The Real Reason Why the Bering Sea Canyons Are Still Unprotected

by Jackie Dragon

October 26, 2015

Despite compelling science and vocal public support, authorities have elected not to protect the Bering Sea canyons, home to half of the seafood caught in the United States. How did we get here?

© Greenpeace / Todd Warshaw

In October, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) delivered a major blow to our decade-long public appeal to protect the Bering Sea canyons.

The body touts itself as fully transparent, responsive to public input and based on science. Over the past four years, though, I have seen how science can be ignored, skewed, omitted and steered toward decisions designed to please the politically powerful.

 “Are Bering Sea Canyons Unique Habitats Within the Bering Sea?”

That was the title of a June 2013 report that summarized all available information on the Canyons prepared for the NPFMC. Almost immediately, fishing industry lobbyists began a battle cry that repeated for years:

“The canyons aren’t unique!”

Yes, seafloor animals found within canyon boundaries also occur along the slope between the canyons, but the slope is unique in the Bering Sea. It contains nearly all of the coral and sponge life but is also the only major habitat in the region with no protections from fishing.

NOAA’s own website explains why protections are warranted:

“Parts of the canyons contain deep-sea coral communities that are important habitats for myriad species of fish and crustaceans, including valuable commercial species. These coral habitats are vulnerable to damage by fishing gear and, if damaged, take a long time to recover.”

In fact, the best available science suggests that ancient corals may never recover.

Industry chatter in the NPFMC hallways at the June meeting was hopeful that the issue would get shut down again, as it was in 2006.

Huge public support made that difficult. The NPFMC has received comments from more than 230,000 individuals, more than 25 NGOs and tribal organizations, fast food giant McDonald’s, and a dozen of the largest U.S. seafood business including Costco, Safeway, and Whole Foods Market.

It elected to delay, passing a motion asking scientists to identify areas of coral concentrations for possible management measures in Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons.

First went the sponges …

The NPFMC’s motion appeared responsive to the public, but for one small missing word: sponge. Without any scientific advice or discourse, sponge habitat was silently cut from consideration. Sponges provide very similar ecosystem services to corals. Fish lay eggs in them and use them for shelter, and they are long-lived species that are vulnerable to fishing gear.

A Giant Pacific Octopus

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

… then Zhemchug …

Then, in April 2014, without public dialogue, NPFMC slashed consideration of the Zhemchug Canyon, the largest underwater canyon in the world.

An NPFMC member had explained to me weeks before that a successful vote to move the protection issue forward would only be reached if Zhemchug were off the table. They would ignore the Zhemghug’s fish nurseries and foraging zones for endangered short-tailed albatross.

NPFMC’s decision again dismissed the science.

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.

National Marine Fisheries Service on Coral and Sponge Protection

NOAA has a strategic plan for Deep-Sea Coral and Sponge Communities with clear guidance for Councils: protect areas containing known deep-sea coral or sponge communities from impacts of bottom-tending fishing gear. Rarely, if ever, did I hear Council members, Council staff, the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee, or NOAA fishery scientists working on the issue ever refer to NOAA’s strategic plan.

It may as well not exist.

A delegation of NGOs met with Eileen Sobeck, Assistant Administrator of NOAA Fisheries a week before the October NPFMC meeting. She encouraged us to acknowledge the tremendous work of the Mid-Atlantic Council, where 38,000 square miles of canyon and coral habitat are now protected from bottom contact fishing.

“Acknowledging that the Councils can, should and are starting to do the right thing is really important,” she said.

Submerging the Facts

NOAA scientists began presenting their latest findings in the spring of 2015. Their camera-drop study had done a good job of validating their predictive models but, by the time they presented to the NPFMC in October, data supporting the Pribilof Canyon and adjacent areas robust coral habitats were missing or buried.

The report said coral abundance and density along the entire slope was low, and corals were shorter than in other Alaska ecosystems. But, the density of corals and sponges was higher in Pribilof Canyon than in any other areas along the slope and the outer-shelf, or the Bering Sea as a whole.

Instead of highlighting that fact, emphasis was instead paid to comparing the entire slope area to the Aleutian Islands, possibly the most amazing cold-water coral region in the world according to scientists.

Who Holds the Power?

When the NPFMC failed to protect even Pribilof Canyon, a coral hot spot in one of the most valuable large marine ecosystems in the world, they consciously took a back seat to real ecosystem and conservation leadership in U.S. fisheries. By agreeing that only areas of high coral abundance and density should be protected, and leaving the invaluable Bering Sea Green Belt fully unprotected and vulnerable, they are not standing on science, on NOAA guidance, or on earlier precedents set to conserve important habitat. They are signaling what we always feared.

Political power, more than any amount of science, is driving policy in Alaskan waters.

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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