By Chris Adams

They’re hidden from easy view, and only recently were discovered by scientists.

But deep-sea corals have already become an environmental hot spot – yet another skirmish among environmentalists, scientists, the fishing industry, and the oil and gas industry.

“A lot folks are familiar with shallow, tropical coral reefs,” said Holly Binns (bio, Twitter) of the U.S. oceans program for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “But many don’t know deep sea ones even exist.”

Among the most diverse ecosystems on earth, deep-sea corals support fisheries and recreational activities across the world. They grow in cold temperatures with no light and little oxygen and provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for small sharks, crabs, snapper and grouper, among others. They can live to be hundreds, or even thousands, of years old at depths of as much as 10,000 feet.

But they also can break and die, which happens when shrimping nets or long fishing lines pass over them. They also can be damaged when the energy industry goes exploring for oil or gas at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico or other bodies of water.

Binns gave National Press Foundation fellows an overview of deep-sea corals and the battle now underway to protect them.

The corals are also helpful to scientists seeking to understand the Earth’s climate, since they form layers similar to tree rings. By studying such bands, scientists can get information about changes in water temperature, nutrients and ocean circulation, Binns said. The reefs also offer promise in medicine, with compounds in them being studied as possible treatments for cancer and other illnesses.

In the U.S., coral reef areas in the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are protected from bottom-contact fishing gear, and other areas might get such protection, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Commerce.