The Norwegian Shelf has the largest accumulation of Lophelia reefs discovered to date. This includes both the largest reef complex (Sula Reef, 14 kilometres in length and measuring up to 30 metres in height) and the shallowest (Trondheimfjord, in water of 39 m depth) cold-water coral reefs in the world. Since the mid-1980s trawling has taken place along the continental shelf break and on the shelf banks. The end of the 1980s saw the development of the rock-hopper trawl which allowed significantly larger vessels to fish in these deep-water environments.
Concerns were raised about the sustainability of bottom trawling, after research estimated that probably between 30 and 50 per cent of the cold-water coral reefs then known or expected to be discovered had been partially or totally damaged by bottom-trawling activities. Then in 1999, Norway became the first country to implement protection measures for cold-water corals. This regulation prohibited the intentional destruction of coral reefs and required precaution and care to be taken when fishing in the vicinity of known reefs.
This regulation has also been extended to provide special protection to specific, particularly valuable reefs, by totally banning the use of fishing gear that is dragged along the bottom and may come into contact with the reefs. To date, eight reef areas have received this special protection. Sula Reef (1999), Iverryggen Reef (2000), Selligrunnen (Trondheim Fjord, 2000), Røst Reef (2003), Tisler Reef (2003) and Fjellknausene (2003), and Trænarevene, Breisunddjupet and an area northwest of Sørøya in Finnmark (2009).
According to guidelines developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) new regulations to protect Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VME), such as cold-water coral reefs, have recently been implemented in two Regional Fisheries Management Organisations of which Norway is a member. 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. Norway is currently in the process of establishing similar regulations in Norwegian waters.