KODIAK - Federal fisheries managers want comments on a preliminary decision not to reduce bottom trawling in parts of the North Pacific Ocean designated as essential fish habitat.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, in a draft document, said managers would prefer to slightly reduce the amount of area designated as essential fish habitat and not add new fishing limits in those places.
Existing restrictions, such as year-round trawl closures in some regions, would continue under the proposal. The fisheries service has opened a 90-day public comment period on the draft document.
Trawl operations drag fish nets close to the ocean bottom, knocking over or crushing rocks, plants and corals. Environmental groups and some fishermen want the practice limited or banned in important habitat.
In a summary of its draft environmental impact statement, the fisheries service said it was easy to describe how such fishing restrictions would affect the economics of the industry. It's not so easy to determine the effects on the environment, the agency said.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council in October opted to stick with existing restrictions because it saw no evidence that the industry has harmed fish populations.
The council is composed of officials from Pacific Northwest states, the federal government and the fishing industry. It sets rules for commercial fishing in U.S. waters off the coast of Alaska.
Following the council's October meeting, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said he would drop an amendment he had added to a pending fiscal 2004 spending bill for the Department of Commerce, which includes the fisheries service. The amendment, which Stevens proposed in September, would have stopped the agency from identifying and protecting essential fish habitat, according to agency officials.
Stevens dropped the rider and said he was satisfied with the direction the agency was taking - allowing bottom trawling and other fishing to continue as is.
Currently, managers have prohibited bottom trawling year-round in portions of the continental shelf and upper slopes leading from the shelf to deep oceans. The closures cover 12.9 percent of such areas in the Bering Sea, 53.4 percent in the Aleutian Islands area, and 19.5 percent in the Gulf of Alaska.
"Despite persistent disturbance to certain habitats, the effects on (essential fish habitat) are minimal because there is no indication that continued fishing activities at the current rate and intensity would alter the capacity of (essential fish habitat) to support healthy populations of managed species over the long term," according to the fisheries service's executive summary.
Ben Enticknap, of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council in Anchorage, said such logic could allow significant habitat damage to occur before anyone notices.
Enticknap said the fisheries service concluded in the document that current bottom trawling would cause a "25 to 100 percent reduction in corals, sponges and other living substrates" in many areas.
Enticknap's group also said the fisheries service ignored its own scientific studies that show bottom trawling was a leading factor in the collapse of the Bristol Bay red king crab population in the early 1980s and that continued trawling in the crabs primary broodstock refuge over the past 20 years has kept the population at low levels.
The fisheries service document acknowledged the disagreements over trawling's effects.
"Substantial differences of opinion exist as to the extent and significance of habitat alternation caused by bottom trawling and other fishing activities," the document states.
The dispute over essential fish habitat began in 1996 with passage of amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The amendments required federal managers to identify essential habitat and minimize the effects of fishing in such areas.
In 2000, responding to an environmental coalition's lawsuit, a court said the agency had not followed the National Environmental Policy Act when it completed that work. The draft environmental impact statement is designed to satisfy the court's order.