Bering Sea Canyons: Interview with Merrick Burden, Marine Conservation Alliance

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During the next year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will undertake a scientific review of what is known about the Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons in the Bering Sea. These immense underwater canyons cut into the edge of the vast and flat continental shelf off mainland Alaska. Zhemchug is, in fact, the largest canyon on the planet. It has two main branches and is nearly 2 miles (2.6 km) deep, 144 miles (233 km) long, and 62 miles (100 km) wide. By contrast, the Grand Canyon in northwestern Arizona is about 1 mile (1.6 km) deep, 277 miles (433 km) long, and 18 miles (28.8 km) wide. East of Zhemchug is Pribilof, a slightly smaller canyon, the edge of which is about 16 miles (25 km) south of St. George Island, the southern most of the two Pribilof Islands.
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The following discussion with Merrick Burden, Executive Director of the Marine Conservation Alliance provides helpful context. The Alaska-raised Burden comes to the Marine Conservation Alliance from an extensive fisheries background, including time on the water as well as on land, where he worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Most recently, Burden was the senior fisheries economist for the Environmental Defense Fund.
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[Editor’s note: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recently made seafloor and coastal maps easily viewable online here]
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QUESTION: Tell me about the Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons in Alaska’s Bering Sea. Why are these canyons unique ecologically?
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ANSWER: The Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons are two of sixteen submarine canyon features that exist in the Bering Sea. These immense features channel nutrient-rich water from the deep basin of the Bering Sea up the continental slope and onto the relatively shallow continental shelf. The result is an abundance of plankton which is the first link of the food chain for the region.
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QUESTION: As you’ve noted, the Bering Sea is among the most productive waters on earth. What explains this phenomenon?
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ANSWER: The productivity of the Bering Sea is the result of several interrelated phenomena. One of the largest drivers of this abundance occurs at the continental shelf break. Here, water from the deep basin upwells at the edge of the Alaska continental shelf, one of the broadest such shelf regions in the world. The infusion of nutrients in this area supports large populations of plankton which contribute to making the Bering Sea among the most productive seas on earth.
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Another main contributor is the seasonal sea ice that develops in the Bering Sea in the winter. When this ice melts, lower salinity water is introduced. The mixing of this lower salinity water also fosters plankton growth. This productivity supports some of the largest fisheries in the world, most of which have been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
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QUESTION: There is an abundance of marine life in the Bering Sea. What protections exist for bottom dwelling (i.e. benthic) and open ocean (i.e. pelagic) invertebrates and vertebrates, such as corals, sponges, fishes, sea birds, and marine mammals?
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ANSWER: The North Pacific Fishery Management Council uses a combination of tools to protect the marine life of the Bering Sea. These include area closures (a spatial management measure), gear restrictions (to limit contact with the sea floor and incidental by-catch), hard catch limits (closing fisheries when quotas are achieved), rights-based management regimes (quotas that are allocated among fisheries, i.e. “catch shares”), a ban on fishing for forage fish, and an overall “ecosystem cap” (limiting how much can be removed from the Bering Sea in total on an annual basis). Both on-board observers and technology means are employed to continuously monitor the effectiveness of these measures.
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QUESTION: Tell me about the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC). Who comprises the NPFMC, what pressures do they face to maintain or to close this area to commercial fishing, and are they free to consider all options, including a permanent marine reserve, seasonal protections, or specific catch quotas?
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ANSWER: The NPFMC is comprised of 11 voting members—including Federal representation from NOAA, state representation from the Fish and Game/Wildlife Divisions of Alaska, Washington, and Oregon, and other seats filled by members of the public—and four non-voting members that help to advise the Council: the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Department of State.
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When the Council takes up the issue of Bering Sea canyons, they will likely do so under the Essential Fish Habitat provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Through that policy vehicle, the Council has a suite of tools available to it, such as the establishment of habitat conservation areas and requirements that vessels deploy certain types of gear. They can recommend research priorities for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in order to better understand these areas. They can also decide whether the status quo is acceptable. Their task is to use the best available science to determine whether existing management measures are sufficient to maintain sustainable fisheries, or whether additional measures may be necessary.
