Trawling Banned Along Huge Area of Alaska Coast

"coral garden" in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. i i

New fish-habitat rules protect areas such as this "coral garden" in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Alberto Lindner/NOAA Fisheries hide caption

itoggle caption Alberto Lindner/NOAA Fisheries
"coral garden" in Alaska's Aleutian Islands.

New fish-habitat rules protect areas such as this "coral garden" in Alaska's Aleutian Islands.

Alberto Lindner/NOAA Fisheries

The U.S. government on Wednesday ordered a ban on a fishing practice called "trawling" along a sizeable portion of Alaska's coast. The practice of dragging heavy nets across the sea floor is blamed for destroying fragile coral habitats.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Good news for some remarkably vibrant but still vulnerable corals off the coast of Alaska. The federal government is banning fisherman from dragging nets there. As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, this is the largest no-trawling zone ever in U.S. waters.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, reporting:

Several years ago, scientists had no idea there were glorious gardens of the brightly colored coral in the waters off Alaska's Aleutian Islands.

Mr. ROBERT STONE (Marine Ecologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): We suspected there was something special going on out there, but we didn't expect to really see anything quite so spectacular.

SHOGREN: Robert Stone is marine ecologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was one of the first scientists to climb into a submarine and see the corals for himself. Some were 16 feet tall and looked like trees.

Mr. STONE: Our first views of the sea floor in the Aleutians was quite surprising, actually, because it reminded me very much of what I've seen in the Caribbean, where you have all of these incredible forms in very vibrant colors. Mostly oranges, but anything ranging from blues to yellows, to pinks.

SHOGREN: Many of these sponges and corals had never been seen before, but in some areas, the scientists also saw signs that fishing trawlers had been there before them. As the boats drag their nets along the bottom to scoop up fish, Stone says they also turn the coral to rubble.

Mr. STONE: You'll see piles of broken animals where they've been scraped and then left behind.

SHOGREN: That's a problem because when the coral is gone, so is the habitat for young fish. To protect that habitat, the government has decided to ban bottom trawling along much of the waters off the Aleutians, an island chain that stretches 1,000 miles west of Alaska's mainland. They're also closing several areas in the Gulf of Alaska, just to the east. And some small, but very special coral gardens will be closed to fishing with any kind of tackle that touches the bottom. Altogether, the ban will cover an area as large as Texas and Wyoming combined. Even that is not expected to have much of an impact on Alaska's fishing fleet. That's because most of the areas where they trawl now will remain open, and that decision has disappointed some scientists. Les Watling is a marine biologist from the University of Maine. He says Alaska's corals are difficult to replace.

Mr. LES WATLING (Marine Biologist, Univeristy of Maine): The deep-sea corals are very slow growing, and live for a century or two centuries.

SHOGREN: He says trawling should be banned and replaced with less damaging methods, like hook and line fishing. But officials who negotiated the ban said that wouldn't have been feasible, and they note that Alaska's fishing industry is losing access to waters that could be valuable for fishing in the future. David Benton(ph) is the Executive Director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, an industry group.

Mr. DAVID BENTON (Executive Director, Marine Conservation Alliance): I know that they're going to have to make some sacrifices, but overall they're pretty much supportive of what's going on.

SHOGREN: And some environmentalists say they're pleased with the ban because it shows that there's a way to protect ocean habitat while still allowing some fishing to continue. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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