MPAs and Deep Sea Corals: Proactive Legislation

“Science Informs Vote to Protect Mid-Atlantic Deep-Sea Corals” (NCCOS)

Mid-Atlantic Council Approves Deep Sea Corals Amendment

Vote to protect more than 38,000 square miles of deep-sea coral habitat

These headlines, among many others, have infiltrated the recent news-feeds of environmental organizations such as NOAA and NCCOS (National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science), and also those of public environmental coalitions like Oceana and the Sierra Club. Many are championing the efforts of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (MAFMC), fishermen, policy-makers, and natural resource managers for their work to designate 38,000 square miles of deep sea coral habitat due east of Chesapeake Bay watershed states. deep_sea_corals_38000


The image above delineates the new marine protected area (MPA) regions of deep sea coral habitat, where the yellow zones highlight the targeted underwater canyons where deep sea corals are known to thrive. The fifteen canyons, identified as ‘discrete protection zones’, are included in a much larger zone of protection called the ‘broad zone’, highlighted in light gray. Together, these zones total about 38,000 square miles where fishermen are prohibited to use any bottom-tending gear, defined as any fishing device that grazes the bottom, within either zone. Some pending exclusions will apply for the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, and other fisheries, but all other fisheries will have to refrain from fishing within the protected zone. All vessels are permitted to travel through the protected zone, but must have fishing gear completely stowed to designate that it is not actively in use (Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC)).

What is a Marine Protected Area (MPA)?

Within United States waters, there are nearly 1,700 federal, state, or tribal-governed MPAs , which are “areas of the oceans or Great Lakes that are protected for a conservation purpose” (“Marine Protected Areas”) that are required to have a long-term management and assessment plan in place that aids in determining the effectiveness of the regulations within each MPA. MPAs cover approximately “41 percent of U.S. marine waters… with three percent in highly protected in no-take MPAs to protect sensitive species and habitats” (“Marine Protected Areas”), meaning that 38 percent of the MPAs allow multiple uses and a wide range of access.  Although the MPA designation includes a variety of existing partnerships between the National Park Service, regional fisheries councils, native tribes, the Department of Commerce, state Departments of Natural Resources, and more, there is a standardized set of criteria that includes all MPAs.

Before the designation of an MPA, the organization(s) that develop the draft MPA must propose answers for the following criteria: “Conservation Focus, Level of Protection, Permanence of Protection, Constancy of Protection, and Scale of Protection” (Wenzel 2011) and include management and assessment plans to evaluate the effectiveness of the protected region. Using the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) as an example, the criteria are fulfilled in the following way:

Conservation Focus: Natural and Cultural Heritage; Sustainable Production

Level of Protection: Zoned Multiple-Use With No-Take Area(s)

Permanence of Protection: Permanent

Constancy of Protection: Year-Round

Scale of Protection: Ecosystem; Focal Resource (protecting a select habitat- coral reefs)

As part of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act of 1972, the FKNMS has to update its initial management plan every five years, and release condition reports prior to the management plan review period. The condition reports serve to evaluate the effectiveness of the sanctuary’s management plans, and contribute valuable information about old and new threats to the area to improve the original management plan. Recent research into increased fish spawning aggregations around Warsaw Hole and the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, both within FKNMS boundaries, have highlighted the successes of the sanctuary and supported the enforcement of no-take regulations. For this new MPA, a comprehensive management report will be forthcoming as scientists uncover more knowledge about the deep sea corals.

Deep Sea Coral Ecology

Deep sea coral reefs are much unlike the typical shallow-reef coral reef ecosystems that most people picture when imagining coral reefs. The shallow water corals require a minimum year-round water temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), clear waters, tropical conditions, shallow water (less than 100 ft/30 meters), and need the symbiotic zooxanthellae that produce nutrients and give the corals their vibrant coloration. Deep-sea corals thrive at depths between 50 m to over 2,000 m (160 ft-6,500 ft), lack zooxanthellae, and live in cold waters without light (Roberts et al., 352). In the Atlantic, deep sea coral habitat begins hundreds of meters off of the coastline on the continental slope and continues into underwater canyons and the abyssal plain.


Figure Credit:

Being so far from the shoreline and in incredibly deep water, deep sea coral ecology and distribution is not well known. Remote operated vehicle (ROV) and submarine technologies are increasing the world’s knowledge base for deep sea corals, but the technology is expensive and the territory is expansive, leaving much about the corals unknown. Science and technology do know that the growth rate of deep sea corals is incredibly slow and that some corals could be one thousand years old. The creation of the MPA in the Mid-Atlantic region is especially important to conserve the corals because they need centuries to recover from any destruction caused by commercial fishery efforts. During some ROV studies of the corals, there have been examples of coral destruction caused by bottom-trawling gear, and this affects all fish species, including those that the fishermen desire. Both shallow and deep-water coral reefs serve as a haven for larval fish development, so without the reef systems, there are no fisheries.

Being so far from humans, the deep sea corals are at an advantage, but also serve as one of the last untouched frontiers on the planet. The Fishery Council’s move to create a blanket protection over the area is ground-breaking because of the area’s sheer size, the lack of research, and the idea that this action could be the first example of ‘proactive’ policy. Laura Bliss, author of the news article entitled “What Underwater Canyons Can Teach Us About the Future of Urbanism”, discusses that historic “marine-conservation policy has tended to be reactive: after over-fishing has depleted a fishery; after the trawling has ravaged the coral” (Bliss 2014), but says there is a potential for this new deep sea coral MPA to change that trend and protect and educate before the ecosystem is damaged.


Deep sea corals in Alaska. Photo credit: Alberto Lindner/NOAA


Bliss, Laura. “What Underwater Canyons Can Teach Us About the Future of Urbanism.”City Lab. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 18 Aug 2014. Web. 26 June 2015.

“Marine Protected Areas.” Marine Protected Areas. NOAA, 9 June 2015. Web. 26 June 2015. <;.

Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC). Department of Commerce. Mid-Atlantic Council Approves Deep Sea Corals Amendment. Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) Latest News. N.p., June 2015. Web. 26 June 2015. <;.

National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS). Department of Commerce. Science Informs Vote to Protect Mid-Atlantic Deep-Sea Corals. NCCOS News and Features. Department of Commerce, 25 June 2015. Web. 26 June 2015. <;.

Roberts, JM, A Wheeler, A Freiwald, S Cairns. (2009) Cold-water Corals: the biology and geology of deep-sea coral habitats. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 352 pp.

Wenzel, Lauren. Definition & Classification System for U.S. Marine Protected Areas. Silver Spring: National Marine Protected Areas Center, Mar. 2011. PDF.


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