The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Wednesday a proposed trawling closure to protect coral under nearly 300,000 square nautical mile of Alaska waters.
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The proposed rule, published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, comes from a recommendation the North Pacific Fishery Management Council made in February 2005. NMFS will take public comments on the proposed regulations until May 8 and expects the rule to be finalized by August, said Jon Kurland, assistant regional administrator for habitat conservation.
The proposed rule affects the 279,114 square nautical miles of the Aleutian Islands Habitat Conservation Area - an area larger than the states of California and Arizona combined. More than two dozen other areas around Alaska also would have restrictions on trawling.
"This area in the Aleutians, in particular, will be the largest marine protected area in the United States," Kurland said.
The proposed rule comes after years of work by the seafood industry and environmental groups to reach a compromise on how to maintain sustainable fisheries in Alaska. A main part of the debate has been how to protect unique deep-sea coral gardens and other sensitive areas from trawling and other types of bottom-contact fishing that may have an affect on fish habitat and sustainability.
The proposed rule would close trawling in 10 areas in the Gulf of Alaska along the continental slope, which may be important to rockfish. It would close all bottom fishing in another 15 offshore locations to protect seamounts. Five small areas in the Fairweather Grounds and off Cape Ommaney in Southeast Alaska, where there is an abundance of red tree corals, would close to all ground-contact fishing, which includes longlining. These areas equal about 1312 square nautical miles. Trawling for groundfish is already outlawed in Southeast Alaska.
Jim Ayers, regional director of the North Pacific office for the marine conservation group Oceana, said Wednesday's announcement is important for protecting Alaska's fisheries for future generations.
"It's the first step - it's a big step - toward identifying these important ecological areas of the ocean and realizing we've got to protect them," Ayers said. "We've been doing this on land for a long time."
Ayers said the proposed rule is a monumental decision that will help ensure Alaska maintains vibrant fisheries for years to come.
"If people put their minds to it, we can find ways to catch fish and save the environment," he said.
The recommendation by the council and the subsequent proposed rule by NMFS come after numerous compromises, said David Benton, the executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, a coalition of harvesters, processors and communities involved in Alaska's groundfish and shellfish industry.
"In the end the council made the decision in which way to go," Benton said. "They chose some of the stuff that we put on the table and they chose some of the stuff that the environmentalists put on the table ... and struck what I think is a pretty good balance."
The proposed rule does not include areas that fishermen have consistently trawled over the years, Kurland said. It would close areas that have not been disturbed, such as expansive coral gardens that take many years to grow back.
Benton said the area closures would cause economic hardships for some fishermen.
"There's no question in my mind that those closures will have some negative economic impacts on the fleets that fish in those areas," he said. "I think those negative effects are manageable."
Kurland said NMFS estimates about $2.4 million of annual revenue will be at risk.
"Because these areas, for the most part, are not actively fished, the economic impact will be relatively small," he said.
Ayers said the potential economic and environmental costs for the future are too great to not set aside areas for fish habitat.
"The public knows that our oceans are going to affect future generations and what we are doing today isn't sustainable," he said. "If we're going to have oceans in the future, and if future generations are going to have oceans that we have come to know and love, then we're going to have to change how we live."