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Protecting sea floor off N.S. allows ancient coral to survive

The move to prohibit bottom fishing in two areas off the coast of Nova Scotia will allow rare coral that’s more 1,000 years old to survive, says one expert. But Canada needs to up the pace if it hopes to meet its international commitments.

The move to prohibit bottom fishing in two areas off the coast of Nova Scotia will allow rare coral that’s more 1,000 years old to survive, says one expert.

But Canada needs to up the pace if it hopes to meet the commitment of protecting five per cent of its marine areas by 2017 and 10 per cent by 2020, said Anna Metaxas, a biological oceanographer at Dalhousie University.

“We need to move faster,” Metaxas told Local Xpress.

The previous Conservative government “was not particularly supportive of marine protected areas,” she said.

“We are only at just below one per cent,” Metaxas said. “We have to hit five per cent by the end of 2017 and then another five per cent by 2020. So (the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) has a difficult job to do, but they’re doing their best. Hopefully the government is going to put in the resources that are required.”

Finding the places that need protection takes time and money, she said.

“I don’t know if we can reach 10 per cent,” Metaxas said. “I guess in about a year we’ll know how they’ve done with the five per cent.”

The acceleration of work toward that end she’s seen in the last eight months has been promising. “So I can only hope that it will continue to accelerate.”

Derek Fenton, an oceans planner with DFO, couldn't say if Canada is protecting marine environments fast enough to meet our international obligations.

“It’s a tough question,” Fenton said. “All countries are trying to reach the targets that they committed to. Our starting base is under one per cent. So it is an aggressive target to try and meet.”

Earlier this month, the federal government announced it plans to protect two areas off Nova Scotia from bottom fishing. They are Corsair and Georges Canyons, about 200 kilometres west of Nova Scotia, and the Jordan Basin, also known as the Rock Garden, about 100 kilometres west of the province.

“These new coral conservation areas will protect over 9,000 square kilometres of offshore marine habitat,” Carl MacDonald, DFO’s acting regional manager, told reporters at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

It means fishermen won’t be able to use lobster or crab traps in the area. Gill nets, long lining and otter trawling, also known as dragging, will also be prohibited. People will still be allowed to catch tuna and swordfish in both areas as they take place closer to the surface.

“We’ve worked closely with the fishing community over the last year to draw the boundaries of the closures so it will have minimal economic impact to their fishing operations,” MacDonald said.

Metaxas visited both spots in the summer of 2014 as part of a research cruise that sent cameras into the deep. They spotted bubblegum coral as deep as 800 metres beneath the ocean’s surface that likely started growing long before European settlers came to North America.

“In Corsair Canyon, the largest one we saw was three metres in its longest dimension, and that would put it to probably over 1,000 years old,” she said.

“These are colonial animals and they can live for a very long time.”

In the submarine canyons, the bubblegum coral was much more abundant than normal.

“Usually maybe we’ll see maybe one every 100 metres square — there, we saw a lot more,” she said.

“Those are very rare. It’s the only place in the Maritimes where we have actually seen large aggregations of that density in our region. And so, in that sense, they are extremely rare.”

Deep-water corals die when they are toppled by bottom fishing gear, Metaxas said. That’s why it’s important to stop bottom fisheries in the area.

“If we don’t, then we’re going to lose them completely,” she said.

“They need to be protected because any bottom impact gear will dislodge them and once they’re dislodged and broken, they cannot recover.”

There were broken coral with lines wrapped around them evident in the area, Metaxas said.

“For now, they’ve escaped large damage just because the fisheries don’t go that deep. But I think if they do, then we will lose them completely. And they also have very slow recruitment, so it’s not a coral that yeah, we’ll damage it, but we'll get it back quickly. We very rarely see very small ones — baby ones. If we lose them, we may never get them back.”

The deepwater coral are important because they support other marine life including fish and invertebrates, she said.

The organisms form colonies that attach to rocks and filter out their food from the ocean.

Metaxas doesn’t expect much blowback from fishermen over protecting the areas. A similar move to protect the nearby Northeast Channel between Browns Bank and Georges Bank in 2002 was initiated by fishermen who were concerned when they brought up corals in their nets, she said.

“They recognize that corals are important,” Fenton said.

“We’ve had 10 or 15 years of looking at areas like this in our region and protecting them. So I think, overall, they were supportive of this.”


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Chris Lambie

About the Author: Chris Lambie

Chris Lambie is a journalist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has worked at newspapers from Newfoundland to the Northwest Territories.
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