Analysis

One Step Closer to Protecting the Deep-Sea Floor

Management council gives preliminary nod to habitat protection off California

Protecting the deep-sea floor marine habitat is critical.

Bottom-contact fishing gear would be prohibited in areas deeper than 3,500 meters under a preliminary preferred alternative identified by the Pacific Fishery Management Council in April.

Journey just off the U.S. West Coast and things quickly get deep. Within 20 to 50 miles of shore in most places, but as few as 2 or 3 miles in others, the North American shelf gives way to the continental slope, which drops to depths of 3 kilometers or more. This vast expanse of ocean floor at first glance appears as barren, desolate mud. Yet even at the extreme depths below 3,500 meters, the ocean floor hosts an abundance of marine life and plays a crucial role in the functioning of our planet.

The vibrant web of life found here cycles nutrients and supports world-class fisheries, sustains deep-sea corals and sponges, and even helps to regulate global air temperatures by absorbing and storing carbon. Though this deep-sea region remains mostly out of sight to humans, it may not be out of mind for long, thanks to the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

In April the council took a step toward protecting 115,000 square miles of pristine deep seafloor off the California coast. As part of an ongoing update to its management plan for groundfish to address habitat concerns, the council identified a precautionary ban on fishing gear contacting the bottom deeper than 3,500 meters as a preliminary preferred alternative. This is a step managers sometimes take to signal to the public that they are leaning toward a certain policy decision, even as they continue to analyze data and deliberate the issue. In doing so, the council is setting the stage for taking final action this year.

The cost and difficulty of reaching this area off of California means research expeditions are few and far between. But with each new exploration using remotely operated vehicles, scientists are making new discoveries. Small crustaceans, tube worms, cold-water corals and sponges, and microbial life have all adapted to the extreme environment miles below the surface.

In many cases, these life-forms are slow-growing, old, and fragile. Sea urchins, for example, can take years to form the exoskeletons they need to survive in an environment characterized by crushing pressure and the eerie absence of tidal action. The swipe of a single bottom trawl can drastically harm organisms in the deep seafloor.

More than 100 leading marine scientists signed a letter outlining the scientific basis for taking a precautionary approach in protecting this critical resource. Climate change is already affecting the deep sea in several ways as the ocean becomes warmer and more acidic, and oxygen levels decline.

At the same time, technological advancements enable us to reach ever deeper in the sea—for fish, mineral riches, and potential pharmaceutical compounds. Yet the temptation to exploit these resources must be tempered by our ability to see beyond the drive for short-term profit. We must protect pristine areas of seafloor because we know the life there helps sustain us over the long term.

While there is a long way to go to achieve these important new protections the council deserves credit for its work to protect this sensitive area. We encourage the council to stay the course in the months ahead as a final decision approaches.

Paul Shively directs West Coast conservation efforts for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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