PFMC Opens Areas Formerly Closed to Trawling; Permanently Protects 135,000 Square Miles

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Seafood News] by Susan Chambers and Amanda Buckle – April 12, 2018

This week the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) adopted major changes to the West Coast groundfish fishery after more than 30 meetings with industry members and ENGOs. The Council announced Wednesday that 135,000 square miles of ocean off the West Coast will be permanently protected, while a previously closed area of roughly 3,000 square miles will be reopened to commercial fishing.

“The decision demonstrates the Council’s commitment to protecting important fish habitats including rocky reefs, corals, and sponges,” said Council Chair Phil Anderson. “The decision was informed by sound science and further informed by the fishing industry and environmental community who are to be commended for their important contribution to the Council’s decision. The result provides an increase in habitat protection while providing greater opportunity for our trawl fleet to more efficiently harvest target stocks. The West Coast trawl fishery has been reduced in size and transformed into a sustainable fishery including full accountability that provides that public with high quality fish products.”

Much of the area that has been reopened was closed in 2002 — the Rockfish Conservation Area, a strip of area from the Canada to Mexico borders — to minimize catch of rockfish stocks listed as overfished at the time. While the RCA covered areas of sensitive, high value habitat like underwater cliffs, rock piles and pinnacles where several of the depleted species congregate and reproduce, it also prevented access to vast areas of sandy, soft-bottom seafloor where more plentiful target species like Dover sole and sablefish are found.

Most of those overfished rockfish stocks have since been rebuilt to sustainable population levels, which allowed for the reopening, Environmental Defense Fund said in a press release.

PFMC’s decision was backed by the EDF, as well as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nature Conservancy, who worked with fishermen such as Oregon Trawl Commission Director Brad Pettinger and California Shellfish Company’s Special Projects Leader Tom Libby to compile data to identify currently unprotected areas of sensitive habitat and protected areas that could be reopened.

“This was an amazing team effort, with fishermen and environmentalists focused on the goal of opening up closed fishing grounds and carving out the areas that really need protection,” said Ralph Brown, a fisherman from Brookings, Oregon. “I’m looking forward to going back to some of my old favorite fishing grounds.”

The new closure will protect corals off the coast of California while also giving new opportunities for the bottom trawl fleet.

“This is compelling conservation because it recognizes that teamwork between conservationists and fishermen, coupled with strong science, can lead to major changes that make our West Coast groundfish industry more sustainable, resilient and profitable over the long term,” Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program West Coast Director Shems Jud said.

When the fishery adopted catch shares in 2011 discarding of bycatch dropped 80 percent and it became clear it was time to update the RCA, because the new system strongly incentivizes fishermen to avoid overfished species.

“We knew that if we could identify currently unprotected areas of sensitive habitat, including areas inside the RCA, the Council could protect those areas while opening up valuable fishing grounds,” said Jud. “We worked together to combine information from new academic studies, fisheries observer data, and modeling with fishermen’s logbooks, charts and knowledge gained from decades of combined fishing experience.”

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