Kudos to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of the eight regional councils that manage federal marine fisheries in the United States, for unanimously voting to close nearly one million square kilometers of ocean waters off Alaska to destructive bottom trawling, an area nearly twice the size of the state of California. The reason behind the council's landmark decision is to protect extensive gardens of deep water corals and other important habitat on the ocean floor that are considered vital to the health of the broader marine ecosystem in this area.
The action of the North Pacific council constitutes a bright spot on a generally bleak map of fisheries management in this country. It represents the largest bottom trawl closure to date in the world. Moreover, it was not done in response to a crisis, which is all too often the case where remedies come too little and too late to address problems that have been festering for years. This time, the council acted proactively to prevent such problems from occurring in the future.
Some of the areas to be protected contain large concentrations of deep sea corals which are as richly hued as their tropical counterparts, along with a broad diversity of marine life including sponges, sea anemones, shellfish and a host of other species critical to the marine food web. Coral and other living seafloor habitat provide shelter to small fish and other marine creatures from predators and strong currents, as well as breeding, spawning and feeding areas that are important to many species found on or near the seafloor such as rockfish, Pacific ocean perch, and golden king crab, among others.
These highly fragile corals can live for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years, making them some of the world's oldest and longest living animals. Up until the last several decades, bottom trawls were almost exclusively dragged on relatively smooth seafloors in shallow water. As fish populations declined in these areas, heavier and tougher gear has been developed for use in deeper water. These trawls, which have the capability of reaching down up to a mile beneath the surface with nets that are up to forty feet high and two hundred feet wide, and which are mounted on huge tires or weighed down by heavy steel doors, wreak tremendous damage to coral formations and other sensitive habitats on the ocean floor.
The North Pacific council's action to protect these fragile areas from the destructive impacts of bottom trawls sends a dual message to the nation's regional fisheries councils. The first is that protecting ocean habitat like deep water corals, seamounts and complex structures on the sea floor is an essential part of restoring and properly managing the nation's fisheries. As such, it is not only critical to protecting fish, but also helps to ensure the future livelihood of those men and women who catch them for a living.
Second, it is time to move away from managing our fisheries one species at a time. Rather, we must recognize that individual species of fish and other marine creatures interact and depend on each other in ways that require us to take into account the entire system rather than focusing exclusively on one species or another to the exclusion of the rest.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council has set a wonderful precedent for the rest of America's fisheries management system. Let us hope they are wise enough to follow it.
Joshua Reichert directs the environment division of The Pew Charitable Trusts.