SEATTLE — A federal fishing council has moved to ban bottom trawling on more than 370,000 square miles off Alaska's Aleutian Islands to try to protect coral beds and other sensitive fish habitat.
The unanimous vote of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on Thursday covers more than half the fishable water around the Aleutians and pockets in the northern Gulf of Alaska.
Environmentalists called the ban a landmark move, saying coral beds, sponge gardens and underwater peaks known as seamounts will be ruined without more protection from bottom trawlers. The trawlers scrape the ocean floor with weighted nets in search of species including Pacific cod and black rockfish.
"This is a positive step forward in implementing the recommendations of the U.S Commission on Ocean Policy and ecosystem-based management," said Whit Sheard, program manager of The Ocean Conservancy's Anchorage office. "We're encouraged that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has listened to the advice of scientists worldwide who have called for protections for these fragile ecosystems."
Bottom trawling is already off-limits over more than 100,000 square miles in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.
The commercial fishing industry had opposed any new restrictions, but the rules were not expected to do major harm to the industry because the bulk of Alaska's billion-dollar bottom-fish harvest occurs on the continental shelf spanning the Bering Sea. Also, trawlers will be allowed to continue netting the fish in Aleutian areas historically yielding the best catches.
Commerce Dept. must sign off
The restrictions stem from a 2000 lawsuit filed by environmental groups that said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was falling short of its duty to protect fish habitat as federal law requires.
"This council showed the leadership today to say if we're going to have healthy oceans, we're going to need be to precautionary about protecting them," said Susan Murray, a spokeswoman in the Juneau office of Washington, D.C.-based Oceana, which was among the plaintiffs.
The council must still produce a final environmental impact statement, and the limits require approval from the Commerce Secretary.
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