OPINION: Industrial Trawling in a Climate-Impacted Arctic Undermines Resilience, Adds Needless Risk

NOAA project violates Executive Order of 2016 that bans bottom trawling in the Northern Bering Sea, claim AK tribes and conservationists.

by | February 1, 2024

For the first time, trawlers confined to Eastern Bering Sea may soon head north

Image credit: International Arctic Research Center

Guest opinion by Marissa Wisniewski, Executive Director, Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Jon Warrenchuk, Senior Scientist and Campaign Manager, Oceana 

February 1, 2024

The cold, productive waters of the northern Bering Sea are the traditional and contemporary homelands, and lifeblood of, coastal Yup’ik, St. Lawrence Yupik, Cup’ik and Inupiaq Peoples who have lived in reciprocal relationship with, and relied on, the abundance of marine life for thousands of years. 

This is a place unlike any other in the world where huge migrations of whales, seals, and walruses occur every spring taking advantage of the Arctic’s burst of productivity following the retreat of winter sea ice. Birds arrive from across the world. The Arctic food web connects fish, birds, marine mammals, a rich living seafloor, and coastal Peoples whose ways of life are inextricably tied to the ocean. 

Now, for the first time, the fleet of bottom trawl vessels which has been confined to the southern Bering Sea is eyeing opportunities to expand operations to the north.  There are plenty of reasons to resist such a move. Not only is bottom trawling known for its large volume of bycatch (fish and other marine life wasted in the process of catching their targeted flatfish), but also dragging nets the size of football fields across the bottom of the ocean destroys sensitive seafloor habitat.

The northern Bering Sea is experiencing the impacts of climate change at an accelerated rate, including diminishing sea ice, rising sea levels, warming ocean temperatures, and higher acidity. These changes have profound implications for the region’s ecology, wildlife and the livelihoods and subsistence traditions and food security of coastal communities.

Seventy Tribes carried this message to the White House and, in 2016, President Obama signed an Executive Order creating the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area. It was designed to safeguard this unique region and open a pathway for Tribes to be “at the table” as decisions are made. 

The Executive Order prohibited offshore oil and gas drilling. It established a process for including Tribes in decision-making about increasing and expanding ship traffic. And it reinforced an existing prohibition on bottom trawling established by fishery managers some years earlier. The purpose was to focus management on resilience for the vulnerable region as the forces of climate change unfold and to create new commitment to the Tribes as partners in the governance of their homeland.  

In 2024, the National Marine Fisheries Service seems to have forgotten those safeguards and inclusive decision-making processes. Without consulting the Tribal Advisory Council, the Fisheries Service initiated a multi-year study (with field work beginning as early as this year) to trawl up thousands of acres of northern Bering Sea seafloor habitat to see what can survive, unleashing carbon currently sequestered in the sediment.

Without our knowledge or consent, our organizations were even listed as partners in the project – we do not support it and we are not alone in being blindsided by the momentum or supposed community interest concerning this proposal

amcc and oceana

NMFS completed a similar study decades ago in the southern Bering Sea, observing that chronic trawling reduced living seafloor structure and the remaining animals were smaller and less abundant.  

Is it worth disturbing thousands of acres of northern Bering Sea habitat to reiterate that trawling disturbs habitat?  If local communities did want additional study of the area, why not explore non-destructive sampling with video and eDNA, local knowledge and historical datasets?  The climate crisis is here and communities are engaged in climate adaptation and emergency plans. Coastal Alaskans are concerned about being able to harvest enough food and the possibility of having to relocate above the storm surge zone. Trawling, even for science, causes real harm.

This is not the time to expand the footprint of industrial-scale bottom trawl fisheries. Rather it’s time to put the brakes on this project and for the National Marine Fisheries Service to dedicate its expertise and funding to protecting marine resources.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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