The United States will protect an Atlantic Ocean region roughly the size of Virginia in an effort to save centuries-old deep-sea coral formations, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council said.
The move, announced Wednesday, creates the largest such preserve in the U.S. Atlantic, totaling some 38,000 square miles, and bans the use of damaging fishing gear that scrapes along the ocean floor. It will be called the Frank R. Lautenberg Deep-Sea Coral Protection Area in honor of the senator from New Jersey, who died in 2013.
“Our oceans are home to spectacular wildlife, a vital source of food, and a source of wonder and enjoyment for all Americans,” Brad Sewell, director of the fisheries and U.S. Atlantic ocean program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote after the final rule was passed. “They are also under increasing stress from climate change and ocean acidification, and habitat protections like those announced today are a critical part of fortifying marine ecosystems against these threats.”
The protection area includes 27 mammoth underwater canyons that are home to ancient coral species, some of which take thousands of years to mature. But the formations can be easily destroyed in minutes by commercial fishing gear, like weighted trawling nets that drag along the ocean floor.
Any equipment that touches the sea floor will be banned under the new rules, except gear used for lobster and red crab trapping, and that used by recreational fishermen.
John Bullard, regional fisheries administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pointed to the huge scope of the protections, covering an area “20 times the size of Grand Canyon National Park,” as a landmark move that links environmentalists and commercial fisheries.
“It’s really remarkable. It shows what can happen when people approach the goal of protecting sensitive habitat with open minds,” Bullard said. “The key is to have good science and data and very good and constant communications. And good will, that’s very important.”
The move is the latest in a series of vast environmental protections in American waters this year. President Barack Obama designated the largest protected marine area in the world in August around Hawaii, and created the first marine monument in the Atlantic in September.
Environmentalists hailed the new protection area and urged other fisheries managers to use the model of public and private partnerships to safeguard other endangered ocean regions.
“Healthy habitat supports ocean ecosystems and thriving fisheries, and this success stands as a challenge and inspiration for other fishery managers around the country,” Joseph Gordon, manager of mid-Atlantic Ocean conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said in a statement.
The new rule goes into effect next month.