selected the 600-meter broad zone, which encompasses 25,153 square miles. This option, which also was recommended by the Habitat Committee and Advisory Panel, covers 75 percent of the known coral within the zone; 75 percent of the areas highly or very highly suitable as habitat for soft corals; and 85 percent of the areas with slopes greater than 30 degrees. It also has lower economic impacts on fishermen using mobile bottom-tending gear.
Acting last June, the council banned mobile bottom-tending gear from discrete areas around Outer Schoodic Ledge and Mount Desert Rock, but allowed fishermen to continue the use of lobster and crab pots. That exemption was the product of powerful lobbying on behalf of Maine fishermen by the Department of Marine Resources and members of the Maine lobster industry.
Last week’s actions received generally favorable notices from the environmental community.
In a statement, the Washington, D.C., conservation group Oceana described the council’s vote as “a strong step for coral conservation.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts said the council’s action was “a big step forward” that “will help safeguard vulnerable and slow-growing deep-sea corals, which form a vital foundation for marine life.”