Trawler Ban Needed Now, Science Panel Reports

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, March 19, 2002 (ENS) - Bottom trawling, a method of fishing that drags big, heavy nets across the sea floor, is killing vast numbers of marine animals, warns a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. The panel responsible for the report recommends that the government close some areas to all trawlers, and limit trawler access to other regions.

The report, titled "Effects of Bottom Trawling and Dredging on Seafloor Habitats," finds that bottom trawling damages the habitat where juvenile fishes hide from their predators, and can alter marine ecosystems enough to offer at least a partial explanation for the declines in fish populations seen in recent decades.

net load

A full net load of fish is brought aboard the Miller Freeman. (Two photos by Allen Shimada, courtesy NMFS)
At the request of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reviewed the environmental effects of trawling and dredging, types of fishing that environmentalists, members of the scientific community and many fishermen conservationists have long claimed damage essential fish habitat.

Under the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, the regional fisheries councils responsible for managing most marine fisheries in U.S. waters are required to identify and protect essential fish habitat for each fish stock managed by the federal government.

The NAS found that almost all of the councils are failing to meet this mandate, saying they cannot determine what areas qualify as essential fish habitat. However, "the lack of area specific studies on the effect of trawling and dredging gear is insufficient justification to postpone management of fishing effects on seafloor habitat," the NAS states.

Instead of waiting for additional studies to be performed, "fishery managers should evaluate the effects of trawling based on the known responses of specific habitat types and species to disturbance by different fishing gears and levels of fishing effort, even when region specific studies are not available," the report recommends.


The National Academy of Sciences report suggests that trawlers need to be barred from sensitive fish habitat.
Establishing areas that are closed to fishing is necessary to protect a range of vulnerable habitats, the report suggests. Some habitats, including corals, sponges and seagrass beds, are disturbed by even low levels of fishing, the NAS researchers learned.

Existing data on seabed characteristics, fishing effort and catch could be used to create geographic databases for major fishing grounds, the report says. These databases could be used today to improve management decisions about the potential impact of fishing on habitats.

"This report clearly shows that the councils' usual excuse, there has not been a specific study in their area, doesn't hold water," said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a national coalition of more than 140 environmental organizations, fishing associations and marine science groups dedicated to promoting the long term sustainability of marine fishing.

"It is again up to Congress to send a clear message that management plans must protect habitat from damaging fishing practice and they must do it now," Crockett added.

Today, Representative Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican, announced that he plans to introduce the Ocean Habitat Protection Act, which would bar the most harmful trawling gear from the most fragile seafloor habitats, including coral and rocky reefs and undersea boulder fields. The bill has several bipartisan cosponsors.


A section of the sea floor before a bottom trawler passed through. (Two photos by Keith Sainsbury, courtesy Marine Conservation Biology Institute)
"As an avid fisherman, I have strong concerns about the future of fishing and the devastating effects of mobile fishing gear," said Hefley. "The ocean environment is a diverse and beautiful home to coral beds, sea grasses and fish species that are needlessly being destroyed by large roller and rockhopper gear. Under the Ocean Habitat Protection Act, the size of ground gear used on bottom trawls will be limited, reducing the impact of trawling on seafloor habitat."

The bill, an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, would ban the use of rockhopper and roller gear larger than eight inches in diameter on bottom trawls. These gears are designed to allow bottom trawlers access to some of the nation's most fragile coral and rocky habitats.

The NAS report identifies these as the seafloor types where trawling has the highest impact.


The same section of sea floor after being trawled
Rocky bottoms were avoided by most fishers until the 1980s, when roller and rockhopper gear came into widespread use. These heavy rubber disks gave commercial fishers access to areas that had become the last refuges of many fish species.

"The use of rockhopper and roller gear is destroying some of our most precious and vital fish habitats," said Phil Kline, director of the American Oceans Campaign's fisheries program, and a former commercial fisher. "There are other methods of catching fish that don't destroy the very habitats our fish depend on for survival. It's time to stop this kind of wasteful, destructive, demolition fishing."

Last summer, Representative Sam Farr, a California Democrat, introduced the Fisheries Recovery Act of 2001 (HR 2570), which addresses many of the concerns raised by the National Academy's report. That bill would change the way essential fish habitat is protected by closing certain areas to known habitat damaging fishing, unless there was science that showed that fishing with the gear would not unduly damage the habitat in that area.

The bill also provides funding for cooperative research with fishermen and scientists for the development of less damaging fishing gear and incentives for fishermen to convert to such gear types.

The NAS report recommends that government fund the development of gear that minimizes bottom contact to reduce habitat disturbance. Fishers and scientists must work together to design gear that will allow fishers to earn a living while protecting ocean habitats, the report notes.


A factory fishing trawler at sea. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Even with better fishing gear, some areas will need to be closed to fishing, the NAS report says.

"Closed areas are necessary to protect a range of vulnerable, representative habitats," the researchers wrote. "Closures are particularly useful for protecting biogenic habitats (e.g., corals, bryozoans, hydroids, sponges, seagrass beds) that are disturbed by even low levels of fishing effort."

In addition to asserting that essential fish habitat protection plans are necessary now, the NAS study also recommends that the National Marine Fisheries Service work on future scientific studies to get the best possible information available to the regional councils for future plans and to bring fishery management plans that are currently in effect into compliance with existing law.

The National Academy of Sciences report is available at: