Late yesterday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously voted to protect more than 140,000 square miles of seafloor habitat, including corals, sponges, and rocky reefs, off the U.S. West Coast. Once implementing regulations are issued by NOAA Fisheries, the Council’s action will more than double the spatial extent of seafloor protections off the U.S. West Coast. Deep sea coral gardens, sponge beds, underwater canyons, and high relief structures like rocky reefs provide homes for commercially and recreationally important fish species including more than 90 species of rockfish off California, Oregon, and Washington. Corals and sponges also provide habitat for a myriad of other ocean creatures including octopus and sea stars.
“Living structures on the ocean floor, like corals and sponges, provide nurseries, food and shelter essential for the survival and productivity of important commercial and sportfish species, like rockfish and lingcod,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s Deputy Vice President for the Pacific. “The Council’s action will ensure these spectacular seafloor habitats can continue to sustain healthy fisheries and support other ocean creatures into the future.”
This decision continues the conservation legacy of the Council to protect these spectacular, diverse, and fragile deep sea habitats from the impacts of bottom trawl fishing gear—the greatest threat to the living seafloor off the U.S. West Coast. As heavy gear contacts the ocean floor it can topple, crush, and remove slow-growing, living seafloor structures which can take hundreds of years to recover, if ever.
More than 16,000 square miles of seafloor habitat off Southern California—spanning from Point Conception to the U.S./Mexico border will receive new safeguards. Oceana’s 2016 expedition revealed shark egg cases hanging from golden corals, lace sponges, rockfish hidden in previously unidentified reefs, and rare black corals. The Council’s action will also protect deep water areas of the abyssal plain deeper than 3,500 meters (nearly 2 miles) below the surface from all bottom-contact fishing gear. It will also protect glass sponges near Gray’s Canyon off Washington, concentrations of rockfish that nestle into barrel sponges at north Daisy Bank off central Oregon, bamboo coral forests off southern Oregon’s Crescent City, newly discovered Christmas tree corals at the Farallon Islands, coral beds in Monterey Canyon, productive offshore banks off Point Sur, and recently documented coral gardens, rocky reefs and methane seeps off Southern California.
The Council first voted on seafloor safeguards more than a decade ago, when it protected more than 135,000 sq. miles in accordance with the nation’s fishery management law, which mandates action to minimize adverse impacts of bottom trawling to seafloor habitat (called essential fish habitat).
Combined with today’s action, more than 90 percent of the Exclusive Economic Zone (3-200 miles from shore) will be protected from bottom trawling. These protections are paired with select re-openings to increase fishing opportunities in some historic fishing grounds where bottom trawling has been prohibited in recent years to recover overfished rockfish populations.
For more information about Oceana’s campaign to protect the living seafloor, please click here.