- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—N.C. COAST — Fishing practices that disturb the sea floor will soon be banned in a 38,000-square mile swath of the Atlantic Ocean in an effort to protect fragile East Coast coral reefs.

While the new rules will mean fishermen are catching less in coral zones, officials say the effort could grow fish populations, keeping customers from having to pay more for seafood.

In mid-June, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to establish “deep sea coral zones” from waters off the northern North Carolina border through New York. Trawls, dredges, bottom long lines and traps would be prohibited in the protected area, which starts at about the 450-feet depth point and extends 200 miles out to sea.

The rule still needs to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, but it would complement protections passed in 2010 by sister organization the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to safeguard coral zones from Southeastern North Carolina through Florida.

Coral research by Steve Ross, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, was used by council members designing the protections. Ross said the fishery councils are hoping to protect fragile coral reefs along the entire East Coast.

“Basically, us starting that process in the South Atlantic is what led to the Mid-Atlantic following suit,” he said. “In the North Atlantic, the fisheries are a bit different and the species are a bit different. So it’s the same principle and the same target, but different fisheries.”

Reefs are used by many fish species as feeding grounds and shelter from predators. Some species spawn around the reefs, making them popular areas for commercial fishermen.

Ross said fishing gear that reaches the ocean floor can tear into corals like lophelia pertusa — a bone-like species that helps build up reefs. Ross said a long-term goal of the protections is growing fish populations by protecting the reefs they use as habitats. The coral reefs rule is part of the council’s management plan for Atlantic mackerel, squid and butterfish. But any species found in the reefs — from black sea bass to scallops — could benefit.

Brian Hepler, owner of Cape Fear Coast Seafood in Wilmington, said he doesn’t expect the regulations to impact him directly. His business contracts with 15 to 20 boats that fish Southeastern North Carolina waters — far south of the newly designated coral zones.

But Hepler said he does buy from some boats that operate off the Outer Banks and brings in some seafood from New England, where fisheries may catch from waters included in the new protections.

“Generally, more regulations will mean higher prices at the counter. And that’s just generally,” he said. “I have fish that comes in from all over the world though, so it may affect the fish I get from those areas.”

Hepler said he supports efforts to protect the reefs, and hopes healthier reefs mean more fish off the coast.

Ross said few fisheries use bottom-tending gear in the newly protected areas, and he does not foresee the regulations hurting the industry.

“Fishermen are always concerned when fishing areas are taken out of the mix. … I think the important thing to realize is there a tremendous amount of habitat out there that’s not protected,” he said. “The idea is — for a change — to try to prevent something before it happens.”

Contact Cammie Bellamy at [email protected] or 910-343-2339.

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(c)2015 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com

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