I have just sat through four painstaking days of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. It's an eight-day meeting but luckily for me - and my sanity - I only had to endure four. This government body is tasked with fishery management and conservation of marine ecosystems in the North Pacific Ocean off of Alaska which belong to the United States of America. The Management Council's vision statement seems pretty commendable to me. It talks about sustainable fisheries, the need to maintain healthy productive, resilient ecosystems that support robust populations of marine species, and it states that fisheries should be managed using a precautionary, transparent, and inclusive process.
So what is Greenpeace doing here? The Bering Sea boasts some incredible marine life. It is also boasts two of the world’s largest underwater canyons: the Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons. These canyons are rare and support a high diversity of marine life from ancient deep-sea corals to a myriad of fish species that are long-lived and vulnerable to over exploitation. We have only just begun to understand what lives in these canyons. In fact Greenpeace pioneered the exploration of the canyons by sending two submersibles down to the canyons in 2007 to document life there. We even discovered a species of sponge new to science!
The Bering Sea is also one of the world's most productive and lucrative fishing grounds. Large volumes of popular and commercially valuable fish such as pollock, Pacific cod and halibut are caught here. Mostly this is carried out using extremely destructive methods such as bottom trawling, which literally scrapes the ocean floor destroying everything in its wake, and long-lining which also damages corals and sea floor habitat. Both these techniques result in indiscriminate bycatch, the wasteful killing of all sorts of animals not actually targeted by the fishery. Once you destroy a deep-sea coral – it won’t come back for tens to hundreds of years, if at all. Bottom trawling really is like clear-felling an ancient rainforest for the sake of catching a few deer.
Greenpeace and our allies have been working to get these canyons protected from the onslaught of destructive fishing gear and climate change for over a decade now. New science, modeling and public sentiment are all pointing to the same thing. If we want to ensure a productive fishery well into the future we must set areas for protection aside now.
I am new to the politics of ocean conservation in the USA. I am normally based in the Netherlands working for Greenpeace International and have had the displeasure of witnessing first hand how international bodies such as the UN, Regional Fisheries Management Organizations or the European Union go about failing to take necessary immediate action to protect our oceans and the animals that live in them despite the latest science telling us that our oceans are in crisis. Close to 80 percent of our fish stocks around the world are in a poor state as a direct result of over-fishing. Add to that pollution, deep-seabed mining, ocean acidification and climate change - it is time to give our oceans a break. To recover, replenish, build resilience and ensure bounty from our oceans for future generations we need to establish ocean sanctuaries.
I came to Alaska with the understanding that the USA is perceived as one of the leading countries globally when it comes to managing and protecting our ocean resources and that this particular Council was ahead of all others in the US. I therefore naively came with hope that we might actually see some meaningful steps come out of this meeting. After all it wasn't that long ago that I was in Tasmania, Australia for the annual international meeting that seeks to conserve marine life in Antarctica where the US is proactively pushing for protection of the Ross Sea. If the US is so good to the Antarctic – an area shared by the global community - surely they would prize life in their very own Bering Sea?
Sadly, I was wrong. Like any other management meeting I have been to, the fishing industry maintains a stranglehold on decision-making. Despite irrefutable observational data on the incredible life forms that thrive in these canyons and their vulnerability; despite scientific modeling (which managers find perfectly adequate for determining catch quotas); and despite the calls of millions of public stakeholders including the Native communities of Alaska who depend on a healthy Bering Sea for their livelihoods, the Council has decided to kick the can well in to 2016 before taking any meaningful action to protect the ancient worlds of the Bering Sea. Until then the industrial trawlers and long-liners will keep destroying what essentially belongs to all of us: our common heritage.
I walk away from this meeting more determined than ever to help my colleagues in the US explore new avenues for raising the urgency for action. If they won't listen to science then they'll have to listen to you! If you want to make a difference tell your local seafood restaurant or supermarket to stop selling fish from the Bering Sea Canyons and sign our global petition to establish ocean sanctuaries around the world.
Farah Obaidullah is a Senior Oceans Campaigner with Greenpeace International