Truth Lies at Bottom of the Sea

By Ed Luttrell – Thursday, August 26, 2004


Written in response to “Bottom Trawling Clearcuts the Oceans” by Mark J. Spalding, Seattle Post-Intelligencer – August 10, 2004

It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to events on the bottom of the ocean. Scientists, fishermen and fishery managers are constantly working to better understand ocean ecosystems, but we still have a lot to learn. However, we do know three things for sure.

First, there are no bottom trawls a quarter-mile wide, as claimed in Mark Spalding’s Aug. 10 column. Second, fishermen have been trawling in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands for much of the past century, yet this area has the healthiest and most sustainable fisheries in the United States — even by the admission of both the Pew-funded Oceans Commission and the federally funded U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (USCOP).

Third, trawling in the Aleutian Islands affects a small fraction of the fishable area. Fishermen avoid the known coral areas because they damage gear, and more than 50 percent of the fishable area is closed to trawling by regulation.

What’s important is the fishing industry consistently works with the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, state and federal regulatory agencies, other governmental entities and numerous private sector organizations to ensure fish stocks are sustainable.

In particular, the North Pacific Council has always followed the recommendations of its Science and Statistical Committee (a panel of government and independent scientists) in setting harvest levels. Combined with the council-imposed harvesting cap and closed areas, we have nurtured and grown the healthiest fishery in the United States.

Globally, there are plenty of ocean management challenges to overcome, including overcapacity in some fisheries, and illegal and unregulated fishing elsewhere in the world. But we have proven solutions for these problems that showcase what sustainable fishing practices can achieve. The North Pacific Council is praised in Pew and USCOP reports as a solid example of effective fisheries management.

In its recommendations to Congress, the USCOP also suggested regional “oceans use councils,” modeled on the successful practices of regional fishery management councils. These broader councils would include all stakeholders to ensure oceans are healthy and productive.

No one can prove how banning a certain type of gear, as would the Deep Sea Coral Protection Act, or arbitrarily designating certain areas as “off limits” to commercial fishing, would improve the decades-long record of healthy fisheries management in the North Pacific. Scientists, regulators, managers and the fishing community need good data, sound science and effective leadership — not “feel-good” legislation — to ensure the health of the oceans and continued seafood production. Spalding’s oversimplified, sensationalized and inaccurate statements do nothing to protect our oceans for all stakeholders.

Depicting the commercial fisherman as a greedy and careless consumer who intentionally destroys habitat for short-term profit is a myth. No one cares more, or is working harder, than the seafood industry to keep this important food source on the world’s table, now and in the decades to come. Unfortunately, the impact of this myth can transform fantasy into serious reality: In this case, dealing a potentially crushing blow to the viable and healthy fisheries of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

So let’s drop the fish tales and stick to the facts.