NOAA Fisheries today put in place bittersweet federal regulations to enact essential fish habitat protection in the federal waters off of California, Oregon, and Washington. In June of 2005, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) voted unanimously to protect more than 250,000 square miles of seafloor from destructive bottom trawling. Today NOAA Fisheries overruled the intent and will of the Council and reduced those protections to about 150,000 square miles. This is still the second largest habitat protection closure in the United States.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council is one of eight councils around the nation that determine the who, what, when, where, and how of fishing. Though the Councils recommend action, NOAA Fisheries is the federal entity that has the final say on what Council recommendations actually become law.
“While we are encouraged by the tremendous precautionary protections recommended by the Council, we are disappointed NOAA did not take this opportunity to protect the deeper sea off the California Coast,” said Jim Ayers, Vice President of Oceana.
NOAA declared the PFMC did not have the authority to close areas deeper than 3,500 meters because the Council had defined Essential Fish Habitat as those areas shallower than that depth.
The Council’s action was the culmination of three years of intense collaborative work coordinated and lead by Oceana, and including environmental organizations of Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ocean Conservancy, and Environment California; recreational fishing groups United Anglers and Coastside Fishing Club, and commercial fishing group Pacific Marine Conservation Council.
The Oceana Approach identifies locations of corals, sponges, and other living seafloor animals and applies management actions to minimize the detrimental effects of bottom trawling on this lush and productive habitat. In addition to freezing the bottom trawl footprint to prevent expansion into pristine areas, the Approach protects known areas of biogenic habitat within the footprint, protects special areas such as seamounts and canyons, and calls for ongoing research and monitoring. This approach protects habitat while maintaining vibrant fisheries.
In other action, NOAA did employ sound stewardship in the rigs to reefs controversy by not designating the 13 decommissioned rigs offshore as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern. “Though these rigs may provide habitat,” said Ayers, “We must remember they are manmade structures and they do not merit the same level of designation or protection as natural habitat such as rocky reefs, kelp beds, and estuaries.”
“It’s a mixed bag of actions today,” said Ayers. “On the one hand, we are proud of the Council and NOAA, and happy about 150,000 square miles of protection. On the other hand, NOAA had the authority and responsibility to complete the protections as the Council and the public intended, and they declined to do so.”