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Essential fish habitat
Roughly 150,000 square miles off the Pacific Coast, from Canada to Mexico, will be off-limits to trawl fishing, the bottom-scraping technique that destroys the ocean floor in pursuit of rockfish, ling cod and flatfish.
The operative word is precautionary, a welcome attempt to look ahead instead of always reacting to a crisis. The West Coast groundfish fishery has been devastated in recent years by poor ocean conditions and overfishing. New regulations adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service cover an area smaller than the 250,000 square miles recommended by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, but the result blends environmental and industry considerations.
This closure, which followed a tortuous legal and regulatory path, is part of a longer view and the council deserves credit for leading the way.
The rules apply to federal waters from three miles to 200 miles off the coast. Washington state already bans trawl fishing in its waters from zero to three miles and it is limited in parts of California. Other kinds of fishing are allowed in the no-trawl areas. Coast Guard enforcement will be key.
Not much trawl fishing is currently done in the area proposed for the permanent ban. The West Coast fleet has been reduced in recent years and stands at 130 trawlers that brought in $22 million last year. Less than 10 percent of the industry's revenue comes from the areas that will be closed.
Nonfishing activities that can damage habitat are not covered by federal fisheries regulations, but the plan will identify "habitat areas of particular concern." This administrative device raises a red flag for other agencies to consider in their own reviews.
Protecting essential fish habitat is fundamental to the health of the ocean. Environmental groups resisted lesser measures and pressed for credible protection plans.
The industry balanced a cut in current activity with a recognized necessity of protecting habitat for the future.
Sensitive areas can be revisited to weigh fishing options or continued closure.
Prudence and precaution yield options. That is practical environmental stewardship.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company