Save the Arctic seabed from trawlers: report

Yukoners concerned with declining salmon stocks will take interest in a new report, produced by three conservation groups, which measures the…

Yukoners concerned with declining salmon stocks will take interest in a new report, produced by three conservation groups, which measures the destructiveness of different types of fishing gear.

The report, titled How We Fish Matters, urges the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to consider the destruction of the seafloor when handing out quotas, and to give preferential treatment to fishers who use low-impact gear.

Bottom trawling is identified as the most destructive commercial fishing method, and is blamed for the destruction of coral forests and sponge fields on the Pacific seabed.

Half of the glass sponges off the West Coast are believed to have been destroyed by bottom trawlers in the 1980s.

Bottom gillnets are rated second-highest in severity, followed by dredges, bottom longlines, midwater trawls, pots and traps, pelagic longlines and purse seines.

The most destructive types of fishing are also the most common, the report notes.

But, at present, the environmental damage created by certain types of fishing gear is not considered by Fisheries and Oceans when it doles out fishing quotas.

A few changes to the rules could change this. And such changes may be needed to prevent future damage to the Arctic seabed.

Canada’s Eastern Arctic may be the next frontier for commercial fishing, with global warming making its remote waters ever-more accessible. The majority of fishing that presently occurs in the Eastern Arctic is bottom-trawling.

What of Yukon’s salmon? That’s a more complicated matter.

Even if the report’s recommendations were adopted, it would not offer any direct help to Yukoners who lament the decline in the territory’s salmon stocks, for the factory trawlers blamed by many for the salmon’s decline are not Canadian.

They’re American boats, participating in one the world’s most lucrative fisheries: the pollock catch in the Bering Strait.

Each year 1.1 billion kilograms of pollock is caught by midwater factory-trawlers and later turned into fast food sandwiches, fish sticks and imitation crab meat.

These trawlers have, in recent years, caught vast numbers of salmon inadvertently in their nets as bycatch, and largely end up tossing these dead fish away. Last year the fishery inadvertently caught 130,000 Chinook salmon.

There’s no talk in the US of forcing these fishers to trade up for less obtrusive gear. The pollock industry has introduced rolling hot spots, where areas become off-limits when salmon are believed to be nearby. But large numbers of salmon continue to be pulled up.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to resist calls for a cap on its salmon bycatch.

If there’s hope in reducing the salmon bycatch, it is to be found in designing a better pollock net.

Work is underway to design a new net with an escape hatch through which some salmon would exit. Present models let one in five salmon free.

Yet even if Americans design a better pollock net, the salmon may face new perils. Warmer waters are believed to be luring the fish away into Russian waters, where there is likely even less concern about the fate of Yukon’s salmon stocks.

Contact John Thompson at