Bering Sea Canyons May Become New Marine Wildlife Preserve

The Federal agency responsible for commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea have made, what some consider, a landmark decision Monday, June 3rd. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, or NPFMC, has decided to consider classifying the Bering Sea Canyons as a wildlife preserve.

The NPFMC is conducting its meetings in Juneau this week. The Federal agency is comprised of 15 members from Alaska, Washington State and Oregon. Alaska’s Governor nominates five candidates to serve on the Federal fisheries council.

Marine biologist, John Hocevar, is the Ocean’s Campaign Director for Greenpeace. Hocevar is in Juneau and says the NPFMC’s decision to consider naming the Bering Sea a wildlife preserve took a lot of time.

“And after 10 years or so, the council is finally considering whether to protect the largest under water canyons’ in the world, out in the Bering Sea,” Hocevar said.

The Federal council will review the available science on the Bering Sea Canyons, and decide whether or not to start a scoping process.

“So that could range from, really from just about nothing at all, all the way to fully protected marine reserves,” Hocevar said. “Which would be closed to fishing, and this could be very helpful to not just the ecosystem but for the long term sustainability of fisheries in the Bering Sea.”

Hocevar says environmental groups and Tribal Governments including the Alaska Federation of Natives, and the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council have been lobbying NPFMC governing body to protect the Bering Sea from over-fishing for over ten years. Hocevar outlined some of the options the Federal agency could take.

“They could range from status-quo, doing nothing at all, all the way up to actually creating some really meaningful protections,” Hocevar said.

Lots of research will be needed not only to the ecological effects, but also the economic effects, the marine wildlife preserve designation would cause in the Bering Sea.

Hocevar says Greenpeace started its global environmental advocacy here in Alaska in 1971 when they stopped nuclear testing out in the Aleutians. Since then, Green peace has traveled the Alaska coast asking communities what kinds of changes they are experiencing.

“They were seeing fewer fish, they were having a harder time with subsistence as well as commercial fishing, and more than anything we heard that they would really like it if we could help them get the big factory trawlers farther off their shores, which led us specifically to the canyons,” Hocevar said.

Since then, Greenpeace has been the first to document and see the Bering Sea Canyons. Scientists have since nicknamed the Bering Sea Shelf as the “green belt” due to its high productivity.

“It was very interesting to hear that only a small percentage of the catch was coming from these canyons,” Hocevar said. “So it’s high enough that there is a threat to these fragile coral and sponges but not so high that it will be costly to move out of the canyon.”

Hocevar says the Pollock fishery currently uses less then four percent of the canyons. He added that the Chairman of the NPFMC felt the council had enough information to make a decision on whether or not to designate the Bering Sea Shelf as a Marine Wildlife Preserve. That vote is expected on Monday, June 10.

Sophie Evan is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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