NOAA Expands Seafloor Protection off West Coast Starting January 1, 2020

A fish swims near brightly colored corals

NOAA Fisheries issued a final rule to Amendment 28 of the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, effective January 1, 2020. The final rule implements west coast wide changes to descriptions and management measures for essential fish habitat (EFH) of the groundfish complex (e.g. rockfish and flatfish species), including changes to EFH Conservation Areas (EFHCAs), which are fishery closures that protect fragile biogenic habitat from bottom trawl gear other than demersal seine. Changes to the EFHCAs were developed through a collaborative process among trawl fishermen and scientists and managers from federal and state agencies and environmental organizations, and used data of substrate type and locations of fragile deep sea coral and sponge communities.

Click here to go to the NOAA Fisheries website to learn more about amendment 28, which changes bottom trawl fishing closures to minimize adverse effects of fishing, re-opens historically important fishing grounds to groundfish bottom trawling, and prohibits fishing with bottom-contacting gear in deep waters (> 3,500 m) off California to protect deep-water ecosystems, including deep-sea corals. You can also find maps of all the Groundfish EFH no-trawl designations on the West Coast, including those located in other national marine sanctuaries on the West Coast, and learn more about Amendment 28 to the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan.

During the scoping process, Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary (CBNMS) shared scientific data of seafloor characterizations within the sanctuary. Information collected from visual surveys conducted since 2002 by CBNMS and partners (including National Marine Fisheries Service, United States Geological Survey, California Academy of Sciences, Ocean Exploration Trust, California State University - Monterey Bay and others) was used to evaluate proposed changes and suggest alterations. Visual surveys in CBNMS provide information about substrate type, and the distribution and abundance of sensitive benthic communities that could be affected by bottom contact fishing. To learn more about research conducted to characterize these communities, click here to learn more about research at CBNMS and click here to learn more about deep sea coral research.

The EFHCAs within CBNMS yield a total of 170 square miles of benthic habitat protected from bottom trawl gear other than demersal seine (see Figure 1, green and red areas on the map). The amendment opened 19 square miles of primarily sandy-mud habitat on the shelf to bottom trawl fishing that were historically productive fishing grounds, while closing 19 square miles of shelf and slope habitat composed of hard and mixed substrate. Overall these modifications to EFHCAs result in minor changes to the total area of protected benthic habitat within CBNMS. Three EFHCAs in CBNMS are now closed to bottom trawling as follows: a new EFHCA is located at Gobbler’s Knob (one green area on the map); the existing EFHCA, Cordell Bank Biogenic Area (a second green area on the map), is modified; and the Cordell Bank EFHCA (the red area on the map) that prohibits all bottom contact gear (trawl and other) on the bank itself remains in effect and unchanged. The Bottom Trawl Footprint Closure (grey areas on the map) also remains unchanged in CBNMS. This closure is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing expansion of bottom trawling into areas that historically have not been fished in 700 fathoms (or ~1280 m) to the outer extent of groundfish EFH at 3,500 m.

Map showing new Groundfish amendment 28 zones
Figure 1. Map of modifications to EFH Conservations Areas in CBNMS under Amendment 28 regulations. Dashed lines indicate boundaries of EFH Conservation Areas prior to January 1, 2020, when Amendment 28 regulations came into effect.

The EFH provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act are consistent with strategies outlined in sanctuary management plans that address ecosystem-based management, resource protection and fishing activities within sanctuaries. CBNMS is committed to continuing collaborative research with partners to monitor the effects of amendment 28 on benthic communities within CBNMS, and to better understand the ecosystem dynamics of deep sea coral communities over hard and soft bottom substrates as part of our long term benthic science plan.