The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council have just announced the creation of a new marine protected area for some of the ocean’s humblest heroes: deep-sea corals. The Frank R. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area will be off-limits for commercial fishing practices that affect the sea floor.

Sessile and stoic though they may be, corals are both crucially important and in need of our help. These fascinating animals—yes, corals are animals—provide beautiful living habitats for all kinds of organisms and serve as the foundation for marine ecosystems.

Millions of animals like this chimera depend on the ecosystems created by deep-sea corals. Image Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer program, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and U.S. Geological Survey

 

Image Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer program, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and U.S. Geological Survey

 
Corals are fragile and slow-growing, which makes them simultaneously more prone to injury and slower to recover; a dangerous combination in areas regularly visited by clumsy, bulky commercial fishing equipment.

Corals aren’t flashy, but they do still have their defenders. Among them was the late New Jersey senator Frank R. Lautenberg, who pushed the coral agenda hard during his five terms in office. It’s thanks to him that the Magnus-Stevenson Act includes provisions allowing regional fishery management councils to protect deep-sea corals through commercial fishing bans.

Image Credit: (C) 2016 The Pew Charitable Trusts

The new marine protected area stretches through more than 38,000 square miles of federal waters off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia—all regions where scientists have spotted or anticipate the presence of vulnerable deep-sea corals. The new protected area is the result of recommendations informed by enormous scientific efforts, including repeated deep-sea surveys by NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

"Today’s action is historic not only because it creates the largest protected area in the U.S. Atlantic," Joseph Gordon, manager, Mid-Atlantic ocean conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said in a statement to mental_floss, "but because so many different groups and interests worked together to protect these fragile deep-sea corals. Healthy habitat supports ocean ecosystems and thriving fisheries, and this success stands as a challenge and inspiration for other fishery managers around the country.”