A national strategy is in the works to protect deep-sea coral and sponges from fishing gear that drags along the ocean floor, federal regulators announced Monday.
The National Marine Fisheries Service also is developing rules specific to Alaska to limit trawling and other bottom-tending gear in hundreds of thousands of square nautical miles in the Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska.
Federal regulators said they don't know if the new national strategy will result in additional protective measures for coral and sponges in Alaska.
"We're already going a long way to address what's outlined here," said Jon Kurland, regional habitat director for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.
Alaska has some of the richest deep-sea coral beds in the country, said Tom Hourigan, the national coral reef coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, based in Silver Spring, Md.
Corals are long-lived, slow-growing organisms that are easily damaged by fishing gear. Some corals also provide important shelter for commercial species such as rockfish.
"There hasn't ever been a (national) approach to conserve and manage these resources. We are still discovering many of them," Hourigan said.
Scientists based at Juneau's Auke Bay Laboratory discovered unique and extensive deep-sea coral beds in the Aleutians in 2002, setting off a three-sided tug of war between environmentalists, the fishing industry and federal regulators.
The struggle diminished in May when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council proposed closing about 280,000 square nautical miles in the Aleutian chain to trawling and more than 10,000 square nautical miles in the Gulf of Alaska.
"It turned out beautifully for everybody, I guess," said Bob Stone, one of the Auke Bay lab scientists who discovered the Aleutian corals.
NMFS's Alaska region is now using the council's May proposal to create a new rule to protect "essential fish habitat" that could be opened up to public comment this fall.
Oceana, an international environmental group, also asked NMFS headquarters last June to create an emergency rule to protect deep-sea corals and sponges from fishing gear.
Oceana's petition garnered about 32,000 favorable letters, but NMFS rejected it Monday, saying that it didn't meet legal criteria for emergency rule-making under federal law.
Oceana was pleased, however.
"A strategy is needed to address the coral issue. This is a huge step forward to protect our deep-sea habitat," said Jim Ayers, director of Oceana's Pacific region, based in Juneau.
Most important, NFMS agreed with Oceana's proposal to "freeze the footprint" of trawling in federal waters, meaning that areas that haven't been fished within a certain time period will be closed to fishing, Ayers said.
Oceana suggested a three-year window. In its announcement Monday, NMFS suggested a window of five to 10 years instead.
NMFS stated Monday that it would work with the regional fishery councils to prevent or limit the expansion of bottom-tending fishing gear into areas that may contain "substantial" coral and sponge until the agency has mapped the areas and determined that fishing would not likely harm them.
The decision was announced in Monday's U.S. Federal Register.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.