Alaska News

NOAA postpones controversial bottom trawling experiment in northern Bering Sea

A controversial bottom-trawling experiment that a federal agency has designed for the Northern Bering Sea will not be conducted this year, a decision that was welcomed by tribal and environmental groups poised to sue to block the project.

The project, called the Northern Bering Sea Effects of Trawling Study, or NETS, has been envisioned as an experiment to examine impacts of commercial bottom trawling in an area of the Bering Sea where it is currently banned. Bottom trawling is a method of fish harvesting that uses nets to sweep the seafloor. While it is prohibited in the Northern Bering Sea, the shift in fish populations caused by climate change may build pressure for bottom trawling there in the future, according to the study plan.

The study has been designed as a multiyear project to start as early as this August. It was to be conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service.

News of the decision came in an emailed letter from Janet Coit, director of NOAA Fisheries, to tribal organizations that had expressed opposition to the project.

“To provide more space for continued dialogue, NOAA Fisheries has decided not to move forward with the NETS research project this year. We value our responsibilities to and partnerships with Alaska Native communities and want to ensure NOAA is creating space for respectful dialogue and trust building,” Coit said in her letter, sent Feb. 23.

“We are eager to further engage with you on that prospective project, and more broadly, to discuss the research plans NOAA has to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change, fishing practices, and other activities on our ocean ecosystems,” she said.

The proposed study, which is designed to test the effects of commercial-grade trawl gear in selected spots, is different from the normal Bering Sea trawl surveys that NOAA Fisheries conducts. Those surveys use non-commercial gear and equipment to assess fish stocks and environmental conditions, including water temperatures. Information gained through those surveys, which are usually conducted annually, is used by managers setting annual harvest quotas.


Tribal organizations and the Center for Biological Diversity on Feb. 8 filed a notice of intent to sue both NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the bottom-trawl experiment, alleging violations of federal environmental law, including the Endangered Species Act. Under that act, parties must submit a notice of intent at least 60 days before any lawsuit may be filed. The Feb. 8 notice cited potential damages to ringed and bearded seals and spectacled eiders, all species listed as threatened.

The decision announced by Coit is a reprieve, but the notice of intent to sue remains in place, said Cooper Freeman, Alaska representative for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The project isn’t canceled. They’ve only decided to cancel this summer,” he said. “We certainly don’t see this as over at all, but it’s a big win for the moment.”

A leader of one of the three tribal governments that filed the notice of intent to sue characterized the decision to forgo experimental bottom trawling this summer as only a partial victory.

“The Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area is already protected from commercial bottom-trawling, but clearly (its) pristine state needs continued and strengthened protections, and while we are relieved that NETS is not continuing this year, the response from NOAA does not comfort us. Rather, we feel it’s more important than ever for NOAA and AFSC to rapidly make steps forward with regards to co-production of research in the Bering Sea,” John Melovidov, president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, said in a statement.

The Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, an initiative of regional tribal organizations, is a protected zone designated in 2016 through an executive order issued by President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump later abolished the designation, but President Joe Biden resurrected it through an Inauguration Day executive order.

Independently of the now-postponed Northern Bering Sea bottom-trawling experiment, NOAA Fisheries has embarked on a program to modernize its regular surveys.

Those regular surveys are based on designs that date back to the 1950s, Bob Foy, science and research director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its meeting earlier this month in Seattle. Modernization is needed for several reasons, including rapid climate change that has shifted fish populations, advances in technology and a demand for new types of data that were not previously gathered, he said in his presentation to the council. That modernization project is expected to be carried out over a few years, he said.

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.