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Essential Fish Habitat: Overview

A sharpchin rockfish nestled in and around a barrel sponge, Daisy Bank, Oregon © Oceana

The Pacific Ocean waters off the U.S. West Coast are home to amazing and productive seafloor habitats fed by the rich upwelling of nutrients in the California Current. The incredible topography and biodiversity are unparalleled, yet we are just beginning to understand these areas for the first time.

Parallel to the ongoing discovery of new corals and sponges, we also have new understanding of the negative impacts that fishing gears impose on these sensitive habitats. Bottom trawls are dragged along the ocean floor to catch commercially important fish and shrimp species, and in doing so rip up living matter in their paths making this type of fishing gear the most damaging to seafloor habitats. Many sponges and corals take hundreds to thousands of years to grow, and when ripped from the seafloor or crushed by heavy trawls these corals and sponges may not recover for centuries, if at all. Bottom trawl fishing gear reduces habitat complexity, species diversity and productivity.

In 2005, federal fishery managers adopted the Oceana Approach to protecting seafloor habitats. This approach freezes the footprint of bottom trawling by preventing the expansion of this fishing gear outside of currently trawled areas, and closes hotspots within the footprint to protect living seafloor habitat like corals and sponges. The landmark 2005 decision protected over 135,000 square miles of sensitive habitats along the U.S. West Coast, including submarine canyons, seamounts, rocky reefs, and habitats containing rich beds of long-lived corals and sponges. This approach was estimated by NOAA Fisheries to have a minimal economic impact on the fishery.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) and NOAA Fisheries are required to review and update these measures every five years.  The PFMC has begun that process, and the new coral and sponge findings from Oceana’s at-sea expeditions, in addition to other new scientific data, will be part of that process. The Council should continue to use the best science and available information to minimize the adverse effects of fishing on Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) while maintaining a vibrant fishing industry. In response to a request for proposals issued by the PFMC, Oceana, and our conservation partners, submitted a comprehensive conservation proposal to modify existing conservation areas off the U.S. West Coast and to identify and protect new areas.

In total, Oceana’s proposal would protect an additional 66 areas off the West Coast including 20,000 square miles of key habitats on the continental shelf and slope and an additional 120,000 square miles of deep-sea habitat. At stake are special areas like ancient glass sponge reefs at Grays Canyon off the coast of Washington, the Cape Arago and Heceta Bank reef complexes off Oregon, and wildly rich and diverse coral and sponge habitats off southern California. To get support from fishing communities, the proposal also contains small re-openings of current trawl closures to restore fishing opportunities in exchange for increased overall habitat protection.  

This balanced proposal is the result of conversations with state fishery managers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Sanctuary staff, Tribal resource managers, fishermen, conservation organizations, and other interested parties.

Check out an underwater tour of Pacific corals and sponges as captured by Oceana’s ROV narrated by ocean explorer and advocate Alexandra Cousteau: