Corals, Conservationists and Commercial Fishermen Win Largest Protected Area in America's Oceans | Oceana

Corals, Conservationists and Commercial Fishermen Win Largest Protected Area in America’s Oceans

Press Release Date: October 1, 2009

Location: Juneau, AK


Anna Baxter | email:
Anna Baxter

In a watershed event for ocean conservation, NOAA Fisheries today protected more than 370,000 square miles of seafloor in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska from destructive bottom trawling.  This closure establishes the largest protected area in United States waters, and the third largest such area in the world (after closures in the Mediterranean Sea and Azores and Canary Islands).  The Aleutian closure signals a changing tide in U.S. fishery management practices to look at the health of the entire ecosystem instead of productivity of single species money fish.

“Nationwide, we’ve seen federal managers shut down fisheries because of crashing or declining stocks,” said Jim Ayers, vice president for Oceana.  “This remarkable Aleutian closure protects important seafloor habitat where there are threats before there is a problem.  This is about the next generation and the world we are giving them.  And it goes to show that everything really is bigger in Alaska!”

Supporting more than 450 species of fish, millions of seabirds hailing from all seven continents, 26 species of marine mammals, and unique lush coral gardens, the Aleutian Island Archipelago is a national treasure.  The fishing that supported the Aleut people for centuries has also become the focus of large scale bottom trawl commercial fishing, and that kind of resource exploitation is not always compatible with sensitive habitat or sustainable oceans.

“Our oceans are not limitless,” says Dr. Daniel Pauly, professor and director of the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre.  “We have clearly shown we have the technology and ability to destroy our ocean resources in a short period of time.  The Aleutian closure shows we also have the ability to protect those resources.”

NOAA’s action follows five years of intense work on the part of Oceana and others to identify locations of corals, sponges, and other living seafloor animals and propose management actions to minimize the detrimental effects of bottom trawling – in accordance with federal law that requires the protection of essential fish habitat – on this lush and productive habitat, particularly in the incredible Aleutian Islands.  Today’s action prevents bottom trawling from expanding into new areas, fully protects the six known coral gardens of the Aleutians from all bottom contact, protects Bowers Ridge in the Aleutians from mobile tending bottom gear, and fully protects seamounts in the Gulf of Alaska.

“This action protects our crabs and rockfish and sensitive seafloor while still providing opportunities for our families and the next generations,” said Emil Berikoff, life-long resident of the Aleutians and President of the Unalaska Native Fisherman’s Association.  “As Aleuts, we have lived off this ocean for centuries.  If we do not show her respect, it will come back to haunt us.”  

In 2002 the NOAA Fisheries 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 NOAA Fisheries was required to do an Environmental Impact Statement in the North Pacific to evaluate the effects of fishing on essential fish habitat.

Four years and 33,000 public comments later, due to the diligence of Oceana and other conservation organizations, cooperation from commercial fishermen, and the vision of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, NOAA Fisheries has finally protected the Aleutian Island coral gardens and other similar seafloor habitat from senseless destruction.

“This is much greater than just the Aleutians,” said Ayers.  “It is about maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems and viable sustainable fisheries.  It is as much a reflection of our values as a society as it is actual protection for ancient corals.”  Ayers’ comments were supported by Aleutian Islands fisherman and longshoreman Pete Hendrickson.  “Conservation and commercial fishing go together,” said Hendrickson.  “For too long we’ve thought of them as conflicting values, but without conservation we leave nothing for our children.”

Today’s announcement comes on the heels of the Bush Administration’s declaring 140,000 square miles in the Hawaiian Islands a National Monument, as well as NOAA Fisheries earlier this year implementing Oceana’s management approach to protect more than 135,000 square miles of seafloor in the federal waters off California, Oregon, and Washington.  This year’s combined total for the entire West Coast exceeds 650,000 square miles of new protections for our oceans.

“These sweeping protections show it can be done,” said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, senior vice president and chief scientist for Oceana.  “Now it is time for the fishery management councils in the rest of the country to take similar action–and for Congress to pass legislation that helps them get the job done quickly.”

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