NOAA APPROVES PROTECTION OF MORE OF FLORIDA'S UNIQUE OCULINA BANKS
(Photographs courtesy of John Reed/HBOI)

The ivory tree coral, Oculina varicosa can be found off Florida's east central coast, forming unique and diverse reefs that occur no where else on earth. In 1980 John Reed, Chief Scientist in the Division of Biomedical Marine Research at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, submitted a written proposal to NOAA and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to protect these reefs as a Habitat of Particular Concern (HAPC) within the Fishery Management Plan for Corals and Coral Reefs. The basis for this nomination was from his publications on the distribution and growth of the coral, and the incredibly diverse animal communities associated with the coral.

In 1984 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) accepted a 92 square mile portion as an HAPC. Now, twenty years later, NOAA has given protection to a major portion of the deep-water Oculina coral banks off eastern Florida. This was based primarily on research done at HBOI using the JOHNSON-SEA-LINK Research Submersibles. With this recent expansion, nearly 300 square miles are protected which is similar to Reed's original nomination in 1980.

Early in the 1970s, the reefs were teeming with fish. By the early 1990s, heavy fishing pressure had greatly reduced the populations of grouper and snapper. This new legislation prevents bottom trawling, dredging, bottom long lines and anchoring that would destroy this delicate coral. A single coral colony may take over a century to grow to 3-5 feet.

John Reed is presenting a paper about the Oculina banks in Halifax next month at the International Deep Water Coral Symposium. Below is an announcement by NOAA about the expansion.

NOAA FISHERIES APPROVES EXPANDED BOUNDARIES FOR PROTECTED HABITAT AREA OFF FLORIDA'S EAST COAST TO PROTECT OCULINA CORAL

NOAA 2000-128 - For Immediate Release - Contact Chris Smith - 6/26/00

NOAA Fisheries has approved a measure proposed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council measure to expand the boundaries of the Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) and to establish two satellite protected areas in order to save delicate coral and the fish that thrive in its fragile colonies.

The SAFMC established the Oculina Bank HAPC off Ft. Pierce, Fla. in 1984 to protect a unique area containing Oculina varicosa, sometimes referred to as ivory tree coral. The bank, which lies in water ranging from 230 to 330 feet deep, consist of limestone pinnacles of up to 80 feet of relief covered with delicately branched Oculina coral. The extremely delicate and fragile coral grows slowly, less than a half inch per year, and forms spherical, branching thicket-like colonies that can stretch for hundreds of yards and reach heights of 15 feet.

According to the Council's habitat plan for the area, the Oculina Bank HAPC supports a highly diverse deepwater ecosystem that is comparable to tropical reefs. Its strong currents are thought to contribute to the growth of the coral, by trapping fine sand, mud and coral debris which act as habitat for dense populations of mollusks and crustaceans. In turn, those creatures serve as food for many kinds of commercial and recreational fish including red porgy, greater amberjack, and many species of snapper and grouper.

Because of this biological diversity, the area has been subjected to intense fishing pressure since the early 1960s. But fishing gear has had a devastating effect on the fragile coral. The 1984 designation of the Oculina Bank as an HAPC closed the area to mobile fishing gears like trawls and dredges but fishermen could still anchor their boats and use weights to send baits to the bottom. In 1994 the HAPC was also declared the Experimental Oculina Research Reserve and was closed to all bottom fishing for 10 years. In 1995, the closure was extended to include all anchoring within the EORR.

"Unfortunately, in recent years researchers have noted a precipitous decline in the number or the complete disappearance of many important and formerly abundant species from the Oculina habitat," said William Hogarth, administrator of NOAA Fisheries Southeast Region. "It appears that overfishing and habitat destruction have taken a toll on the Oculina Bank. We're hopeful that expanding the protected areas will be a major step toward sustaining what's left of Oculina Banks bio-diversity and facilitating its recovery."

The rule retains the western and southern boundaries of the existing Oculina Bank HAPC, moves the northern boundary 37 nautical miles to 28°30' north latitude, and moves the eastern boundary to the 100 fathom (600 ft; 183 m) contour. Furthermore, two 3-square nautical mile satellite Oculina HAPCs have been established. Satellite Oculina HAPC #1 is bounded on the north by 28°30' north latitude, on the south by 28°29' north latitude, on the east by 80°00' west longitude, and on the west by 80°03' west longitude. Satellite Oculina HAPC #2 is bounded on the north by 28°17' north latitude, on the south by 28°16' north latitude, on the east by 80°00' west longitude, and on the west by 80°03' west longitude. The rules will be effective on July 14, 2000.

Fishing with bottom longlines, bottom trawls, dredges, pots or traps is prohibited in these areas. Vessels may not anchor, use an anchor and chain, or use a grapple and chain anywhere in them, said Hogarth. We will prosecute violators to the fullest extent of the law.

Reports of fishery violations during weekly business hours should go to the Southeast Region Law Enforcement Division at (727) 570-5344, or after hours and weekends at its National Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964.

The NMFS Web site includes a chart that shows the expanded Oculina HAPC as well as the two satellite HAPCs. To view the chart, click here.

Principal steward of the nation's living marine resources, the National Marine Fisheries Service regulates the nation's commercial and recreational fisheries and manages species under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act throughout federal waters. An agency of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NMFS also protects marine and anadromous species under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


© 2000, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution