Alaska tribes, green group take aim at planned bottom-trawling study in northern Bering Sea
Three tribal governments and an environmental organization on Thursday served notice to federal agencies that they are planning a lawsuit to block a fishing experiment along the seafloor in the northern Bering Sea.
The practice of bottom trawling — sweeping a net to catch fish on or near the seabed — is currently prohibited in the Northern Bering Sea, which is abbreviated in legal documents as NBS. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service is planning to deploy some commercial trawling gear in selected spots over the coming summers to see what impacts, if any, result to the habitat and the marine life dependent on it.
The research project is called the Northern Bering Sea Effects of Trawling Study, or NBET. It is focused on specific areas north and south of St. Lawrence Island and would potentially simulate effects of commercial harvests.
The plaintiffs planning to sue – tribal governments in Savoonga, Shishmaref and St. Paul, along with the Center for Biological Diversity – said in their notice that the research itself will wreak damage on the ecosystem near the seafloor in what is known as benthic waters while setting up the region for more damage in the future. They also said the agencies have not properly consulted with Native tribes and communities.
“NETS is deeply troubling because it would cause significant and long-term damage to the undisturbed and highly sensitive benthic habitat in the NBS with wide-ranging impacts on marine species that live, breed, feed, migrate, and over-winter in the NBS, many which are critical subsistence resources for Alaska Native people,” said the notice sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another named defendant. “Even more concerning is that NETS appears to be focused on facilitating commercial bottom trawling in an area where it is currently prohibited to protect this unique and sensitive marine region. This destructive and devastating project has attracted fierce opposition from Alaska Native tribal governments and organizations in the Bering Sea region.”
The project, if carried out, would violate the federal Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act, said the notice of intent to sue.
“In light of the rapid and dramatic environmental and human-caused changes that are threatening our iconic marine environments in Alaska, we expect our federal government to act responsibly and follow their own regulations and guidance to protect these vulnerable areas,” John Wayne Melovidov, Tribal council president for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, said in a statement. “This proposed study is a crowbar into the northern Bering Sea for commercial exploitation.”
Under the Endangered Species Act, notice of intent to sue is required at least 60 days before a complaint is filed in court. The Endangered Species Act-listed populations cited in Thursday’s notice are spectacled eiders, bearded seals and ringed seals, all classified as threatened.
The planned research project is different from the bottom-trawling surveys that the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center does regularly, either annually or every other year. Those routine surveys use non-commercial gear, which is much smaller and lighter, to keep track of species abundance and other conditions, including water temperatures.
The special bottom-trawling project is aimed at gathering information that is needed as the climate warms, according to the research plan. Commercially important fish stocks have been moving north, a trend expected to continue with climate change, and that may result in some bottom-trawling pressure and conflicts farther north, according to the research plan.
“The impending confluence of commercial fishing interests and longstanding traditional lifestyles has increased the urgency for completing the requisite scientific studies,” the plan said. “In particular, there is concern about disturbing sensitive benthic habitats and cascading food-chain effects that could disrupt subsistence fishing.”
Although the research plan described the experimental bottom trawling as starting as early as this summer, it is unclear whether that will happen. Details of the project are still being worked out, Robert Foy, research and science director at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on Thursday.
“It’s a study that isn’t completely funded and we have been working with communities and different industry folks to consider whether or not an effects-of-trawl-gear-on-habitat, identification of essential fish habitat, would be worthwhile in the future. So, it’s just a research project, and it’s in the design phase and not fully funded,” Foy told the council, which is meeting this week in Seattle.
Such information has already been gathered in the eastern part of the Bering Sea, the research plan noted.
The research project includes engagement with communities, the research plan said. That started with outreach last March of 2023 with Kawerak Inc., a nonprofit, Nome-based consortium representing tribal governments and organizations in the Bering Strait region, the plan said.
However, the Kawerak board in September passed a resolution opposing the project and calling for it to be canceled.
Spokespeople for the NOAA’s Alaska Fishery Science Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska region declined to comment on the legal notice sent Thursday. They cited policies of not commenting on pending litigation.
In October, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a separate notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service over another trawling issue – the deaths of killer whales in trawl gear used to harvest flatfish in the Bering Sea and Aleutians area. Nine whales were found dead and ensnared in bottom-trawling gear this summer, and an additional whale that was entangled swam free but was injured. So far, no lawsuit has been filed to follow up the notice of intent to sue, said Cooper Freeman, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska representative. The center has been in discussions with the agency over the issue, he said.
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