The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a final rule today that will maintain approximately 12,620 square miles of existing conservation area designed to protect overfished rockfish populations off the U.S. West Coast. The rule partially overrides a Pacific Fishery Management Council recommendation to re-open 520 square miles of the “Rockfish Conservation Area” (RCA) off Northern California and Oregon; an area that has been closed to bottom trawling for nearly a decade. The decision by NMFS to maintain these bottom trawl closures was a direct response to scientific information submitted by Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), who are working together to ensure the recovery of overfished rockfish species and the conservation of sensitive ocean habitats.
“Oceana commends the National Marine Fisheries Service for not opening sensitive ocean habitats to bottom trawling despite the Pacific Council recommendation to do so,” said Ben Enticknap, Oceana Pacific Campaign Manager & Senior Scientist. “These protected areas are a vital tool for reducing bycatch of overfished rockfish populations and for protecting their sensitive habitats from trawl impacts.”
Areas that will remain closed to bottom trawling under this final rule include seafloor habitats like cold-water corals, sponges, and underwater reefs. These fragile living habitats create underwater structures upon which fish rely for reproduction, growth, and survival. Oceana, NRDC and others have active conservation proposals before the Pacific Council that would designate parts of the RCAs as “Essential Fish Habitat” conservation areas, closed to bottom trawling, in order to maintain their value as productive, intact habitats.
“This is a brief reprieve for overfished rockfish, the old men of the sea,” said Catherine Kilduff, Staff Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They only live on a sliver of the ocean floor so if they’re going to survive we need to do what we can to keep these trawls from raking their remaining habitats.”
While a large part of the RCA will remain closed for now, the final rule opens over 2,300 square miles of area off California, Oregon and Washington that are currently closed to bottom trawling on a seasonal basis.
The RCA was established in 2002 in order to help rebuild overfished populations like canary and yelloweye rockfish, which are not projected to recover to healthy levels until 2030 and 2074, respectively. These areas also protect key habitats from bottom trawling. According to the National Academy of Sciences, bottom trawling is the most destructive form of fishing on living seafloor habitats. In order to prevent and mitigate that habitat damage, NMFS and the Council have protected more than 135,000 square miles of seafloor from destructive bottom trawls off California, Oregon and Washington. However, in that 2005 process, they did not evaluate areas in the RCA because those were already closed to bottom trawls.
“Oceana currently has an active proposal for long-term protections of some of the rockfish conservation areas,” said Enticknap. “Last summer Oceana surveyed some of the RCAs off Oregon with a Remotely Operated Vehicle and documented cold-water corals, glass sponges, and overfished rockfish.”
Today’s final rule by NMFS will ensure there can be a deliberate evaluation of the science, and full consideration given to maintaining these protected areas. The final rule reflects changes to the agency’s proposed rule in consideration of conservation concerns.
To access the NMFS final rule, click here.
For more information on Oceana’s campaign to protect sensitive bottom habitat, click here.
Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 600,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit www.oceana.org.