A new study by the National Academy of Sciences released today says that bottom trawling, a method of fishing that drags big, heavy nets across the sea floor, is killing vast numbers of marine animals. Coming after years of declining U.S. fisheries, the report finds that trawling damages the habitat where juvenile fishes hide from their predators.
In view of these findings, Congressman Joel Hefley (R-CO) is announcing Tuesday that he will introduce the Ocean Habitat Protection Act, which would prevent the most harmful trawling gear from smashing coral reefs, rocky reefs and undersea boulder fields. Co-sponsors of the bill include a bipartisan group including Representatives Jim Saxton (R-NJ), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Jim Greenwood (R-PA), Mark Udall (D-CO), Jim Moran (D-VA) and Michael Castle (R-DE).
“As an avid fisherman, I have strong concerns about the future of fishing and the devastating effects of mobile fishing gear," said Congressman Joel Hefley. "The ocean environment is a diverse and beautiful home to coral beds, sea grasses and fish species that are needlessly being destroyed by large roller and rockhopper gear. Under the Ocean Habitat Protection Act, the size of ground gear used on bottom trawls will be limited and will allow trawling to be conducted in a manner that preserves and sustains the ocean habitat.”
The bill, an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, would ban the use of rockhopper and roller gear larger than 8” in diameter on bottom trawls. These gears are designed to allow bottom trawlers access to some of the nation’s most fragile coral and rocky habitats. The National Academy of Sciences report identifies these as the seafloor types where trawling has the highest impact.
Roller and rockhopper gear are heavy rubber disks than can exceed 30” in diameter. They are often used with heavy weights on the footrope of trawl nets that keep the net on the bottom. Trawls armed with big rollers or rockhoppers can be used on rough bottoms that trawlers formerly avoided for fear of becoming entangled on coral and rocky habitats. Thus rocky bottoms were a kind of refuge from trawling until the 1980s and ‘90s, when the use of roller and rockhopper gear became widespread. The decline of America’s fisheries has increased since rollers and rockhoppers were introduced.
“I’m not only a marine biologist; I eat fish that commercial fishermen catch, and I’m a sportfisherman, too,” said Dr. Elliott Norse, President of Marine Conservation Biology Institute, a scientific and conservation group. “But I’m not willing to eat any seafood if catching it destroys the environment. I want to know that fishes and corals and the rest of the sea’s biodiversity will be there when my grandchildren are growing up. But trawling with rockhopper and roller gear is eliminating the last places where fishes can hide. Congressman Hefley’s bill won’t stop everything that’s harming our fisheries, but it’s an essential first step. I applaud Mr. Hefley and his co-sponsors for doing something to protect our marine life.”
“The use of rockhopper and roller gear is destroying some of our most precious and vital fish habitats,” said Phil Kline, Fisheries Program Director for American Oceans Campaign. “There are other methods of catching fish that don’t destroy the very habitats our fish depend on for survival. It’s time to stop this kind of wasteful, destructive, demolition fishing.”
“Rockhopper gear is quickly pulverizing ancient ocean bottom structures that took eons to form, and under normal conditions would stand for centuries to come,” said James A. Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). “Recreational and commercial fishermen have known for a long time that these structures serve as essential habitat for fish, which are sought for sport and food,” added RFA Legislative Director Michael Doebley. “The continuing use of rockhopper gear is one of the worst examples of short-term thinking. The time for it to be permanently removed from the oceans is here, and the members of the RFA gladly offer their support for this legislation.”
“Until now, few Americans have known how harmful bottom trawling can be,” said John Warner of the Oregon-based West Coast Fishermen’s Alliance. “Now scientists have told our nation why our fisheries are headed downward. Trawlers are bulldozing and destroying life on the sea floor. They’re killing the corals and sponges that provide refuge for young commercially-important fish. The Ocean Habitat Protection Act will help to protect the ocean from this awful practice and help America restore its declining fisheries.”
Marine Conservation Biology Institute (www.mcbi.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the science of marine conservation biology and promoting cooperation essential to protecting and restoring the Earth's biological integrity. MCBI is headquartered in Redmond, Washington, with a policy office in Washington, D.C.
American Oceans Campaign (www.americanoceans.org) is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to safeguarding the vitality of the nation’s oceans and coastal waters. AOC is joining forces with Oceana (www.oceana.org) to protect the world’s oceans. The new organization resulting from this merger will be called Oceana. Oceana will bring together dedicated people from around the world to build an international movement to save the oceans through public policy advocacy, science and economics, legal action, grassroots mobilization and public education. Oceana is headquartered in Washington, D.C.
The Recreational Fishing Alliance (www.savefish.com) is a national, nonprofit political action group representing the interests of saltwater anglers, conservationists, fishing clubs, marine manufacturers, and retailers at the local, state, and federal level. RFA is based in New Gretna, New Jersey. The West Coast Fishermen’s Alliance is a group of small-boat fishermen and their families who are working at the local, state and federal level to promote sustainable fisheries on the West Coast through measures that reduce bycatch and stop habitat destruction. WCFA is based in Coos Bay, Oregon.
For more information, including fact sheets, photos and illustrations, visit www.americanoceans.org/trawling.htm