In an historic victory for protecting our oceans, and the largest such action taken anywhere in the world, U.S. authorities have closed off to destructive commercial fishing nearly one million square kilometers of north Pacific Ocean surrounding the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, an area equal to Texas and California combined. The protected area includes exquisite deep-sea coral and sponge gardens off the Aleutians, a site that scientists call unique on Earth.
In doing so, authorities adopted Oceana’s approach to ocean management, a move that the international ocean conservation group called a signal moment for the oceans. It was also the first time in our nation’s history that such a large-scale fishing-gear ban has been adopted to protect seafloor habitat, instead of due to crashing or declining fish stocks.
“This decision shows the importance of using science to save unique and essential ocean sites, such as the seafloor in the Aleutian Islands, one of our nation’s marine jewels. Now we need the other fishery management councils to take similar steps,” said David Allison, director of Oceana’s campaign to Stop Destructive Trawling. “Those of us who work to save the oceans have much to celebrate today. In any struggle there is a key moment, a turning point: today was such a day. This is a visionary decision for which future generations will give thanks.”
The unanimous vote by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal agency in charge of managing that area of Pacific Ocean off America’s northwest coast, follows three years of intense work – and a successful lawsuit – on the part of Oceana and other groups. Oceana’s work centered on identifying locations of corals, sponges, and other living seafloor animals and developing management actions to minimize the detrimental effects of bottom trawling – in accordance with federal law that requires the protection of essential fish habitat.
The Council voted unanimously Feb. 10 to adopt Oceana’s approach to protect 960,495 square kilometers of seafloor from destructive bottom trawling, a commercial fishing practice that drags heavy nets across the ocean bottom, destroying nearly everything in its path. The vote included 380 square kilometers banned to all bottom gear contact in the deep-sea coral and sponge gardens in the Aleutian Islands, and 7,156 square kilometers of seafloor in the Gulf of Alaska banned to bottom trawling.
It was the latest action in a new trend in ocean management, an ocean-protection approach called for in the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and in two recent ocean commission reports. The ocean protection set by other U.S. regional fishery management councils, which have also taken steps to protect deep-sea coral and sponge areas from bottom trawling, used traditional systems of management. The Oceana Approach adopted in the North Pacific with this recent action sets an example for the Bering Sea ecosystem, for councils that have not yet taken action to protect deep-sea corals and other essential ocean habitat, and for international bodies seeking to ensure the ocean health in international waters.
“This is a tremendous victory for sustaining America’s oceans,” said Jim Ayers, Oceana’s director for the Pacific Region. “While we are still concerned about important known areas of corals that remain in the open bottom trawling area, this kind of leadership from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that maintains vibrant fisheries while protecting ocean habitat is the keystone to restoring and protecting our oceans.”
In addition to freezing the bottom trawl footprint to historically fished areas, the Council also requested a comprehensive plan for research and monitoring, which was one of the key elements of the Oceana Approach to managing Aleutian Islands bottom trawl fisheries.
Supporting more than 450 species of fish, millions of seabirds hailing from all seven continents, 25 species of marine mammals, and unique lush coral gardens, the Aleutian Islands Archipelago is a national treasure. The same productivity that has supported the Aleut people for centuries is also the focus of large scale commercial fishing, and that kind of resource exploitation is not always compatible with sensitive habitat or sustainable oceans.
“The Aleut people have lived for centuries off the bounty of the sea,” said George Pletnikoff, an Aleut fisherman. “My grandfather told me stories of oceans full of life. I hope those stories become reality again for my grandchildren instead of fading into legends. We need to always keep the long-term vision of prospering oceans. The Council action to limit bottom trawling and protect our seafloor is a huge step in the right direction. Ensuring sustainable fisheries ensures the stability of our culture and communities.”
In 2002 the National Marine Fisheries Service scientists discovered the exquisite coral gardens of the Aleutians. At the same time, the National Academy of Sciences released a report documenting the detrimental effects of bottom trawling on seafloor habitat — particularly on long-lived, slow growing species like corals and sponges. It was also the year that the Fisheries Service was required to do an Environmental Impact Statement in the North Pacific to evaluate the effects of fishing on essential fish habitat.
Three years and 33,000 public comments later, due to the diligence of Oceana, the commitment of other ocean conservation groups in Alaska – such as the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, the Alaska Oceans Network, and The Ocean Conservancy – expressions of concern by people all across America and the vision of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the Fisheries Service will finally enact real protections for the Aleutian Islands coral gardens and other vulnerable habitat from senseless destruction.
“This is one of the great challenges of our age,” said Ayers. “How do we catch fish without destroying the very habitat they depend upon to survive? The Council decision is right in line with the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy recommendations to consider the ecosystem when making management decisions. It is a good day for Alaska’s corals.”