A new war is being waged in the fisheries of Alaska, and the line in the sand is being drawn by the fishing nets of deep-sea trawlers.
Like most environmental battles that may have real and lasting effects on a major industry, sides have been clearly established. On one side of the spectrum rests the fishing industry, on the other lie the environmentalists, and somewhere in the middle the scientists are left to collect and analyze the data on a subject about which little to nothing had been known until a few years ago.
The debate revolves around whether Alaska's newly discovered deep-sea cold water corals are an essential component of fish habitat, and if they play a part in the sustainability of the groundfish industry of Alaska, worth up to $1 billion a year.
The environmental organization Oceana, whose Pacific Region office is located in downtown Juneau, believes that trawlers are devastating large quantities of pristine coral gardens that are an important part of the biodiversity of a healthy ocean ecosystem.
"Ultimately, we're talking about sustainability," said Jim Ayers, Oceana's director of the Pacific Region and former chief of staff to former Gov. Tony Knowles. "We need to find a way to catch fish without destroying the very habitat they depend on. We have the ingenuity and technology to maintain vibrant fisheries while protecting habitat."
There are many unanswered questions that fuel the debate, but the chief one is whether coral and sponge gardens are essential fish habitat.
"That's actually the big question; do fish need habitat like this to survive?" said Bob Stone, a fisheries research biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"We know enough to realize that juvenile fish like to have cover, and this certainly provides cover for them from their predators, and we do see juvenile fish in this habitat and we even see adults in this habitat. But then the question is, are they just using it because it's there or do they really need it? And that's what we don't know at this point."
Scientists and fishermen have known about the existence of Alaska coral for about a decade, but until Stone and his colleagues from the Auke Bay Laboratory took their first submersible dive off the Aleutian Islands in July of 2002 nobody knew how spectacular those gardens were.
"What we're finding in the Aleutians - there's nothing like it anywhere, to my knowledge, anywhere in the world in terms of the number of species, the abundance of them, the density of them, and perhaps even the diversity of them," said Stone.
The legal arm of the battle began before the discovery of the coral gardens with the passing of the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, a federal law that says regional councils must "describe and identify essential fish habitat" and "minimize to the extent practicable adverse effects on such habitat caused by fishing."
Since 1996 scientists have been researching fish habitats throughout Alaska, including the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
It is the responsibility of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to describe and identify what and where those habitats are in Alaska so they are not damaged by commercial fishing.
The council - a group of federal, industry and Pacific Northwest state representatives - recommended no changes in its management of the fisheries. But it has implemented a process to protect certain areas, and a public comment period will begin in mid-January that will last for 90 days to identify habitat areas of particular concern.
Trawlers drag along the ocean floor a funnel-shaped net with floats on the top, two heavy steel doors to weight down each side, and a cable running across the bottom. The nets scoop up fish.
Oceana believes that trawling is "clear-cutting" essential components of fish habitat that should be protected. The trawl industry says there is no scientific data to back Oceana's claim and insists the groundfish industry is in good health and there are record numbers of fish.
"I feel the trawl industry is working hard to help managers construct appropriate protections for corals, given the lack of scientific information," said John Gauvin, an independent consultant to trawlers.
"We don't want to find out that they are important and we've had effects on them that is going to jeopardize the fisheries out there. I think the North Pacific council is being responsible, is looking at the most appropriate way to manage, given the information we have," he said.
Gauvin acknowledged that trawlers do come into contact with coral, but said that overall trawlers aren't affecting essential fish habitat.
"There isn't any strong evidence that these effects are adverse because I feel the best evidence here is that the stocks in the Aleutians and other areas are not reflecting any sign of a habitat limitation," he said. "In fact, stocks are at high levels. In fact, groundfish stocks are at all-time highs. If the stocks were going down, we would buy into the idea that we are possibly having an effect, but to us the best evidence is the status of the stocks."
Gauvin said Oceana's bigger agenda is to "go after commercial fishing in this country," and added that trawlers come into contact with a small percentage of corals.
Oceana takes the stance that it's important to protect areas with a high density of corals and sponges before it's too late.
"It would be irresponsible for us to sit silently and complacently while decisions are made that we believe do not provide for a sustainable existence," said Ayers. "We know deep sea corals exist, we know they are important ocean habitat, we know they are incredibly fragile and may take centuries to recover, if ever, yet we continue to destroy them for short-term economic gain."
Dave Fraser, a commercial trawler and a member of the North Pacific council, said Oceana's approach is going beyond protecting essential fish habitat.
"Their campaigning is clearly one of putting the trawl business out of business," he said. "I think it's a good idea to keep and protect areas as pristine, but I think we can do that without closing areas that people do fish."
Oceana pointed out that the North Pacific council, which will decide what should be done to which areas in Alaska waters, includes commercial fishermen who have an interest in keeping certain areas accessible to trawling.
Oceana also has concerns about the language of the Sustainable Fisheries Act.
"In the teeth of the law, it has to relate back to the productivity of commercially important fish," said Jon Warrenchuck, Oceana's marine conservation coordinator of the Pacific Region. "So if it's not going to directly affect commercially important fish, they don't have to do anything. Science is not at the point where we can figure out the interrelatedness of the importance of all these species, so they use a measure of the productivity of commercial fish. So since most of the stocks are doing OK, even though this habitat is being impacted, they don't have to do anything."
Stone, the biologist, said he sees positives and negatives on both sides of the debate.
"There's going to be sacrifices on both sides. There's got to be," he said. "I honestly believe that fishermen, for the most part, want to preserve this habitat too. Fishermen are smart guys and they know their livelihoods depend on these fish, so hopefully they're going to do their part to conserve some of these areas too."
Regardless of the decisions the North Pacific council makes after the public comment period expires in early 2004, Alaska coral, essential fish habitat and sustainability will be issues that will spark debates for years.
"You have to realize that the seafood industry is very important to all of us, not just the United States, but worldwide," said Stone. "So I think ultimately what we have to do is find a balance of how we can catch fish and protect, presumably, this important habitat. ... I think it's good to educate people and let them know that perhaps the seafood that they buy may come at a higher price than they think it does."
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