Alaska's oceans are a commanding force that spark feelings of wonder and gratitude for many people in our state. The rich marine life of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea sustains subsistence, commercial and sport fisheries and is the lifeblood of many coastal economies. But for all the ocean bounty we can be proud of, it's a disgrace that fishery managers allow the continued destruction of sensitive habitats and excessive waste by fisheries that drag the sea floor with bottom trawls. Bottom trawls are expansive nets, spawning a width of 350 to 600 feet, and rigged with chains and airplane tires so that the nets can drag for miles along the sea floor. They are used extensively off Alaska's shores to catch flatfishes, cod and mackerel, but in the process catch everything in their path.
The impacts to fish and crab habitats caused by bottom trawling have been central in a long-standing debate for how federal fisheries managers should balance conservation, sustainability and multi-million dollar trawl fisheries. How managers balance these interests will be determined in a vote by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this month, when it decides whether or not to protect marine habitats by zoning areas in the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands as off-limits to dragging.
In the process of harvesting the commercially important fish, bottom trawls are also hauling up nearly 1 million pounds of deep-sea corals and sponges a year. Fishermen have known about Alaska's deep-sea corals for decades, but it wasn't until scientists explored these habitats with small submarines that people began to understand their importance. Now marine scientists think Alaska's corals may be a keystone species, meaning that their presence determines the diversity and abundance of fish and crab. Scientists have also shown that bottom trawls in Alaska decimate these sensitive habitats, knocking over and dragging up coral stands that can reach 9 feet high and be centuries old.
In a preliminary decision in 2003, the North Pacific Council voted against any new measures to protect habitats from bottom trawling. This decision was based on a National Marine Fisheries Service study that concluded Alaska's bottom trawl fisheries do not harm sea-floor habitats enough to warrant new conservation measures. This conclusion goes against volumes of research conducted in Alaska and around the world that shows bottom trawling has significant and lasting impacts. The agency argued that even though bottom trawls drag thousands of square miles of living sea-floor habitat off Alaska, the fact that commercially important fish populations have not crashed means the fish habitat must be fine. This is dangerous logic to subscribe, because it means managers would only protect habitats from bottom dragging after fish and crab populations crash.
An aeronautics engineer cannot tell you how many rivets can be removed from the wings of an airplane before they fall. You could remove a hundred, maybe a thousand rivets and the plane could still fly. Then, once a critical but unknown number of rivets are removed, the wings will shear. Marine scientists cannot tell you how many corals, sponges and other marine life can be toppled or removed before fish and crab populations collapse. The first is a dangerous and senseless experiment nobody would dare undertake. The second is exactly the experiment managers will be conducting if they fail to protect fish and crab habitat in the Bering Sea, Aleutians and Gulf of Alaska from bottom trawling. There are solutions that allow for vibrant fisheries while protecting sensitive areas, but achieving that balance requires the North Pacific Council to vote in favor of habitat conservation.
Ben Enticknap works for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and lives in Anchorage.