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Gulf of Alaska sea floor subject of new study on the impacts of bottom trawling

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Corals seen at the bottom of the ocean near Kodiak Island. (Photo courtesy of Oceana)

A group of researchers is hoping that data collected from the Gulf of Alaska’s sea floor will shed new light on the effects of bottom trawling.

Scientists from the conservation group Oceana, which is based in Juneau, spent eight days aboard a research vessel circumnavigating the Kodiak archipelago late last month.

Jon Warrenchuk is a senior scientist and fisheries campaign manager with Oceana.

“The Gulf of Alaska is a very special place and a very productive ecosystem,” said Warrenchuk. “Our timing of our survey here in the spring means we saw just an abundance of life, from the phytoplankton to the fish to the birds feeding at the surface.”

The focus of the trip, though, was documenting life at the very bottom of the sea to better understand the impacts of commercial trawling, according to Warrenchuk.

The group surveyed 23 locations during the trip. Warrenchuk said they sent cameras and remotely operated vehicles down to depths more than a thousand feet deep at some sites, and photographed areas of the seafloor that had never been seen before.

“We chose sites to explore that were both open and closed to bottom trawling and we did see differences between those types of sites,” said Warrenchuk.

Researchers documented coral gardens and groves of sea whips, but the group also saw evidence of heavy damage to the ocean floor, including areas of crushed coral where commercial trawling is permitted. Warrenchuk said they don’t know what those areas of the sea floor looked like before trawlers arrived, but Oceana scientists plan to submit their observations to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service – they’re in the midst of an essential fish habitat management review process that’s completed every five years for the area.

Warrenchuk hopes the photos and videos from the waters off Kodiak will help make the case to keep trawlers out of some areas of the ocean.

“So much of the ocean has remained unexplored that any information we gather on seafloor habitat characterization, locations of sensitive habitat that will only help us make better fishery management decisions going forward,” he said.

The Essential Fish Habitat summary report is slated to come out in October, according to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s website.