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Bottom Trawling Threatens Rare Coral Reef Ecosystem – Again

By David Derrick, Ocean Conservation Advocacy Intern

Featured Image: South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

Off the Eastern coast of Florida there lies a unique marine ecosystem called the Oculina Coral Bank: the only known place in the world where deep-sea Oculina varicosa corals form reef structures.  Several hundred feet below the surface this fragile coral (also called the ivory tree coral) grows inch by inch, decade after decade.  Deep-sea coral like the Oculina do not rely on sunlight like shallow water corals; instead, they filter their food from the dark water around them.  They form habitat where none existed in the darkness of the deep-sea; and that habitat supports hundreds of other species including rock shrimp, fish like groupers and snappers that are highly prized by fishermen, and others.

This unique deep-sea habitat once dominated a portion of the seafloor, spanning the mid-coast of Florida for approximately 100 miles from Ft Pierce to north of Daytona.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, bottom-trawling fisherman dragged heavy nets across the seabed, hoping to catch rock shrimp and fish, which live in the coral.  Bottom trawling destroys everything in its path, and much of the Oculina Bank was literally flattened by the practice.

In 1984, researchers like Dr. John Reed at Harbor Branch marine lab and activists raised the alarm to save the last vestiges of the reef.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council stepped in to protect the very last remaining 10% of this ecosystem.  The Oculina Bank and its surroundings were designated a “Habitat Area of Particular Concern” (or “HAPC”), a designation reserved for important ecologically sensitive places.  Finally, the area was protected on paper: it became illegal to trawl, use fish traps, longlines, or anchor there to protect the fragile corals from being crushed. 

Regulators extended the HAPC protections slightly beyond where the Oculina corals had been observed growing because if trawl nets get too close to the corals the sediment plumes the nets kick up can smother the corals. And trawl nets 150-200 feet down are hard to control, can veer off the intended course pushed by strong underwater currents, and crush corals again. Hence the corals needed a protective buffer strip.  Now that the reef has been protected from trawling, Oculina corals have started re-growing in previously damaged areas.  New colonies sprouted on the rubble of their destroyed predecessors, and marine life began returning.  Decades of protections have resulted in slow progress.  The corals are reclaiming the seafloor they once dominated.

But now, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has asked NOAA to throw all of that progress away.  They want to open the buffer strip that has protected the HAPC to bottom trawling, the exact practice that nearly caused the extinction of this habitat decades ago.  It is unknown if juvenile corals are growing in this new proposed fishing area, but it is certain that bottom trawling will harm known corals growing nearby.  Sediment plumes from trawling along the edge of the reef could once again stress or smother the remaining corals nearby and prevent coral recruits from settling. 

The loss of a one-of-a-kind habitat like the Oculina Bank is tragic, and the loss is doubly devastating considering all the life the deep-sea reef supports.  The Oculina Bank shelters hundreds of marine species.  A single 12-inch coral can host up to 2,000 animals, including small fish, crabs, shrimp, and mollusks (many of which are food for larger fish).  The Oculina corals are also a spawning site for groupers and snappers, which are prized by recreational and commercial fishermen.  Most marine life in the area depends on the reef in one way or another.

Removing the much-needed protections for this habitat also opens the door to rolling back other marine environmental protections.  If the protections for the Oculina corals can be erased to benefit a handful of fishermen, what assurances are there that other protected areas are not similarly at risk?

The proposal comes at a particularly egregious time.  President Joe Biden has pledged to protect and conserve at least 30% of both U.S. lands and ocean areas by 2030 and established the America the Beautiful campaign to accomplish that goal.  At a time when the world is coming together to protect our lands and seas, we should be ensuring marine protections are strong and effective, not rolling them back.  We cannot let existing protections (and the 40 years of progress made with their help) evaporate without a fight.

So Marine Conservation Institute has partnered with local nonprofits, like the Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County to ensure that the Oculina Bank has a voice in this fight.  We are gathering partners and grassroots support to oppose any efforts to roll back protections.  You can join the fight by adding your name to the petition here.  If you have friends (especially friends in Florida), ensure they sign the petition as well.  It will take a unified movement to prevent this terrible policy from going into effect.  But Marine Conservation Institute and other local and national nonprofits are prepared to lead that movement to save the last of the Oculina Bank from destruction.