Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, February 8, 2024

Contact:

Ben Pungowiyi, Native Village of Savoonga, (907) 984-6414, tc.sva@kawerak.org
Johnson Eningowuk, Native Village of Shishmaref, (907) 639-1662, tc.shh@kawerak.org
John Wayne Melovidov, Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, (907) 615-5314, tukux@aleut.com
Cooper Freeman, Center for Biological Diversity, (907) 531-0703, cfreeman@biologicaldiversity.org

Lawsuit Launched to Challenge Destructive Bottom-Trawl Study in Bering Sea

Alaska Native Tribes Push Back Against Commercial Trawl Fishing Expansion

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Several Alaska Native Tribal Governments and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice today of their intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for unlawfully authorizing a multi-year experimental bottom-trawl study in the northern Bering Sea.

Tribal entities in the region have voiced strong opposition to the project and any commercial trawl fishing in the region.

The Native Village of Savoonga, Native Village of Shishmaref, Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, and the Center detailed concerns in today’s notice about how the project’s data could be used to expand destructive commercial bottom trawling.

“As stewards of the Northern Bering Sea, our basic rules of taking only what's needed and giving nature a chance to replenish itself have been practiced for thousands of years,” said Ben Pungowiyi, Tribal Council President for the Native Village of Savoonga. “Nature has a delicate balance, especially the chain underneath where every living organism plays its role. Further alteration of this domain will cause higher mortality impacts.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service has been planning the intensive experimental study for two years without notifying the public or consulting with impacted Alaska Native Tribes. They intend to begin this summer. Bottom trawling is currently prohibited in the area. According to the Service, the study is intended to provide data that “will inform possible future management” of fisheries in the area, meaning it could open to bottom-trawl fishing as the Bering Sea rapidly warms and groundfish expand northward.

“The study is designed to repeatedly damage an area of the ocean floor and then check in on how much destruction remains a year or more later,” said Johnson Eningowuk, Tribal Council President for the Native Village of Shishmaref. “Trawl fisheries are destructive to benthic habitat and species on which we rely as a matter of food security and cultural wellness.”

Today’s notice argues the Service did not adequately analyze the environmental and cultural harms the bottom-trawl study would cause to subsistence resources, endangered species and the ecosystem. It also highlights the agency’s failure to adequately consult with Alaska Native Tribes and uphold the protections secured by the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.

“In light of the rapid and dramatic environmental and human-caused changes that are threatening our iconic marine environments in Alaska, we expect our federal government to act responsibly and follow their own regulations and guidance to protect these vulnerable areas,” said John Wayne Melovidov, Tribal Council President for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. “This proposed study is a crowbar into the northern Bering Sea for commercial exploitation.”

Bottom trawling is an extremely destructive method of fishing, causing severe, long-term damage to the sea-bottom ecosystem, releasing planet-heating carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and increasing ocean acidification. Many marine mammals, sea birds and fish in the northern Bering Sea feed primarily on benthic species. Walrus and bearded seal, which are key subsistence resources for Alaska Native people in the region, are especially sensitive to the loss of benthic invertebrates.

“I’m aghast that this trawl study was green-lit with so much disregard for bedrock environmental laws and the Alaska Native Tribes that could be harmed,” said Cooper Freemen, Alaska representative at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If the trawl industry thinks it’s going to just waltz into the northern Bering Sea, it’s in for a rude awakening. We’re standing with Tribes to make sure federal agencies protect this remarkable marine ecosystem from trawl fishing.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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