By Gareth McGrath
'Rain forests of the sea' providing scientists with new discoveries
You might need a boat, some seasickness pills and a mini sub to get to them.
But the region is about to get a several new sanctuaries to protect some of the most fragile and least understood habitats in the deep ocean.
"These are the rain forests of the sea in structural and biodiversity terms." said Doug Rader, chief ocean scientist for Environmental Defense Fund, of the deepwater coral marine ecosystems. "They truly are world-class habitats."
The federal government has signed off on a plan, designed and already approved by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, to designate nearly 23,000 square miles of deepwater coral habitat as Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.
The designation, which takes effect July 22, will mean the five deep-sea areas – two of which are off North Carolina – will be off limits to bottom-disturbing fishing practices, including longlines and trawling.
The move also gives the sensitive deep-sea habitats extra protection before commercial pressures increase to explore and potentially exploit the mineral and fish resources around the reef areas.
Steve Ross, a researcher at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has been exploring the deepwater reefs for over a decade, including one of the newly-protected areas about a three-hour boat ride off the Cape Fear coast.
He said scientists are still making new discoveries with every exploration."We're finding an incredible storehouse of species that are new to science, and that's very exciting," he said, noting that some of them could hold potential in the biomedical field.
Both Ross and Rader also noted the irony in the announcement of new protections for the deepwater corals in the Atlantic while those in the Gulf of Mexico – which also are just beginning to be explored – come under growing threat from the oil still spewing out from the broken Deepwater Horizon wellhead.
While the new designation won't necessarily outlaw oil and gas exploration in the reef areas, Ross said it will force federal agencies to take a very hard look at the possible environmental impacts from any drilling activities.
The slow-growing deepwater coral reefs, which extend along much of the continental shelf off the Southeast, start at about 1,000 feet and go much deeper.
Because of the depths, accessing them involves using remote-operated vehicles and small submersibles.
But that type of research is very expensive.
Rader said he hopes this week's announcement opens up new funding avenues for scientists such as Ross to continue and even expand their research efforts.
"What they've been able to do so far on a shoestring budget is really amazing," he said.
Rader, who is past chairman of the fishery council's Habitat and Environmental Protection Advisory Panel, said he hopes the designation also raises the public profile of these special areas – even if the public won't ever likely get a chance to see them.