On Thursday, six skate nurseries in Alaska’s Bering Sea were designated as “Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.” Skates are a member of the ray family, and live on the seafloor. The designation requires consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service before activities such as offshore oil and gas development can take place.
The protected nurseries are six of only 13 or 14 total sites in the Bering Sea where skates lay their leathery egg cases, commonly known as mermaid’s purses, in deep submarine canyons. Skate eggs take three years hatch, making them extremely vulnerable to seafloor destruction.
With over 200 species of skate around the globe, they are part of the ancient family that includes sharks and rays. While the family has survived many mass extinctions, including those that killed the dinosaurs, they have not evolved to survive the dramatic impacts of humans on their habitat. Many species, including the common skate, have been dangerously overfished, and the nurseries in the Bering Sea are critical to the continued survival of skates in the North Pacific.
As you enjoy those last holiday cookies before the New Year comes with its resolutions, we’d love to share one final present for you to enjoy: we are thrilled to announce that last week, the country of Chile became the first in the world to protect all of its seamounts from the devastating effects of bottom trawling! Oceana CEO Andrew Sharpless and actor and Oceana board member Ted Danson collaborated in an article published by the Huffington Post to share this excellent news with the world.
Seamounts are underwater mountain ranges that are home to an unbelievable array of sea creatures fed by the nutrient-rich water from the deep upwells. The destructive practice of bottom trawling, where large, heavy nets weighing as much as several tons each effectively clear-cut everything living on the seafloor, causes more direct and avoidable damage to the ocean floor and its creatures than any other human activity in the world. Although some of Chile’s seamounts have already been damaged or destroyed by the country’s fishing fleet, the December 20 decision closes any further trawling to Chile’s 118 seamounts until scientists have assessed these and other underwater ecosystems off the coast of Chile.
In the past few weeks Oceana's Ranger expedition has been exploring a series of underwater mountains 130 miles West of Portugal known as the Gorringe bank. Formed along with the Atlantic Ocean as Pangaea pulled apart 145 to 155 million years ago, the Gorringe bank juts from depths of as much as 16,000 feet to only 100 feet below the surface. These underwater mountain ranges are a hotspot for marine life, as nutrient rich water upwells to the seamount peaks.
Closer to the surface a familiar parade of whales, dolphins, swordfish and barracuda visit lush kelp forests, while shearwaters and petrels circle above. As you dive deeper though, as the Ranger expedition has with its underwater robot (ROV), you enter a somewhat stranger world, but one that is no less diverse. This is the domain of the dragon fish, the fan corals, the otherworldly deep-sea sharks, the churlish-looking pink frogmouth and still more species unknown to science. Other animals are ambassadors of the deep, patrolling up and down the seamounts in search of prey
“During last year’s expedition we found some new species whose existence in the Gorringe was unknown, such as branching black coral, hydrocoral, dogfish, bird’s nest sponge, and various gorgonia”, says Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Research at Oceana in Europe. “There are dozens of species which have not been identified yet. We hope that they will provide new data on these ecosystems, and facilitate the protection and conservation of this unique enclave.”
Unfortunately, as the ranger expedition has also discovered, this habitat is also home to an increasing amount of trash, especially abandoned fishing gear.
By documenting and exploring habitat, Oceana is gathering data about this unique ecosystem that will be crucial in formulating conservation plans that will hopefully protect the area from malign human influences like pollution and bottom trawling.
Prepare to witness what has to be one of the strangest animals on planet Earth. Behold: the Pacific barreleye. As this video shot by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute demonstrates, NASA need not look to the heavens to find aliens. 2,000 feet deep in the Pacific ocean lurks this otherworldly creature inside whose bizarre transparent head, more colorfully described as a "cockpit" by some scientists, is a set of extremely sensitive tubular eyes, from which it derives its name.
