Sunday, February 20, 2005

Seeking to protect deep-sea coral beds and other sensitive fish habitat, a U.S. federal fishing council banned bottom trawling this month over more than 370,000 square miles off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, the largest such action taken anywhere in the world.

In bottom trawling, fishing boats drag huge nets and steel plates along the ocean floor for miles in very deep water near mountains known as seamounts that rise from the sea floor, hunting species such as fluke, cod and mackerel. The nets catch everything in their path, digging out deep-sea corals and sponge forests that scientists think may be essential to the ecosystem.

“Bottom trawling is recognized as the most destructive fishing activity,” said Karen Sack, ocean-policy adviser for Greenpeace International. “When a bottom trawl comes across corals, the sea floor is just snagged and destroyed.”

Scientists long have known about corals and sponges in shallow tropical waters, but until recently, they did not know coral forests and sponge reefs are widespread in certain cold, deep-ocean habitats. Now they have discovered them off Japan, Tasmania, New Zealand, Alaska, British Columbia, California, Florida, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Mauritania.

Marine scientists think the deep seas support millions of species, most still undiscovered, constituting a reservoir of biodiversity comparable to tropical rain forests.

Reports from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea say such sensitive habitats need special protection, especially against the destruction caused by bottom trawls and similar fishing practices.

Video images of affected areas and new scientific evidence regarding the age and slow growth of corals indicate that ecosystems that are sometimes thousands of years old are being damaged beyond repair.

Environmentalists call the ban passed Feb. 10 by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) a historic victory for saving the world’s seas because it signals a shift in thinking about how to manage oceans and proposes a new approach to protecting the coral reefs, sometimes called “the rain forests of the sea.”

“It is a paradigm shift in how we treat the oceans and fisheries management,” said Phil Kline, senior fisheries adviser for Oceana, a Washington-based marine-conservation organization.

“Before, we would react to the consequences of our actions. This stops it,” he said. “We have to go out and have the quantifiable science of the effects of our actions before we use the areas that have been set aside.”

Susan Murray, associate director of Oceana’s Pacific office, said: “The ballgame is all about sustainability: How do we catch fish without destroying the very habitat and world that those fish depend on to survive?”

Typically, entire oceans are open to fishing except areas set aside to protect some species or to rebuild some fish or crab stocks. The NPFMC took the opposite approach: It recommended outlawing bottom trawling everywhere in the Aleutians, except on the roughly 25,000 square miles where boats fish today — the areas historically yielding the best catches.

“Prior to the action in Alaska, our fisheries were defined as: ‘You can fish everywhere except someplace that is closed’ — and the closed, protected areas were very small little postage-stamp kind of areas. Now you can fish in the open areas and everything else is closed,” Mr. Kline said.

Other areas where deep-sea corals live already have been closed to protect the unique marine habitats. In 1996, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council prohibited fishing vessels from dropping anchors and grapples, or attaching chains there.

Some years ago, Norway discovered that more than half the deep-sea corals off its coast had been destroyed by bottom trawling, and immediately closed the area. In 1999, Oslo created Europe’s largest deep-sea coral-protected area and since has banned trawling in four additional reef areas.

Scotland and Ireland recently won protection from the European Union for several of their deep-water coral reefs. New Zealand has protected 19 seamounts as part of ongoing research into their importance, and Canada recently restricted bottom trawling in two small areas off Newfoundland and British Columbia.

But Oceana warns that although some laws passed by the United States or the European Union deal with the effects of bottom trawling within their exclusive economic zone — the area of the sea extending 200 nautical miles from a country’s shore over which it has special rights regarding exploration and use of marine resources — beyond 200 miles, there is no effective international fisheries or environmental protection.

“We really have a Wild West on the high seas,” Mr. Kline said.

Bottom trawling is completely unregulated in vast areas of the world oceans because most seamounts are located beyond the reach of national laws.

“If you wish, you can go to the middle of the ocean and fish on a seamount for any species, and you are accountable to no one — even if that destroys all of the fish and all of the corals and all of the sea life,” said Michael Hirshfield, Oceana’s chief scientist and North America vice president for policy.

Eleven countries — Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia and Spain — are responsible for 95 percent of the bottom trawl catch on the high seas, Ms. Sack said.

According to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition — which includes the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and numerous other environmental organizations worldwide — because no more than a few hundred bottom trawlers fish on the high seas, it may not be too late to put an end to the planet’s most destructive fishing practice before it gets beyond control.

Last February, the coalition pushed for action from the United Nations. That month, more than 1,000 marine scientists from 69 countries signed a letter supporting swift action to protect imperiled deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems, and called on the U.N. General Assembly to declare an immediate moratorium on bottom trawling on the high seas.

This effort was successfully blocked by several countries, including the European Union under pressure from Spain, which has the largest deep-water trawling fleet operating in international waters.

Oceana thinks that because of the trawling ban in the North Pacific passed Feb. 10, the United States is in a position to argue strongly for similar protections on the world’s high seas.

David Allison, director of Oceana’s campaign to Stop Destructive Trawling, said it is a real leadership opportunity for the United States.

“We believe [the ban passed in Alaska] has real potential for presenting the means of accomplishing ecosystem management and incorporating the healthy fishery economy within the ecosystem,” he said.

“A model maintaining the economy of fishing and protecting habitats, which is a key to maintaining a vibrant ecosystem, is a model that can be applied all throughout the world,” Ms. Murray said.

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