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North Pacific Mgt. Council Offers 'Clearest Scientific Verdict Ever' on Protection of Bering Sea Corals


Fishery managers and many environmental organizations rely on scientific analysis to address seafood sustainability problems such as the health and abundance of a particular fish stock, or the health of a marine ecosystem or habitat.

The issue of protecting corals in the Bering Sea Canyons became of interest to many retailers and a number of companies were solicited to write letters to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on this issue by one of the major environmental organizations.

At its meeting in October, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took action to conclude a nearly decade-long public process to understand the distribution and abundance of deepsea corals in the Bering Sea, and to determine whether additional protective measures are needed.

The council determined that coral density in the Bering Sea was low, roughly on the order of 26 individuals per football field, while in the Aleutian Islands, where protections are in place, the coral density is from 6,435 to 20,143 in a football field.

Further, the Council said that the average height of coral in the Bering Sea was 8 inches or less. The net result is that the impact of fishing gear on coral was extremely low. Although damage was noted on invertebrates (sea whips, corals, sponges) in 27 percent of the survey transects, and fishing gear indications were noted on 24 percent of the transects, these mostly did not occur together. The council said 97 percent of the observed damage to invertebrates was due to natural, not manmade causes.

'Unprecedented' Camera Survey Yields 'Definitive Results'

The Council concluded: “The evidence shows low occurrence and density of deep-sea corals, lack of substrate to support corals, and low vulnerability to fishery impacts of existing deep-sea corals in these areas.”

Accordingly, it voted unanimously not to impose fishing bans or other habitat protective measures, but instead, to monitor the coral abundance and fishing activity into the future to see if the situation changes.

The ten year research effort that culminated in an unprecedented camera survey of the entire Bering Sea continental slope was one of the most thorough scientific investigations ever undertaken in the North Pacific, and produced some of the most definitive results.

NOAA models initially had suggested that there would be low coral abundance in the Bering Sea. However due to public interest in the issue, NOAA undertook the observations needed to validate their model or not. The camera transects and density observations turned out to be fully consistent with their model.

Coral and invertebrate abundance is low in the Bering Sea due to the fact that 83 percent of the substrate is mud and sand, unsuitable habitat for these organisms. The low density was also observed in the Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons, two areas of concern pointed to by environmental groups.

The Council concluded that “scientific evidence from trawl surveys, the NOAA stereo-camera survey, and a third party video transect survey does not suggest that there is a risk to the deep-sea corals present in Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons and adjacent slope areas under-current management.”

Scientific Unanimity a Rarity

It is rare that there is such scientific unanimity on an issue as there is on the results of the Bering Sea Canyon survey.

This unanimity came about because of the significant resources devoted to determine whether marine corals were at risk from fishing activities or not. Most retailers who contacted the North Pacific Fishery Management Council asked that the best science be used in determining any necessary further actions.

The council has done that at a level rarely seen in U.S. fisheries, and as a result the question of whether there are significant fishing impacts on deep sea corals in the Bering Sea has been definitively answered.

For those who might still ask retailers to reconsider, or challenge these results, the appropriate question is simply, why? Why should not all parties involved in seafood sustainability be pleased with this result?

It stands as an exemplary effort by fishery managers to seek to understand and respond to potential sustainability concerns.

If these efforts are insufficient, than no management system in the world could provide sufficient protections while still maintaining fish as a major protein source for American consumers.

The canyon survey and the definitive scientific results are a major victory for those who want to preserve consumer access to sustainable US fisheries for the low-carbon, high value, healthy and environmentally friendly protein they produce.

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