Coral reefs represent unique habitats with high biodiversity, and are believed to be important habitats for some fish species, such as ling, redfish, and tusk. The presence of coral reefs on the Norwegian coast has been known for quite some time, but questions on the need for protective measures were not raised until a bottom survey by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (IMR) in 1998 discovered damaged reefs—most likely because of bottom trawling. The Norwegian Ministry for Fisheries and Coastal Affairs reacted promptly, and the first reef was protected already in 1999.
Information from fishermen and oil-companies
IMR started investigations of deep-water corals in 1997, and information on corals has been collected from a number of sources. Interviews with fishermen have provided information on known coral locations, and locations where corals have been damaged. The oil companies have provided information on corals obtained when mapping the seafloor in relation to offshore activities.
Although the precise number of Norwegian reefs is yet not known, several hundreds of locations have been mapped with an estimated total spatial coverage of about 2000 km². Mapping of coral reefs is very time-consuming and expensive, and is therefore expected to go on for many years. The seabed mapping program “MAREANO” is at present an important source of information on the distribution of corals in the Norwegian EEZ.
Pursuant to the Marine Resources Act, the Norwegian fisheries authorities have adopted regulations for protecting cold-water coral reefs from destructive fishing. According to these regulations, intentional and negligent destruction of known coral reefs is prohibited, and precaution is required when fishing in the vicinity of known cold-water coral reefs. Furthermore, some particularly valuable coral reefs are granted special protection by a ban on the use of fishing gear which is dragged along the bottom (such as bottom trawl).
So far eight reefs have been given this type of special protection; the Sula Reef (1999), Iverryggen Reef (2000), the Røst Reef (2003), Tisler and Fjellknausene Reefs (2003), and Trænarevene, Breisunddjupet and an area northwest of Sørøya in Finnmark (2009). In addition, the world's shallowest known Lophelia-reef, Selligrunnen, rising up to 39 m depth below the surface, has been temporary conserved pursuant to the Norwegian Nature Conservation Act by the environmental authorities (2000).
The United Nations General Assembly Fisheries Resolution of 2006 called for states and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) to take action to protect Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs), such as corals and sponges. According to guidelines developed the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) new regulations to protect VMEs have been implemented in both the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and the North West Atlantic Fisheries Commission (two RFMOs of which Norway is a member) in recent years.
These regulations involve defining “new” and “existing” fishing areas, and specify how fishing in such areas should be conducted. Most importantly however, is that fishing vessels are required to cease fishing in the event of an encounter with a VME (encounter is defined as catch per set of VME indicator species’ exceeding certain threshold values). Norway has also established similar regulations in Norwegian waters.