Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday December 12th 2018

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Safeguarding the Gulf’s Coral

By Jeremy Morrison

A few years ago, Hillary Skowronski was diving the Andros Barrier Reef in the Bahamas. Running for 190 miles and dropping 6,000 feet into what’s known as the Tongue of the Ocean, it’s the world’s third-largest fringing barrier reef, which means it’s also the third-largest living organism on the planet.

“Guides transported us to various reefs, each teeming with hundreds of species of colorful fish and invertebrates,” Skowronski said. “However, the site that caught my attention the most was what we called the Elkhorn Graveyard, where nothing but skeletons of Acropora palmata remained.”

Skowronski is a marine biologist with a master’s degree in Environmental Biology from the University of West Florida. She says things like “Acropora palmata” and “anthropogenic,” and she’s been aware for quite a while that coral systems are in a state of peril. But diving Elkhorn Graveyard was eye-opening nonetheless.

“I had known for a long time that corals were threatened by climate change and anthropogenic causes,” the biologist said, “but observing the damage already done had a different effect on me.”

That’s why Skowronski found herself heading to Mobile recently for a midweek meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, where discussion pertained to protecting various coral sites in the Gulf. These sites are not the tropical vacation reefs that divers dream about but are instead found in the cold depths of the Gulf of Mexico. No one will ever enjoy their beauty up close, but they are considered vitally important for a healthy marine ecosystem.

“This rare and essential habitat supports sustainable fisheries by providing substrate and protection needed for fish spawning, breeding and growth and, therefore, should be protected,” Skowronski said.

All over the planet, coral reefs—the biodiversity wonderlands that they are—find themselves in dire straits. While rising water temperatures are the most significant threat they face, there are also other dangers such as certain fishing practices, pollution and outbreaks of predatory starfish.

In 2014, the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council convened a group of coral experts to assess the Gulf’s coral inventory. The group identified 47 areas of concern they thought might benefit from protected status.

“We ended up even writing a book on the findings,” council biologist John Froeschke said during his June 6 presentation in Mobile.

That list of coral reef sites in the Gulf has since been whittled down to 15. And during its meeting in Key West this month, the council will decide on whether or not to protect those sites by placing fishing restrictions on them. The restrictions would prohibit anchoring as well as fishing methods considered harmful to the coral such as bottom trawling.

These sites under consideration can be found throughout the Gulf. They range in depth from 27 fathoms to more than a thousand fathoms and in size from just a couple of nautical square miles to more than a couple of thousand. Closest to Pensacola, in what is considered the northeastern sector of the Gulf, there are six such sites.

Because many of the coral sites in question are at considerable depths, they don’t tend to currently see a lot of fishing activity, either recreational or commercial. But Froeschke explained that placing fishing restrictions on the sites would stop a problem before it got started.

“An overarching objective of this is a freeze-the-footprint kind of thing,” he said. “Corals grow so slowly if they do get damaged, there’s a good chance they’re not coming back.”

That sentiment is echoed by Dr. Roy Crabtree, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional administrator for fisheries in the Southeast.

“This is mostly about trying to stop new gear and new fisheries coming in,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to go ahead and protect these areas before we have people moving in.”

Froeschke’s presentation in Mobile mirrored presentations made in similar meetings along the Gulf Coast. The occasions served to collect public comment on the potential reef protections, which the council will consider when making a final decision in Key West.

And like the other meetings, the crowd in Mobile was sparse, with a handful of environmentalists like Skowronski, a representative from the recreational fishing community and Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill.

Underhill had already surmised that any new regulations would not impact recreational fishermen like himself—“It’s a lot of gas in the Grady White!”—but was pleased to learn that if such a fisherman should venture to such exotic sites, they could still drop a hook to the depths on an electric reel.

“That’s the difference between an uprising and not an uprising in Escambia County,” Underhill said.

Regardless, he warned council member Bob Shipp to expect some blowback to any talk of new fishing restrictions in a region where rally cries against red snapper regulations are near religion.

“I don’t think this is going to affect a guy like me taking his boat out,” Underhill said, “but the knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Here they come with another restriction.’”

On the environmental side, Gulf Restoration Network representative Christian Wagley wanted to know why the council’s original list of 47 areas had been downsized. Why not protect all the sites identified?

“So that’s 32 that were eliminated,” Wagley pointed out.

“They didn’t want to bite off a bigger chunk than they could chew at one time,” Froeschke said.

“It’s a balance,” Crabtree elaborated later. “We tried to protect the sites we thought were priorities. We tried to do it without having an undue impact on fisheries.”

The council, Froeschke said, had prioritized the reef site by working with the commercial fishing community—“we’ve worked with the shrimp guys; we’ve worked with the reef fish industry”—to decide which areas could be protected with minimum impact to business.

“There’s a lot more buy-in when they feel like they’ve been a part of the process,” Froeschke said.

With said industry buy-in—and lack of impact to recreational fishing—it’s thought that the proposed protections for these coral sites will likely have an easier time getting approved in Key West during the council’s meeting June 18-21.

Folks like Skowronski, who view increased protections for coral reefs as a priority, feel that’s a step in the right direction.

“If we protect these corals now,” she said, “we can enjoy the benefits of these systems for centuries.”