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Ocean closures restrict trawlers

Fish - Shutting nearly 150,000 square miles is the largest Pacific Coast effort to protect habitat and ground fish stocks
Thursday, March 09, 2006

Trawlers with nets that scoop up fish along the sea floor will be banned from nearly 150,000 square miles of ocean extending 200 miles off the Pacific Coast to protect ailing fisheries, federal regulators announced Wednesday.

The permanent ban -- to be officially imposed in May -- is not expected to significantly harm the fishing industry, which will still have areas open to it off the coasts of Oregon, Washington and California. However, the closure to trawlers is the largest effort ever on the Pacific Coast to protect marine habitat and assure that ground fish stocks thrive, said Steve Copps, a senior policy analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Weighted trawl nets drag along the bottom of the ocean floor, ripping up rocky reefs, coral formations and other habitat that various species of ground fish need to survive.

"Fish need a place to make little fish, and those little fish need a place to hide from big fish that want to eat them," Copps said. "That's habitat, and that is what this is designed to save."

The proposal to the federal regulators came from the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, meeting this week in Seattle. It follows by a day the recommendation by federal fish managers to close most of the Oregon and California coasts to commercial and recreational salmon fishing this season, an action that would devastate the coastal salmon industry and create retail scarcity for ocean-caught salmon.

In announcing its decision Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected a more sweeping proposal by the council to ban trawlers over a 300,000-square-mile area. Much of the additional area off California is so deep, nearly 12,000 feet, that trawlers pose no threat there, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the administration.

The Pacific trawl fishing industry has been in decline for several years. In the 1980s, Oregon's fleet hauled in as much as 40 percent of the lower-depths catch from Canada to Mexico. That changed in 2000, when the federal government declared a fishery disaster as alarm grew about collapsing stocks of ground fish species.

Wednesday's action furthers restrictions on the trawlers, although those that have survived past cutbacks are expected to be able to weather this decision. That is in no small part due to how the decision was made. For three years a coalition of environmental and fishing industry groups worked together to identify areas that needed protection while preserving areas for fishing.

A spokesman for Oceana, one of the environmental groups working on the project, said the group was disappointed that the larger area was not protected but was grateful any protections at all were granted.

"It's a mixed bag," said Jim Ayers, vice president of Oceana.

The council recommends to the federal government how best to preserve the ocean fishery off the Pacific Coast. Federal managers then choose to accept, or reject, such proposals.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Peter Sleeth: 503-294-4119; petersleeth@news.oregonian.com




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