By Courtney Mattison
Hidden below the surface of Alaska’s icy waters lie the world’s largest underwater canyons, both more massive than America’s Grand Canyon. Home to orcas, walrus and fur seals, albatross and kittiwakes, king crab, squid, salmon and coldwater corals, brittle stars and sponges, the continental slope and canyons of the Bering Sea (known as the Bering Sea “Green Belt”) are home to an immense diversity of wildlife. Spanning more than 770,000 square miles between Western Alaska and Russia’s Siberian coast, the Bering Sea is an area of immense ecological value is also the source of more than half of the seafood caught in the United States and is subject to devastating commercial fishing tactics. This week, Mission Blue is launching a petition to urge Alaska’s North Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect the Bering Sea canyons and Green Belt.
When Mission Blue founder and National Geographic Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle named the Bering Sea Canyons as the 19th Mission Blue Hope Spot in 2013, she highlighted the importance of this vibrant ecosystem as a part of the “life support system” we know as the ocean. With healthy fish stocks and bottom-dwelling communities of corals and sponges come healthy populations of whales, sharks and the greatest predator of all – humans. The vast food web that the Bering Sea sustains makes global ripples throughout the ocean, providing nutrients to numerous fish species that are the lifeblood of commercial fisheries in Alaska and beyond. In fact, the Bering Sea supports some of the largest salmon, crab, and whitefish fisheries in the world.[i]
Commercial fishing in the Bering Sea canyons and Green Belt brings with it an arsenal of destructive tools like bottom trawlers, which scrape the seafloor like lawn mowers and destroy everything in their paths – including cold-water corals that are hundreds of years old. Fishing methods like this are also inefficient, bringing in tons of bycatch.
Alaska’s North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) is charged with shaping fishing policy in the region. For over a decade the NPFMC has considered requests to safeguard the Bering Sea canyons and Green Belt from harmful fishing tactics that destroy fragile benthic communities along the seafloor. These deliberations have resulted in lots of valuable data collection to identify significant concentrations of deep-sea corals and sponges, but little actual policy change. Greenpeace Senior Oceans Campaigner and friend of Mission Blue Jackie Dragon has been a voice of reason for this process since joining the Greenpeace campaign to protect the Bering Sea, which has already garnered over 200,000 supporters. She has written extensively on the subject and testified before the NPFMC about the importance of moving forward from data collection to the lengthy process of scoping and analyzing various alternatives to the harmful fishing tactics currently being implemented in the region.
With this new petition, Mission Blue hopes to ignite public support among an even greater community to stand alongside the more than 200,000 people, environmental and indigenous groups, and hundreds of businesses – including many of our nation’s largest supermarkets like Safeway, Costco and Trader Joe’s – to call on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect these treasured habitats. We urge the council to implement a network of benthic protected areas that includes a representative sample of habitats found in the Bering Sea canyons and Green Belt and to move swiftly to analyze options for mitigating fishing impacts.
Featured image (top): The Vibrant Bering Sea (© NOAA)