No corner left untrawled

Even places that most people think of as “natural” aren’t. The New England forest was clear-cut only 100 years ago, the Alaskan wilderness is managed for game (which means killing wolves), the southern California kelp forests are denuded of otters, abalone, and big fish, and on and on. So when a truly natural place is found, wouldn’t it behoove us as a species to protect it, if only to say, “Here is one place in the world that does not reflect us?”

Yeah, right.  Melting sea ice recently uncovered two vast canyons in the Bering Sea, home to slow-growing deep sea corals, crystalline barrel sponges, crinoids, baby king crabs, and on and on. Hard-bottom habitat is scarce in the deep sea, so these are special places. But of course the fisheries eager to trawl for valuable groundfish like rockfish and sable.

I don’t have an inherent problem with fishing – I love seafood. But I have a serious problem with shredding delicate, rare creatures hundreds of years old. Trawling devastated the ocean floor – it’s the equivalent of clear-cutting a forest to flush out a couple deer. Worse, it’s short-sighted. Trawling destroys the very habitat that nurtures commercial species. If all the three-dimensional corals and sponges are ripped up, there’s no hiding place for baby king crabs or tiny salmon.  Check out these before-and-after trawling photos collected by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.

But, since fisheries are a hugely powerful lobby, the National Marine Fisheries Service claims that the Bering Sea canyons are not “habitats of particular concern” and has no plans to protect them. Apparently we indeed must leave our mark everywhere.

While I’m on the topic of “wrecking beautiful creatures with heavy objects,” Deep Sea News has a great series on anchor damage on the Saba Bank in the Netherlands Antilles. Here’s a photo of what an tanker anchor does to a coral reef.  And here’s two underwater movies. Remember that coral takes hundreds of years to grow – even those sponges are probably 50 years old.


6 Responses to No corner left untrawled

  1. Mark Powell says:

    Good stuff, thanks! Don’t you think WE can be a much more powerful lobby than fisheries?

  2. Eric Wolff says:

    Can? Maaaybe. Will? No. It’s the same old problem – the fisheries lobby is small but tightly focused, while the environmental movement is big but diffuse and vague. The fisherman have associations who hire lobbyists. They have relationships with legislators that go back hundreds of years. The environmental movement has a lousy public image – treehuggers anyone? – and only weak political pull. Plus, you simply cannot underestimate the romantic power of the image of the fisherman in his sou’wester braving the stormy seas, much like the romantic image fo the small family farmer. Both are deeply rooted in Americans’ vision of themselves (there’s a fantastic Doonesbury that gets to this in which the widow doonesbury delcares “you can’t stop me, I’m a depression era widow of a World War II veteran living on a family farm” or something like that. The senator responds:, “I yield tot he widow’s awesome iconography”).

    A powerful counter movement to the fisherman and the farmers will require motivating large groups of people for long periods of time. In other words, in means actually changing the American culture of consumption.

  3. Sam says:

    I think perhaps the solution (or part of it) is to shift our style from “counter movement” to working with the fishermen. As you say, poorly managed fisheries are short-sighted, and do damage to fishermen’s livelihood eventually. Environmental groups have had success working with fishermen’s groups to manage fisheries (too lazy to look up links right now), so I say, more of that, please!

    The iconography is an interesting issue, and points to another thing I think the environmental movement needs to do more of: popping the lobbyists’ marketing bubbles. A CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation; ie., factory farm) has pretty much zero in common with the family farmer and his cowboys we think of when we hear “cattle ranch” or “farmer,” but lobbyists get to use the farmer image to encourage Americans to support bullshit measures like our Farm Bill, which actually damage real farmers.

  4. Mark Powell says:

    There are more options than these. Try on this one:

    Seafood buyers are now, in many cases, more invested in the future than fishermen. Also, they want to sell a story of sustainability with their fish. The political deck is being reshuffled.

  5. jebyrnes says:

    Actually, I’ve always wondered if the CSA model could somehow be imported to fisheries – sure, it’s slightly riskier for the shareholders, but, it links people closer with their fish, gives more profit directly to fishermen, and, if done right, can allow people to make sustainability choices and have their dollars go directly to those fishing with sustainable practices.

    Also, you’d get to pick up your weekly “fish box”


  6. kevin z says:

    Thats not a bad idea jebyrnes, except most people view fruit and veggies as a more common use ingredient than fish or crab. Now if they smoked the fish! Thats a whole different story…

    But along with that model why not have a CSA type thing for local (or even national franchises) restaurants near fishing communities to get fresh seafood with the catch season?

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