Oceana Expedition Documents Seafloor Habitats

Kodiak Island, Alaska
A map of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Image courtesy of Karl Musser/U.S. Geological Survey.

An expedition from the nonprofit ocean conservation organization Oceana this spring used remotely-operated vehicles and other tools for eight days to document the seafloor and ocean life in several locations and depths around Kodiak Island.

Their goal was to observe, photograph and record seafloor habitats and associated marine life, to protect important seafloor areas in the Gulf of Alaska from bottom trawling, where huge nets are dragged for miles along the seafloor.

The expedition was related to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Essential Fish Habitat review process, which is currently underway.

Under the review, conservation measures for ocean habitat in Alaska are considered once every five years.  Oceana is campaigning to establish new protections for Gulf of Alaska seafloor habitats by urging the Council to adopt a “freeze the footprint” approach to bottom trawling. That would limit trawling to those areas where it is already occurring.

Untrawled areas, along with other areas with known sensitive seafloor habitats, would be protected from future destruction.

Oceana officials noted that the Gulf of Alaska is the last place among all U.S. federal waters on the West Coast and Alaska that does not have the “freeze the footprint” approach for managing bottom trawling. When Oceana first started campaigning on this issue in 2002, the management model was pretty much “trawl anywhere unless someone can prove you are doing harm,” they said.

“Oceana and others were successful in changing that paradigm with an almost complete flip from the Chukchi Sea to the tip of California to freeze the footprint of bottom trawling to stop the expansion of this destructive gear,” Oceana’s Susan Murray said.

The federal council released a discussion paper on the “Assessment of the Effect of Fishing on Essential Fish Habitat 2022” in January, with the intent of that being a starting point for the five-year EFH review. Oceana contends there are several egregious deficiencies in that analysis and voiced its concern in public comments to the Ecosystem Committee and Scientific and Statistical Committee at the January meeting.

The matter was then scheduled for the June meeting of the council in Sitka, Alaska, but was later pushed back until fall so that the National Marine Fisheries Service could conduct further analyses.

Oceana disagreed with the analysis on three main points. First was that using only coral and sponge habitat that occurs deeper than 300 meters on boulder/cobble habitat disregards 90% or the known North Pacific coral and sponge records from NOAA’s own deep sea corals database, they said.

Second, averaging recovery times for disparate species as long-lived deep-sea corals get averaged with 14 other substantially shorter-lived species, results in a “recovery time” of three to five years for most when it is known deep sea corals may take hundreds of years, if ever, to recover, they said.

Oceana also argued against using only observed bottom trawl trips in the Gulf of Alaska for considerations, contending that it’s well documented that observed trips are shorter in duration and often go to different sites than unobserved trips and that for most years, observer coverage for this fleet has been below 20%.