ENN , 28 July 2006

New Trawling Ban Protects Deep-Sea Alaska Corals

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Newly discovered gardens of colorful corals, which bloom about 1,000 feet (305 meters) underwater off Alaska's Aleutian Islands and in the Gulf of Alaska, will get special protection starting Friday.

A new rule bars bottom trawling, the fishing technique that uses nets to drag the ocean floor, in an area off Alaska equivalent in size to Texas and Colorado combined.

It is the largest protected area in U.S. waters and one of the biggest in the world, said Jon Kurland of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The protections were deemed necessary because of the exceptional quality of the Alaska corals, he said.

"What's unusual is the diversity and density of corals all found in one place," Kurland said. "It looks like a mix of different plants in a garden."

The coral gardens provide an important habitat for young fish and other marine life which grows slowly and requires lengthy periods to heal from wounds, he said.

Fishermen and scientists have known for years that there are corals in the waters used for harvests of sole, cod and other bottom-dwelling species. For decades, fishermen have been inadvertently pulling up pieces in their nets.

But sightings of the coral in its habitat did not occur until underwater surveys in 2002 that found gardens unlike anything seen elsewhere in Alaska's or other cold-water habitats, said Bob Stone, a biologist who was part of the survey team.

Unlike the single-species reefs off Norway, the Aleutian gardens were composed of diverse corals and sponges, completely covering the sea floor, some of them growing on top of each other, he said. "It's more similar to what you'd expect to find in the tropics," Stone said.

Janis Searles, a lawyer for the environmental group Oceana, said fishermen were initially reluctant to support the bottom-trawling ban, first proposed in 2004, but later agreed that it was needed.

Stronger trawling nets and bigger ship engines have increased the threat to corals and made the need for protection more urgent, she said.

At most, $2.4 million in annual fishing revenues will be lost to the bottom-trawling ban, Kurland said.

The new rule does not affect the largest seafood catch -- Alaskan pollock. That species is harvested by mid-water trawl nets that scoop up fish well above the coral gardens.