Maryland’s Coral Gardens

Flounder on one of Maryland's coral gardens

A flounder passes through one of Maryland’s coral gardens. Photo: Michael Eversmier.

Leptogorgia virgulata

The whip coral, Leptogorgia virgulata. Photo: NC Parks

Ocean City, Maryland.  Maryland is not known for its coral reefs.  In fact, many people would quite logically assume that no such thing exists.  However, such an assumption would be wrong.  In recent decades, an increasing number of coral “gardens” have been discovered just off Maryland’s coast.  These hard bottom areas are scattered around at sea like a string of islands, supporting a habitat rich in corals, fish and lobster.  Known best by a tight knit group of fishermen, divers and local conservationists, these otherwise poorly understood coral gardens function as magnets for marine life.

The waters off the coast of Maryland are part of the Middle Atlantic Bight, a broad swath of continental shelf extending out from Cape Cod, Massachusetts south to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  The Bight is generally characterized by science as a flat, homogenous habitat composed of soft sediments, primarily sand and fine clays.  Efforts have been made over the years to create artificial reefs on the Bight through activities such as sinking large ships.  These artificial reefs have proven value in providing habitat to large densities of fish and lobster, making them an asset to local fisheries.  However, it’s increasingly understood that in addition to the artificial structures, a network of natural coral gardens has been here all along.

The impact of bottom trawling

This image from Charity Sub depicts the impacts of bottom trawl fishing.

Unfortunately, these islands of life are under threat from bottom trawling, a type of fishing that drags heavy gear along the seafloor.  Due to the fact these habitats have been poorly known, many areas may already be devastated – scraped clean off the seafloor by trawling.  For those that remain, it is urgent that we study, map and protect them.  These gardens are engines of productivity – providing nursery and breeding habitat for large fish and lobster.  They support non-destructive forms of fishing, provide recreational opportunities for divers and all shades of sports enthusiasts, and fuel the economy.

Take a look at the following videos filmed on the coral gardens off of Maryland’s coast.  If you’re anything like me, they’ll astound you.  I grew up here and never knew this treasure was here.

These videos were shared by Captain Monty Hawkins of the Morning Star charter vessel of Ocean City, Maryland.

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