Washington, DC -- New findings released today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) highlight the discovery that cold-water corals, many located in hard-to-reach deep waters, are far more widespread and numerous than previously thought, increasing their vulnerability to a variety of threats. Destructive fishing practices, like deep-sea trawling, are cited among the problems plaguing these coastal ecosystems.
"Cold-water corals, like those found along many southern U.S. coasts, play a crucial role in the marine environment," said Kate Newman, director of WWF's Marine Decade program. "They can help to replenish fish stocks and provide habitats for species such as deep-water sharks, fish and crustaceans. We could very easily lose the massive benefits these corals provide if they continue to be destroyed for the sake of short-term economic interests."
The findings are part of a full study, Cold-Water Coral Reefs: Out of Sight- No Longer Out of Mind (PDF format, 357k), set for release at the end of June. The preliminary results were released today to mark World Environment Day, and as a prelude to United Nations meetings in New York next week. WWF and other conservation organizations, will formally call for a suspension of international deep-sea trawling to protect the cold-water habitats from further damage.
According to the new report, the United States, Norway, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, have already placed some of their cold-water corals under tighter protection. Scientists suggest that the discovery of these widespread corals, and more information on their environmental value to the world's damaged oceans, should spur more nations to consider precautionary measures to protect them, for example, by designating cold-water coral reefs within marine protected areas (MPAs) or no-fishing zones.
Cold-water corals grow slowly -- only a tenth of the growth rate of warm-water tropical corals -- and are home to thousands of species, including commercially important fish populations. This rich web of life around cold-water corals is particularly vulnerable to man-made damage, for example, from heavy deep-sea fishing gear, which harms productive bottom habitats and surrounding waters. Some reefs in the East Atlantic have already been destroyed, and many others show significant scars from trawling. In addition to certain destructive fishing methods, other threats include impacts from oil and gas exploration and production, the laying of cables and telecommunications links, and waste disposal.
Many of the fish species found living in and around cold-water corals are also slow-growing and have lower reproductive rates than shallow-living species such as herring and cod. These deep-water fish -- which include orange roughy, blue ling, roundnose grenadier, black scabbardfish and some deep water sharks -- are increasingly threatened as trawlers move from traditional fishing grounds, closer to shore, to deeper waters.
Cold-water corals were thought to be largely confined to waters in the northern hemisphere, off the coasts of North America, Scandinavia and the British Isles. Now, using the latest submersible technologies, researchers are finding cold-water coral ecosystems in many of the world's seas: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean Sea -- as well as the Galapagos Islands, Brazil, Indonesia and Angola.
"To date our main thrust in respect to corals has been to conserve and better manage those found in the warm, tropical waters," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director. "The discovery that cold-water corals are more numerous and more widespread than had previously been thought, highlights how the natural world remains full of surprises and how our research may need to be broadened."
Living in waters of 39 to 55 degrees Farenheit, cold-water corals are usually found in depths between 200 and 1,000 meters. However, they can occur as shallow as 40 meters and as deep as 6,300 meters. Some of these networks -- such as the various individual reefs on the continental shelves of the East Atlantic stretching from Norway as far south as West Africa -- are far bigger than their famous tropical cousins such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
The full report will be published for distribution at the 10th International Coral Reef Symposium which opens on June 28 in Okinawa, Japan, followed by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) meeting on July 3-4.
For more information on World Environment Day, downloadable photographs of cold-water corals and graphics and flyers on their research in English, French, and Spanish, visit the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Web site.