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Panel eyes sea coral protection in mid-Atlantic

DOVER, Del. — Members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council discussed options for protecting deep sea coral from being damaged by commercial fishing as the panel began a three-day meeting in Wilmington on Tuesday.

The council last year initiated an amendment to a management plan for Atlantic mackerel, squid and butterfish to protect deep sea corals from impacts of bottom-tending fishing gear in the Mid-Atlantic.

It is aimed at protecting areas known or highly likely to contain deep-sea corals, which provide habitat for many commercially and recreationally important fish species. According to the council, deep sea coral species in the mid-Atlantic do not form large reefs but are fragile and slow-growing, making them vulnerable to physical disturbances.

The proposals include establishing both broad and discrete coral zone areas, and responses ranging from no action to prohibiting all bottom-tending gear.

On Tuesday, members of the council’s ecosystems and ocean planning committee wrestled with how to balance the goal of coral protection with the interests of commercial fishermen. After lengthy debate, committee members voted to add an exemption for short-finned and long-finned squid fishing to the list of proposed alternatives for management measures for discrete coral zones.

The full council — which includes representatives from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — was to review the proposed alternatives on Wednesday.

Lars Axelsson, a commercial fisherman from New Jersey, who serves on a council advisory panel, said some of the proposed alternatives could virtually put an end to squid fishing. He noted that he already shares information with other fishermen about areas of “bad bottom” and snags that could damage their fragile and expensive nets.

“We don’t go near those areas because we will suffer great damage,” Axelsson said. “…. I don’t do damage to coral.”

“Leave room for us to continue to operate or make the decision here and now to end the (squid) fishery,” he told committee members.

In other action, members of another council committee agreed that participation in a monitoring and assessment program developed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission should remain the council’s top research priority for 2015.

Given the regional council’s limited resources and the scarcity of federal funding, members of its Research Set-Aside committee agreed that participation in the North East Area Monitoring and Assessment Program, or NEAMAP, should remain the top priority. Other projects may be funded depending on available resources, they said.

The Mid-Atlantic council, working with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, conducts one of three large-scale, trawl-based surveys under NEAMAP, covering an area stretching from Cape Cod, Mass., to Cape Hatteras, N.C.