Is It Time for Bering Sea Canyon Marine Protected Areas Yet?

by Jackie Dragon

April 8, 2014

This week the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) again turns its attention to the Bering Sea. For more than 10 years, the Council has heard requests to protect the Seas canyons and vital shelf-break habitat.

The Greenpeace thermal Airship A.E. Bates flies over the harbor of the Alaskan capital with a giant banner in the shape of a whale reading "Protect My Home" and the url urging Alaskans and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to help protect the "grand Canyons of the Sea" from destructive fishing practices.

© Greenpeace / Ryan Rittenhouse

Will the NPFMC take a long-overdue, decisive step forward and demonstrate national leadership on ecosystem-based fishery management? Will it clearly articulate the need to protect a portion of this treasure for all its benefits to the Bering Sea ecosystem? Or will it once again pass the buck.

The fishing industry appears to carry a lot of weight with decision makers, perhaps more than the millions of public stakeholders who are voting for balance in the Bering Sea. The industry wants more study, more science.In the mean-time, it goes ahead withdestructive fishing, challenged by few protections. Gathering data is a thinly-veiled means of delaying the long policy process of scoping and analyzing alternatives, to provide some protections for this highly vulnerable area.

Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner Jackie Dragon testifies at a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to urge protection for the Bering Sea Canyons and changes to destructive fishing practices.

Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner Jackie Dragon testifies at a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to urge protection for the Bering Sea Canyons and changes to destructive fishing practices.

I’ve been on the campaign to protect Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons for three years. These remarkable structures in the Bering Sea are deep-water wonders, larger than the Grand Canyon, drivers of biodiversity in one of the worlds most valuable marine ecosystems (and Americas fish basket). A rich web of marine life radiates out from the extremely productive shelf-break zone, dubbed the green belt by scientists. The canyons provide refuge, nurseries, spawning, and foraging habitat for whales, fur seals, seabirds, crab, corals, sponges, octopus, fish, and much more sea life, all in incredible numbers.

Industrial-scale fishing for pollock (think fish sticks) and Pacific cod is the primary fishing activity in the canyons. It occasionally plows, rips, and tears through precious coral and sponge habitat.More than 73 metric tons (the weight of 5 school buses) of coral is crushed, destroyed and hauled up each year just in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

Pribilof Canyon, Bering Sea

A giant Pacific octopus rests among anenomes and sponges at 1132′ deep during undersea research of Pribilof Canyon in the Bering Sea.

The shelf-break canyon and slope is the only habitat in the Bering Sea that has been given no protection from fishing.Although the Bering Sea produces more than half of the fish caught in the U.S. each year, less than four percent of the pollock and cod are caught in the Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons.

That’s good news. It means we can have both fishing and preservation if we want it.

We are asking fishery managersto protect some of this extraordinary habitat. Why not fish along 70% of the shelf-break, for instance, and preserve 30% as a buffer against uncertainty? New Zealand did just that; they protected 30% of their seafloor habitat from destructive fishing. We can go on catching up to two million metric tons of fish each year, while setting aside important canyon and shelf-break areas. This would be precautionary, ecosystem-based, science-backed fishery management. So, whats the hold up?

The counter argument is that nobody can prove that trawls, pots, and longlines are causing lasting and irreversible damage. Hmmmm. Really?

While of course its true, scientists may never fully decode and describe the full value of ancient coral and sponge habitat, we do know that fishery collapse happens, and that corals and sponges have been shown to be vital and productive habitat for many sea creatures.For the halibut swimming through an otherwise desert-like watery terrain; for the king crab meandering about the sea floor in search of food and shelter from the currents; for the Crested Auklet piercing the surface high above to pursue its favorite sushi in underwater flight; for the dwindling population of northern fur seals plucking their meals from clear pelagic waters, they may be critical to life itself.

We may not know yet how everything is connected, or how important the habitat on the seafloor is to the ecosystem, but does that mean we should begin the process of protection once things have already started looking bad?


Already, Native Alaskan fishermen and hunters who know more about the connections among Bering Sea life are wary of the changes brought by the huge and the many fishing vessels in their no longer teaming local waters. They are finding it difficult to pass on their cultural subsistence ways to their children. Once plentiful king salmon are no longer finding their way back into the rivers that feed the villages. Meanwhile,many thousandsof salmon are wasted as bycatch in monstrous trawl nets each year.

Imagine a football field-sized plow coming in and bulldozing your neighborhood, sucking up people in your community and leveling grocery stores, homes, parks, and hospitals, all of which have taken decades and decades to build. Could this kind of habitat destruction impact the ability of the Bering Sea to keep producing fish?

The Sea Floor

Shortraker rockfish, crinoids, brittle stars, basket stars, anenones and more, seen on the sea floor by a manned submersible during undersea research of Zhemchug Canyon in the Bering Sea.

A NOAA fishery biologist explained it to me this way: the goal is to maintain the health and resilience of the complex ecosystem that supports productive fisheries. Taxonomist, Dr. Stephen Cairns of the Smithsonian Institute credited with describing many of the known coral species in Alaska sees Bering Sea shelf-break and canyon protections this way:

It would be shortsighted for the fishermen to compromise the environment that may well be supporting their fishery, and the product they are after. The history is replete with examples of fisheries just going down the tubes in the Atlantic and everywhere; smaller and smaller fish and then finally no fish at all. Maybe they haven’t seen a decline in what they fish for up there yet, but it may well come.

And this message was carried in Safeways public letter to the NPFMC two years ago this month:

Consistent with standards of sustainability, our own company’s values, and the councils ecosystem-oriented management mandate, we encourage the Council to fully investigate the options available to secure adequate protections for vital Greenbelt habitat in Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons. Providing protection for a representative portion of Greenbelt habitat will provide us with an invaluable safeguard against uncertainty. It will also serve as a scientific reference area to help us better understand the impacts of our industry, as well as the full implications of climate change and ocean acidification on the resource going forward.

A lot of people will be watching this week. Will the Council finally begin the process of protecting the canyons? Or will we be left looking for some other way to protect and conserve this Bering Sea jewel while decision makers continue to move slowly, as slow as corals and sponges growing into rockfish cities?

Jackie Dragon

By Jackie Dragon

Jackie Dragon formerly served as a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA. Jackie has been campaigning to protect important places in the ocean since 2008. Her current focus is on the Bering Sea, where she fights to conserve the largest submarine canyons in the world from destructive industrial fishing practices.

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