New regulations to expand protections for seafloor habitats, reopen fishing grounds off US West Coast

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  • New regulations for essential fish habitat off the West Coast of the United States that go into effect in 2020 will extend protections for deep-sea habitats and corals while reopening fishing grounds where fish populations have rebounded.
  • The new rules were finalized by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (known as NOAA Fisheries) last month, and will go into effect on January 1, 2020.
  • About 3,000 square miles that had been closed to bottom trawling for groundfish will be reopened when the changes take effect, including 2,000 square miles of a Rockfish Conservation Area off the coasts of California and Oregon that have been off-limits to groundfish bottom trawling since 2002. The changes will also afford new protections to about 13,000 square miles of deep-sea reefs, corals, and sponges, prohibiting the practice of bottom trawling in those areas because of the severe impacts it can have on sea-floor habitats.

New regulations for essential fish habitat off the West Coast of the United States that go into effect in 2020 will extend protections for deep-sea habitats and corals while reopening fishing grounds where fish populations have rebounded.

The new rules were finalized by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (known as NOAA Fisheries) last month, and will go into effect on January 1, 2020. The updated regulations were recommended to NOAA by the Pacific Fishery Management Council and enjoy broad support from the fishing industry and environmentalists alike. The changes will be implemented via an amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for groundfish off the US West Coast.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is responsible for minimizing impacts of human activities on essential fish habitat (EFH), which are habitats deemed vital to maintaining sustainable fisheries. In 2005, the Council established area closures in groundfish habitat that limited the use of bottom trawling and other types of fishing gear that come into contact with the ocean floor.

According to NOAA Fisheries, groundfish fisheries contribute $569 million to household incomes in West Coast communities, from the state of Washington down to Southern California. About 3,000 square miles that had been closed to bottom trawling for groundfish will be reopened when the changes take effect, including 2,000 square miles of a Rockfish Conservation Area off the coasts of California and Oregon that have been off-limits to bottom trawling since 2002.

Gold coral and rockfish off the coast of Southern California. Photo Credit: Oceana.

The changes will also afford new protections to about 13,000 square miles of deep-sea reefs, corals, and sponges, prohibiting bottom trawling in those areas because of the severe impacts the fishing practice can have on sea-floor habitats. Little is known about these habitats, as scientists have only begun to document the deep-sea coral ecosystems that cover large areas of the sea floor off the West Coast over the past 20 years. The closure to bottom-contact gear will protect important habitat features like submarine canyons, seamounts, and methane seeps that support a variety of marine species. NOAA Fisheries says the protections cover an area larger than the state of Massachusetts, including the Southern California Bight between San Diego and Santa Barbara.

The new rules ban the use of fishing gear that contacts the bottom of the ocean in waters deeper than 3,500 meters (or about 2.2 miles), as well, meaning that another 123,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Oregon, will be made off-limits to bottom trawlers. Very little fishing occurs in these areas, and the fishing that does occur in those areas generally does not come into contact with the ocean floor. NOAA Fisheries described the protections, authorized under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to safeguard deep-sea coral ecosystems, as “precautionary.”

Once the new regulations take effect, 90 percent of the seafloor in US waters off the West Coast will be off-limits to bottom trawling, the NGO Oceana noted. Bottom trawling is considered one of the most damaging methods of fishing for seafloor habitats, because the practice involves weighted nets being dragged across the ocean floor in order to catch fish, destroying corals and sponges that provide habitat for these same fish and other marine animals in the process.

“Healthy oceans rely on a healthy seafloor and these new conservation areas will ensure that commercially important fish and other ocean animals, like deep-sea corals, octopus, crab and sea stars, can thrive into the future,” Ben Enticknap, a senior scientist with Oceana, said in a statement. “Coral and sponge gardens are the homes where many deep-sea fish find shelter and sleep, they are the grocery stores where they feed and the nurseries where their young can grow. These new protections establish safe havens for sensitive deep-sea ecosystems where fish populations can flourish at healthy levels to the benefit of our ocean environment and fisheries.”

Black coral off the coast of Southern California. Photo Credit: Oceana.

Enticknap added that glass sponge reefs, bamboo coral forests, lace sponges, and “newly discovered” black corals are among the habitats due to receive new protections. “Until recently, these deep-sea areas were unknown to mankind and there’s still so much more about the ocean floor that remains a mystery,” he said. “In a world of more than seven billion people, there are still new and exciting things to discover about our ocean planet.”

The fishing industry worked with conservation groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the Natural Resources Defense Council to craft the new regulations. “We worked together to come up with a solution, instead of having it done for us,” Tom Libby, an Astoria, Oregon, seafood processor who helped develop the revised rules, said in a statement.

Decades’ worth of data, in the form of logbooks, bathymetric plotters, and paper charts, were provided by fishermen to help determine where the new closures would have the biggest impacts for sensitive seafloor habitats and which areas could be reopened to provide the best fishing opportunities, Shems Jud of the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement.

“Without this process and the trust that was built, the end result would likely have been much clunkier closures and openings and significantly less consensus on the final outcome,” Jud said. “It’s a true win-win outcome that everyone can be incredibly proud of.”

Ryan Wulff, Assistant Regional Administrator for Sustainable Fisheries in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region, said that “There is something here for everyone, and it is possible only because many fishermen sacrificed and participated in the planning to bring the groundfish fishery back. This will provide more flexibility for a fishing fleet that has demonstrated its responsibility, and at the same time protect deep-water habitats that we are only beginning to learn about.”

Rosy rockfish among California hydrocoral. Photo Credit: NOAA.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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