WWF experts analyzed sea bottom benthos communities in the western part of the Bering Sea
The Bering Sea is the largest sea in the Russian Far East. The area is extremely valuable with respect to the amount of marine resources caught in the region annually. At the same time, there is also a vast area of the Bering Sea where trawl fishing is partially or fully prohibited. The idea behind the ban is to minimize negative impact on species living on the sea-bottom, or benthos. Lack of scientific data and thorough analysis of benthos communities, however, leads to ineffective measures aimed at their protection.
Recently, fishing companies became involved in the conservation of benthic resources. As part of their MSC-certification process, fishermen have to highlight any data showing detrimental impact of different types of fishing gear on benthic species. WWF-Russia and the Pacific Institute of Fishery and Oceanography published a field guide to help fishermen identify seabed species. This publication aids the conservation process but it cannot alone take place of systematic observations, mapping, and research works aimed at precisely locating potentially vulnerable benthic habitats. Sea anemones, cold-water corals, and sponges are considered indicator species which define the general health and condition of the water in the benthos.
The coastal areas of Chukotka and Kamchatka do not have many threats from economic development, however, the major threat to benthic communities comes from commercial fishing. It is hard to assess the real number of cold water coral habitats destroyed by bottom trawling. Some fishermen use additional instruments to increase fishing capacities of bottom trawl nets which increases detrimental impacts. Bottom longlines, crab traps, midwater trawls (like demersal trawls), and other types of dredges likely all negatively influence benthic communities as well.
Moreover, scientists have registered an increase in pollution of ghost fishing gear parts in the North Pacific as well as increase in the presence of human bilge waste (domestic waste) coming from fishing vessels. According to approximate calculations, about 20 demersal trawls are lost in the Bering Sea annually. The nets are manufactured with highly resistant synthetic material and pose a threat both to both benthic life and marine mammals.
Since the early 2000’s, Canada, Norway, Great Britain, and the USA have been implementing conservation measures to protect seabed species, and have been conducting a variety of joint research projects. In Russia, however, research has neither been conducted, nor have conservation measures been suggested at the state level. Thus, the efforts of conservation organizations, scientists, and fishermen aimed to protect vulnerable benthic habitats in Russian waters are vitally important.