- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

Large fishing operations that skim the ocean floor with 1-ton nets are causing “massive” destruction to a little-known form of cold-water coral important to the world’s fish population, according to a report released yesterday.

The damage from rock hoppers — large rubber rollers designed to keep nets that can stretch 40 feet tall and 200 feet wide from snagging on rocks — destroys fish habitats that help power the seafood industry, said the report by Oceana, a Washington-based nonprofit marine conservation group.

The trawling’s effect is roughly similar to racing several monster trucks across the sea floor, said Michael Hirshfield, Oceana’s chief scientist.

“If you’re a baby fish and you’re trying to hide from something that’s trying to eat you, do you want the sea floor to be barren or filled with thousands of hiding places?” he said.

Mr. Hirshfield also said the loss of the bottom-dwelling organisms that make up coral undermines efforts to discover beneficial uses for it.

“We are finding that new chemical compounds increasingly are being prospected for in the deep oceans. Many of these chemicals are produced by deep-sea corals … good chemicals, possible treatments for diseases. And we are in danger of losing these corals before we can even name them.”

Oceana’s 16-page report, titled “Deep Sea Corals: Out of Sight, But No Longer Out of Mind,” recommends halting the expansion of trawling used to catch shrimp, cod or flounder; closing trawled areas with known coral and sponge concentrations; and stepping up enforcement of laws that protect them.

But cutting bottom trawling would deal the fishing industry’s economy an “absolutely devastating” blow, said Jerry Schill, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association Inc.

“Our trawlers try to stay away from corals anyway,” he said. “The rhetoric groups like that use for all bottom trawling is pretty ridiculous.”

“If trawling were eliminated, the fishing industry would be virtually destroyed.”

Mr. Hirshfield said the cold-water coral, once thriving thousands of feet beneath the ocean surface, is a victim, in part, because it doesn’t receive nearly as much publicity or research as its tropical counterpart.

“Deep-sea corals have bad [public relations],” Mr. Hirshfield said. “It’s expensive to research them; it’s dark and the environment is hostile to humans.”

Scientists have documented gardens of deep-sea coral off the coasts of North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Two-thirds of all known coral live in deep, dark and cold waters off these coasts — some more than three miles beneath the ocean surface in temperatures as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the report said.

The deep-sea corals do not take energy directly from sunlight, but feed on microscopic animals in the surrounding water, the report said.

They grow slowly — less than an inch per year — and can live for several hundred or thousand years if undisturbed, it said.

Deep-sea coral make up some of the world’s largest coral structures, according to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

Scientists and environmental activists admit they don’t have damage estimates or know how many cold-water coral formations exist worldwide. Nor do they claim full knowledge of the coral’s environmental interactions.

But in areas such as the Norwegian coast, scientists estimate that destructive fishing has destroyed a third to half of the area’s corals, said William Chandler, vice president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

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