On November 19, 2019, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued Amendment 28 to the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (Amendment 28). The Pacific Groundfish fishery is one of the most diverse fisheries that NMFS regulates and also one of the most litigated. The fishery includes over 90 bottom-dwelling fish such as rockfish, cod, and flounder. This amendment closes a large amount of new areas to bottom trawling, and re-opens certain other more limited areas. These changes will also protect sensitive deep-water habitat and deep-sea corals from bottom fishing.
Amendment 28, which was developed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council over a five-year period, contains three major provisions:
- Defines new areas as Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) conservation areas for both groundfish and non-groundfish species, such as California habitat, in which bottom trawling is restricted.
- Opens certain areas previously closed to bottom trawling.
- Defines a new deep-water area closed to all bottom-contacting fishing to protect deepwater habitats.
In making changes to Groundfish EFH, NMFS closes over 12,000 square miles of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and opens over 200 square miles to bottom trawling. These closures are intended to protect certain ocean floor types, such as submarine canyons and deep sea corals. While the rule closes EFH areas up and down the Pacific Coast, the largest area to be closed is off the coast of Southern California, surrounding the Channel Islands. In the final rule, NMFS claims that the areas that are reopened have lower sensitivity than those that are being closed and will recover faster. Most of these lower sensitivity areas are off the coast of Central California. NMFS also claims that the closures will have a “minimal” impact on fishing communities because very little groundfish landings actually occurred in the closed areas.
Amendment 28 also re-opens portions of the Rockfish Conservation area, paralleling the Oregon and California coasts, to bottom trawling. NMFS states that it is re-opening this area because the trawl rationalization program, also known as the catch share program, has been successful in rebuilding fish stocks in these areas, which are historically important fishing grounds. The areas being reopened are also more resilient to disturbance, according to NMFS. NMFS also signaled that if the need arises in the future, it may close some portions of these opened areas under Block Area Closures, which would be issued through a federal register notice and may not go through notice and comment.
Finally, the rule closes the entire EEZ south of the Mendocino Ridge and westward of 1,900 fathoms to bottom-contact gear. This is a discretionary closure to protect deep-sea habitats.
In total, about 126,000 square miles will be closed to bottom trawling and 2,958 square miles will be reopened.
Perhaps reflecting the large amounts of areas to be closed, environmental groups generally expressed support for NMFS’s rule, which is rare for a Groundfish Fishery Management Plan amendment. The Amendment was issued after years of discussion and information sharing within the west coast fishing industry.