A team of researchers from Memorial University of Newfoundland are hoping their extensive investigation into the impact deep-sea fishing is having on coldwater corals in the Northwest Atlantic 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 which was issued today. In it, they conclude that three coldwater coral regions off this province’s coast should be protected from damage by bottom-contact fishing.
The researchers – led by Dr. Evan Edinger, associate professor of Geography and Biology – measured the impact of fishing on deep-sea corals, fragile organisms that thrive along continental slopes, seamounts and mid-ocean ridges.
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 coral or fish in fishing gear.
They 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.
Corals are a vital part of deep-sea ecosystems and provide habitat for other invertebrates and fish. There are more than 30 species of deep-water corals off Newfoundland and Labrador. Experts say coldwater corals can be damaged by fishing or other seafloor directed activities and may take centuries to grow back, if at all.
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.
“Our study presented deep-sea coral distribution data and coral bycatch data in various fisheries,” said Dr. Edinger. “We compared the damage that different fisheries cause to deep-sea corals in the waters of our province. We mapped the pattern of coral bycatch according to coral type and fishery. 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.”
Dr. Edinger said the research project yielded significant results.
“Our study shows that effective coral conservation in our region will require protecting some key areas from all bottom-contact fishing,” he added. “Our research is critically important to deep-sea conservation efforts for corals, sponges, and other long-lived habitat forming animals.”
WWF-Canada is now hoping that the report will provide the scientific basis for Canadian and European governments to protect sensitive coral habitat in the Northwest Atlantic.
“NAFO has an opportunity and a responsibility this September to move further and implement coral protection measures,” said Dr. Robert Rangeley, vice president, Atlantic, WWF-Canada. “They must seize this opportunity as their part of ongoing efforts to ensure sustainable fisheries and protect vulnerable marine ecosystems throughout the world.”
Armed with the new study, WWF-Canada is now recommending that Canada immediately protect known coral concentrations in the two coral regions entirely within its jurisdiction: the Northeast Newfoundland Shelf edge and the Hudson Strait.
As well, the organization is also recommending that this country and NAFO jointly protect known coral concentrations in the shared jurisdiction of the southwest slope of the Grand Banks; that Canada and NAFO should close all areas that are currently not being fished until coral concentrations and other vulnerable areas have been identified and protected; and that the two should develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to identify and protect coral concentrations and other vulnerable areas off Newfoundland and Labrador.
The report, Coldwater Corals off Newfoundland and Labrador: Distribution and Fisheries Impacts,
can be downloaded at: http://wwf.ca/coral