Deep-sea corals and essential fish habitat off the US West Coast

The main tool for fisheries conservation in the USA is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act originally passed in 1976 as a way to help the fishing industry. However, in the intervening years, and after continued declines in fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Act now requires fishery management plans to include designation of essential habitats where species feed or reproduce.

Rockfish, anemones, and other invertebrates inhabit this
deep-sea coral reef in Cordell Bank National Marine
Sanctuary off the coast of California.
Credit: Jodi Pirtle/Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary

A major fishery for groundfish (i.e., rockfish, flounder, sole, cod) is found off the West Coast of the United States.  Deep-sea corals have been identified as essential fish habitat (EFH) for many groundfish species and so their protection from adverse fishing effects “to the extent practicable” is mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  The most common gear used in this fishery is bottom-trawls.  These trawl nets are dragged across the sea floor, indiscriminately collecting all of the fish and structure-forming corals and sponges in its path.  This fishing method results in the bycatch of non-target species and damages these fragile deep-sea corals and sponges.  Many species of deep-sea coral take hundreds to thousands of years to grow and so will not be replaced even within the lifetime of our children’s children.

Loss of this essential habitat can lead to long-term impacts to the commercial species, and ultimately to a non-sustainable fishery.  As part of the periodic review of these essential fish habitats, the Marine Conservation Institute recently submitted to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a number of areas where we propose the banning of bottom-trawling.  These proposed closed areas were based on work done by Dr. John Guinotte and colleagues who used computer models to predict where deep-sea corals might exist based on their preferred habitat characteristics.

We invite you to view our proposed deep-sea coral protection zones in Google Earth below.
Blue borders – we recommended bottom-trawl closure
Purple borders – we recommended closure for all bottom contact gear

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