Decision saves remnants of fragile Oculina coral habitat found nowhere else on Earth from destruction
Dr. Lance Morgan, President
Marine Conservation Institute, USA
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Shari Anker, President
Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County
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NOAA Announcement https://bit.ly/3vozSV4 and Background Below
[Washington, DC] National Oceanographic and Atmospheric (NOAA) officials rejected amendment 10 from the US South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to reopen a sensitive deep-sea coral ecosystem on the Florida coast. The Oculina Banks Habitat Area of Particular Concern, the only remaining area where Ivory-Tree coral (Oculina varicosa) grows in reefs, has been protected for nearly 40 years since 1984. A recent proposal sought to resume destructive fishing in this area, but local and national conservation groups, scientists, recreational fishermen and civil society mounted a loud campaign to safeguard this critical habitat.
Late yesterday, NOAA Fisheries announced that it rejected the proposal to open part of this special area to renewed bottom trawling for shrimp and said in part, “NOAA Fisheries disapproved Coral Amendment 10 after determining the amendment does not adequately demonstrate how a decision to open the area to rock shrimp fishing is consistent with Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) requirements related to essential fish habitat and bycatch, and the goals and objectives of the Coral Fishery Management Plan.”
While NOAA left open the possibility of a different proposal for destructive bottom trawling in this region in the future, opponents like Marine Conservation Institute believe that there is no proposal that would keep the Oculina coral reefs safe from nearby trawling.
Mike Gravitz, Marine Conservation Institute’s head of government affairs, congratulated NOAA leadership, “We applaud the leadership at NOAA Fisheries for following the abundant science that shows this area to be unique and the common sense that bottom trawling very close to fragile corals is risky for the corals. Rejecting Amendment 10 and safeguarding the remnants of the Oculina Coral Banks is the right thing to do for so many reasons. He continued, “The Oculina Banks are a national treasure and need strong and lasting protections in place.”
Shari Anker, President of the Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County and strong local advocate for protecting the Oculina coral reefs, said, “The Conservation Alliance is proud to have helped lead the charge to protect this unique place in our oceans. It is critical that we continue to preserve places like the Oculina habitat that we’ve worked hard in the past to protect from destructive shrimp bottom trawling and bottom fishing. We cannot have healthy oceans without healthy places for fish and other marine life to live.”
According to Marine Conservation Institute president Dr. Lance Morgan, “Maintaining these protections now in the face of unrelenting climate change is critical to securing a healthy ocean; and it is just the right leadership we need from NOAA to recover from decades of unsustainable pressure on our natural ecosystems. We applaud their decision today.”
Mike Gravitz summarized the collaborative effort, “Without the incredible efforts of local voices like Professor John Reed at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Shari Anker at the Conservation Alliance, Dr. Grant Gilmore and Dr. Edie Widders at ORCA —strong and knowledgeable organizations and local voices in Florida- this effort would not have succeeded. They were critical in convincing NOAA to follow the science and do the right thing. It’s been a privilege to work with them.”
Background (historical and scientific)
Professor John Reed
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
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In 1984 the Oculina Coral Reef Habitat, off Florida’s Atlantic coast, was placed in protected status by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC). This was done to stop destructive rock shrimp fishing from decimating the coral reef habitat. Known as the Oculina Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) this ecosystem became the first deep-water coral reef in the world under such protections.
This unique deep-water coral ecosystem is found nowhere else on Earth and is an important habitat for a variety of fish (70 species) including scamp grouper, gag grouper, snowy grouper, speckled hind, and red snapper. This habitat provides spawning and nursery services for young fish, including commercially important grouper and snapper. Groupers support one of our most valuable fisheries in the State of Florida and in the Southeastern United States.
In 2021, fishery managers voted to reopen this area to commercial rock shrimp fishing, under a misguided Trump Presidential Executive Order (EO) 13921. The SAFMC and rock shrimpers tried to use the executive order to justify resuming an incredibly damaging fishing method that was going to destroy the last 10% of remaining Oculina coral.
Opening this area was potentially a giant step backwards in stewardship of our natural resources and would have gone against the America the Beautiful Campaign goals of the Biden Administration which seeks to conserve 30% of our oceans, rivers and lands by 2030 to mitigate the impacts of climate change and preserve biodiversity in a changing world.
About Marine Conservation Institute
Marine Conservation Institute, founded in 1996, works in the U.S. and globally to seek strong protection for at least 30% of the ocean by 2030—for us and future generations. Our focus on protecting the ocean’s most important places follows several lines of work: identifying and advocating for strong marine protected areas; improving laws and other tools to better conserve marine biodiversity; catalyzing effective conservation by recognizing and elevating the best marine protected areas as Blue Parks; and accurately reporting on global conservation efforts with our Marine Protection Atlas (MPAtlas.org).
2.5 Minute Video – Clips of Oculina Reef highlighting their importance as a unique ecosystem