A compromise may be in the works to protect deep sea coral and sponge groves in the Aleutian Islands.
About a year ago, a battle began brewing between environmentalists and deep sea trawlers over potential restrictions to fishing in sensitive coral habitat that the government could designate as critical groundfish habitat.
While a truce hasn't been reached yet, many in the battle's front lines think there is strong potential for it.
Fishermen, environmentalists and federal regulators are mulling over a proposal that would freeze the Aleutian trawling footprint to areas where fishing boats have enjoyed the most success; close areas within that footprint where federal observers have identified coral; and close areas where local knowledge has identified coral.
Fishermen dispute some of the mapped areas in the proposal, advanced by Oceana, an international environmental group with its Pacific region office in Juneau.
"Their concern was that the areas proposed ... didn't reflect the areas that were fished," said Stephanie Madsen, chairwoman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. That's because the federal observer data used to map the trawling footprint doesn't track "the path of the (trawler) tow" but instead where the net is hauled back on board, she said.
Madsen said the council will review the fishermen's suggested revisions to Oceana's proposal at its meeting on Jan. 6 and plans to select its final alternative for habitat conservation in the Aleutians on Feb. 2.
"I don't think the battle is completely over," said Jim Balsiger, council member and Juneau-based regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's clearly a compromise position. Everyone in (NMFS) and on the council hopes that it's a reasonably good start."
The council originally declined to restrict trawling in wide swaths of the Aleutian Island areas where Oceana and other groups worried about damage to coral from fishing nets, hooks and traps.
The council took no action on Oceana's proposal in April but agreed to re-evaluate it in Juneau. Oceana has since revised some of the maps in its proposal.
"It's a great change of direction for the council," said Susan Murray, associate regional director for Oceana. Oceana sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NFMS' parent agency, to force it and regional fishery councils to evaluate and protect essential fish habitat, a requirement of the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act.
Coral is believed to play an important role in the life of many groundfish species, which seem to have an affinity for the exotic organisms.
"We're pleased the council has taken this comprehensive approach that hasn't been done elsewhere in the nation," Murray said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.