Protect seafloor habitats, essential to the survival of fish species, by safeguarding the areas most at risk from bottom trawl damage and preventing the expansion of trawling into unfished, unassessed areas, while maintaining opportunities for productive trawl fisheries where impacts are less severe.
Coral gardens, sponge beds, and rocky reefs are called Essential Fish Habitat because they provide areas for shelter, feeding, and breeding that are essential to the survival of important fish species. Explore the ocean’s living seafloor in this digital tour. The tour showcases some of the most colorful and intriguing ocean life that lives on the bottom of the ocean floor, providing habitat for larger marine species, and highlights the need to protect these areas from bottom trawling.
Parallel to the ongoing discovery of new corals and sponges, there is a strong scientific understanding of the negative impacts fishing gears can impose on the living seafloor. Bottom trawls are large, weighted fishing nets that drag along the ocean floor to catch commercially important fish and shrimp species, and in doing so can rip up creatures and structures in their path, making this type of fishing gear the most damaging to seafloor habitats off the U.S. West Coast. Some sponge and coral species grow to be hundreds or even thousands of years old, and when ripped up or crushed by heavy trawls these corals and sponges may not recover for centuries, if at all. Bottom trawl fishing gear reduces habitat complexity, species diversity and productivity.
In 2005, federal fishery managers adopted the Oceana Approach to protecting seafloor habitats off the U.S. West Coast. This approach freezes the footprint of bottom trawling by preventing the expansion of this fishing gear into deeper waters outside of currently trawled areas, and closes hotspots within the footprint to protect living seafloor habitat like corals and sponges. The landmark 2005 decision protected over 135,000 square miles of sensitive habitats along the U.S. West Coast, including underwater canyons, seamounts, rocky reefs, and habitats containing coral gardens and sponge beds. This approach was estimated by NOAA Fisheries to have a minimal economic impact on the fishery.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) and NOAA Fisheries are required to review and update Essential Fish Habitat regulations every five years. The PFMC has begun that review process, and the new coral and sponge findings from Oceana’s at-sea expeditions, in addition to other new scientific data, are now being considered for additional protections. In response to a request for proposals issued by the PFMC, Oceana, and our conservation partners, submitted a comprehensive conservation proposal to modify existing conservation areas off the U.S. West Coast and to identify and protect new areas.
In total, Oceana’s proposal would protect an additional 61 areas off the West Coast including 20,000 square miles of key habitats on the continental shelf and slope and an additional 120,000 square miles of deep-sea habitat. At stake are special areas like ancient glass sponge reefs at Grays Canyon off the coast of Washington, the Cape Arago and Heceta Bank reef complexes off Oregon, and wildly rich and diverse coral and sponge habitats off southern California. A large area of the seafloor offshore Southern California is largely unexplored and there is no current bottom trawling there. Oceana proposes a precautionary closure to future bottom trawling in this area at least until we have an opportunity to learn more about this special place and exactly what’s at risk before it is destroyed. More information about what makes the ocean environment off Southern California so unique can be found here. Additionally, the proposal also contains small re-openings of current trawl closures in specific places off the U.S. West Coast to restore fishing opportunities in exchange for increased overall habitat protections.
Characterized as a “breakthrough”, the proposal includes a suite of consensus changes in bottom trawl regulations for areas within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary resulting from an agreement among Oceana, other conservation groups, Sanctuary management, and the local bottom trawl fleet. This balanced proposal is the result of detailed analyses and conversations with state fishery managers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Sanctuary staff, Tribal resource managers, fishermen, conservation organizations, and other interested parties.
What Oceana Does
The Oceana Approach
Oceana has identified areas that warrant protection from destructive bottom trawling through the following criteria: 1. Areas known to contain habitat features particularly sensitive to bottom trawl impacts, including hard substrate, biogenic habitats, submarine canyons, ridges, banks, escarpments, and/or other exceptional features; 2. Areas with high regional coral and/or sponge bycatch; 3. Areas within and/or adjacent to the current year-round closed portion of the groundfish trawl Rockfish Conservation Area (Trawl RCA) containing ecologically important and/or sensitive habitats important to overfished species and target species, so that these areas remain protected, if bycatch-related spatial protections are lifted; 4. Areas that improve the overall representation of habitat types contained in Essential Fish Habitat Conservation Areas in regional and coastwide contexts; 5. Areas that are adjacent to newly designated marine protected areas; 6. Areas that increase the overall level of protection for sensitive habitat types within each of the five west coast National Marine Sanctuaries; 7. Areas that are currently subject to very low or no trawl effort that may contain sensitive habitats.