The U.S. Government is considering the ban of bottom trawls, bottom longlines and other destructive fishing gear to protect a still untouched ecosystem in the south-eastern United States. In consideration is a stretch of ocean floor from South East Florida to North Carolina, an area of about 23,000 square miles. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has held a series of public hearings during January and February and now plans to vote on the ban in June to protect reefs that so far have not suffered from human activities and are still undamaged.
Every now and then a new species is discovered from the ocean depths of which we still know little about. The ocean reefs are thousands of years old but have only rather recently been hinted at by geological evidence and have then in the late 1990s been reached by submersibles. We first started to know about the ocean depth with the use of submarine hunting sonars. In the 1950s scientists started to map out the oceans’ submerged mountain ranges. Only the development of deep-diving submersibles, multibeam sonars and remotely operated vehicles confirmed the scientists’ suspicion of the existence of reefs in the ocean depths.
Expeditions to the dark coldness, no sunlight penetrates 2,500 feet below the surface and the water temperature drops into the 30s, discovered hundreds of coral mounds, one reaching a height of 400 feet. They are composed of a delicately branched, snow-white coral called Lophelia pertusa, an unusual form of coral for its lack of zooxanthellae – the symbiotic algae which lives inside most tropical reef building corals. These expeditions also sighted eels, scorpion fish and several examples of the huge six gill shark, a primitive species that hunts near the surface at night and spends the day in the depth.
Part of the for protection proposed area is a geological formation, the Miami Terrace Reef, which is a 65 km long shelf about 15 miles off shore. Much of the platform remains unexplored, and new portions of the reef are still being discovered. University of Miami researchers discovered new reef sites there in December 2005.
Radiocarbon dating indicates that some Lophelia reefs in the waters off North Carolina may be 40,000 years old. L. pertusa was listed under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix II in January 1990, meaning that the United Nations Environmental Programme recognizes that this species is not necessarily currently threatened with extinction but that it may become so in the future. Because the rate of growth is so slow, it is unlikely that that the fishing practice with trawling nets will prove to be sustainable. The vote for protection will be cast in June 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC