California Senate Bill 236, introduced Friday, February 14, by State Senator Dede Alpert (D-San Diego), would sharply restrict fishing with destructive bottom-trawl gear off the coast of California. Co-authored by California Assembly Member Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), SB 236 protects underwater habitats critical for wildlife and encourages a shift toward cleaner gears that are compatible with healthy ecosystems.
“As a coastal state known for its progressive environmental policies, California needs to stop destructive fishing practices,” Alpert said, “and that means halting bottom trawling unless a trawl operator meets strict environmental standards. I decided to introduce this bill after extensive research and fact-finding discussions indicated restrictions are needed now, before it's too late.”
Bottom trawlers drag heavy nets along the ocean floor, raking in everything in their path. Repeated trawling destroys living sponges and corals as well as the rocky structures that provide nurseries, breeding grounds and shelter for ocean fish along the California coast.
A 2002 National Academy of Sciences report described the damage bottom trawling can cause and recommended that agencies not wait before taking action. “Our oceans are a public trust, and the sea life within needs habitat and structures for fish to hide and reproduce,” said Karen Reyna of The Ocean Conservancy. “Bottom trawling can destroy the very structures and systems essential for sea life.”
Bottom trawl nets not only damage the floor, they waste enormous amounts of fish and other sea life. Depleted rockfish are particularly hard hit: these deep-dwelling fish are discarded dead because they cannot survive the pressure change when brought to the surface.
The bill sets strict standards trawlers must meet in order to continue fishing, for example:
the trawl net cannot cause significant environmental harm to the ocean floor;
bycatch (the catch and waste of non-target species) must not exceed 15 percent of the catch of the target species, verified by a program of independent observers
“This bill says 'no' to bad practices, and rewards those who take care of the ocean,” said Karen Garrison, senior policy analyst for NRDC. “It will help restore damaged habitat and depleted fish populations.”
“Well-managed fisheries and healthy seafloor habitat are vital to our health, our recreation and our economy,” added Tom Raftican of United Anglers Marine Resource Conservation Program. “We appreciate Senator Alpert's leadership on this vital effort.”
Bottom trawling has increasingly come under fire on both coasts. Trawls are the principle gear used to catch New England groundfish, which collapsed in the mid-1990s. Bottom trawls have also caught the lion's share of Pacific groundfish-a fishery now in crisis. When several groundfish populations plummeted to new lows last year, much of California's continental shelf was closed to federally-managed groundfish trawls. A number of trawl fisheries, however, are managed by the state, so the state must act to make sure this trawling does not jeopardize ocean life. “Oceana supports this important legislation to promote sustainable fisheries. We can no longer afford uncontrolled destructive fishing practices that squander our marine resources,” said Tim Eichenberg, senior adviser at Oceana. “We also commend today's action of the California Fish and Game Commission to stop the destructive practice of bottom trawling for spot prawns.”
Alternative commercial gears are now available for a number of species caught by trawl. For example, a trap fishery catches spot prawns with orders of magnitude less bycatch than trawls, and a commercial dive fishery catches sea cucumbers cleanly. For other species, such as halibut, experimentation may be necessary to find clean methods.
The bill has attracted support from a diverse group of unlikely allies, including environmental organizations and sportfishing groups. The bill encourages cleaner, less damaging practices; provides a transition period in which trawlers can demonstrate, with an observer on board, their ability to meet the act's standards; and supports financial aid for those who leave the fishery. “The public owns the seas,” said Garrison. “The Alpert bill ensures the state will safeguard the ocean web of life for all of us.”
Bill supporters include California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, NRDC, Oceana, The Ocean Conservancy and United Anglers of Southern California.