Treasure lies beneath the waves off Oregon’s coast. Forget gold and silver, these riches are a place called Daisy Bank. Colorful temperate corals rise from the seabed. Rockfish and shrimp shelter in giant sponges. Daisy Bank is a masterpiece of life, an oasis on the seafloor where fish and shellfish hunt and breed. Scientists have only explored a small fraction of the seabed off Oregon, Washington and California, but they know that such deep reefs are essential shelters for ocean life.

“These are epic, Dr. Seuss looking habitats, with 6-foot sponges and corals that have been around for thousands of years,” said Oceana’s California campaign director and senior scientist Geoff Shester. Places like Daisy Bank shelter myriad ocean wildlife, which could vanish if the corals and sponges disappear.

Yet many of these special places are already gone, ripped up by bottom trawls — large, weighted fishing nets that are dragged with rollers or chains along the seafloor. On the West Coast, they’ve been used for decades as the main way to catch rockfish, flounders and dozens of other commercial species that live on or near the seafloor. Many marine species are bottom-dwellers, and trawlers can sweep tens of miles in a few hours. For seafloor habitats, bottom trawling is the most destructive form of fishing, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Be that as it may, trawlers are still common, especially in Oregon. The fishing is efficient, and “it keeps the lights on” for the West Coast fleet, said Brad Pettinger, a commercial fisherman and former director of the Oregon Trawl Commission. Bottom trawling is the industry’s bread and butter, but can also bulldoze sensitive habitats like coral and sponge reefs.

“We have no idea what the West Coast used to look like before bottom trawling,” Shester said. Intact places like Daisy Bank, he added, give scientists an idea of the richness of the past. The challenge is protecting these special spots using sound science, while respecting that fishermen still need to make a living.

Oceana rose to that challenge over the last two decades, working to protect more than 275,000 square miles of West Coast seafloor habitat from bottom trawling. The effort reflects a growing global trend to “freeze the footprint” of trawling, Shester said, limiting it to places that have previously been trawled, as well as protecting important ecosystems inside the trawl footprint.

“Trawling isn’t going away. It’s too important to the industry,” he said. But fishermen and environmentalists are compromising to protect special places like the Southern California Bight, Monterey Bay, Daisy Bank and other Pacific Ocean treasures. There is common ground at the bottom of the sea.

Strange and wonderful creatures abound on the deep seabed, like this basket star (foreground) at Arago reef, off Oregon. Credit: Oceana

Scraping the bottom

Unregulated bottom trawling has troubled people for hundreds of years. English hook-and-line fishers knew that scraping up the seafloor hurts fisheries as early as the 1300s. They petitioned King Edward III to ban an early type of bottom trawl that destroyed “the flowers of the land below the water.”

More recently, the extent of the devastation has come into sharper focus. A 2018 study found that deep-sea bottom trawling since 1950 has been even more destructive than once thought. Seafood lovers would be shocked if they saw the damage firsthand, said lead author Lisette Victorero, a marine ecologist at the National Oceanography Center in Southampton, United Kingdom.

“I don’t think people would be happy to know that hundreds of kilometers of seabed were trawled,” she said, “with hundreds-of-years-old corals and sponges, just for fish.”

Gorgonian corals rise from a West Coast deep reef in 2011. Credit: Oceana

Winning out west

A few decades ago, the West Coast was wide open to bottom trawling. In one of Oceana’s earliest victories, we protected more than 135,000 square miles off California, Oregon and Washington in 2006. Five years later, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a body of 14 voting members that oversees West Coast fisheries, was due to review those protections.

The council considered proposals from conservation groups and from industry in their review. Fishermen wanted more areas to trawl, while conservationists argued for more closures. After years of back and forth, the council decided this April to protect an additional 140,000 square miles of seabed, while opening less-sensitive areas to fishermen. When the National Marine Fisheries Service implements the decision, possibly next year, 90 percent of West Coast state and federal waters, stretching 200 nautical miles off California, Oregon and Washington, will be protected from bottom trawling.

Fisherman Pettinger, one of the council’s 14 voting members, called the decision a bargain between conservationists and trawlers.

“It’s a bargain in the sense that it’s good for both people,” he said. “The sensitive habitat areas primarily have been protected, and areas that can be opened up for the most part were.” The areas slated to open generally have soft, sandy bottoms, which are less vulnerable to trawling than rocky areas. Access to those fishing grounds will be a boon for West Coast fishermen, Pettinger said.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” agreed ecologist Brian Tissot of Humboldt State University, who’s studied deep reefs for 30 years and authored a scientist sign-on letter supporting Oceana’s efforts to conserve West Coast seafloor habitats. “A lot of historically closed areas were opened, so thank God the tradeoff was some new areas were closed,” he said. Protections more than doubled from 2005 to 2018.

Tissot would have liked to see even more closures, especially given the importance of the seabed and how little it’s been explored. He first saw Oregon’s Daisy Bank in the 1990s, and was blown away by the “unbelievable richness” of an oasis where fish lounged everywhere on top of corals and sponges. “Places like that are probably really important,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to destroy those kinds of habitats.”

Many fishermen would agree. Coming to a compromise on the West Coast sets a positive precedent for cooperation, Pettinger said. “Industry has always been at loggerheads with the environmental movement,” he said. “But realistically, a lot of that back and forth has made this fishery better.”

A preliminary map of new and existing West Coast protections. Credit: Oceana/ Brianne Mecum

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