Investigating Coral Communities in the Gulf of Maine

Dr. Rhian G. Waller, University of Maine


Section 303(b) discretionary provisions from the 2007 Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) reauthorization provide a flexible mechanism by which to protect deep-sea corals from the effects of fishing. This authority allows Fishery Management Councils to designate protection zones anywhere corals have been identified and implement measures to protect corals within those zones, provided that long-term sustainable use of fishery resources has been considered. A range of coral protection alternatives relying on this authority are currently under development by the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC). These alternatives will define the boundaries of coral protection zones and implement fishing restrictions within them.

Two types of zones are being considered. A ‘broad zone' alternative would encompass a large area extending from the shelf/slope boundary to the outer limits of the U.S. EEZ. Landward boundary options for this zone may be based on depth contours (e.g., 300 m, 400 m, 500 m). The overall objective is to prohibit fishing in the area that is largely outside the current footprint of fishing activity in order to protect corals.  However, a mechanism to allow limited fishing activities in smaller access areas that are determined to be relatively free of corals, or by fishing gears that do not pose a significant threat to deep-sea corals and sponges, is also under consideration. Alternatives for ‘discrete zones' are also proposed that narrowly define areas based on known coral distributions and the presence or likely presence of suitable coral dominated habitats. Gear restrictions in these discrete areas could be uniquely defined and vary from one area to another, and, as in the broad area, smaller access areas could be designated that would allow certain types of fishing activity to occur, subject to specific data collection and monitoring conditions (e.g., for coral by-catch). Area management alternatives approved by either Council could combine a broad area option with one or more discrete area options. Discrete area options that are currently being considered under NEFMC jurisdiction include two areas in the Gulf of Maine, a number of canyons, and the four seamounts in the U.S. EEZ southeast of Georges Bank (i.e., Bear, Physalia, Retriever and Mytilus), with boundaries based on bathymetry, slope, and deep-sea coral distributions