©2003 Cascadia Times
Plundering the Pacific
Essential Coral Gardens
North Pacific council rejects plan to protect coral and sponge,
though it meant little reduction in commercial fishing
Every year, from Baja California to the Bering
Sea, 1 million pounds of coral are scraped up in the pursuit of
the groundfish that populate the cold, deep waters of the Continental
Shelf. Commercial fishing vessels, known as bottom trawlers, drag
huge weighted nets along the floor that scoop up or knock down many
corals and sponges in their path.
Cascadia Times Fall 2003 issue, "Plundering the
Pacific," investigates the decline of the North Pacfic
Ocean and its wildlife in the wake of decades of industrial
The 24-page print edition contains numerous graphics and full-color
photographs that richly illustrate this report. Please support
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Bottom trawling is the most destructive form of disturbance on
these pristine coral habitats, as a single trawl can destroy 20
tons of coral. In Alaska, a government agency showed that 97 percent
of the destruction of coral and sponge is by bottom trawling.
Until recently, science has known little about the corals in the
cold waters off the coast of the western U.S., Canada and Alaska.
National and international efforts to protect corals have focused
on shallow water coral reefs located in the tropics.
These cold water corals are just as colorful and intriguing as
their tropical counterparts. They attach themselves to the seafloor
at depths of 100 to 10,000 feet.
They are the oldest living animals on the planet, some growing
less than one centimeter per year. If disturbed or destroyed, deep
sea corals will take centuries to recover.
Most tropical coral reefs enjoy legal protection, including the
Northwest Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Preserve. Created in 2000,
the reserve includes up to 70 percent of all corals in the U.S.
But deep sea corals along the West Coast have been given almost
no protection at all. In October 2003, the North Pacific Fishery
Management Council, dismissed a proposal to prevent destruction
of coral in the Gulf of Alaska, along the Aleutian Islands and in
the Bering Sea.
A proposal to prevent destruction of coral in the Aleutian Islands,
Bering Sea, and Gulf of Alaska was killed by the six council members
who represent the commercial fishing industry. The industry holds
a majority of seats on the council (see chart Page 4).
Scientists have conducted far more research on deep sea corals
in Alaska. Although much is still not known about Alaskan corals
and sponges, scientists know even less about corals and coral destruction
along the coast of California, Oregon and Washington. The Pacific
Fishery Management Council does not even report the amount of coral
destruction along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.
The council will begin hearings on proposals for protecting West
Coast corals in March 2004.
The largest and perhaps most charismatic of the deep sea corals
belong to the Order Gorgonacea, which includes red-tree coral, bubblegum
coral and sea fans. Gorgonians are colonies of animals composed
of individual polyps that deposit a tree-like skeleton.
Scientists who study Alaska's gorgonians have been clearly impressed
by their beauty, color and function. Biologists David Witherell
and Catherine Coon, who work for the North Pacific council, have
found that gorgonians generally occur in deep water down to 2,400
feet and appear in aggregations like groves of trees. “When
alive, deep sea gorgonian corals are brightly colored and make for
breathtaking underwater sights,” they wrote in a research
paper three years ago. “There are many reasons to protect
large deep sea corals, some of which are related to their ecological
functioning, and others related to their use by mankind.”
They rise above the sea floor up to 15 feet tall and 21 feet wide.
Large colonies of red-tree coral are thought to be 500 years old.
There are at least 34 known species of coral in Alaska, and possibly
some unknown species.
Given their large size and longevity, gorgonian corals are sensitive
to fishing impacts. They also happen to occur where the fish are.
Scientists say red-tree coral provides structural habitat for rockfish,
sablefish, Atka mackerel, and arrowtooth flounder. Other fish were
found more often among the softer corals.
Federal law — the Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries
Act of 1996 — requires the fishery management councils to
protect habitat that's “essential” to the survival of
fish. The law recommends that the councils place a special focus
on the most important habitats, which are called “habitat
areas of particular concern,” or HAPCs. In Alaska, corals,
sea pens, sea whips, sea anemones, sponges, and other “living
substrates” have been identified as HAPC.
These are habitats that among other things provide important ecological
functions, are sensitive to human-caused damage and are rare. These
areas are the most “essential” of all habitats, and
environmental groups like Oceana argue that they should be among
the first to be protected.
NOAA Fisheries has interpreted the law to mean the council doesn't
have to take action to protect an area if the fishing impacts on
habitat are either “minimal or temporary.” This is exactly
what the North Pacific council decided.
