To preserve some of the oldest living creatures on Earth, the federal government announced Wednesday that it had created an enormous protected area off the coast of New Jersey to protect deep-sea corals and other hidden ecological treasures.
At more than 40,000 square miles (the size of Virginia), the Frank R. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area includes about a dozen deep-water chasms, including the fabled Hudson Canyon. The area begins more than 70 miles offshore and parallels the coast from Long Island to North Carolina. Lautenberg, the U.S. senator from New Jersey who died in 2013, championed several deepwater species.
The agreement was hashed out by several stakeholders including NOAA Mid-Atlantic Fisheries, fishermen and marine scientists.
Cold-water corals live hundreds of meters under the water. Until the fishing industry started harvesting using bottom trawling, the creatures were undisturbed for millennia. Commercial fishermen using "canyon busters," however, have raked the world's sea floors to harvest mackerel, monkfish and squid. The equipment boosts fisheries production but also topples and destroys the fragile coral. What survives can take centuries, even thousands of years, to bounce back. As a result, species that depend on the coral for their habitats — spider crabs, the bizarre rhinochimera, and scores of other rarely seen animals — are also left unprotected and imperiled.
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The newly protected area bans destructive equipment at depths greater than 1,450 feet and goes into effect Jan. 17, said the Mid-Atlantic Fisher Management Council, which manages fisheries in federal waters. Among the prohibited devices are trawls, dredges and traps. The prohibitions do not apply to recreational fishermen or the American lobster fishery.
The area will help fishermen as well, said Sandra Brooke, a deep-sea coral expert at Florida State University.
"It provides a refuge from fishing which may help replenish the stocks on the continental shelf," Brooke said.
Joseph Gordon, manager of Mid-Atlantic Ocean Conservation for the Pew Charitable Trusts, called the action historic not only for creating the largest protected area in the U.S. Atlantic, but also because so many groups worked together to conserve the vulnerable species.
"Healthy habitat supports ocean ecosystems and thriving fisheries," Gordon said, "and this success stands as a challenge and inspiration for other fishery managers around the country."