Sitka, Alaska — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal body charged with managing fisheries in the Bering Sea and North Pacific, has voted unanimously to designate 115,000 square miles of northern Bering Sea marine habitat as “essential fish habitat.” The designation will prohibit bottom trawling in Arctic waters until scientists and the fishing industry can prove that bottom trawling will have no negative impacts on marine life or coastal communities. Bottom trawling is a fishing practice which involves towing trawl nets along the sea floor, disturbing sensitive seafloor habitat and indiscriminately capturing marine organisms.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had been advocating for this closure to bottom trawling in the sensitive Arctic areas in the months preceding yesterday’s Council meeting at which the vote was held and worked with Alaskan environmental organizations and communities to bring environmental and social concerns about bottom trawling in Arctic waters to the Council. “This decision is very significant,” said Bubba Cook, WWF’s senior program officer for fisheries. “It demonstrates a precautionary approach to protecting the resiliency of our vulnerable Arctic marine ecosystems.” The Arctic has exhibited increasing temperatures, twice that of the global average. “Given the complexities and some of the unknown impacts of climate change on northern oceans, the Council’s vote is all the more critical today,” said Dorothy Childers, program director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
In anticipation of the Council’s deliberations, over twenty-five Bering Sea tribal governments and Alaska Native organizations issued resolutions opposing the expansion of bottom trawling into the northern Bering Sea. “The villages' cultures and subsistence lifestyle depend on healthy oceans,” said Sky Starkey, counsel for many of the Alaska Native representatives. “Tribal leaders were concerned that bottom trawling would add to the pressures on already-stressed marine subsistence resources.” Of the 115,000 square miles to be closed to bottom trawling, much of this is along the coastline just south of the Bering Strait. To allow bottom trawling in the future will require consultations between US government agencies and the relevant coastal tribal authorities.
The Council also endorsed further development of bottom trawl modifications designed to minimize impacts of the use of bottom trawls in the remaining open areas.
The Bering Sea is one of the most productive marine ecoregions in the world, and produces more than half of the annual seafood catch of the United States. World Wildlife Fund recognizes the region as globally significant for its rich fisheries as well as marine and coastal ecosystems. The ecoregion is home to numerous whale species, Pacific walrus, Steller sea lions, and a variety of seals. Millions of shorebirds and seabirds migrate to and feed in the Bering Sea every year. The non-fish species make up important components of the ecosystem that could be substantially affected by the encroachment of concentrated fishing effort by bottom trawling in these sensitive northern areas.
Known in the United States as World Wildlife Fund and recognized worldwide by its panda logo, WWF leads international efforts to protect endangered species and their habitats and to conserve the diversity of life on Earth. Now in its fifth decade, WWF, the global conservation organization, works in more than 100 countries around the world.