Regulators to tighten regulations on Pacific bottom trawling

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Posted by on June 14, 2005 at 23:56:15:

SAN FRANCISCO - Federal regulators are preparing to vote on a plan to protect deep water corals and other sensitive fish habitat that will likely include a permanent ban on bottom trawling in large tracts of the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which advises the federal government on West Coast fishing regulations, is expected to choose a plan Wednesday that will identify "essential fish habitat" in federal waters, which extend from three miles to 200 miles off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.

The plan will likely include measures to protect those areas, ranging from restrictions on fishing gear to setting aside areas that will be off-limits to trawling, the technique of dragging weighted nets on the ocean floor in search of rockfish, ling cod and other bottom-dwelling fish.

"What's at stake is the long-term sustainability of our fish and wildlife resources on the West Coast," said Chris Dorsett, Pacific fish conservation manager at the Ocean Conservancy. "Right now we use means that are pretty damaging to habitats on the West Coast. We'd like to move toward means that are more sensitive to underwater ecosystems."

The plan is aimed at protecting West Coast groundfish habitat from trawling - a practice environmentalists say damages deep water corals, kelp forests and rocky reefs that provide critical habitat for more than 80 species of groundfish and other marine organisms.

Fishermen, however, say there's no proof that trawling has hurt the West Coast groundfish fishery.

"There's no evidence that fishing itself has destroyed habitat so that the productivity of the fish stocks has changed," said Pete Leipzig, who heads the Fishermen's Marketing Association, which represents West Coast groundfish and shrimp trawlers.

Meeting in Foster City, south of San Francisco, the 14-member council must choose from more than a dozen proposals offered by environmentalists, commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen and other interest groups. The council will make its recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is expected to implement the new regulations early next year.

In February, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates waters off the coast of Alaska, voted to ban bottom trawling on more than 370,000 square miles off the Aleutian Islands - a move hailed by environmentalists as a landmark in fishery management.

Protecting essential habitat represents a new approach to managing fisheries, scientists say.

"Fisheries management has been conducted for decades without paying attention to the habitat that produces the fish," said Rod Fujita, a marine ecologist with Environmental Defense. "It's always about protecting the fish populations themselves, but not their homes."

In 1996, Congress amended the 1976 Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to protect against overfishing and restore depleted populations by requiring the government to identify and protect essential fish habitats.

Two years later, the Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted such a plan, but environmental groups filed suit, claiming the council didn't adequately identify threats to West Coast groundfish or take strong enough action to protect them. A federal court sided with the environmentalists in 2000 and ordered the council to conduct a new analysis.

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