A Conspiracy Afloat?

Bottom trawling destroys habitat. Large swaths of New England's protected waters are now at risk. Photo credit: Brian Skerry

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

There appears to be a conspiracy in our midst. Or so, some would think. Saving Seafood, “a 501(c)(6) association organized as a non-profit corporation funded by the fishing industry,” appears to have become rather discomposed by uncovering the fact that some people in New England believe that the practice of ripping up the ocean floor with heavy bottom trawling fishing gear might have deleterious effects on ocean fish and wildlife and the habitat that these species depend upon. Clearly, CLF is mistaken, Saving Seafood claims, as they go to a wide-ranging and energetic attack today on a two-week old blog post of mine titled “Destructive Trawling and the Myth of Farming the Sea.”

The point of my blog was to call into question a reference that New England Fishery Management Council member Laura Ramsden made during a Council meeting that protecting habitat areas (i.e. “closing” to trawling) might cause “damage” and the potential risks of not tilling the soil.” (Ms. Ramsden replied to my blog with a cordial note, and I responded. It’s still posted if you want to read it.) In the blog I also make the point that not dragging heavy bottom trawls and dredges across sensitive seafloor habitat (i.e. “habitat protection”) benefits the health and productivity of our region’s fisheries.

To be clear, the Conservation Law Foundation doesn’t have any particular beef with the practice of bottom trawling that hasn’t already been made – and documented – previously. We’ve read the studies that show protecting habitat from bottom trawling helps to produce a larger abundance of commercial fish stocks. We know that even sandy areas scoured by strong currents produce “biogenic structures” that are important habitat for fish, but still vulnerable to trawling. We have learned that protecting habitat from bottom trawling has beneficial aspects beyond just controlling the mortality of cod and other groundfish. One might also observe the documented evidence that fishermen often fish along the boundaries of protected areas for a reason.

There are actually quite a few impacts that my previous blog post didn’t even touch on. Heck, I didn’t even mention the issue of bycatch and the fact that scientists have documented significant rates of accidental catch of whales and dolphins in trawls for years. But, we won’t get into that.

Saving Seafood claims that some areas of the ocean are “highly dynamic” and that strong currents and high winds can move around sand and gravel on the seafloor. To this claim we say: “Agreed.” We also maintain that protecting ocean habitat from bottom trawling is a common sense measure for managing productive fisheries and a healthy ocean that is recognized in New England and across the globe by scientific research, anecdotal information from fishermen and photographic and video evidence. In the face of the crisis with groundfish like Atlantic cod, areas excluding heavy fishing gears should be expanded, not eliminated.

We can compare the impacts of some fishing gears to others; we can compare codfish to scallops; and we can compare apples to oranges. We agree the wind can be fierce and currents strong. In the end you can’t ignore the obvious fact and common understanding that dragging heavy pieces of fishing gear that sweep up or destroy both the sea life and the physical structures of the bottom of the sea is going to take a long-term toll on habitat, fisheries productivity and industry sustainability.


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