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Fight to save rare Oculina coral reefs off Florida continues; Round 3 of the battle is on!

Featured Image: Professor John Reed: 200305 Oculina_ROV20 Photo14 anthiid school in live Oculina

Sometimes marine conservation groups like ours have to engage in lengthy battles just to protect  important marine life that should never be threatened in the first place. In this case, Marine Conservation Institute and its allies in Florida are battling to save deep-water Oculina coral reefs which were first protected in 1984 -thirty-eight years ago- when Ronald Reagan was President. We’ve gone two rounds in the battle; and now we’re on our third round. We need your help to determine whether this coral ecosystem gets to survive at least another 38 years. Here’s the story of a unique ecosystem, once protected, and now threatened again by the same trawlers who destroyed almost all of it decades ago.

Off the Eastern coast of Florida lies a unique marine ecosystem called the Oculina Coral Reef: the only known place in the world where deep-water Oculina varicosa corals form high relief (tall) structures.  Several hundred feet below the surface this fragile coral (also called the ivory tree coral) grows less than ½” per year, taking centuries to form large colonies.   Deep-water 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 a habitat that supports hundreds of other species including rock shrimp, fish like groupers and snappers that are highly prized by fishermen, and other abundant marine life.

This unique deep-water 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 reef was literally crushed by the practice.

In 1984, researchers like Professor John Reed at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute 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 coral reef 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 bottom trawl, use fish traps, bottom long lines, or anchor there to protect the fragile corals from being crushed. 

Round 1: South Atlantic Fishery Council and Shrimp Trawlers Attack

In response to a Trump era executive order that asked regional fishery councils to reduce regulations and lobbying from a few shrimp trawlers, the South Atlantic Fishery Council (the Council) approved a new plan that would open up part of the Oculina coral reef protected area (Oculina HAPC) to bottom trawling again. Despite testimony from respected marine scientists and the Council’s own coral advisory panel that allowing trawlers into a 22 mile long buffer strip (added after 1984) would probably ensure that the heavy trawl nets would go off track and crush corals and that plumes of sediment kicked up by the nets scraping the bottom could smother the corals, the Council voted to open the buffer strip protecting the sensitive corals in November 2021.

South Atlantic Fishery Council and Shrimpers: 1 – Oculina Corals: 0

Round 2: Marine Conservation Institute & Florida Allies Fight Back

After the plan passed the Council over strong objections, Marine Conservation Institute and its Florida allies swung into action with a grassroots petition and opposition from national and Florida ocean organizations who were astounded that the Council and NOAA’s representative on the Council would vote almost unanimously for this terrible proposal to undo decades of protection to benefit three or fewer shrimp boats. Round 2 culminated with a meeting between decision makers at NOAA Fisheries and marine scientists and activists. We re-emphasized why the science showed this was such a bad idea. A letter signed by 37 national and Florida organizations opposing the idea of opening the protected area was presented to decision makers.

Oculina Corals: 1 – South Atlantic Fishery Council and Shrimpers: 0

Round 3: Now – Official Comment Period Must Demolish the Bottom Trawling Idea

On April 29 NOAA published the plan that would allow shrimpers to attack the corals and asked for public comments over the next 60 days. Now is the time to generate massive opposition to the attack on the coral reefs with comments from citizens and recreational fishermen who catch groupers and snappers that grow among the healthy corals, file technical comments opposing it, and generate press for public awareness. NOAA must be told that they can’t go forward with this idea and unwind protections for corals. At a time when the world is coming together to protect our lands and seas and the Biden administration has released its visionary plan to conserve and restore 30% of the oceans and lands by 2030, we should be ensuring marine protections are strong and effective, not rolling them back.  We can’t go backwards and destroy places that have already been protected. That makes no sense.

HERE’S YOUR PART: Please sign the petition opposing the attack on the last 10% of deep-water Oculina coral reefs in the world. Over 2,500 people have already signed, but we need thousands more. Please help us stop this potential destruction of centuries old corals that also jeopardizes the whole ecosystem around them.

At the end of June, what will the final score be? Environmentalists and Corals winning or the Fishery Council and Shrimpers winning?  You can help determine that question.