Marine conservationists are demanding that the U.S. government take emergency action to protect deep-sea corals and sponges from net-dragging trawlers. Arguing that environmental regulations haven't kept pace with new science, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Oceana last week petitioned Secretary of Commerce Don Evans to take immediate steps to protect the sea-floor organisms in U.S. waters. It also is calling for more research to find and map deep-water coral.
The 24 March petition is the latest reflection of growing scientific and public interest in so-called "cool corals," which grow very slowly in cold, sunless waters down to 2000 meters (Science, 10 January 2003, p. 195). Over the last decade, marine researchers have been delighted by discoveries of deep-water coral gardens--and appalled by damage from trawlers, which are moving into deeper waters (ScienceNOW, 26 February 2002).
Although the U.S. government has moved to protect some of the finds, Oceana says current law requires it to do more. In particular, the group argues that the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act compels regulators to protect fish habitats that are rare or fragile from any disruption that is more than "minimal and temporary." Trawling fits the bill, the petition argues, because a single pass of a net can level habitats that may take centuries to recover. To avoid lasting damage, they want the Commerce Department to take eight steps, including immediately designating nearly a dozen known coral and sponge communities in U.S. waters as "habitats of special concern" that are closed to trawling. They also want the government to survey areas believed to hold new colonies and fund research efforts.
Commerce officials are reviewing the petition. But fishing industry officials are urging them to reject it, noting that regulators are already under a federal court order to produce comprehensive regional plans for protecting fish habitat. "If Oceana wants effective protection, it should let the current process go forward," says Rod Moore, head of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association in Portland, Oregon.
However, Mike Hirshfield, Oceana's chief scientist, notes that at least one of the draft plans has already concluded that trawling does damage deep-water corals--but that the destruction has little impact on fish populations. "It's an absurd position," he says, noting that studies have shown that some young fish find shelter on the bottom.
Still, many observers expect Commerce to reject the petition, setting the stage for a possible lawsuit. Legal analysts predict that Oceana would lose, leaving the issue in the court of public opinion.