NOAA Fisheries Announces Designation of Habitat Areas of Particular Concern for Deep-Water Coral and Associated Fishing Regulations in Gulf of Mexico Federal Waters

October 16, 2020

FB20-062: Gulf of Mexico Fishery Bulletin; For more information, contact: Lauren Waters: 727-209-5991, Lauren.Waters@noaa.gov

KEY MESSAGE:

 

NOAA Fisheries announces the final rule implementing Amendment 9 to the Fishery Management Plan for Coral and Coral Reef Resources in Gulf of Mexico U.S. waters (Amendment 9).  The final rule will be effective November 16, 2020.  

 

The rule establishes 13 new habitat areas of particular concern with fishing regulations, designates 8 new areas without fishing regulations, and modifies the regulations in 3 existing areas.  These areas have been identified as having sufficient numbers and diversity of deep-water corals to be considered essential fish habitat. 

 

Fishing regulations apply to fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, including fishing for highly migratory species.

 

SUMMARY OF CHANGES:

For the changes below, except where otherwise stated, bottom-tending gear is defined as:  bottom longline, bottom trawl, buoy gear, dredge, pot or trap, and bottom anchoring by fishing vessels.  Buoy gear does not refer to highly migratory species buoy gear, which is not a bottom-tending gear. 

 

The rule:

  • Establishes the following areas as habitat areas of particular concern with regulations prohibiting fishing with bottom tending gear: West Florida Wall, Alabama Alps, L&W Pinnacles, Scamp Reef, Mississippi Canyon 118, Roughtongue Reef, Viosca Knoll 826, Green Canyon 852, AT 047, AT 357, Harte Bank, and Southern Bank.
  • Establishes Viosca Knoll 862/906 as a habitat area of particular concern with regulations prohibiting fishing with bottom-tending gear, but allows royal red shrimp fisherman to keep their nets in the water, but off the bottom, in this area.
  • Within the current Pulley Ridge habitat area of particular concern, establishes a new habitat area of particular concern with fishing regulations prohibiting all fishing with bottom-tending gear, except for long line gear.
  • Establishes the following areas as habitat areas of particular concern without fishing regulation: South Reed; Garden Banks 299 and 535; Green Canyon 140/272,234, and 354; Mississippi Canyon 751 and 885.
  • An interactive map of existing and new areas can be found online at http://portal.gulfcouncil.org/coralhapc.html.

 

Additionally, the final rule modifies the prohibitions on “fishing with bottom-tending gear” to “deployment of bottom-tending gear” for habitat areas of particular concern in the Gulf of Mexico, including those established in Amendment 9.  “Deploy” is defined for the purpose of these prohibitions to mean that the gear is in contact with the water.  

FORMAL FEDERAL REGISTER NAME/NUMBER:  85 FR 65740, published October 16, 2020.

 

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (FAQs)

 

 

What is essential fish habitat and habitat areas of particular concern?

  • Essential fish habitat are those waters and substrate necessary to fish (including shallow water, mesophotic, and deep-waters coral) for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity.
  • Essential fish habitat for managed coral species includes any areas where the managed species exist.
  • Habitat areas of particular concern are a subset of essential fish habitat that meets one or more of the following criteria: 1) importance of ecological function provided by the habitat; 2) area or habitat is sensitive to human induced degradation; 3) the habitat is stressed; 4) is considered rare.

 

What are deep-water and mesophotic corals?

  • Deep-water corals live in light-limited environments deeper than 164 feet (27 fathoms) and can survive for hundreds to thousands of years. 
  • The new habitat areas of particular concern also include mesophotic corals.  Mesophotic coral exist in depth ranges from about 100 feet (17 fathoms) to approximately 500 feet (83 fathoms).  Mesophotic coral ecosystems can have both shallow-water corals, deep-water corals, and corals that exist in low light to no light conditions.

Deep-water and mesophotic corals provide complex habitat for many species of grouper, snapper, shrimp, and crabs.

Why are these measures necessary?

  • Corals and coral habitat meet the criteria as habitat areas of particular concern because they are especially sensitive to human-induced degradation by fishing and non-fishing activities.
  • Each fishery management plan must minimize adverse effects to essential fish habitat caused by fishing.  Designating these areas as habitat areas of particular concern helps identify these areas as important to protect and manage regarding fishing impacts.
  • This amendment protects coral species and essential fish habitat, and maintains suitable marine fishery habitat quality and quantity to support sustainable fisheries.

 

Why are these specific areas being established as habitat areas of particular concern?

  • These areas have been identified as having sufficient numbers and diversity of deep-water corals to be considered essential fish habitat and meet all four criteria for being designated as habitat areas of particular concern.

 

Where are the new habitat areas of particular concern areas located?

  • The areas occur throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the locations can be viewed using the interactive map at https://portal.gulfcouncil.org/coralhapc.html.
  • Most of the areas are extremely deep and fishing activity is sparse. 

 

If there is so little fishing activity, why are these areas being established as habitat areas of particular concern?

  • These measures help prevent future fishing impacts, and having the areas mapped brings awareness to these unique areas and assists fishermen in avoiding these areas.

 

Who is affected by these regulations?

  • Gulf of Mexico fishermen who use bottom-tending gear or bottom anchor their fishing vessels, including those issued highly migratory species permits such as a shark permit, could be directly affected.  However, very little fishing activity is known to take place in these areas.

 

What gear is prohibited?

  • Fishing with bottom-tending gear is prohibited in 13 of the proposed areas.  Bottom-tending gear includes bottom longline, bottom trawl, buoy gear, dredge, pot or trap, and bottom anchoring by fishing vessels. 
  • Dredge fishing is now prohibited in three areas that were already designated as habitat areas of particular concern. 
  • Bottom longline gear is allowed in the proposed area at Pulley Ridge.

 

Why is it necessary to change the prohibition in habitat areas of particular concern from “fishing with bottom-tending gear” to “deployment of bottom-tending gear”?

  • During discussions associated with Amendment 9, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council) determined that the broad definition of “fishing” in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Code of Federal Regulations may unnecessarily restrict activities that will have no impact on these habitats.  For example fishing can be any operations at sea in support of, or in preparation for, any activity expected to result in the catching, taking, or harvesting of fish.  Because the intent of this rule is to prevent gear from impacting the bottom, the Council did not want to prohibit these types of activities.
  • The Council requested an action to define “deploy” as gear in contact with the water, for coral habitat areas of particular concern.

 

Why are royal red shrimp fishermen exempt from the prohibition on deployment of bottom-tending gear at Viosca Knoll 862/906?

  • Shrimpers with the royal red shrimp endorsement participate in the deepest shrimping activity in the Gulf of Mexico.  As such retrieving their nets and gear takes several miles of continuous forward movement.
  • Trawling for royal red shrimp is not occurring on the actual reef, but to the west, on the soft bottom area around it.  Nets are lifted from the bottom for retrieval before reaching the reef area in order to avoid impacts to the reef and fishing gear.
  • Allowing the royal red shrimp fishermen to continue to use the area historically used to retrieve their gear avoids negative direct economic effects while preventing future impacts to the area from other bottom-tending gear.
  • Because the nets are lifted off the bottom, they do not contact corals and cause damage.

 

Where can I find more information on Coral Amendment 9?

By Mail: Lauren Waters

NOAA Fisheries,

     Southeast Regional Office

     Sustainable Fisheries Division

     263 13th Avenue South

     St. Petersburg, Florida 33701-5505

By Phone: (727) 209-5991


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Last updated by Southeast Regional Office on October 22, 2020