Oceana and The Ocean Conservancy have called on the Alaska Board of Fisheries to hold stakeholder meetings to develop ways to protect seafloor habitat in the Aleutian Islands while maintaining local fisheries. The two groups made the request in a letter to the Board submitted October 15, 2002.
“After talking with several local community representatives and fishermen from the Aleutians, we think this the most effective way to address the urgent problems in the region,” said Jim Ayers, North Pacific Regional Director of Oceana. “Considering the importance of the Aleutian Islands fisheries to local communities and Alaska fishermen, we need to work together to develop alternative approaches to stop the destruction of habitat while maintaining local fisheries.”
The groups called for a small working group of Alaska representatives of fishing interests, local communities, and conservation groups to work with scientists to develop a range of alternative management strategies for the Aleutian Islands. These would accomplish the mission of providing for maximum fishing opportunities for local communities while minimizing destructive impacts to corals, sponges, and other sensitive seafloor habitat. The Board of Fisheries could use these alternatives when it considers action on Aleutian seafloor habitat protection at its March 2003 meeting.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this is the right approach,” said George Pletnikoff, Natural Resources Director for the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska. “We are very concerned about the long-term health of the ocean and hope to ensure the continued subsistence uses of the ocean's resources. If the resources are not readily available in a relatively safe distance from our communities, then the Aleuts don't have access to them for our subsistence needs. Oceana and The Ocean Conservancy's approach tells me that they are interested in the needs of the people that live here in the Aleutians.”
Kris Balliet, Alaska Regional Director of the Ocean Conservancy cited the high level of observed coral and sponge bycatch in the Aleutians, where this type of complex fish habitat is most abundant and diverse. “Major commercial species in the Aleutians like golden king crab, rockfish, and Atka mackerel need complex habitat for their survival. Corals and sponges are known important habitat that take centuries to recover from damage. If this long-lived habitat continues to be destroyed, the available scientific evidence suggests that we will see irreversible declines in fish productivity.”
In a September 9, 2002 letter, the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Dr. Bill Hogarth said, “Corals, sponges, and other living substrata in waters off Alaska already are classified by NOAA Fisheries as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern deserving of special protection because of their importance as habitat and their vulnerability to human impacts.” This classification is a subset of Essential Fish Habitat as defined by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
The groups emphasized the involvement of fishermen in the design of habitat protection measures, citing that scientists know very little about the distribution of important habitat species like corals and sponges in the Aleutians. The only major data sources are trawl surveys and fisheries observer data. Phillip Rigby, a leading habitat scientist at National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), stated that “Fishermen know more about the distribution of corals and sponges than anyone else does. Their participation is necessary in any successful habitat protection process.”
The Aleutian Islands are an exceptionally productive marine ecosystem, producing abundant fisheries worth hundreds of millions of dollars and attracting millions of seabirds and marine mammals from all over the globe. This summer, scientists from the NMFS discovered complex reef-like structures of hundreds of species of corals and sponges that may be scattered throughout the chain, more complex than anyone had imagined. Seafloor habitat in the Aleutians is thought to be the most complex and diverse fish habitat in Alaska.
Ayers said, “We are working hard to protect ocean habitat while maintaining opportunities for local communities and Alaska fishermen. We are asking the Board to make sure the right people are at the table so the result will benefit all Alaskans in the long-term. A swift stakeholder process is the right approach.”