Ancient, deep-water reefs might earn protected status

NEW BERN – Sixty miles off the coast of Cape Lookout, at depths of 1,200 feet and greater, ancient coral-reef mounds rise from the dark sandy bottom. The reefs teem with fish and other marine species – some of them new to scientists.

The deep-water reefs dot the continental slope from North Carolina to Florida and are thousands of years old. In places, mounds formed by the rubble of centuries of dead and living corals stand several hundred feet high.

To preserve the reefs, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, a federal panel that regulates recreational and commercial fishing from three to 200 miles offshore, is proposing to designate more than 23,000 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern United States as protected areas.

Fishermen could still work the waters. But the protection would bar certain kinds of bottom-disturbing fishing gear and prohibit dropping anchors or traps that could damage the reefs. It also could help protect the area if offshore oil-and-gas exploration ever occurs there.

The proposed protected areas include 122 square miles of deep-water coral reef off Cape Lookout, a 52-square-mile area off Cape Fear and more than 23,000 square miles in an elbow-shaped area extending from South Carolina to southern Florida.

"What we are finding is we not only didn't know how much habitat was down there, but that they had hidden a lot of new species that nobody knew about," said Steve Ross, a fish ecologist and research professor at UNC-Wilmington who has made more than 60 dives to document the reefs. "That's a big surprise to a lot of people that we are finding all this new stuff."

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