Corals are a relatively new concern on the marine environmental radar and there's apparently still quite a lot left to be learned about them — but that doesn't mean they're not important. 

In fact, there are many areas inside Canadian/Newfoundland and Labrador waters — as well as others areas that either straddle or lie outside the 200 mile limit — that are considered to be sensitive coral zones. 

Those zones have been closed to any fishing activity that involves gear coming into contact with the bottom.

In addition to a large zone off the south-western edge of the Grand Banks, there are no less than 10 zones around the Flemish Cap and in the Flemish Pass where bottom trawl fishing has been completely banned by NAFO.

In an interesting twist, however, those fishing bans do not necessarily prevent oil companies from doing drilling or exploration around sensitive coral zones. 

And the Flemish Pass is currently a hotspot for oil exploration, including Statoil's Harpoon, Mizzen and recently announced Bay du Nord finds. 

Annette Power is the head of the Oceans Programs Section at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

She compares coral beds to undersea forests. These are areas used by animals to hide from predators, look for food, and they can also act as nursery areas — redfish actually use coral beds as nurseries for juveniles.

"Coral and sponge conservation has really only been on our radar for the past 10 years," she told The Fisheries Broadcast. "We're trying to find out where they are, how abundant are they and every time a cruise goes out we are still finding new types of corals and sponges. 

"Since 2008, there have been 13 to 14 different coral and sponge related closures that have occurred in the NAFO regulatory area. The implementation of these coral and sponge closures provides a good first step in the protection of the areas that we know about."

CNLOPB Regulates oil and gas industry

While DFO is the lead federal department on corals and sponges, the responsibility for regulating what oil companies can do around sensitive coral areas falls to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB).

"The CNLOPB has their own process for evaluating any proposals that come in for exploration or production plans, most often in the form of an environmental assessment, and DFO feeds into that process," Power explains.

The CNLOPB told CBC News that the information they have available to them "indicates that neither of the Mizzen, Harpoon, or Bay du Nord wells have been drilled in any of the closed NAFO zones."

A spokesman for the board said that, "For drilling operations in areas that may have corals/sponges, we have placed a condition on the operators' authorization that drilling operations, including the anchor pattern for moored drilling units, not occur within 100 metres of a coral colony."

"Prior to drilling, the operator surveys the area via remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) and we are provided a copy of that video for confirmation purposes," the spokesman added.

"Like the NAFO closure areas, the purpose of this is to avoid physical disturbance of potentially sensitive coral colonies."

Physical damage major threat to corals

The threat of physical damage to coral beds from any number of human activities like fishing or oil exploration — as well as other factors like oil spills, changing ocean environments and global warming — is substantial. 

Power said corals are extremely slow growing. So once the damage is done, it's not easy to fix.

"Whether the physical damage comes from fishing gear that comes in contact with them, or someone laying a subsea cable or pipeline, it doesn't matter — it's the physical damage that poses the biggest threat," she said. "And because they are so slow growing, if that happens it might take decades to centuries for those animals to get back to their pre-impact condition."

As a result of the coral concerns and the accompanying confusion about who regulates what and how, all of the players are currently embroiled in the development of something called the Eastern Canadian Coral and Sponge Conservation strategy.

Power said the strategy won't change the current legislation around coral and sponge protection, but should provide some clarity. That's expected to start rolling out in November.

"It's being developed using an ecosystem based management approach, and the strategy outlines what everyone's roles would be — it aligns existing legislation and policies. It helps put into perspective how we can all collaborate together, and it provides transparency."