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TALLAHASSEE, FL – The federal government has approved new protections for fragile coral hotspots in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a long-awaited victory for environmental groups. Now, damaging fishing gear – like trawls, traps, anchors and longlines – can’t be used in nearly 500 miles of scattered reef and canyon sites from Florida to Texas.
Holly Binns, program director for Conserving Marine Life in the U.S. at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said the added protections will preserve ecosystems that provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for sea life sought after by recreational and commercial fishers.
“These areas that are really unique,” said Binns. “These rich and abundant coral communities on the deep ocean floor where there is no light, but they are an incredibly important habitat for a full variety of marine wildlife, and that’s important to support fishing communities as well.”
The approval by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration includes 21 protected areas off the coasts of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi as well.
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The research and management of deep-water coral sites is being funded through a $20 billion settlement with BP, the oil company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in 2010 that dumped around 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The restoration plan includes development of better maps to locate coral reefs and other ecosystems. Tom Frazer, chair of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, said that’s important, because there’s a lot that’s unknown about the deepest parts of the ocean well beyond Florida’s coasts.
“Again, it’s just the fact that there’s a spotlight that’s being shined on these particular habitats, bringing recognition to a bigger problem around the world in regard to coral reef degradation,” said Frazer.
Deep-sea corals live in cold depths of up to 10,000 feet. Frazer said corals also are natural disease fighters, with some being tested on treatments for medical conditions, like cancer.
Environmental groups are encouraging the management council to consider expanding protections to other areas beyond to newly approved 484 miles of what are known as “Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.”
Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.