Coral concerns spur vast trawling ban
Commercial fishing nets that drag the sea floor will be banned near the Aleutian Islands under a government plan to protect the deep-water corals and sponges.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Commercial fishing nets that drag the sea floor will be banned from more than a half-million square miles of ocean near the Aleutian Islands under a government plan to protect the deep-water corals and sponges that help nurse Alaska's fishing grounds.
In what easily will be the largest trawl-fishing ban in the United States, the governing body that oversees commercial fishing in the North Pacific yesterday proposed a whole new approach to protecting the rocky, colorful seafloor habitat. Scientists believe the coral may help incubate a fertile fishing area that helps supply a significant portion of U.S. seafood.
Coming shortly after two scientific panels proclaimed the world's seas were in ecological trouble, the decision signals a shift in thinking about how to manage oceans, and puts new pressure on the bodies that oversee fishing in Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coast waters to follow suit.
"It's a whole new paradigm," said bottom-trawl fisherman David Fraser, who lives in Port Townsend and fishes in Alaska. "It's not unusual for Alaska to set the gold standard for the rest of the regions around the country."
Yesterday's decision by the members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is deceptive in its simplicity.
Typically, entire oceans are open to fishing except in areas that have been specifically set aside to protect sea lions or rare birds, or to rebuild fallen crab stocks, for example. In this case, the council took the opposite approach: It recommended outlawing bottom-trawling everywhere in the Aleutians — except on the roughly 25,000 square miles of seas where boats fish today, minus a few coral-rich areas that already are off limits.
And while the majority of the closure is in areas where fisherman don't set their nets because it's too deep, too rocky or too far off shore, it still makes tens of thousands of square miles of prime fishing grounds off limits.
Since the decision is not a dramatic change from the status quo, the financial impact to Alaska's billion-dollar, largely Puget Sound-based seafood industry isn't expected to be huge.
But it will prevent the industry from spreading out into the Aleutians and further destroying coral, which ultimately could prove to be essential to the ecosystem.
"The pioneering days are over," fisherman Fraser wrote in a letter to council members about the plan. "If in the future we are unable to harvest up to our quotas, it doesn't mean we should seek new fishing grounds. It means we need to re-examine whether we have been managing conservatively enough."
The decision won't be final until the council considers it again after a series of public hearings. But with both the fishing industry and environmentalists largely behind it, it's unlikely to change significantly.
The action stems from a 1996 act of Congress requiring regional fisheries councils to protect "essential" fish habitat. But it also was fueled by an explosion in coral exploration, and the quest to understand its role in the ecosystem.
In recent years, scientists have been taking deep-sea submersibles 1,200 feet or more along the volcanic flanks of the Aleutians.
They found acres of coral gardens: red corals shaped like a Joshua tree; sponges shaped like spatulas, barrels or crooked human fingers; and a 5-foot sponge that looked like a little girl's pigtails. They were brilliant green, violent shades of orange and bright yellow. Scientists even saw a lone predatory sponge that captured crustaceans for food. More than two dozen were coral species found nowhere else on earth.
"It's safe to say that many, or at least a representative amount, of deep-sea coral habitat has been looked at worldwide — corals on both sides of the North Atlantic, corals in Antarctica, corals in Tasmania — many corners of the world," said Robert Stone, with the National Marine Fisheries Service's Auke Bay Laboratory in Alaska. "Nothing comes close to the Aleutians."
Tom Shirley, a professor and coral expert at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, said so many species of crab and sea stars lived on or around the coral, he referred to coral as the "herring of the deep sea."
"Herring, in the nearshore, are feeding on zooplankton, and everybody else — salmon, whales, halibut — is feeding on them," he said. "But when you get down in the deep sea ... corals are the big producers, feeding on the organic material" and releasing nutrients.
But given the uncertainty about coral's importance, fisherman and environmentalists stalemated over how much needed to be made off-limits to fishing.
"The concept we finally approached this with was to leave open the areas that have been historically fished," said Glenn Reed, with the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.
Yesterday, both sides were declaring victory, including Oceana, an environmental group that spearheaded a national campaign to protect corals, and Alaska Marine Conservation Council, a small group that includes some fishermen who've been trying to limit the most destructive of fishing practices in Alaska.
"This is the largest area ever closed to fishing solely for conservation," said Jim Ayers, former chief of staff to ex-Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, now with Oceana.
Fishing groups, which like to point out that Alaska's track record on protecting commercial fish stocks is the best in the country, said it was another example of Alaska's forward thinking.
"It is a very precautionary approach, and provides another example of the ecosystem-based management approach the council has used for years," said David Benton, executive director of an organization that represents commercial fishermen in Alaska.
What to do about protecting essential fish habitat in the adjacent Bering Sea, America's true seafood breadbasket, is a more complicated question.
With its shallow, sandy bottom and warmer temperatures, the Bering Sea is home to far less coral and sponge habitat. Still, scientists increasingly are noting minute changes in the Bering Sea's ecosystem, from the disappearance of shrimplike crustaceans once common in seabird diets near the Pribilof Islands, to retreating sea ice that may impact phytoplankton blooms that fuel fish populations.
But the council yesterday stopped short of taking a similar approach there — in part because fishermen expressed fear that with the onset of climate change and global warming, there's no telling where the fish will actually be in 10 years.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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