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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I am hopped up on allergy meds and this post is about a bottom trawler destroying expensive science equipment in British Columbia

What the title says is what this post is about.

I am overly fuzzy in the mental sense due to allergy meds. They are a cruel mistress. One minute you are certain that you are, indeed, the Lizard King. Then you go catatonic for long stretches, drool slowly advancing from the corner of your mouth like the adventurous appendage of some tube-dwelling deep-sea invertebrate new to science.

Now that I look at it, I may or may not have totally plagiarized that last line from Bill Bryson. Seriously, it's a possibility. I'm too tired to do anything about it. Google it yourself if you want to get me in legal trouble. 

So yes, I am probably not entirely "here" in the strictest legal interpretation of the word, but by golly when a bottom trawler destroys something I gots to report on it. So here goes.

A pod of expensive, long-term ocean monitoring equipment associated with the awesome and very new Neptune Canada undersea observatory network was recently caught and possibly destroyed by a wayward bottom trawler off of the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island. The area was supposed to be off-limits, but that didn't stop one (currently) anonymous trawler from barreling on through. And in a detail as heartbreaking as anything that Tiny Tim or Ol' Yeller could dish out, the doomed equipment picked up and transmitted the seismographic and acoustic profiles of the approaching trawl net, blissfully unaware that it was documenting the rumbling arrival of its own executioner.

I looked for an official statement regarding this incident, and this is all I could find:

Now, it is no secret that bottom trawl fisheries tend to be Public Enemy #1 to environmental groups. This may have something to do with the ginormous body of evidence that shows that bottom trawling is a particularly destructive fishing method. The relationship is simple: bottom trawling flattens the seafloor, and anything growing on it - including slow-growing, ecologically important corals and sponges. The destructive nature of bottom trawl gear is supported by seemingly countless examples from around the globe, and it is considered by fisheries experts to be the most ecologically damaging fishing method used in Canada today.

But. There's always a but. In this job I've come to meet a few bottom trawl skippers, and without fail they come across as good guys - and they're often dismayed at how they've been portrayed by the likes of us and other conservation groups. The ones I've talked to are adamant that they don't catch corals or sponges.

And you know what? I tend to believe them. I've been on enough bottom trawlers as a fisheries observer in Alaska and New England to know that some boats are quite 'clean', whereas others can be downright nasty in terms of the amounts of sponges and corals they bring up. This doesn't mean the 'clean' boats aren't doing damage - they may be trawling in areas already denuded of their corals and sponges, thereby reducing potential recovery, or they may just be fishing in areas that have corals and sponges that break apart in the net, and so on. But at the very least, I have seen first-hand, in non-Canadian fisheries, that some bottom trawlers seem to catch much more corals and sponges than others.

It makes sense. After all, we should expect that in bottom trawling as in everything else involving humans, there are going to be good guys and bad guys. It may not be fair that the good guys get tarred with the same brush as the bad guys, especially if the bad guys truly are a tiny minority of the entire fleet. However, the key thing is that with something as potentially devastating as bottom trawl gear, it only takes one knucklehead to cause serious - and potentially irreversible - damage. This example of 'science equipment bycatch' demonstrates that all too clearly.

This is why stringent habitat protection measures are necessary for the B.C. bottom trawl fishery (and other bottom-contacting fisheries, as well). In a fishery that uses such potentially destructive gear, it's not enough to have 99% of skippers voluntarily behaving well - that last 1% can just do far too much damage by themselves.

Now if you will excuse me, a sudden warm sensation indicates that the next phase of the meds is kicking in. I believe I shall take off my pants, smear hummus on my face in the manner of war paint, and go looking for fun.

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