Gov. Sanford Asks President to Protect Deep Sea Corals Off South Carolina Coast

May 22, 2008
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Tom Lalley – (202) 572-3303,
(Washington D.C. - May 22, 2008)  In a letter sent yesterday, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina asked President George W. Bush to protect the unique deep sea coral reefs off the South Carolina coast by establishing the area as a marine national monument.  These spectacular, but largely unexplored, reefs cover an area nearly the size of South Carolina and stretch from North Carolina to Florida. 
“This deepwater coral ecosystem constitutes a national treasure on par with Yosemite Valley and the Northwest Hawaiian Islands in its beauty and deserves protection,” wrote Governor Sanford in the letter to the president.
The governor was backed by 121 marine scientists who today released a letter calling on the president to “expand protection for these corals and commit the necessary resources to understand this important and vulnerable ecosystem.”
“It’s impossible to overstate how spectacular this area is and that’s why Governor Sanford’s action is so important and visionary,” said Dr. Doug Rader, a marine biologist with Environmental Defense Fund.  “Scientists have only recently come to realize just how unusual these coral reefs are.   We now know that the reefs are one of the most important areas in the world for marine life.  There’s nothing else like it and it’s in our own backyard.”
The fragile nature of these slow-growing and long-lived corals makes them highly vulnerable to disturbance.  Preserving these reefs – thriving since our forefathers first entered this land – will provide a safe haven that will help them adapt to the changing oceans and ensure their survival for our grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“Every time we visit the reefs we see places no human has ever seen before, and find new species,” said Dr. Steve Ross, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.  Ross leads expeditions to the reefs using submarines especially equipped to handle the intense pressures of the deep ocean.  “We now believe that worldwide deepwater corals cover more area than shallow-water corals, and that the world’s greatest concentrations of deepwater corals exists here off the U.S. Southeast.”
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is working with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to provide partial protection for this coral ecosystem using existing authority. A monument designation would support this process and extend durable, long-lasting protections.  This is an important step that will allow non-damaging fishing to continue while preserving the unique coral habitats.
“What a legacy Governor Sanford would leave if the president agrees with his request to permanently protect this magnificent system of towering corals and exotic fish,” said Nancy Vinson, program director at the Coastal Conservation League.  
Many of the coral reefs lie 1,000 feet or more below the ocean’s surface.  Some of the coral colonies may be more than 2,000 years old and some coral mounds may be more than one million years old. 
“From a scientific point of view, we’ve struck it rich – we’ve found a treasure trove of marine biodiversity that we didn’t know existed until fairly recently,” said Dr. Lance Morgan, Chief Scientist, Marine Conservation Biology Institute.  “With adequate protection, scientists will be busy for decades finding new species and unlocking the secrets of these reefs.”