Largest marine protected area in U.S.

NOAA Fisheries formalized the decision to proceed with designating the largest marine protected area in U.S. waters-bigger that the entire states of Texas and Colorado combined. The new Aleutian Islands Habitat Conservation Area will prohibit bottom trawling in an area exceeding 274,000 square nautical miles. The agency’s decision also includes protections for other areas and new measures to identify and conserve essential fish habitat in Alaska.

The decision is consistent with a February recommendation from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Monday’s approval of the Record of Decision formalizes unprecedented new ocean habitat protections in the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Beyond the Aleutian Islands Habitat Conservation Area, other protections in the Aleutians include a Bowers Ridge Habitat Conservation Zone where all mobile bottom-tending fishing gear will be prohibited, and six Aleutian Islands Coral Habitat Protection Areas where all bottom contact fishing will be prohibited.

In the Gulf of Alaska, ten habitat conservation areas will be closed to bottom trawling to protect habitats for rockfish and other species. Five small areas in Southeast Alaska will be closed to all bottom contact fishing to protect uncommon habitats including red tree corals. Additionally, 15 areas surrounding seamounts underwater mountains will be closed to bottom contact fishing.

The decision caps a four-year re-evaluation of the way essential habitats are identified and the effects of bottom trawling and other fishing activities on sea floor habitats.

“This decision demonstrates the commitment by NOAA and the North Pacific Council to manage fisheries carefully and takes risk-averse steps to ensure sustainable fisheries into the future,” said Sue Salveson, NOAA Fisheries’ Acting Regional Administrator for Alaska.

NOAA prepared an environmental impact statement to study threats to fish habitat in Alaska in response to a 1999 lawsuit by environmental groups. The nationwide lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., challenged whether the agency and five of the eight regional fishery management councils were doing enough to regulate the effects of bottom fishing on Essential Fish Habitat. The court found that the agency had met the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, but needed to conduct more thorough analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The analysis, completed by NOAA Fisheries in April, found no indication that fishing in Alaska has more than minimal adverse effects on the habitats that support commercial fisheries. Nevertheless, the environmental impact statement noted considerable scientific uncertainty, which prompted the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to support sweeping new restrictions on fishing as a precaution.

The new closed areas focus on protecting relatively undisturbed habitats where only limited fishing takes place. The measures were developed with extensive input from the fishing industry and environmental groups, and have been praised by all sides as a reasonable compromise.

“The development of these measures was contentious, but we’ve been impressed by the cooperation from stakeholders on all sides of the issue” said Jon Kurland, Assistant Regional Administrator for Habitat Conservation.

In addition to the new restrictions on fishing to protect habitat, the agency’s decision includes a preferred alternative for identifying essential fish habitat in Alaska, which incorporates improved scientific information and delineates important habitats more precisely for many species. The decision also specifies that future efforts to identify habitat areas of particular concern will emphasize specific sites rather than broader categories of habitat.