Yesterday afternoon in Juneau, Alaska, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took a huge step forward to protect the Grand Canyons of the Sea. Despite considerable pressure from powerful fishing interests – the Council will now move forward to identify key coral areas in the Bering Sea Canyons and consider measures to protect them. Translation: we got what we wanted!
After eight days of relentless presentations and discussions on the canyons issue, with so many ups and downs I could not possibly predict where we would end up on this roller coaster ride. The Council moved forward, unanimously, with two motions to begin a process that can, finally, protect the Bering Sea Canyons, and the vibrant ecosystem and productive fisheries they support.
Up till the very last minute industrial-sized fishing industry representatives, especially the pollock trawlers, fought tooth and nail to convince the Council that more research on the canyons was in order, but certainly not anything more. The catch phrase echoing around the Council halls was “they want to kick the can down the road.”
We held strong. No, that’s not enough, we need action now! We know enough to begin the regulatory process to identify protections for the vulnerable coral and sponge habitat in the canyons. It is time to move beyond single species management to holistic management that considers the whole ecosystem and ways to insure its resiliency for the future.
The pollock trawlers tried to take Zhemchug Canyon – The Grand Canyon of the Sea! – off the table for protection. They argued that Zhemchug does not appear unique (you can find many of the same animals just outside the canyon), the slope is not very steep so it’s not even really a canyon, they said. And, just because we catch less than 3 percent of our pollock in the canyon now, doesn’t mean we won’t need to fish it harder in the future when climate change forces the fish northward.
In the end, they tried to sway the Council with a picture of Greenpeace’s airship – cruising peacefully over Juneau this week carrying a whale-sized message to all: Protect My Home – contrasted with 90’\s photo of Greenpeace activists on the water holding a banner in front of a massive trawler, protesting ocean destruction. I think their plan backfired; it appeared more like they we punctuating our points, highlighting how overdue we are for action, especially from the pollock trawl nets that are often described deceptively as mid-water nets despite the fact that they rip up seafloor habitat routinely.
Compelling public testimony was provided by our allies. The tribes were there too – speaking as eloquently as they do about the power and value of water, the source of life. When public comment concluded Council member John Henderschedt of Seattle, Washington made his breakthrough motion. He began by thanking all who provided comments, saying “your voices are important to this process and they’ve been heard.”
I promise you, they were seen too. Everywhere Council members went in Juneau this week they were confronted by flyers, posters in shop windows, newspaper ads, and activists holding banners telling them: “100,000 + people want you to protect the Bering Sea Canyons.” This unprecedented amount of public input in this Council process combined with input from a powerful coalition of green groups, tribal organizations, and even business allies like Safeway, Trader Joe’s and McDonald’s made this breakthrough action possible.
There is more hard work ahead, especially if the wealthy pollock industry continues to fight the implementation of measures to protect the canyons and advance ecosystem management. We’ll need to keep our wagons circled and be ready to send our ever-growing powerful voice forward at the coming decision points. Council members spoke to me after the decision yesterday, telling me that this major move forward would have been inconceivable without our involvement in the process as it was.
Many compelling letters were submitted; here is what one person from Seattle said to the Council:
“I am deeply concerned about the well being and state of our oceans. I strongly urge you to think of the future of our planet, oceans, and ecosystem – not just for us, but our children, your children, and grandchildren.”
A huge thank you to the more than 100,000 people who sent their voices with me to the North Pacific Fishery management Council this week. This is how political will is built to protect our beautiful blue planet.
For the Canyons,