BAR HARBOR — A new rule from federal regulators last week creates thousands of miles of “deep sea coral protection areas” in the Gulf of Maine, including two off Mount Desert Island and on Georges Bank.
The new rule designates a coral protection area in an 8-square-mile area southwest of Mount Desert Rock – a small, rocky island about 20 nautical miles south of Mount Desert Island. Vessels are prohibited from fishing with bottom-tending mobile gear in the area, though vessels will still be able to fish for lobsters using trap gear.
The Outer Schoodic Ridge Coral Protection Area will be a 31-square-mile protected zone about 25 miles southeast of the island, with the same restrictions as Mount Desert Rock.
The new rule also establishes a protection area of 25,000 square miles on the Georges Bank outer continental shelf, south of Cape Cod.
Several decades ago, scientists found that deep sea coral gardens can grow despite the lack of sun in the cold, dark waters off New England, building reef-like structures that provide habitat for several species.
The habitats have higher associated concentrations of fish than surrounding areas and are believed to be nursery grounds. But they also have the potentially worrisome combination of extreme fragility and slow grow rates.
“They found that these are really slow growing and really fragile, but are part of the marine ecosystem and need to be conserved,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries campaign manager with Oceana, a nonprofit dedicated to ocean advocacy.
Without protections, trawling or dragging the seafloor with heavy fishing gear can reduce hundreds of years of coral growth to rubble in one fell swoop.
Although these don’t preserve all of the coral off New England, getting these locations protected was a huge win for conservationists and one that took more than a decade of advocacy.
“It’s a big deal,” Brogan said.
Part of what makes it such an important gain is it protects large amounts of coral without significantly hurting the fishing industry.
This was welcomed news for Zack Klyver, the science director at the locally based-Blue Planet Strategies.
“As part of the new rule, it is super exciting that two new protection areas have been created for the deep sea corals at Schoodic ridges and near Mount Desert Rock,” he said.
The rule also designates an area in the Jordan basin as a dedicated habitat research area.
While it was huge for conservationists, the new protections weren’t a big deal for Virginia Olsen, a Stonington lobsterman and leader in the local lobster union.
“We can still fish,” she said.