Conservationists are appalled by the lack of logic. “We know
that if you tear up a 200-year-old coral, the impacts are not going
to be temporary,” says Jim Ayers, director of Oceana's Pacific
office in Juneau. Oceana, a global oceans advocate, has filed several
lawsuits against NOAA Fisheries alleging the agency has mismanaged
ocean resources, including those in Alaska
One reason fishery councils don't want to protect coral, he says,
is because they fear it would cost them money. But an analysis by
Oceana shows that economic impacts will not be large, he says. And
obviously, Ayers says, protecting fish habitat today will yield
more fish tomorrow.
“We didn't propose shutting down all fishing — 85 percent
of the areas currently bottom trawled would remain open.”
Oceana also proposed caps on the coral toll. “No more 20
ton trawls anymore, and no expansion into areas that haven't been
bottom trawled,” Ayers says.
Oceana offered its proposal after reviewing data from some 30,000
bottom trawl hauls that caught corals and sponges as bycatch since
1975. The data, collected by NOAA Fisheries, included trawl surveys
and observer data. The data show that corals were caught in the
trawls and brought to the surface in about 12 percent of the trawls.
The corals were divided into five major groups: black corals, gorgonian
corals, hydrocorals, cup corals, and soft corals. Black corals were
not found in any hauls. Soft corals occurred most frequently, in
72.5% of the hauls where corals were encountered, followed by gorgonian
corals (18.7%), cup corals (10.3%), hydrocorals (5.9%), and unidentified
corals (4.8%) according to a paper by Jonathan Heifetz of NOAA's
Auke Bay Laboratory.
Conservation biologist Elliot Norse of the Marine Conservation
Biology Institute in Redmond, Wash. says Alaska has the best information
of any state on its deep-sea corals and sponges. The data comes
from the fishermen themselves, who have been reporting coral “bycatch”
since 1976. They know the sea floor communities “in greater
detail than the scientists, because they've been trawling up the
corals and sponges for years. Unfortunately, they are reluctant
to share this information,” Norse says.
NOAA Fisheries has pulled together 26 years of data collected by
the fishermen. Janis Searles, an Oceana attorney, said NOAA Fisheries
had been just sitting on the information, so the group obtained
it and is now preparing detailed maps.
Much more than fish and fishing is at stake. Scientists have reason
to believe promising new cures from health-giving new drugs are
hidden among the corals. Sea fans are known to contain high concentrations
of prostoglandins, a “wonder drug” used to treat heart
disease and asthma. Corals also contain pseudopterosins (a pain
killer) and gorgonians produce antibiotics. Corals also offer ocean
temperature data for thousands of years, yielding potentially important
insights on climate change.
Another reason corals stand unprotected is political gamesmanship
in Washington, D.C.
Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens, the Republican who helped write the
Magnuson-Stevens Act, has attached a rider to a bill in Congress
that would prevent NOAA Fisheries from continuing its work on essential
William Hogarth, NOAA's assistant secretary for fisheries, says
the agency is not in favor of the rider.
Agency scientists say now is not the time to slow down research
and policy development.
“It turns out that we know surprisingly little about which
habitats are most important for the growth, reproduction, and survival
of commercially important species of fish,” says John Kurland,
NOAA's assistant regional administrator for habitat conservation
in Juneau, “And we also know relatively little about where
those habitats are, and the types of habitats that are needed by
the species. We don't always have them very well mapped, so that
is certainly a challenge.”
Stevens' attempted ban on coral research could remain in effect
until at least 2005 when he is considered a strong candidate to
take over as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. From there
he could exert enormous power over fisheries and oceans.
Stevens' proposed rider has been derided by Sen. John McCain, who
vowed to block it, and by newspaper editorials across the country.
He said the bill is nothing other than a favor to Alaska's billion-dollar
fishing industry, which feels it has much to fear from knowledge
about the habitat supplied by the corals.
In 1999, conservation groups sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration for failing to protect essential fish habitat around
the country, as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. In 2000, a
federal court ordered the agency to prepare regional environmental
impact statements showing the effects of fishing on habitat and
how that habitat would be protected.
In the North Pacific, including Alaska and the Bering Sea, a decision
is due in 2005. The Pacific council's decision is also due in 2005.
Stevens' rider would push those dates back perhaps by two years
or longer. n