The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which advises the federal government on fisheries policy in U.S. waters off Alaska, released a series of alternatives for public review on protecting previously unexploited fishing grounds of the northern Bering Sea from destructive bottom trawling. The options range from status quo to an alternative proposed by Oceana and other conservation organizations to freeze the current area, or "footprint," where trawling already occurs and set a northern boundary for bottom trawling to protect habitat in the northern Bering Sea.
"The local communities, species and habitats in the northern Bering Sea are all under stress from global warming and are already in danger," said Jim Ayers, vice president of Oceana, an international non-profit dedicated to protecting the world's oceans. "The last thing they need is a huge armada of high-tech bottom trawl vessels charging in to increase the pressure by tearing up sensitive seafloor habitat."
Blue, humpback, gray and bowhead whales travel through the Bering Sea each year on their annual migrations. The northern Bering Sea shelf is critical habitat for endangered spectacled eiders and Steller's eiders, which feed on the small organisms that live in and on the seafloor. These small seafloor organisms are also a significant source of food for Pacific walrus, an important subsistence food for many local communities, which rely on the Bering Sea for the subsistence way of life integral to their culture.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, fishing boats that trawl on the bottom destroy important seafloor habitat, decimating corals, sponges and other sensitive areas, many of which can take centuries to grow back. The Council adopted a variety of alternatives related to trawling expansion, ranging from status quo to precautionary measures that would prohibit expansion of bottom trawling, as proposed by Oceana to protect habitat in the northern Bering Sea. Oceana is urging the public to support Alternative 2, which matches closely with the proposed alternative submitted by Oceana and others, and would freeze the current footprint and protect vital habitat in the northern Bering Sea.
"The good news is that the Council is moving forward with many possible alternatives, including Alternative 2, which would provide protection for critical habitat while still allowing for vibrant fisheries," said Ayers. "The bad news is that the trawling industry is already maneuvering to open new areas to bottom trawling, which could devastate this incredibly sensitive and vibrant ecosystem."
Oceana also urged the council to protect undersea canyons and skate nurseries, many of which have never been explored or documented. These important ecological areas are essential parts of a healthy ocean ecosystem, and can be destroyed by one pass of a trawl net. Specific protections for these areas were not included in the current proposed alternatives, but could be considered through the Council's Habitat Areas of Particular Concern process at a later date.
The Bering Sea is home to 26 species of marine mammals, including the critically endangered northern right whale; millions of seabirds hailing from all seven continents; more than 450 species of fish; and some of the world's largest submarine canyons. It also provides more than half of the seafood harvested in United States waters. Much is still not know about the effects of bottom trawling on this incredibly vibrant area of the world, and the fishing industry is aggressively expanding each year.
"We simply have to allow the science to catch up to the fishery," said Jon Warrenchuk, Ocean Scientist with Oceana.
The proposed alternatives will now go out for public comment, and the Council will take further action on this issue at their June meeting in Sitka.