Ocean ecosystems off New England may be next for protection

An invertebrate known as a crinoid on the Mytilus Seamount, one of four undersea mountains that could gain new protection.

Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, flickr.

Support is building for permanent protection of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts lie near where the continental shelf plummets into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, a series of underwater canyons and seamounts—inactive, submerged volcanoes jutting from the ocean floor—harbor a stunning array of life in the nutrient-rich cold water.

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So far, much of this wild ocean region has been spared from human disruption, making it a wonderland of biological diversity—a priceless place for scientific study and preservation of rare species. But the intense push to fish, drill and mine in our oceans puts these delicate ecosystems at risk.

An octopus on Physalia Seamount. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, flickr.

Now, a movement is gaining steam to permanently protect the area. 

Forming a crescent along the edge of the continental shelf, on the so-called Georges Bank, the Oceanographer, Gilbert, Lydonia, Nygren and Heezen canyons are home to colorful deep-sea corals, sponges, lobster, brittle stars, cod, herring and flounder.

The Bear, Physalia, Retriever and Mytilus seamounts, which are thought to have formed as much as 100 million years ago, are just as vital. These submarine mountains are where migrating whales rest during their long journeys, fish spawn and dozens of species of coral grow (due to their isolation, seamounts are often habitat for species found nowhere else on earth).

Unfortunately, deep-sea ecosystems such as those found in the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are in greater jeopardy than ever before, as technological advancements allow fishing at extreme depths, including destructive bottom-trawling and dredging. Many fish around the canyons and seamounts reproduce infrequently, making their populations extremely vulnerable to overfishing, and trawling can damage the coral beds on which a variety of species rely. Permanently protecting New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts will help shield these unique spots from harm.

Stay tuned for more news on this important effort.

Coral in Nygren Canyon, one of five undersea canyons that could be protected. Credit: Green Fire Productions, flickr.