FIFTY MILES OFF CAPE CANAVERAL — Deep beneath the crystalline blue surface of the Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern United States lies a virtual rain forest of coral reefs so expansive the network is believed to be the world's largest.
A 23,000-square-mile area stretching from North Carolina to Florida is just part of that entire reef tract now being proposed for protection from potential damage by deep-sea commercial fishing and energy exploration.
So far, it has been relatively untouched because of its largely unreachable depths, providing scientists an unusual opportunity to protect an ecosystem before it's destroyed.
"Most of the time, science is trying to catch up with exploitation," said Steve Ross of the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Ross is leading a four-part research cruise that began Aug. 6 aimed at studying these deep-sea environments, hoping to find new species of fish, crab and corals that could lead to scientific and medical discoveries.
Environmentalists say crab pots and bottom trawling for shrimp are the most immediate threats.
Margot Stiles, a marine scientist for Oceana, an international environmental advocacy group, said other deepwater reefs off the United States have been severely damaged by trawlers.
"In this case, we have 23,000 square miles of known deep-sea corals, and it's not too late to protect them," Stiles said. "This particular reef is to the deep sea what the Great Barrier Reef is for the world."
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is pushing the proposal to protect the region, about the size of West Virginia, in depths down to 2,500 feet and below, creating the largest deepwater coral protected area off the Atlantic Coast.
Specifics on regulations and restrictions are still being reviewed, but if approved by the U.S. commerce secretary, the plan could take effect by next year.
Deepwater reefs and pinnacles are much more slow-growing and can take several million years to form.
The research team is composed of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Florida Atlantic University, the U.S. Geological Survey and others.