U.S. fisheries council protects mid-Atlantic deep ocean coral

(Reuters) - More than 35,000 square miles (90,650 sq km) of ocean habitat along the U.S. Atlantic coast gained protection on Wednesday from trawl and dredge fishing that could harm deep-sea ocean corals, according to an environmental group supporting the restrictions.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to protect an area of the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Long Island, New York to the border of southern border of Virginia.

The protected zone encompasses an open water space as large as Kentucky, according to Oceana, a environmental nonprofit based in Washington.

The area is not fished commercially yet, but similar depths are now being fished in New Zealand and Europe, where deep water corals are also found, said Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager for Oceana.”It’s a precautionary measure,” he said. “They’ve drawn a clear line in the Atlantic Ocean and said you can’t go fish in that area until the scientists have determined there aren’t corals in that area. It’s a very big piece of ocean.”

South Atlantic waters off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida received similar protection of deep water corals from fishing in 2010, he noted. But there currently are no protections for coastal North Carolina. Corals are a form of marine life related to jellyfish. They grow in dark waters, hundreds of meters (feet) below the ocean surface.Scientists have been studying deep-water corals to better understand their role in the ecosystem, Brogan said.

“They provide shelter and cover and they are the subject of an emerging field of biomedical research,” he said.

The independent fishery management council works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to write fishing regulations for ocean waters between three and 200 miles of the coast.

Editing by Letitia Stein and Sandra Maler