For most of us, the phrase “coral reef” conjures a vision of colorful fans and knobs that sway in warm tropical waters teeming with rainbows of fish, all of them glowing in a wash of filtered sunlight from the ocean’s surface.
But corals thrive in deep, dark, cold waters as well, such as the vast undersea canyons off the East Coast of the United States. Now, much of this coral is protected, thanks to a vote by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to ban bottom trawling and dredge fishing in more than 35,000 square miles from Long Island to North Carolina.
The move freezes the footprint of the current fisheries, said Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager for the conservation group Oceana. “It’s going to be one of the largest protection areas in the Atlantic,” he said—there’s a slightly larger one just off Iceland—“and the single largest in the U.S. Atlantic.”
So, Why Should You Care? Like their tropical cousins, the mid-Atlantic deepwater corals are weirdly beautiful habitats for diverse marine animals. But they were only discovered two decades ago. Protecting these corals and their habitats means that scientists have time to explore and understand these ecosystems.
“No fishermen are going to be kicked out of current fishing grounds,” Brogan said. “They’re not in these areas right now.”
But the council’s move bucks global trends toward fishing in deeper and deeper waters. If further explorations of the canyons “find areas without corals, there will be a way to open up those areas to fishing,” Brogan said. “But otherwise they will be closed, preserving those areas for the future.”
Ongoing scientific expeditions into the canyons are revealing the strange beauty and rich variety of marine life of the mid-Atlantic corals, such as this deep-sea crab perching on a bright pink bubblegum coral.
Check out this gallery of other marine animals that thrive in these submarine canyons.