Fisheries regulators take steps toward conservation of Bering Sea Canyons

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The Greenpeace Airship flies over downtown Juneau on Monday, June 10. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

The airship displays a 75 foot banner reading “Protect My Home.” (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Carved into the Bering Sea shelf are some of the ocean’s largest underwater canyons. The bigger ones run more than a mile deep, and in spots they’re dense with corals and sponges. They’re also home to some commercial fisheries, and factory trawlers will often go there to catch pollock. Now, fisheries regulators have charted a path for managing this habitat, which allows for future conservation measures. 

North Pacific Fishery Management Council meetings can be dry affairs. They happen in hotels or conference halls. They involve lots of acronyms and hours upon hours of testimony. Lawyers and scientists will sometimes outnumber fishermen. So, it’s a little odd to see activists holding up a hand-painted banner the length of a swimming pool at one of these things, and even weirder to have a large blimp make an appearance for the meeting.

“It’s green, with rainbow colors, and it has a 75-foot banner of a sperm whale in huge lettering that says, ‘Protect my home.’”

That’s Jackie Dragon, an oceans campaigner with Greenpeace. The airship is part of a massive conservation campaign over what her group calls the “Grand Canyons of the Bering Sea.” They’re worried trawl nets are scraping away at the canyons’ sea life.

This week, they argued their case before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. In the end, what they got was a commitment for more research on the canyons. The council also agreed to start examining ways to reduce the impact the trawl and longline fleets have on the coral populations.

Dragon calls that a win for environmental groups.

“The fact that they’re doing the short-term protection immediately and getting that started out at the gate together with this longer range plan is something that we have to commend.”

The council was unanimous in its agreement for a research plan, and they discussed the possibility of eventually implementing a fishery ecosystem plan — a holistic approach to management that can include conservation measures like marine reserves.

But they didn’t call for any immediate closures in the region, like some advocates for the canyons wanted. Members of the fishing industry warned that shutting down fishing would be premature, without a specific goal for that action. Stephanie Madsen directs the At-Sea Processors Association, a factory trawler group.

“First it’s corals. Then the blimp of Greenpeace has a whale on it. Then World Wildlife talks about marine mammals and birds. People talk about chinook bycatch, although we’ve already taken management measures for that, and our footprint diminished in the Pribilof Canyon with that activity. So, I get confused about what the objectives are.”

Madsen adds that she’s somewhat skeptical of Greenpeace’s motives, because in the past they’ve aggressively campaigned for an end to factory trawling altogether. She’s noticed a change in tactics: Instead of protesters chaining themselves to ships, they’ve got lobbyists working the regulatory process. But ultimately, she thinks the end purpose is similar.

Jackie Dragon says Greenpeace still opposes factory trawling. But instead of wholesale bans, they’re taking a more strategic approach.

“I think it’s important to be reasonable. I don’t think that they’re in a position tomorrow to create closures for representative portions of the habitat in the Bering Sea.”

The North Pacific Council will be following up with another look at impact fishing has on corals in the area at the end of the year.

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