Seafoodnews.com – By John Gauvin, Fisheries Science Project Director, Alaska Seafood Cooperative – September 9, 2021 •
In my role as Fishery Science Project Director for the Alaska Seafood Cooperative since 2008 I have worked with fishery managers, fishery scientists, and fishermen to find ways to reduce trawl bycatch and modify bottom trawl gear to reduce seafloor impacts. During my tenure, the Amendment 80 fleet has made significant progress on both of these fronts through longstanding participation in collaborative, peer-reviewed research, and steadfast commitment to deploying new fishing gear, new fishing methods, and new fishing technology borne out of this research.
Last week’s piece by Oceana is misleading and designed to mischaracterize the bycatch trade-offs of the fishery. Even more troubling for me, however, from my years of following the rigors of the scientific process used for evaluation of impacts of fisheries on the seafloor in Alaska, are the statements about effects of trawling on seafloor.
Contrary to Oceana’s statements, the effects of trawling and other fishing gears on the seafloor habitats in the federally managed fisheries in Alaska are a success story for fishery management. Effects of trawling is one of the best-studied and managed food production practices in the United States, maybe the world.
Under the Magnuson Stevens Act’s Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) requirements, comprehensive scientific reviews of the effects of fishing gears on fish habitat are mandated to be done every five years. These reviews incorporate the latest fishery data and scientific research. The last EFH review of the effects of fishing on the seafloor in federal waters off Alaska concluded that effects of fisheries individually and cumulatively: “…were determined to be minimal and not detrimental to fish populations or their habitats.” (See: https://repository.library.noaa.gov/view/noaa/17257, page 76.)
Further, Oceana specifically, and incorrectly, asserts that Arrowtooth Flounder in the Gulf Alaska has unsustainable habitat impacts. In fact, the stock assessment authors for Arrowtooth flounder – scientists who know this species and its habitat inside and out – concluded that the effects of trawling on the mud and sand seafloor where Arrowtooth fishing occurs are essentially so small they are “unmeasurable.” (See https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/alaska/habitat-conservation/alaska-essential-fish-habitat-reviews.) This information hardly comports with Oceana’s reckless assertion that the Arrowtooth flounder fishery and other trawl fisheries are damaging fish habitat and are destructive and unsustainable.
In fact, it’s not only the National Marine Fisheries Service that disagrees with Oceana on this subject. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) are both independent, third-party certification programs that evaluate management of fisheries and specifically look at how fishing gear affects the seafloor. Both bodies score the management measures in place for the Arrowtooth flounder fishery in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea Aleutian Islands as exemplary.
Last, Oceana throws in their general anti-trawl rhetoric, which suggests closing additional areas to bottom trawling in Alaska. Currently 517,000 square nautical miles off Alaska are closed to bottom trawling – yup, this is not a typo – 517,000 square nautical miles. This means that existing habitat closures in Alaska amount to three times the land area of the State of California! Oceana asserts, with no evidence, that even more area needs to be closed, but many scientists have come to the exact opposite conclusion – making more areas off limits actually could force fisheries out of productive areas they fish year after year and have a deleterious rather than a positive effect.
Oceana’s attack is authored by a long-time participant in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council process, who well knows all the information I have just provided regarding the comprehensive scientific review process for habitat effects of fisheries. He has, within this scientific process, frequently challenged the science, the analyses, and models, and I have seen the habitat scientists bend over backward to incorporate data and model runs to examine his concerns. These additional analyses did not produce the conclusions Oceana wanted. Put simply, the science did not support the result Oceana sought. Unsatisfied by the actual science, Oceana seems determined to resort to phony science to get their way. I for one am tired of reading their claims about trawling affecting the seafloor. If they’ve got a better case then I say bring if forward, but otherwise, Oceana, time to accept the science.
This op-ed is in response to a piece that ran on September 1.