Those eyes are capped by stunning green lenses, pointed ever upward to spot bioluminescent prey and faint silhouettes in the deep sea (the dark eye-like spots on the front of the fishes head are, in fact, olfactory organs). The barreleye is thought to steal food from siphonophores, a group of colonial jellyfish-like animals, and the transparent dome above its eyes provides protection from their stinging tentacles.
Like much life in the deep, extremely little was known about this fish until researchers came upon this specimen off of Central California. Bottom trawling and deep sea fisheries are quickly destroying deep sea habitat before scientists have the opportunity to study the fascinating animals that call this poorly understood region home. Who knows what other strange creatures await discovery in the deep?
In this gorgeous new Oceana video Alexandra Cousteau delves into Monterey Bay to illuminate the diversity of life at the bottom of the ocean, a crucial habitat that is under the constant threat of obliteration from bottom trawling. Using an ROV the camera captures an otherworldly scene, as scallops flutter by and curlicued basket stars unfurl. Armies of shrimp and brittle stars scamper by, fed by the organic matter from above that drifts down the water column like snowfall, sustaining a remarkably rich community. In shallower waters, coral gardens that take hundreds of years to blossom shelter rockfish and ingeniously disguised crabs, and serve as a nursery for dozens of species of fish. Here octopuses go camouflage against the rocky shale, out of sight of the hungry sperm whales and sea lions from above. Anemone-covered spires upwell nutrient rich waters that feed shoals of krill, which in turn feed blue whales. It is an intricately connected ecosystem and it can be destroyed in an instant by bottom trawling. That’s why Oceana has pushed for an end to bottom trawling in ecologically sensitive areas. And that work has paid off in concrete victories: in 2006 NOAA protected 140,000 square miles of Pacific seafloor from the destructive practice, but more needs to be done. For the most part this world goes unseen by human eyes and it’s why Oceana is working laboriously to document these precious areas before they disappear.
Oceana in Chile has been working for several years to keep bottom trawlers out of the most vulnerable marine ecosystems in the nation’s waters.
Back in 2009, we proposed a bill that would close all 118 seamounts in Chile to bottom trawlers, and this week our staff participated in a discussion of the bill by the Chilean Senate’s Fisheries Committee.
Bottom trawling, one of the most destructive forms of fishing, uses a huge, heavy net to scrape the seafloor. Trawlers are indiscriminate, which results in overfishing and the accidental entanglement of animals including sea turtles and marine mammals. And these heavy nets destroy everything in their paths, including coral reefs.
Chile’s seamounts are home to jewel-toned coral reefs and fish, mammals such as fur seals and sea lions, and many more beautiful and unusual creatures. Some of these seamounts are home to species that can be found no where else in the world. Every pass of a bottom trawler turns swaths of these seamounts into barren wastelands.
Oceana’s 2009 proposal would ban bottom trawling on all 118 seamounts until this fishing technique is scientifically proven not to damage the ecosystems in question. Estimates suggest that this ban would have affected only 0.09% of Chile’s seafood exports in 2009.
Alex Muñoz, Oceana’s Vice President for South America, said about the bill, “Protecting vulnerable marine ecosystems that are threatened by trawling not only is important from an ecological point of view but also enhances the productivity of the fisheries that depend on these habitats.”
South America has been making important strides to protect their vulnerable ecosystems. Last year, Chile created a 150,000 square kilometer no-take marine reserve around Sala y Gómez Island and Belize banned bottom trawling throughout its waters.
Editor's note: October is National Seafood Month, and to celebrate, we’ll be featuring a series of blog posts about seafood, sustainable fishing and health. Today we’re schooling you on bottom trawling.
When you’re enjoying a tasty seafood meal, you’re probably not thinking about habitat destruction and accidentally caught marine animals. (Or at least I hope you’re not, it might give you indigestion.) But unfortunately, in many cases, before seafood gets to your plate, those two things may have been part of the equation.
Take bottom trawling, which is the most destructive commercial fishing method on the planet. Bottom trawlers scrape huge, heavy nets across the seafloor, destroying everything in their path. Trawling destroys more seabed habitat each year than the world’s annual loss of tropical rainforest. One study found that trawling destroys 16 pounds of marine animals for every pound of sole brought to markets.