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The key question the Council will wrestle with may not be whether these canyon features are important or not, but rather how does fishing impact them and is that impact acceptable? In order to begin answering that question, a scientific review is needed to examine the current state of the science and to ensure the science can be used properly in fishery management decision-making. This science-based process is essential to arriving at sound decisions that weigh all the necessary factors in determining what level of impact is acceptable or not. It is important that everyone with a stake in this issue participate in the process and support balanced scientific investigation.
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QUESTION: The local, regional, and national economic importance of the Bering Sea’s commercial fisheries, and of these two canyons, is profound. What fishes are caught in this region, how are these species used, and how long have they been commercially fished?
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ANSWER: The Bering Sea hosts a very diverse array of marine species, including approximately 25 commercially important species. These include groundfish species (e.g. cod, flatfish, and pollock), crab species (e.g. king and snow crab), scallops, Pacific halibut, salmon, and herring.
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The economic importance of the region has been growing since the 1880s when the US first began fishing cod. Large scale harvesting operations developed in the mid-1950s when Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Soviet vessels were prevalent. In the early 1970s, the total commercial catch peaked at nearly 2.3 million tons. Management decisions have since reduced that tonnage, resulting in a sustainable harvest of between 1.5 and 2.0 million tons annually for many years. This success is something we believe should be celebrated as the type of economic benefit and resource stewardship that responsible fishery management can bring.
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QUESTION: The Bering Sea pollock, cod, halibut, flatfish, sablefish, and salmon fisheries are managed in an ecologically sustainable manner, as judged by the independent Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
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Considering that harvesting or producing any food will have both positive and negative consequences, how do US fishery managers weigh the impacts of commercial fishing?
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ANSWER: It is important to first understand that fishing, by its very definition, has an impact on nature. To continue to feed the planet with seafood, the conversation that we as a society need to have is not whether human impact is okay, but rather how much impact is okay. In some cases, what is acceptable and what is not is relatively straightforward. For instance, over harvesting the resource is unacceptable.
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Other types of impacts are less clear, such as the impact fishing may have on the ocean floor. For instance, we try to avoid disruption to organisms like corals, but have thus far decided that fishing impacts to mud and sand on the ocean floor are acceptable. Getting there required us to consider the importance of seafloor structure and structure-forming invertebrates (such as corals), the role they play in helping other marine species, and the impact fishing gear can have on them.
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The result has been the creation of habitat conservation areas where we know there are high densities of corals that serve as habitat, and the shifting of fishing activity toward those muddy and sandy bottoms mostly free of corals. These are the types of thought processes the Council will consider when weighing the impact of fishing.
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QUESTION: Describe what happens when a habitat protection area is created in the Bering Sea. Are there other implications that need to be considered when contemplating these protections?
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ANSWER: Marine habitat protections in the U.S. vary widely in the legal protections they afford to natural and cultural resources and ecological processes. Accordingly, they can have a variety of impacts that can be seen as both positive and negative. Some are established as a precautionary measure and serve to maintain the status quo where little to no fishing may have occurred.
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Other habitat protection areas shut down highly productive fishing grounds. In this latter situation, secondary and tertiary effects must be considered. For instance, if fishing vessels are forced to move away from productive fishing grounds and toward those that are less productive, they must compensate by fishing more intensely or more extensively. This increases the cost of fishing, and therefore the price that the consumer will pay for that seafood.
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What may be more important, however, is the fact that more time on the water in less productive areas can increase bycatch of unwanted species, as well as increase impacts to the habitat in the areas that remain open. This occurs while fishing vessels are following fish throughout the Bering Sea. As those fish move through closed areas, fishing vessels move to the second or third best area where their “catch per unit effort” is smaller and more time must be spent to catch a given quantity. It is important that managers consider the possibility for these types of unintended consequences.
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[Editor’s note: A nice map published in August 2009 by the National Marine Protected Areas Center depicts the location of MPAs in Alaskan waters.]
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QUESTION: Some environmental activist organizations have villainized commercial fishermen and women and accused them of clinging to a dying way of life. Tell me how it really works, or does the characterization have a ring of truth to it?
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ANSWER: Commercial fishing may be the last industry that relies solely on the natural environment to produce food for the world’s human population. In contrast to fishing, terrestrial farming significantly alters the land and replants it with crops that may not be native or capable of surviving without tending.
