Extensive fisheries planning have occurred in the Pacific Northwest Coast region. One area where there are growing opportunities to connect fisheries and biodiversity objectives is through the identification of Essential Fish Habitat (EFH).
EFH is defined in the Magnuson Stevens Conservation and Management Act of 1976 as “all waters and substrates necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding or growth to maturity.” Regional Fishery Management Councils are directed to describe and identify EFH for each federally managed species, attempt to minimize the extent of adverse effects on habitat caused by fishing and non-fishing activities, and identify actions to encourage conservation and enhancement of those habitats. It is required that EFH be based on the best available scientific information.
The National Marine Fisheries Service assists Councils in implementing EFH by assessing the quality of available data in a four-level system:
- Level 1: species distribution data for all or part of its geographic range
- Level 2: data on habitat-related densities or relative abundance of the species
- Level 3: data on growth, reproduction and survival rates within habitats
- Level 4: production rates by habitat
In addition to EFH the Councils must identify habitat areas of particular concern (HAPCs) within EFH. In determining which areas should be designated as HAPCs the area must meet one or more of the following criteria:
- Ecological function provided by the habitat is important.
- Habitat is sensitive to human-induced environmental degradation.
- Development activities are or will be stressing the habitat type.
- Habitat type is rare.
The Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) is one of eight regional fishery management councils and is responsible for fisheries off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. The condition of several stocks in this region was so poor that the PFMC found it necessary in 2003 to close the majority of the continental shelf to most fishing, an action that has resulted in dramatic impacts to fishermen and fishing-dependent communities. These actions were directly related to the EFH process and the amendments to the Fishery Management Plan through Amendment 19. The majority of this closure is intended to freeze the footprint of bottom trawling in the deep seas beginning at 700 fathoms or 1,280 meters. There are 14 identified EFH conservation areas within the Pacific Northwest Coast ecoregion; 2 additional sites were identified further off the Washington and Oregon coasts, and 37 along the outer coast of California.