U.S. ocean habitat protection flounders

When Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996, it required – for the first time ever – regulations protecting ecosystems from the impacts of all kinds of human activities.

The law seemed to make obvious sense. Unless we protect habitat, there’s an increased chance of losing fish in the ocean, after all. And because 75 percent of the ocean’s fish use waters on land or near the shore, the law required protection of streams, bays and estuaries, as well as of the sea floor and open waters. But the law wasn’t very strong, and critics say it hasn’t been carried out with much verve.

In May, several conservation and fishing organizations sued the Department of Commerce and eight regional fisheries councils around the U.S. for failing to protect ocean fish habitat in the Gulf of Mexico, New England, the Caribbean, the Pacific and in waters off Alaska. In the Pacific, the groups claim that bottom trawling is harming habitat. In waters off Alaska, they pointed to a number of "destructive fishing practices."

The suit says eight regional fishery management councils must "minimize to the extent practicable" adverse effects on fish habitat. Instead, the suit claims that the federal government "unlawfully allows various ongoing destructive fishing activities to continue," creating a situation with "disturbing nationwide implications for the health and sustainability of United States marine fisheries."

For example, the suit says bottom trawling in the Pacific is destroying sealife as well as physical structures on the sea floor. Essential habitats for already depleted fish species are damaged in the process. The suit targets the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which governs West Coast fisheries, for not acting to protect ecosystems from the impacts of bottom trawling, possibly by banning it altogether or prohibiting it in certain areas.

The council’s habitat plan, completed last October, leaves room for tightening the rules, says Lawrence Six, the council’s executive director, but he’s making no promises of any future crackdown on bottom trawling. "We adopted a framework that would allow us to make some management changes," he said. "Based on what we find during the deliberations we may enact some regulations."

One federal fisheries official said the council initially proposed a series of tougher measures but backed down under pressure from a variety of industry groups whose actions affect fish habitat on land and at sea, including commercial fishing, timber and agriculture. The council has developed one habitat plan for deep sea fish and another for salmon. He described the new habitat regulations for salmon as particularly "toothless."

"The law gives these regulations no muscle," the official said. "Federal agencies need to consider (these plans), but there’s no hammer."

In January, the Center for Marine Conservation, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s habitat plan "completely lacks actions to minimize habitat damage from fishing. It includes no regulations, no specific management measures for the practices that may be harming habitat, no process or schedule for adopting such measures, and no actions to provide better data on fishing impacts."

But Six says there’s not enough information to act. "Very little work has been done on the West Coast. We are supporting research by NMFS to increase the amount of information."

Other plaintiffs in the case are the American Oceans Campaign, Cape Code Commercial Hook Fisherman’s Association, Florida Wildlife Federation, Institute for Fisheries Resources, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Organizations, and Reefkeeper International.

In waters off Alaska, the suit claims that bottom trawling and other fishing activities are damaging benthic marine life, including sponges and sea whips. "In addition, there is evidence from the Atka mackerel fishery in Seaguam Pass (Aleutian Islands) that the trawl fishery has eliminated many coral structures from the sea floor," the suit says.

The Sustainable Fisheries Act was actually a revision of the 1976 Magnuson Act, a landmark piece of legislation in its day. The Magnuson Act banned foreign fishing fleets from U.S. waters, defined as within 200 miles of shore. The Magnuson Act has done a good job at preventing foreigners from overfishing the North Pacific but has not prevented American fleets from destroying the stocks.

The revised law also calls for an end to overfishing, the creation of an "overfish species list," and less wasted "bycatch." Bycatch is a huge problem in ocean fisheries. It refers to fish that are caught by accident. Bycatch must be thrown back to sea rather and not sold.


Paul Koberstein