Less Trawler Fishing in the Bering Sea

by George Pletnikoff

August 26, 2008

Greenpeace applauds the decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) to limit bottom trawl fisheries in the northern Bering Sea. Any cutback on this destructive fishery practice is welcome news. However, in this case, it’s misleading.

Industrial fishing, with the exception of the use of bottom trawlers, will continue in these areas. And provisions included in the decision raise alarm bells that plans may be in the making to eventually re-open the area to bottom trawlers to do their damage.

Bottom trawl lobbyists are pressuring the NPFMC to open more of this “northern boundary” because, as they themselves have testified before the Council, the fish are moving north due to climate change, and their boats have to travel further north to find fish. The other reason, one which they are not talking about, is that heavy fishing pressure in the southern Bering Sea has dramatically reduced populations of many groundfish stocks.

The size of the closure area is also misleading. As with the Aleutian Island bottom trawl closure adopted previously, a large percentage of this area of no trawl fishing is in an area where no fishing has taken place due to its depth and distance from on shore processors. No one fished there anyway. So while this is a forward-looking and precautionary step, action is urgently needed to address damage from bottom trawling that is occurring now in known coral and sponge habitats.  

Incorporating Greenpeace research, NOAA has identified several deep sea coral areas that currently lack protection. Last year, Greenpeace used submarines and a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to survey seafloor habitats in two underwater canyons along the highly productive Bering Sea shelf break. Zhemchug Canyon, the world’s largest, had never been explored.  We found at least 14 species of coral, and more than 20 species of sponge – including one that was previously unknown to science. Alarmingly, we also saw documented considerable evidence of fishing impacts – trenches dug through the seafloor, and broken and overturned corals.

Virtually none of the Bering Sea or Gulf of Alaska is protected from all fishing, despite the growing body of evidence of the value of marine reserves in fisheries management.  Fully protected marine reserves can help speed the recovery of fish stocks and degraded habitats, and have proven to increase yields in surrounding areas due to a spillover effect. By serving as experimental controls, marine reserves can also help us understand the impacts of climate change on our oceans and fisheries.

It’s time for the NPFMC to take a more ecosystem-based approach, and to protect the habitats that sustain Alaska’s fisheries. So far, most of what we’ve seen has looked good on paper but has had little impact on the status quo. And in the meantime, fish stocks continue to dwindle, critical habitat continues to be destroyed, and fishing communities continue to await relief.

— George

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