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Deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico need protection

Kendall Dix, fisheries associated at Gulf Restoration Network
Kendall Dix, fisheries associated at Gulf Restoration Network

Mississippians have a unique opportunity to help protect deep sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico that were harmed by the BP drilling disaster.

April 20 marks the eight-year anniversary of the catastrophe. Because of BP’s gross negligence and reckless conduct, 11 workers were killed, 17 were injured, and millions of people all over the Gulf Coast were hurt by the economic, environmental and psychological effects of the disaster.

In total, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil and 1.84 million gallons of dispersants were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. The White House called it the worst environmental disaster the U.S. has faced, and the effects to the water and wildlife of the Gulf were devastating and still being felt today.

One group of creatures impacted was deep-sea corals.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to numerous fragile coral communities, some thousands of years old. Because they live 50 meters or deeper in the ocean and beyond the reach of human beings and even sunlight, we are just starting to learn about their roles as important habitat for many marine animals, including fish that are food for humans.

Additionally, scientists have discovered only a fraction of corals’ potential role in biomedical applications such as bone grafting and antiviral and cancer treatments.

Corals all over the world already face numerous threats from rising ocean temperatures that cause bleaching and increasing ocean acidification due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Additionally, corals may also be harmed by bottom-contact fishing gear, which is why the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council is currently considering an amendment that would create protections for deep-sea corals.

The Gulf Council, which is meeting in Gulfport on April 16-20, governs fishing in the federal waters from Texas to the west coast of Florida and could protect deep-sea corals by restricting the use of certain fishing gear at 15 coral hot spots. When this kind of heavy gear interacts with the ocean floor, it can break or smother fragile corals, which grow very slowly and take decades to recover, if at all, once damaged. Eight additional sites in deeper waters are proposed for special place designations but without gear restrictions.

Deep-sea corals mostly grow on hard-bottom substrates such as rock or salt domes, and with 95 percent of the deep Gulf bottom being soft mud, they are extremely rare in the Gulf. That is why it is critical that we take action now to protect these unique organisms.

The Gulf Council is soliciting public comments on its Web site, gulfcouncil.org, and is meeting at the Courtyard by Marriott Gulfport Beachfront on Thursday from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. to take public comments.

Kendall Dix is the fisheries associate at Gulf Restoration Network and works to protect marine life in the Gulf.

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