Council’s Bering Sea fishing decision based on science, not bias

This week, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NFPMC) ruled that it will not be placing a limit on trawl fishing in the Bering Sea’s Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons, despite claims by various NGOs that the practice places vulnerable coral in danger there.

Greenpeace, taking the lead on the NGO protests of the NFPMC’s decision, suggested that the council was catering to fishing industry special interests; however, the evidence appears to show that the NFPMC used government-backed science in its decision, and the science Greenpeace is pushing to back its opinion is hampered by, at best, a mild conflict of interest of its own.

The dispute goes back to 2012, when a number of NGOs, including Greenpeace, petitioned NFPMC to set up a trawl fishing ban to protect the coral. The council, in response, asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to look into whether or not there was coral in the canyons, whether it was vulnerable, and whether a unique species or habitat would be lost or irreparably damaged.

What followed was first an analysis of existing fishing data, assembled by NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) and presented to the council in 2013.

“Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons do show some distinguishing physical characteristics … but none based on biological characteristics (i.e., fish, coral and sponge distributions),” the AFSC scientists wrote in their report, a draft of which can be viewed here. “These analyses imply that Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons are not biologically unique.”

The survey found that coral, sea sponge and sea whip, a life form related to soft coral, did exist in the canyons, and that they may be vulnerable to trawl fishing, but no rare species existed, and the same, if not higher concentrations of the creatures were found outside the canyons.

“The analysis of coral, sponge and sea whip presence-absence did not distinguish the canyons from the adjacent slope areas,” the scientists wrote.

To make doubly sure, NOAA did a follow-up “drop cam” study in August and September 2014, where a camera was literally dropped into the canyon to take pictures of the floor. The study verified most of what the initial 2013 report said and went a step further, declaring that the floor of the canyons doesn’t offer the best surface for coral to grow on at all.

“Overall, the densities of corals were low … The low densities were consistent with the absence of hard substrates for coral attachment in most areas of the eastern Bering Sea,” the newer report said.

Greenpeace, by contrast, cited one study from the journal Global Energy and Conservation that labeled the canyons as a potential biological “hotspot” based on it having similar characteristics to other canyons worldwide. That report also cited yet another study published in PLOS One by some of the same authors which contradicts the NOAA report by saying the Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons have “relatively high densities of corals and sponges.”

Using these reports, Greenpeace blasted NPFMC’s decision in a statement last week.

“The science clearly shows this is vulnerable habitat that warrants protection, yet the council caved to industry pressure and ignored the interests of the public and the retailers who are calling for change,” said Jackie Dragon, Greenpeace’s senior oceans campaigner. “The council has heard from over 200,000 people, NGOs, tribal organizations and leading seafood businesses that want to see the canyons protected. It’s time to listen to more than just industrial fishing lobbyists.”

Greenpeace’s argument would be more compelling were it not for the conflict of interest evident on the first page of both of their resources. The Global Energy study has three authors listed, one a scientist from the University of California, but the other two are Greenpeace employees. According to the study, the firsthand observations of the habitat, conducted by submersible, were conducted by Greenpeace itself, not the university. The other study, which appeared in PLOS One, also had a Greenpeace employee listed as one of its authors.

NFPMC is still in session, so exact minutes of what was said when it issued its decision not to ban fishing in the canyons is not yet available, however, since the council asked NOAA to do research before it made its decision, it’s safe to say the NOAA reports definitely informed that decision.

NOAA does not have a reputation of allowing its data to be skewed by industry pressure. If Greenpeace is serious about questioning NOAA’s results, it will need proof from far more independent sources if it wants anyone to take its protests seriously.


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