Alaskan coral beds get new protection

Huge tracts of delicate coral gardens and soft-coral forests off the coast of Alaska will be permanently protected from fishing gear that targets groundfish and shellfish by scraping the seafloor.

SEA TREE. Growing several meters high, hot-pink soft corals can host living ornaments, such as brittle stars, in their branches. 2002 GOA Alaska Science Party, WHOI & NOAA

Most of the affected sites have never been disturbed by this gear. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on June 28 announced its new rule to preserve that situation, which will take effect July 28. The rules don’t address nets or long-line fishing practices that don’t disturb the sea bottom.

The largest area to be protected, off the Aleutian Islands, covers 279,000 square nautical miles, an expanse the size of Texas and Colorado combined. Some sites were chosen to protect rockfish habitats. Others protect dense thickets of red tree corals or the unusual communities that have developed around seamounts.

NOAA’s new rule is “a big deal,” says Elliott A. Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Wash. Not only does it conserve “a colossal area,” he says, but “more importantly, it establishes the principle that bottom trawling is a really severe threat to slow-growing seafloor ecosystems.”

Trawling particularly damages deep-sea corals and sponges, he says (SN: 10/26/96, p. 268:; 8/7/04, p. 88: Corals without Boarders). He notes the new rule also establishes that “we shouldn’t let trawling expand into new areas.” Indeed, he explains, “the pass of a trawl that does the most devastation to fragile seafloor ecosystems is not the hundredth or even the thousandth—it’s the first.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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