- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

Scientists worried about declining global fish populations are turning their attention increasingly to coral beds below the cold, dark waters of the North Atlantic.
Cold-water coral looks much like the fast-growing, tropical variety that long has fascinated scientists and recreational divers. But, likened to a "redwood in the ocean" for its longevity, cold-water coral grows less than a half-inch per year much slower than tropical reefs.
In addition to overfishing, mammoth industrial fleets could be exacerbating the decline of fish populations by ripping up deep-sea coral in the North Atlantic.
The problem stems from giant factory trawler ships, often as big as a city block, that dredge the ocean floor, deep-freezing nearly everything they pull up. The catch is processed into products from cat food to fast-food fish fillets.
Those who own or work on small fishing boats are being put out of business, in part because the big trawlers are destroying the reefs, said Ken Sulak, biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. Last year, European Fisheries Commissioner Franz Fischler estimated that declining fish resources cost the European Union 8,000 fishing jobs each year.
The American fishing industry today is a "remnant of itself because it has depleted ocean resources," said Phil Kline, fisheries specialist at Oceana, a Washington-based marine conservation organization.
Cold-water coral is sensitive to the heavy trawling gear that flattens these deep-water reefs and rips them from the ocean floor. Research projects in various countries including Canada, Scotland and Norway estimate that as much as half of their deep-sea coral already may have been trawled to rubble.
Given that the coral is a habitat for rockfish, mackerel, grouper and other deep-ocean species, there is the potential for species extinction that has not been fully explored, said Peter Auster, director of the Undersea Research Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
One coral community can date back hundreds to thousands of years, Mr. Sulak said.
"If you destroy it, it's not coming back in a human time scale. If it's an essential habitat for these fishery resources, it will be lost for that purpose," he said.
Scientists and environmental conservationists, who have focused on tropical-sea coral for decades, are just turning their attention to cold-water coral. Some may not even know of its existence.
"Even scientists don't realize that half or more of corals occur in deep water, as deep as 4 or 5 miles," said Stephen Cairns, research zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, reauthorized by Congress in 1996, lists provisions for determining and protecting essential fish habitats. But it is difficult to prove a causal link between damaged deep-sea coral and declining fish populations, which would be needed to apply the law.
"If you cut down a forest, there is not going to be any place for woodpeckers, but it would be hard to prove that the forest is absolutely essential to woodpeckers," Mr. Sulak said.
"We're only beginning to scratch the surface with our understanding of the role that this [cold-water coral] habitat plays in mediating populations of managed fishes," said Mr. Auster. Data suggest that cold coral plays a vital role as fish live, grow and reproduce in these deep-sea havens sheltered from predators and the unrelenting current, he said.
Absent the ability to cite exact figures, scientists adhere to a "risk-averse" course.
"In our country, if you're going to market a drug, you need to prove that the drug is not going to harm you. But when it comes to environmental impacts, often the requirement for burden of proof is reversed. It's up to the government to prove that what you are going to do is going to screw things up; otherwise, you should be able to go out and do it," Mr. Auster said.
He said this "free for all" on these ocean resources should be checked by conservation efforts now rather than later, when it could be too late for the habitat's recovery.
Logistics and inadequate funding hinder research on these corals.
"The people that work with [shallow-water] coral-reef fishes can toss a tank on their back, jump off the side of a 16-foot Boston Whaler and they're at work. But if you're going to work with deep-sea coral, you've got to either wrap yourself in a research submarine or an underwater robot system or some other pricey bit of technology," said Mr. Auster.
Use of one such research submersible can cost $20,000 a day, far beyond the budget of any university or museum, Mr. Cairns said.
The first International Symposium on Deep-Sea Corals assembled in Canada last year. The second symposium will be in Germany in September.
"These kinds of symposiums bring scientists and resource managers together to identify the common problems and to highlight the research that is going on. The Europeans the French, Germans and Scandinavians have been doing this type of research for maybe 10 years, Canadians four or five years, and the U.S. is just beginning," Mr. Sulak said.
In 2002, the European Union crafted a new Common Fisheries Policy for Europe, limiting access to waters containing exploited deep-sea fish species and habitats. Canada also has drafted deep-sea regulatory measures.
The Web site of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea notes that "Scientists from ICES have warned that the only way to protect Europe's cold-water coral reefs is to accurately map them and then close them to fishing trawlers."
Ireland, the United States and other countries considered creating their own protected marine areas for cold-water coral habitats after Canada's declaration of several coral preserves in 2001.
Choosing the right places for these preserves is difficult without maps of coral distribution, and the current collection details only the most familiar deep-sea corals off the coasts of Nova Scotia, the United Kingdom and Alaska, which is insufficient, scientists say.
The price tag on sea-floor mapping ($500,000 for less than 6 square miles), has spurred researchers and conservationists to piggyback on other projects.
In 1996, economic incentive led to sea-floor mapping after Britain received funding for the project from the oil industry.
In the United States, the Sustainable Fisheries Act requires sea-coral research and management through the National Marine Fisheries Service, a department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It is up for reauthorization, but scientists are concerned that revisions of the act will make requirements for essential status too stringent to provide for conservation of deep-sea coral.
Several interested groups, including the Recreational Fishing Alliance, caution against legislation that involves "blanket closure" of marine areas. They advocate an approach involving cooperation between the seafood industry and scientists, and continued fishing privileges for fishing companies that do not affect coral communities.
Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republican, introduced on April 9 a bill before the Resources Committee to protect sensitive cold-water corals and boulders from bottom trawls.
Some proponents of conservation point to cold-water coral's vital ecological role, others to its effect upon fishery resources. Still others like Mike Risk of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario laud its potential for benefits to humans.
Mr. Risk, an oceanographer, believes gorgonian and other deep-sea coral species may shed light on climate change. These species grow concentric rings similar to tree rings that may provide information about changes in ocean temperature and nutrient levels over the past several centuries.
Research has shown that these corals also may provide sources for new biological compounds that can be used in medical and pharmaceutical industries.

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