Protecting Life On Ocean's Floor

Oct 17, 2013

Miles off the Oregon Coast, sponges and corals believed to be hundreds of years old line the ocean floor.

In August, Portlander Ben Enticknap led a weeklong expedition to capture images of such underappreciated sea life, to make a case for protecting it from bottomfish trawlers whose gear scrapes the ocean floor.

Using high-definition video from a remote-controlled submersible vehicle, the Oceana advocacy group captured footage where cameras had never been.

“We saw areas that looked like they were already tilled up,” with no signs of invertebrates one would expect, says Enticknap, guessing those were areas recently fished by trawlers. But other areas were rich with sponges, corals and bottomfish, he says. “Almost every sponge that we saw had rockfish nestled inside of them and around them.”

Now Enticknap and his colleagues will try to convince federal regulators the ancient sea life is “essential fish habitat,” and worth preserving with new trawling limits. In tandem with the Ocean Conservancy and Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana will ask federal regulators next month to bar trawling in 12 new areas off Oregon, totaling 1,300 square miles offshore from Tillamook, Lincoln City, Newport and Yachats. It’s part of a bigger proposal, and one of eight total, going before the Portland-based Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a federal agency that regulates fishing off the entire West Coast.

Still under study

The 14-member fisheries council meets Nov. 1 to 7 in Costa Mesa, Calif., where it could decide whether to launch a formal process to expand essential fish habitat off the West Coast.

Gway Kirchner, who represents Oregon on the fisheries council, says the state has a “very open mind” about the Oceana and other proposals.

Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, leads a committee charged with reviewing the eight proposals and making a recommendation to the fisheries council. The former commercial fisherman is skeptical of new trawling restrictions.

“I could take you out and show you video of the bottom and you would have a very hard time saying it was bottom-trawled or not,” Pettinger says.

Some environmentalists unfairly demonize trawlers and liken their impact to forest clear cutting, he says.

But trawlers have been fishing the same spots for the last half-century, Pettinger says. “Fish go back to the same spots every week, or every month,” he says, evidence their habitat hasn’t been destroyed.

Heck, he says, if you put a five-gallon metal drum under the water, fish would go there too. “To say that coral or sponge is essential fish habitat, I don’t think there’s much correlation there.”

Oregon stake

Oregon is home to the largest number of trawlers on the West Coast, fishing out of Astoria, Coos Bay, Newport and Brookings. They catch about $20 million worth of sole, black cod, whiting, sablefish, skate, rockfish and other bottomfish a year, Pettinger says, plus maybe $18 million worth of whiting, which is largely caught slightly above the ocean floor. They account for 60 percent of the West Coast groundfish catch, he says.

In 1996, Congress required regulators to identify and protect essential fish habitat. In 2005, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council declared large swaths of water off-limits to trawling, including 58,000 square miles off Oregon. Now it’s revisiting the issue.

Most of the waters closed in 2005 weren’t being fished, but Oceana’s new proposal could bar fishing on up to 6.5 percent of the grounds trawled by Oregon’s bottomfish and shrimp fleets, Enticknap says. However, he points out, there wouldn’t be any new catch limits, so fishers could catch the same amount as before, in slightly reduced territory.

“We’re trying to maximize habitat protection and minimize economic impacts to the fishers,” he says. “So the economic impact should be zero in the short term, and the intention is that it will be positive in the long-term by creating more intact habitats important for fish for spawning, breeding and growth.”

Skimming the ocean floor

Enticknap is an Oceana senior scientist who runs the international group’s West Coast campaigns out of its Portland office. He says trawling has the worst impact on habitat of any type of fishing, because trawlers drag doors made of steel or wood across the bottom to hold their nets open.

“It whips up all the sediments. It mows down all the corals and sponges,” he says.

In 2011, Oceana commissioned a vessel to survey the ocean waters off Southern Oregon. In August, it deployed a 76-foot-long former trawler, Miss Linda, to perform 25 more dives in northern and central Oregon waters. The robotic vehicle travels about 2 feet above the ocean bottom.

Oceana plans to submit a formal scientific study on its expedition, Enticknap says.

While many people don’t realize that sponges are animals, he says, some of them are hundreds of years old.

Oregon doesn’t have the colorful coral reefs that divers crave, but does have rocky reefs and plenty of coral, he says. “Some of these black corals can be thousands of years old.”

Pettinger says much already has been done to mitigate the adverse environmental impacts of trawling. A decade ago, the National Academy of Sciences studied the matter and recommended closing off some areas to fishing, reducing the number of boats in the fleet, and changing the gear to make it less harmful.

“We’ve done all three of those in spades,” he says.

Later this year, he expects the West Coast trawl fishery to get sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council for 12 different species.

Bob Bailey, a retired ocean program administrator for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, says a case can be made for further restrictions. “I think that Oceana has legitimate concerns about the past and present impacts of trawling on the ocean floor of the West Coast, and that additional areas for bottom trawling may be warranted.” Bailey says.

Some question the value of sponges and corals, he says, but that’s partly because they haven’t been well-studied. “There’s not a whole lot that’s trivial in the marine ecosystem.”

Enticknap says sponges and corals are among the most vulnerable species to disturbance in the ocean. Their habitat “doesn’t belong to the industry,” he says. “These are our national ocean treasures.”

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