Fisheries Protections Implemented in North Pacific Alaskan Seas

Washington – The National Marine Fisheries Service has established the Aleutian Islands Habitat Conservation Area in Alaska, creating almost 280 thousand square nautical miles of protected habitat.

Creation of the area will establish a network of fishing closures in the Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska. Most of the area will be closed to bottom trawling, although specific sites that have been trawled repeatedly in the past will remain open.

The action will extend new protections to cold water corals, and especially fragile coral gardens, only discovered by scientists in 2002. Research indicates that the Aleutian Islands may harbor one of the most diverse deep-water corals in the world, with at least 25 species or subspecies believed to be native to the archipelago which floats off mainland Alaska, across the Pacific, coming within kilometers of Russia.

Designated areas around the Aleutian Islands will protect the coral gardens from all bottom-contact fishing gear, including trawls, pots and dredges, according to a July 31 news release from the fisheries service, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Cold water coral ecosystems are less well known, and less understood, than their relatives located in tropical waters. They are found in water depths of 200-1,000 meters, and like their tropical cousins, they form the support system for a complex web of marine life. Though cold water corals originally were thought to be rather rare, research over the last two years has detected tens of thousands of cold water coral reefs, most of them in the Pacific.

In the Gulf of Alaska, 10 areas along the continental slope will be closed to bottom trawling to protect hard-bottom habitats that may be important to rockfish. In southeast Alaska, five small areas will be closed to all bottom contact fishing gear to protect dense thickets of red tree corals.

Another fifteen areas offshore also will be closed to bottom contact fishing gear to protect unique seamount habitats, another recently discovered and little-understood deep-sea ecosystem.

Creation of the Aleutian Islands Habitat Conservation Area comes just six weeks after President Bush created the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument farther south in the central Pacific Ocean. This tropical archipelago is also home to a diversity of life, some of which is found nowhere else in the world.  The newly created monument is almost 2,600 kilometers across and is home to more than 7,000 marine species. (See related article.)

For additional information on ocean protection efforts, see the electronic journal Shared Oceans, Shared Future.