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.

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.

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 act 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 are 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 coral habitat.

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

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