PORTLAND, Maine – A federal panel voted on Thursday to offer new protections to some deep-sea corals in the Atlantic Ocean but held off on protecting others so it can get more information first.
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The New England Fishery Management Council proposals focus on corals in two key fishing areas — the Gulf of Maine and south of Georges Bank off the Massachusetts coast — and have been the subject of debate among environmentalists and fishing groups for months.
"The goal is to protect as much coral as you can while minimizing impact on various industries that are fishing near the corals," said John Bullard, a regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service and a member of the fishery council.
The proposals to protect the corals would need to be approved by the federal Department of Commerce.
New England's corals grow in areas such as along underwater canyons and seamounts and provide habitat for marine life including sea turtles and fish. President Barack Obama protected one area last year as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
On Thursday, a council committee voted to protect two areas in the Gulf of Maine that are home to slow-growing corals. The protected areas encompass almost 40 square miles (104 square kilometers) and are called Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock. The areas would still be open to lobster fishing but not to bottom trawling.
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The committee decided to hold off on voting on options to protect corals in an area south of Georges Bank that is more than 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers). The committee decided it needs more updated fishery data before taking a vote.
Numerous fishing groups spoke out against protections that would make it more difficult to fish in the area, where fishermen seek commercially important species including lobster, whiting, monkfish and squid and some haddock and herring.
"They (committee members) were looking to protect more corals while honoring the fishing that is occurring," said Nancy Civetta, a spokeswoman for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance. "If this is a step toward that, that is really positive."
Environmental organizations support an option for the Georges Bank area that has greater impact on shallower waters because they believe it would do more to protect vulnerable corals that can be harmed by fishing gear.
Fishing groups have opposed that option, citing a host of regulations they already face.
"We cannot afford any more hits to our fisheries," said Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association in Montauk, New York.