Reluctant Commerce Department Decision is Timid Step | Oceana

Reluctant Commerce Department Decision is Timid Step

Press Release Date: October 6, 2009

Location: Washington, DC


Anna Baxter | email:
Anna Baxter

In response to a petition filed by Oceana in March 2004, the U.S. Department of Commerce today announced development of a “national strategy” to address research, conservation and management of deep sea coral and sponge habitat.  Although today’s decision follows a national trend to stop the expansion of destructive trawling, the agency continues to put the burden of responsibility for protection of sensitive seafloor life on the eight fishing-industry-dominated regional fishery management councils and did not offer a more effective procedure to do so.

Under current law, the Commerce Department is responsible both for protecting deep sea corals and sponges because of their value to America’s fisheries and for protecting ocean ecosystems from destructive trawling gear. 

 “While the agency talks about doing more to protect ocean habitat, the bottom line is they continue to be excessively deferential to commercial fishing and the status quo,” said David Allison, director of Oceana’s campaign to Stop Destructive Trawling. “The Secretary could have stopped the destruction of ancient forests and rich gardens of deep sea coral in the oceans. He chose to order a report instead.”

Oceana’s petition requested the National Marine Fisheries Service (Fisheries Service) issue an emergency rule to protect deep sea corals and sponges for their intrinsic value to the ocean ecosystem, without requiring extensive research to establish their value to commercial fishing. The petition also called for enhanced monitoring systems, increases in enforcement and penalties, and additional research to conserve, protect and, where damage has already occurred, restore deep sea coral and sponge habitat.  More than 30,000 supporters of the proposed rule called for the Secretary of Commerce to set national standards for protection of deep sea corals and accelerate the protection process so America doesn’t lose any more invaluable coral and sponge communities.

“Although the Secretary recognized the need for the additional research, enforcement and protection, as well as the authority of the department to meet those needs he passed up the opportunity to take action.” said Allison.  “Rather than taking a leadership position to protect deep sea corals, he is letting the councils be the tail that wags the agency dog.”

Oceana, with the support of scientists and other interested organizations, has litigated, advocated and negotiated for more than three years and helped to generate tens of thousands of letters and emails to protect deep sea coral and sponge habitat in the New England, Mid-Atlantic, Pacific and North Pacific Fishery Management Councils.  As a result:

  • The New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils unanimously voted to protect deep-sea coral communities in New England and mid-Atlantic submarine canyons from destructive monkfish bottom trawling gear. But the councils and the Fisheries Service contend they cannot protect virgin seamounts and other areas encrusted with deep-sea coral and sponges because there is insufficient proof that they are the habitat of commercial “managed” species of fish. 
  • The North Pacific Fishery Council voted to close to destructive commercial fishing nearly one million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean surrounding the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, an area equal to Texas and California combined. The protected area includes exquisite deep sea coral and sponge gardens off the Aleutians, a site that scientists call unique on Earth. Unfortunately, other large areas of ocean floor containing vulnerable and sensitive habitat remained open to destructive bottom trawling. 
  • In June the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to adopt Oceana’s Approach to managing the seafloor off of Washington, Oregon and California.  The council action will protect more than 650,000 square kilometers of seafloor, including much of the lush living corals and sponges of Monterey Bay, from destructive bottom trawling. 

Despite the North Pacific Fishery Management Council decision in February and the recent Pacific Council decision to adopt Oceana’s approach of progressive and precautionary management from the Bering Sea to Baja California, these and the decisions in the Atlantic can be undone by those same industry dominated Councils even more easily than they were adopted.  

“Despite the obvious trend in the councils to protect deep sea corals and other sensitive habitat, we don’t have much time to protect this fragile habitat so essential to the health of the ocean,” said Allison. “Oceana will continue to work within every available forum to study and protect this habitat.  We are working with U.S. Congressional members to introduce federal legislation to establish a clear process to permanently protect this habitat. The oceans deserve no less than that.”

Though unique and unknown till recently, deep sea corals can occur off all the American coasts and scientists discover additional pockets of them every year. Bottom trawling or dragging continues to be the most widespread human threat to deep sea coral communities and ocean floor habitat.  Current federal regulations allow deep sea draggers to mow down corals, sponges and other living seafloor animals with fishing gear that can weigh well in excess of ten tons.  Under existing government rules, bottom trawlers rip million of pounds of this rich living habitat from the sea floor every year.