Trawling is designed to catch as many fish as possible, and is used particularly to target shrimp, cod, haddock, flounder, and rockfish. Dredging, which is a similar practice, is used to catch shellfish like scallops and clams. Currently, more than half the fish eaten in the US is the product of trawling.
Fishermen have been trawling for years, but in the 1980s, technological advances allowed them to begin trawling through coral reefs, which they previously had to avoid to protect their fishing gear.
Unfortunately, we know now the huge damage that even one pass of a trawler can cause reefs. In one study in Alaska, as much as two-thirds of some sponges damaged by one pass of a trawler had not recovered a full year later.
Reefs are an important home for fish, so trawling can also ruin fish stocks into the future – even for responsible and recreational fishermen.
Recently, we’ve seen important measures to stop trawling. Earlier this year, a group of North Pacific nations, including the US, agreed to protect more than 16.1 million square miles of seafloor from trawling. Just a month later, Belize banned trawling from its waters.
We’ve made a lot of progress to stop this destructive fishing method. You can help by paying attention to the seafood you buy. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site to get their guide to sustainable seafood, also available on paper or your smartphone, and tasty recipes to make with these fish.
This is part of a series of ocean infographics by artist Don Foley. These infographics also appear in Oceana board member Ted Danson’s book, “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.”
Bottom trawls, enormous fishing nets that are dragged across the sea floor, clear-cut everything living in their path. The mouths of the largest nets are big enough to swallow a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, and trawls and dredges can destroy century-old coral reefs in mere moments.
How Extensive is the Damage? (Fig. A)
• The largest deep-sea bottom trawling ships—“supertrawlers” —are 450 feet or longer (the length of 1.5 football fields).
• A large trawler can drag over a half-acre swath of seabed with one pass.
• High-seas bottom trawlers destroy 580 square miles of seabed each day.
• Each year, the world’s fleet of bottom trawlers disturbs a seabed area twice the size of the contiguous United States.
• Deep-sea trawling destroys seabed habitat at a faster rate than the aggregate loss of the world’s tropical rain forests.
• European scientists have calculated that bottom-dragging trawlers in the North Sea destroy 16 pounds of marine animals for every pound of marketable sole that is caught.
Trawler Doors (Fig. B)
Heavy doors keep the mouth of the net open and on the seafloor. Rubber and steel rockhoppers roll across the seafloor, while floats lift open the net above them.
If you can put lipstick on a pig, can you put it on a fish?
The answer is yes, and you can do it for a good cause. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, of which Oceana is a member, is asking people to create funny pictures of fish and send them to the UN Secretary General to get his attention about the need to protect deep-sea species – even if they aren’t cute or cuddly.
As many as 10 million species may inhabit the deep sea, but bottom trawling and other destructive fishing practices are destroying some of the planet's most diverse frontiers. High seas fishing nations have failed to implement UN resolutions to protect deep-sea life from destructive fishing, though they were supposed to comply within two years and five years have passed.
I created the fabulous fish you see here, you should make one too, and spread the word!
This is part of a series of posts about our Pacific Hotspots expedition. Today's highlight: prehistoric hagfish.
Oregon Leg, Day 4
Today we ran the R/V Miss Linda twenty miles west of Bandon, Oregon to Coquille Bank. This offshore bank, also known as the Bandon High Spot, rises up off the continental shelf break to a relatively shallow 300 feet in depth. Oceana worked to protect this area from bottom trawling in 2005. The regulations went into place in 2006 and now five years after the area was protected, we had the chance to dive there with the ROV.
In 2007, Drs. Mark Hixon and Brian Tissot published a scientific paper on the effects of bottom trawling at Coquille Bank. They found striking differences in the seafloor communities between heavily trawled and untrawled areas including more fish abundance and more diversity in the untrawled areas. They also found that bottom trawling affects marine life living in soft sediments and not just rocky seafloor habitats.