The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which advises the federal government on fisheries policy in U.S. waters off Alaska, voted unanimously today to protect approximately 180,000 square miles of previously unexploited areas in the Bering Sea from destructive bottom trawling. The Council chose Alternative 2, advocated by Oceana and other organizations and local communities, that freezes the current area, or "footprint," where trawling already occurs and sets a northern boundary for bottom trawling to protect habitat in the northern Bering Sea. This limits bottom trawling to those areas where it is already occurring, and provides essential protections for fragile and important areas while having a less than 2% economic impact on fisheries.
"Today's unanimous decision is a great victory for the whales, walrus, seabirds and other animals in the Bering Sea, and we are glad the Council voted to provide essential protections our oceans need in this age of global climate change and an exploding world population," said Jim Ayers, Vice President of Oceana, an international organization dedicated to protecting the world's oceans. "The northern Bering Sea is one of the last of our storehouses of natural wonders, and today's decision will help give the animals and ecosystems of the region a better chance for survival in these challenging times."
Blue, humpback, gray and bowhead whales travel through the Bering Sea each year. The northern Bering Sea shelf is critical habitat for endangered spectacled eiders, with the entire population of these small seabirds coming to the Bering Sea each winter to feed on the clams and invertebrates that live in and on the seafloor. Clams and seafloor invertebrates 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.
More than twenty local communities and organizations from the Bering Sea region, including the Eskimo Walrus Commission, sent letters or resolutions to the Council in support of protecting ocean habitat in the northern Bering Sea. In addition, the Council received more than 10,000 public comments - including petition signatures as well as individual letters and faxes - urging the Council to freeze the footprint of bottom trawling.
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 these seafloor animals and habitat areas can take centuries to recover, if they recover at all.
"Bottom trawling has devastating impacts on important seafloor habitats and compromises the resilience of an ecosystem," said Jon Warrenchuk, Ocean Scientist with Oceana. "Today's decision protects the wildlife and important seafloor habitats of the northern Bering Sea from future damage from trawling."
The Council also had the opportunity protect undersea canyons and skate nurseries, many of which have never been explored or documented, through their Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC) process, but pushed that back to 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.
The Council's decision today comes almost two years after they voted to protect the exquisite coral gardens of the Aleutian Islands. Protection for the Bering Sea was identified at that time as the next step for protecting essential habitat, and today's decision spreads that blanket of protection for marine life over more of this vibrant and productive part of the world.