Deep sea corals are in depths of 50m or greater and include five taxa. These are stony corals that build large, complex, branching colonies. As suspension feeders, they grow upward into the water column and are a protective habitat for a wide variety of marine creatures. When they die, the exoskeleton branches break down into coral rubble with more coral growing on top of the rubble. Through hundreds and thousands of years, these coral mounds grow vertically with the living coral on the top and the dead coral as the bottom platform.
In South Carolina, our deep sea corals are about 160 km southeast of Charleston, at the eastern edge and central portion of the Blake Plateau. They are a system extending from SC to Florida about ½ mile deep with mounds up to 300 feet. They are significant because they are the largest, continuous deep-sea coral reef systems. This area creates a vast, connected habitat vital to many fish that are both recreationally and commercially important. Their locations are advantageous because they are located far enough offshore that there are little threats from fisheries. However as commercial fishing moves further offshore and offshore drilling is still a threat, it is important to protect this area from those threats and others in the future.
The Oculina Bank (OHAPC) sit off of the east coast of central Florida and was first protected from trawling by NOAA in 1984 after 90% of the coral reef had been destroyed by trawling in the 1970s and 1980s. It was the first deep sea coral protection in the world. This particular type of deep sea Oculina coral reef is found nowhere else in the world. Saved by NOAA in 1984, remnants of the Oculina Bank have now started to recover. Currently, NOAA is considering a proposal to remove the narrow buffer strip that has protected the fragile corals from the heavy nets of the shrimp trawlers. The Coral Amendment 10 would establish a shrimp fishery access area along the eastern boundary of the northern extension of the Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern, where trawling for rock shrimp is currently prohibited.
This one-of-a-kind ecosystem supports marine life throughout the region well beyond the reef itself. A single 12-inch coral can host up to 2,000 animals, including small fish, crabs, shrimp, and mollusks—many of which are food for prized sport fish. Oculina Bank is also a spawning site for several species of groupers, important fish prized by recreational and commercial fishermen in the South Atlantic. These species come to the reef from as far away as North Carolina and are increasingly threatened by overfishing, climate change, and habitat destruction. According to Professor Grant Gilmore who has directly observed such spawning activity on research dives at the Oculina Banks, three species that are listed on NOAA Fisheries’ Status of Stocks report of December 31, 2021 as overfished and experiencing overfishing spawn in the Oculina Banks — snowy grouper, gag (grouper) and red porgy.
In short, the Oculina corals create a unique habitat upon which much marine life in the area depends.
AN UPDATE 8/2022
The National Oceanographic and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) rejected the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s request to open this area to trawling. We applaud NOAA’s decision to honor its decades-long commitment to protecting this unique ecosystem and not opening part of the Oculina Bank OHAPC to trawling.
NOAA Fisheries determined the amendment does not adequately demonstrate how a decision to open the area to rock shrimp fishing is consistent with Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) requirements related to essential fish habitat and bycatch, and the goals and objectives of the Coral Fishery Management Plan.
We will continue to monitor this amendment because the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has an opportunity to address these deficiencies and submit a revised amendment requesting approval and implementation again.
AN UPDATE 6/2022
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) recently approved Coral Amendment 10 which would open part of the Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern (OHAPC) to bottom trawling. This would remove decades-old protections for this deep-sea coral ecosystem harming the last remaining and recovering parts of this unique marine environment while also undermining the durability of habitat protections and designated protected areas under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). Coral Amendment 10 is in direct conflict with the Biden/Harris Administration’s vision for America the Beautiful and its commitment to conserving at least 30 percent of our Nation’s land and waters by 2030.
The SAFMC Coral Amendment 10 is now published in the Federal Register. The public comment period is open until June 28th, and we urge you to ask the National Oceanographic and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) to honor its decades-long commitment to protecting this unique ecosystem and not opening part of the Oculina Bank OHAPC to bottom trawling.
HOW TO COMMENT
It’s quick and easy. Go to the Federal Register’s page on the proposed rule, click “Submit a Formal Comment” in the green box. In your comments, consider including any information above or you can reference this NGO sign-on letter.
The deadline to submit comments on this proposed rule is Tuesday, June 28.
We have only one chance to protect this one-of-a-kind ecosystem. NOAA got it right in protecting the Oculina HAPC from harmful trawling practices decades ago. NOAA should make the right decision and uphold the progress made over the last 40 years to protect Oculina Banks. I urge you submit a comment encouraging NOAA recommend maintaining all current protections for the Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern.
Want to learn and see more?
Check out these videos covering deep-sea coral explorations off of the South Atlantic coast.
The Windows to the Deep 2021 part 1
The Windows to the Deep 2021 part 2
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me!