Memorial team produces extensive study for WWF
Campaigning for coral protection
by Jeff Green
The coral team includes (from left) Dr. Rodolphe Devillers, Krista Jones, Dr. Evan Edinger, Krista Baker and Vonda Wareham. (Photo by Chris Hammond)
They come in a blend of colours: soft pink, shades of red, deep brown. Their sizes are just as varied, too. Some are long tubular shaped resembling walking canes, others are shorter stumps, while still others look like a mesh of wiry nets. They can grow up to three metres tall and can live for decades or centuries, depending on the species.
They’re called coldwater corals and, believe it or not, there are more than 30 species off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. They’re a vital part of deep-sea ecosystems and provide habitat for other invertebrates and fish.
But now a new study by a team of geographers and biologists at Memorial says some coldwater corals regions are being severely damaged by fishing and other activities and that it may take centuries for these stunning marine animals to grow back, if at all.
The researchers conclude in a new report released earlier this month that three coldwater coral regions off this province’s coast should be protected from damage by bottom-contact fishing.
In fact, they hope their extensive investigation will motivate Canada and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) to protect the sensitive habitats.
The researchers produced a new study Coldwater Corals off Newfoundland and Labrador: Distribution and Fisheries Impacts for World Wildlife Fund Canada. It was issued in advance of NAFO’s annual meeting which is slated for the end of this month in Lisbon, Portugal.
The team amassed information from Canadian scientific surveys and the Canadian Fisheries Observer Program to show the distribution of corals and to measure coral bycatch. Bycatch is the accidental catch of marine life such as corals or fish in fishing gear.
“We compared the damage that different fisheries cause to deep-sea corals in the waters of our province,” said Dr. Evan Edinger, associate professor of Geography and Biology. He and his co-authors measured the impact of fishing on deep-sea corals, fragile organisms that thrive along continental slopes, seamounts and mid-ocean ridges.
“We mapped the pattern of coral bycatch according to coral type and fishery,” he added. “In those locations, coral bycatch occurred in all the fisheries operating there. Fishing in coral habitats damages corals, regardless of what gear you use, or what species you’re trying to catch.”
In addition to Dr. Edinger, the research team also included Dr. Rodolphe Devillers, assistant professor, Department of Geography; Krista Baker, a PhD student from the Department of Biology; Vonda Wareham, a master’s student in the environmental science program in the Faculty of Science; and Krista Jones, a fifth-year honours student from Geography.
The group studied the most common deep-water-fisheries off Newfoundland and Labrador, identifying three regions that potentially should be protected including the southwest slope of the Grand Banks, the Northeast Newfoundland Shelf edge, and the Hudson Strait.
“Our research demonstrates that no matter what types of fishing gear is used, bottom-contact fishing in coral habitats damages corals,” said Dr. Edinger. “It is very important that any areas established to protect corals exclude all bottom directed fishing activities.”
Dr. Devillers said their massive project produced critical results which should encourage both Canadian and international governments to move to protect the regions.
“Our project lays an important basis for coral conservation off this province’s coast,” he said. “Our scientific work will continue to give us a better understanding of coldwater corals in our waters, but designing the legal framework to protect corals is now in the hands of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.”
According to Dr Edinger, one of the most important areas to be studied further is the Hudson Strait, between northern Labrador and southeast Baffin Island. This area appears to have the highest density of corals observed anywhere in the region, and includes some of the only waters in the province that have not been fished.
The fishing industry introduced a voluntary closure within the Hudson Strait in May 2007, but Dr. Edinger and his colleagues think the closure is too small and only prevents fishing in areas that have not been fished yet, but does little to reduce the amount of coral bycatch.
Furthermore, they said, experience in BC and elsewhere suggests that voluntary closures can backfire, as fishermen direct their effort toward the area in, or immediately surrounding, the voluntary closure.
The report released this month is only one of several aspects of coral-related research being pursued by the coral research group at Memorial and DFO. The team conducted a remote-operated-vehicle (ROV) cruise off the southwest Grand Banks in July to study the ecology of deep-sea corals and associated fish and invertebrates.