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Deep-Sea Gulf Corals Are Now Federally Protected

Federal officials approved a new rule to protect deep-sea coral hotspots in the Gulf of Mexico through restrictions on some fishing gear in areas where they thrive. Some locations are off of the Florida coast.

The U.S. Department of Commerce secretary has approved a plan to protect deep-sea Gulf corals from fishing gear by setting boundaries so that fishing happens around the corals, and not on top of them.

Some of these locations were not identified until about a decade ago using underwater cameras.

When most people think about corals, they might think about a snorkeling trip in the Keys or the Caribbean. Those are shallow water corals, which get a lot of sun.

Deep-sea corals in the Gulf are different, living in discreet clusters where little sunlight comes through. They're really important, said Tom Wheatley, a manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts Conserving Marine Life in the U.S. program.

"They actually form habitat, the stony corals, that actually create mounds that can be hundreds of feet high that provide places for other different animals like crabs, fish and sharks, to find prey, to find shelter," Wheatley said. "Some even lay their eggs in and on the corals, like cat sharks, so they create a lot of habitat.”

Pew Charitable Trusts

These living organisms are also valuable for medical research, he said. Scientists study the corals for breakthroughs in human health because they live long lives without contracting diseases.

"They look to get remedies for some of the common ailments that humans have directly from the corals themselves and the sponges and things like that, that live in these coral communities," Wheatley said.

But these are a slow-growing and fragile species. They were getting damaged by deep-water fishing nets pulled behind boats to catch things like shrimp. It can takes years for the illusive creatures to recover.

Now federal officials will monitor fishing boats through tracking devices to ensure they're not destroying the corals.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council worked very closely with scientists, both in academia and at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Wheatley said.

The council also worked closely with the fishermen they are regulating to find solutions that would protect the most corals, but also allow for the most fishing.

“So we're excited about this as a good first step,” he said. “We think that the council deserves a tremendous amount of credit, and we're willing and ready to work on some more sites, too, into the future.”

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.