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Any conversation about doing away with fishing needs to include a discussion of the alternative ways of producing that lost source of protein if we don’t have wild fisheries. I’m doubtful we would be very pleased with the alternatives and their impacts. Try to imagine the type of industry necessary to replace the millions of tons of seafood produced in the Bering Sea and North Pacific each year. Those that want to severely restrict commercial fishing often miss this big picture perspective.
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All of this is not to say that the track record of commercial fishing is perfect. It isn’t, but in places like the North Pacific and elsewhere it appears we are getting it right. We can learn the lessons from these successes and replicate them in parts of the world that are looking for ways to make their fisheries sustainable. Where fisheries are done in a sustainable manner, these should be touted as victories for fishermen, the conservation community, and our global society.
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QUESTION: The DeepWorker submersibles that Greenpeace sent to the bottom of Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons in 2007 found some corals and sponges across a largely mud and sand ocean bottom. These dives also detected evidence of trawl and longline gear impacts on some corals and sponges.
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What is the extent of the impact that fishing has had in these areas and conversely, what conclusions might be drawn when corals and sponges are found in long-fished areas?
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ANSWER: It’s difficult to accurately quantify the extent of fishing impact in these areas. In the submersible explorations you reference, around two-tenths of one percent of video frames taken from those submersible dives recorded the presence of corals. Fishing gear disruption of any kind was detected in an even smaller number than that.
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However, the authors of the study define a line or track through mud as “fishing gear disruption,” so what most of us envision when thinking of “fishing gear disruption” is almost certainly even lower than what is described using this definition. The conclusion that could be drawn from these observations is a success story: responsible commercial fishing has coexisted alongside the benthic communities in these areas for decades.
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QUESTION: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the University of California at Santa Barbara were also involved with the Greenpeace 2007 research cruise.
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Is a consensus arising on what, if any, subsequent scientific studies should be conducted? Are collaborative efforts underway or is there the risk of dueling “my scientists” versus “your scientists”?
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ANSWER: All parties should embrace collaborative research efforts between agencies, the industry, and the conservation community. A wealth of information, expertise, perspectives and opinions reside among all of us who are interested in the marine environment. If shared, this knowledge and commitment could accelerate and expand our understanding of marine ecosystems and the role of commercial and recreational fishing. Healthy discourse on such issues is important and vital.
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However, for scientific advancements to play a thoughtful part of the civic process of setting public policy, an impartial review is necessary. When it comes to federal fishery management, NOAA and the NPFMC’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) are central to vetting the quality of the science. Decision makers rely heavily on an unbiased review from agency staff and the SSC to characterize scientific information and to help articulate the implications of different policy pathways. Without an unbiased perspective from NOAA and the SSC, the decision-making process would become suspect and in jeopardy of being compromised.
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QUESTION: The global appetite for seafood shows no signs of abating. If fisheries closures force more of the seafood demanded by US consumers to be imported, which other countries manage their fisheries as well as we do ours?
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ANSWER: Some have started to say that U.S. fisheries are the most heavily regulated fisheries in the world. Whether that’s true or not isn’t clear, but what is safe to say is that U.S. fishery management is now one of the more sustainable models in the world (though there is still room for improvement). This is a victory in many respects, but if it results in seafood consumption shifting from U.S. produced seafood toward seafood produced from a less sustainable model, then we will have merely exported an environmental problem and punished U.S. fishermen that are doing things right. Closing off more fishing grounds in the Bering Sea would illustrate the point.
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To date, we have developed numerous habitat conservation areas in the North Pacific that cover hundreds of millions of acres, some of which had been valuable fishing grounds. Each time productive areas are closed, the cost of fishing goes up and the ability to make up the catch formerly coming from the closed area is called into question. Eventually cost will rise too much, or the industry will not be able to catch what it had in the past, and consumers will be forced to look to other regions or nations for seafood. Demand will start to increase for seafood that may have been caught in a less sustainable regulatory environment and we will, in a sense, reward those with less sustainable practices.
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[Editor's note: The US currently imports 86 percent of the seafood that our population consumes.]

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