- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

The federal government should designate some areas of ocean out of bounds to fishing vessels that use bottom trawling a method that drags big, heavy nets across the seafloor to catch fish, according to a study released yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences.
Because trawling damages the ocean's habitat, the study says, the National Marine Fisheries Service the agency charged with protecting fish and their ocean habitats should make off-limits to fishermen some sensitive areas that have underwater fauna such as coral reefs.
"Closed areas are necessary to protect a range of vulnerable, representative habitats," the report said. "Closures are particularly useful for protecting biogenic habitats like corals and sea grass beds that are disturbed by even low levels of fishing effort."
Today, Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republican, plans to introduce a bill called the Ocean Habitat Protection Act that would ban the use of ground-fishing gear larger than 8 inches in diameter on bottom trawlers.
Destructive trawling is mostly caused by heavy rubber gear that measures more than 30 inches in diameter, such as the disk-shaped rock hopper and roller.
"The ocean environment is a diverse and a beautiful home to coral beds, sea grasses and fish species that are needlessly being destroyed by large roller and rock hopper gear," Mr. Hefley said. "Under this act, the size of ground gear used on bottom trawls will be limited, reducing the impact of trawling on seafloor habitat."
Mr. Hefley's bill is an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law dealing with fisheries' resources and activities in federal waters. Some states, including Maryland and Virginia, already have restrictions on trawling.
Trawls armed with big rollers or rock hoppers can be used on the rough bottoms that trawlers avoided until the 1980s and 1990s, when use of the gear became widespread. Trawling in the United States began in the 1900s and was conducted mostly on soft-bottom areas.
Conservation groups throughout the country are supporting Mr. Hefley's efforts to ban such gear.
"Something needs to be done about this," said Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Arlington. "There are other ways Americans can fish without bulldozing the seafloor."
Groups representing fishermen's rights also have thrown their support behind Mr. Hefley's bill.
"Until now, few Americans have known how harmful bottom trawling can be," said John Warner, director of the West Coast Fishermen's Alliance in Oregon. "Trawlers are bulldozing and destroying life on the seafloor. They're killing corals and sponges that provide refuge for young commercially important fish. This act will help to protect the ocean from this awful practice."
One group, the Recreational Fishing Alliance in New Jersey, said the bill would help save the artificial reef structures its members have built and must replace frequently because of trawling. "This way, these artificial reefs will last much longer," said Michael Doebley, the group's legislative director.
The academy also concluded in its 189-page report that eight regional fishery management councils should develop a plan that identifies "essential fish habitats" and protects them from trawlers. It also said the councils should decide how to manage the seafloor habitats.
But conservation groups such as American Oceans Campaign said the councils haven't done anything to preserve the ocean floor because, they contend, most of the council members are fishing industry representatives who support trawling.
"As a result, there has been strong resistance to make any changes to the status quo," said Phil Kline, the group's fisheries program director. "We should at least have some representatives from conservation groups sit on those councils."


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