Undersea mountain may be protected


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Posted by on April 27, 2005 at 06:30:36:

Offshore-fishing managers want Davidson Seamount west of Cambria added to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

The council that manages offshore fishing wants federal protection for a massive undersea mountain about 93 miles west of Cambria.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously April 7 to support adding the Davidson Seamount to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, currently about 25 miles away from the mountain.

The council also wants to see fishing prohibited below 3,000 feet. The 7,500-foot mountain peak is 4,000 feet below the water's surface.

The council -- one of eight that manages offshore fisheries in California, Oregon and Washington -- is expected to issue a timeline soon for the fishing ban. It could go into effect within a year under the authority of the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act, which provides for fishery conservation and management.

Expanding the sanctuary to include the seamount has the support of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, some environmental organizations and scientists and the sanctuary's own advisory council.

But enthusiasm for the expansion isn't unanimous.

The pro-fishing cities of Monterey and Morro Bay oppose the change, as do the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries (a fishermen's group), some fishing firms and individuals.

The federal Minerals Management Service also objects, saying the boundary expansion could affect "potential oil and gas resource recovery" around the Davidson. However, the agency also said it has no plans for permitting drilling in the seamount area.

What's at stake

The seamount is too deep for trawling or other current fishing technologies. Fishermen say, however, they could lose the opportunity to harvest albacore and swordfish closer to the water's surface there.

Jeremiah O'Brien, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association, said before he and his peers will know if they oppose or support adding the Davidson to the sanctuary, they'll first need more information about how the regulations would affect the industry.

"Frankly we have a tough time understanding it," he said. "We look at this move as a land grab. We don't see why they are doing what they're doing."

In noting that the mountain lies so deep in federal water that fishermen cannot reach it, he said, "Do fishermen access the Davidson? No. Have they ever? No. When the sanctuary says they want to protect the Davidson, we ask, protect it from who or what?

"Nobody's ever been there; nobody's ever touched it. What are they going to protect it from? And how? First, you have to identify a problem, then identify a solution. I don't see that either one exists."

Fishermen do catch albacore, swordfish and other pelagic fish in the waters far above the Davidson's peak, he said. Pelagic species are "highly migratory fish that just swim over the top of the area."

If, however, sanctuary regulations could evolve to the point where "fishermen cannot enter the area," O'Brien said, "that would be a big problem."

Former Morro Bay mayor and fisherman Bill Yates said, "Fishermen are generally supportive of protecting the bottom" of the seamount, which "is a very rich area for albacore. What fishermen are scared of is no fishing there ... that when the sanctuary moves in, what comes in later is no fishing at all."

That's not in the plan, but how can the sanctuary protect something that's 4,000 feet below the surface of the sea?

Scientists say bioprospecting could tap undersea resources for medical research, while future fishing technologies could make it possible to harvest species from the seamount itself.

Davidson has many species that take a long time to mature, such as large, fragile corals and sponges, some of which are quite rare. Long-term collecting of those species could doom them, marine biologists warn.

In 2002, undersea exploration at the seamount also found debris discarded on the surface, including bottles, cans, a curtain and a broom.

Other unknowns

At 26 miles long and eight miles wide, Davidson is one of the biggest seamounts in North America. Scientists have sketched several new boundary options from preserving a portion of the area to extending the current sanctuary boundaries to protect the entire seamount.

The sanctuary's draft Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement "should be released for public review and comment in late summer," said sanctuary spokesperson Rachel Saunders. Public hearings would follow, and final documents would be reviewed by Congress for 45 days.

Davidson could be added to the sanctuary through this administrative process, she said. "It doesn't require an act of Congress.



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