Jeff Barnard  /  AP file
Groundfish trawlers like these in Crescent City, Calif., use heavy plates with rollers to weight down nets that scoop up fish from the bottom of the sea.
updated 6/16/2005 10:26:16 AM ET 2005-06-16T14:26:16

Federal fishing regulators voted to impose a permanent ban on trawl fishing in nearly 300,000 square miles of Pacific waters off the West Coast, a move hailed by environmentalists as a landmark in marine conservation.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates West Coast fishing, chose a plan Wednesday that will ban bottom trawling in depths beyond about 4,200 feet and dozens of shallower areas believed to be critical habitat for groundfish such as rockfish, ling Cod and Dover sole.

The plan is aimed at protecting coral beds, kelp forests, rocky reefs and other sensitive fish habitat from trawling — a fishing practice in which weighted nets are dragged on the ocean floor to scoop up bottom-dwelling species.

“It’s a huge victory for conservation,” said Jim Ayers, Pacific region director for Oceana, which developed a plan similar to the one chosen. “It maintains economic opportunity for today’s commercial fishermen, but more importantly, it ensures economic opportunity for future generations.”

U.S. waters 3-200 miles off shore
The new regulations apply in federal waters that extend from three miles to 200 miles off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. California and Washington have banned trawling in state waters that extend three miles from the shore. Other types of fishing are allowed in the no-trawl zones.

Trawl fishermen were skeptical that the new regulations would boost declining stocks of West Coast groundfish, but did not think the trawling ban would hurt their livelihoods because most of the restricted areas are too deep for trawlers.

“I think the council’s selection minimizes the negative impact on the fishing industry,” said Pete Leipzig, who heads the Fishermen’s Marketing Association, which represents groundfish and shrimp trawlers.

Environmentalists say trawling destroys delicate sea-floor habitats. But fishermen say there’s no evidence that trawl fishing has affected the productivity of groundfish stocks that make up the foundation of West Coast commercial fishing.

The 14-member council chose the plan from more than a dozen proposals offered by environmentalists, fishermen other interest groups. The council will recommend action to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is expected to implement the new regulations early next year.

Earlier move in Alaska
The council’s decision follows a similar move by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council which voted in February to ban bottom trawling on more than 370,000 square miles off the Alaskan Coast.

In recent years, the government has declared the West Coast groundfish fishery an economic disaster due to a combination of overfishing and poor ocean conditions. Nine species were declared overfished, some fisheries were closed and the groundfish fleet was cut by a third to allow remaining boats to earn a better living.

Environmentalists said Wednesday’s decision won’t just help groundfish species recover, but will protect delicate sea-floor ecosystems that scientists are just beginning to study.

“There’s whole world down there that people don’t know about,” said Karen Garrison, who heads the ocean initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s beautiful, it’s fragile and it’s full of life.”

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