In what is believed to be the largest closure to bottom trawling in U.S. history, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously Thursday to close roughly 375,000 square nautical miles of the seafloor off the Alaskan coast to protect corals, sponges and other sensitive species.
The council's decision in Seattle was hailed by industry and conservation groups as a major compromise that will protect essential fish habitat in the Aleutian Islands.
"We're pleased that the council is taking a conservative stance in regard to habitat conservation," said Ron Berg, deputy regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.
Deep-sea coral gardens became a controversial issue almost as quickly as they were discovered a few years ago off the Aleutian Islands and other coastal areas, touching off a battle between ocean activists and the fishing industry.
"This is the first time in the nation that this has been done. It's amazing," said Susan Murray, associate regional director for Oceana, a conservation group that advanced a proposal to eliminate trawling in coral gardens similar to the one ultimately adopted by the council.
Alaska fishing organizations also submitted a proposal to limit trawling in coral habitat, and the council's decision was a compromise between the two proposals, Murray said.
"There are some areas of known coral (that aren't protected) but we are happy they are marching forward," she said.
The Marine Conservation Alliance, a coalition of industry groups and coastal towns, lauded the council's decision.
"They went the extra mile and the end product shows how a well run public process can work," said David Benton, the alliance's executive director, in a press release.
The council also voted Thursday to limit trawling to protect seamounts, which are underwater peaks, and 10 other locations in the Gulf of Alaska that contain essential fish habitat.
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