Bumpy ride

by Jessica Miller

July 31, 2006

The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea… 

July 30

After 30 hours of transit, we’ve finally dropped anchor in Security Cove, just north of Bristol Bay. It’s been a bumpy ride, but the only casualties so far have been a few dishes that came flying out of the cabinet in the middle of the night last night. We duct taped everything that wasn’t nailed down, went back to bed, and haven’t had any problems since. Now the sun is out, the waves are calmer and we can see the mainland for the first time in almost three weeks. So, we got that goin’ for us.

A few hundred miles to the south, the same winds that made our going so tough the last few days have been pushing the Cougar Ace closer to shore. The Cougar Ace capsized south of the Aleutian Islands last week as it was carrying 5000 new cars from Japan to Canada and the U.S. As the winds picked up from the southwest, the Cougar Ace’s 650 foot hull started acting like a giant sail, pushing the capsized ship north toward the Aleutians. If it reaches shore, it could run aground and break apart, spilling 540 tons of oil and diesel fuel onto the shores of the islands. A similar event occurred just a couple of years ago, when a giant soy freighter called the Selandang Ayu ran aground on Unalaska. Locals tell us the cleanup from that spill was never completed (something we’d hoped to verify on this trip). Now they face the
prospect of a new one.

Happily, the news isn’t all bad. Yesterday, new federal rules took effect that will prohibit bottom trawl fishing in 370,000 square miles of ocean habitat in the Aleutians and, in the process, create the largest protected marine habitat in the country. As the name implies, bottom trawling involves dragging heavy, weighted nets across the ocean floor to catchbottom-dwelling fish like halibut and sole. But dragging trawl gear across the sensitive ocean floor destroys habitat at the same time it takes the fish, churning up mud, tearing out ancient corals, and leaving tracklines of destruction that may never recover.

The millions of square miles of ocean habitat wrecked each year by bottom trawling have sparked a global campaign to end bottom trawling on the high seas, and in sensitive areas under national control, like the Aleutians. Ironically—or, perhaps not ironically given the environmental track record of the current administration—there’s very little bottom trawling actually going on in the area of the Aleutians protected by the new rules. But this means the habitat is still largely intact.

More importantly, the rules include additional and more stringent protections for the cold water coral habitats most sensitive to fishing impacts. In these habitats, the new rules prohibit not only bottom trawling, but any fishing gear that touches the bottom, including bottom longlines. It will, in effect, create a no-fish zone near the ocean floor where overfished species might find safe harbor, with benefits for the whole ecosystem.

Protecting these most fragile of habitats isn’t the whole answer to saving the Bering. But we’ve seen in the last few weeks that it’s an important part of the answer. And a good place to start.


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