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Bering Sea Trawling Study Postponed

Alaska-topographic-map_1-300x194A federal agency has decided not to proceed with a controversial bottom-trawling experiment that was planned this year for the Northern Bering Sea. Tribal and environmental groups, prepared to take legal action to stop the project, are welcoming the decision.

The Northern Bering Sea Effects of Trawling Study (NETS) aims to investigate the consequences of commercial bottom trawling, a fishing technique utilizing nets to sweep the seafloor, in an area of the Bering Sea where it is presently prohibited. Despite the ban on bottom trawling in the Northern Bering Sea, the study anticipates that changes in fish populations due to climate change may create future pressures for its implementation in the region.

The research project, slated to begin as early as August, is structured as a multiyear endeavor. Janet Coit, the director of NOAA Fisheries, conveyed the decision via email to tribal organizations that had voiced objections to the project.

“To provide more space for continued dialogue, NOAA Fisheries has decided not to move forward with the NETS research project this year. We value our responsibilities to and partnerships with Alaska Native communities and want to ensure NOAA is creating space for respectful dialogue and trust building,” Coit said in her letter, sent Feb. 23, 2024.

“We are eager to further engage with you on that prospective project, and more broadly, to discuss the research plans NOAA has to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change, fishing practices, and other activities on our ocean ecosystems,” she said.

The planned study, aimed at evaluating the impacts of commercial-grade trawl gear at specific locations, deviates from the standard Bering Sea trawl surveys regularly conducted by NOAA Fisheries. Unlike these surveys, which use non-commercial gear and equipment to evaluate fish stocks and environmental conditions such as water temperatures, the proposed study utilizes commercial-grade gear. The data obtained from the annual surveys are instrumental for managers in determining yearly harvest quotas.

On Thursday, February 8th, 2024, tribal organizations and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a notice of intent to sue NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the bottom-trawl experiment, alleging violations of federal environmental law, including the Endangered Species Act. According to the Act, parties must provide a notice of intent at least 60 days before initiating any lawsuit.

Although Coit’s decision offers temporary relief, Cooper Freeman, the Alaska representative for the Center for Biological Diversity, emphasized that the notice of intent to sue remains in effect.

“The project isn’t canceled. They’ve only decided to cancel this summer,” said Freeman. “We certainly don’t see this as over at all, but it’s a big win for the moment.”

One of the leaders from the trio of tribal governments that issued the notice of intent to sue described the choice to abstain from experimental bottom trawling this summer as merely a partial success.

“The Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area is already protected from commercial bottom-trawling, but clearly (its) pristine state needs continued and strengthened protections, and while we are relieved that NETS is not continuing this year, the response from NOAA does not comfort us. Rather, we feel it’s more important than ever for NOAA and AFSC to rapidly make steps forward with regards to co-production of research in the Bering Sea,” John Melovidov, president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, said in a statement.

NOAA Fisheries has also initiated a program aimed at updating its routine surveys. These surveys, which have relied on designs created in the 1950s, are undergoing modernization, as emphasized by Bob Foy, the science and research director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. In a recent presentation, Foy highlighted the necessity for modernization due to various factors such as the significant impact of climate change on fish populations, technological advancements, and the demand for new types of data that were previously uncollected. He noted that the modernization effort is expected to span several years.

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