Scientific evidence does not suggest a risk to deep-sea corals in the Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons in the Bering Sea, and further studies are warranted rather than closure to fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council said Oct. 9.
Council members holding their October meeting in Anchorage approved a motion saying their conclusion was based on both the coral abundance model developed by NOAA Fisheries and the recent stereo camera survey.
Their action came in a review of a 2014 Bering Sea slope and canyons survey aimed at determining the next steps to consider in protecting the Bering Sea canyons.
That evidence showed low occurrence and density of deep-sea corals, lack of substrate to support corals, and low vulnerability of existing deep-sea corals in these areas to fishery impacts.
To be responsive to the purpose and need to evaluate the historical and current patterns of fishing effort, council members asked NOAA Fisheries to provide updated data on the distribution, intensity, and depth of fishing efforts in locations of both known and predicted coral abundance.
The council also asked that the Alaska Fisheries Science Center report in the annual Ecosystem Stock Assessment Fishery Evaluation chapter on changes in coral frequency, composition and distribution in the trawl survey, and changes in trawl and fixed gear effort in areas of model predicted coral abundance.
The council’s decision to move forward by seeking updated data on impacts of fishing effort came after testimony from commercial fishing organizations and environmental groups.
Chad See, executive director of the Freezer Longline Coalition, urged the council in his written testimony to take no further action on this matter.
“If the council chooses to continue with additional analyses, the FLC would then request the council to include gear (and sector) specific analysis of potential overlap and potential benthic impacts by gear type,” See wrote. “Additionally, any consideration of mitigation measures should be analyzed by gear (and/or sector) with the estimated impact of potential mitigation measures on each sector.”
Two dozen environmental groups, including Oceana, Pacific Environment, the World Wildlife Fund, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace, urged in their written testimony that the council implement a network of benthic protected areas that includes a representative sample of habitats found on the Bering Sea shelf-break, where no protections currently exist. They also urged the council to move forward to analyze alternatives, including those presented by conservation non-government organizations, for the protection of corals and sponges in the eastern Bering Sea.
New research conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center reconfirms that the Bering Sea shelf break, also called the Greenbelt, is a unique area that harbors the majority of coral and sponge habitat in this distinct and vital large marine ecosystem, the group said.
All written testimony is online at the council’s website, www.npfmc.org