New England Fisheries
To help GOM cod, NMFS should not touch closed areas
Greg Cunningham is a Senior Attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.
It’s been widely reported that at its February meeting, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to take emergency action on Gulf of Maine cod for the 2012 fishing year. The measures proposed, including a mere 3-13% reduction in the catch limit, were notable largely for their failure to address the condition of the depleted cod stock. But there is an aspect of the proposed package that has received little attention, which is troubling, because it would have NMFS open up five of the six existing areas currently closed to groundfishing. The areas at issue serve a myriad of functions for managed commercial species including protection of their habitat and spawning areas and providing a buffer against excessive fishing effort on certain species. Several of these areas have been in place for over fifteen years and have taken on important and positive functions and values that are currently being studied but are not yet entirely understood.
That’s one of the many reasons why the Council’s action is so incomprehensible. It came one day after the Council announced that it was only one year away from completing an eight-year process of collecting data and developing a highly scientific model by which it believes it can identify the best and most vulnerable habitat to protect. So, just when a lengthy scientific process is about to render answers as to what areas should be open and which closed, the Council urged action to open areas and did so without any scientific support. What’s more, many of these closures were imposed in order to comply with a court order to protect habitat from fishing gear, and several of these areas were chosen precisely because they are habitat for Gulf of Maine cod. Giving fishermen access to these areas will increase the likelihood that catch limits on cod will be exceeded and that catch will be discarded, increasing the mortality of this stock and undermining the very purpose of the emergency measure.
There is also the question of the legalities of opening these areas with this action. Many of the areas that the Council has put on the chopping block were originally designated in order to comply with a requirement of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that essential fish habitat must be protected from fishing to the extent practicable. Any elimination of these closed areas risks undoing the Council’s means of complying with this requirement of federal fisheries law. The Service’s action will also be limited by the need to analyze the environmental impacts of reopening closures in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. Just such an analysis is currently ongoing with the Council’s groundfish technical team. This analysis can, and with the Service’s help would, be completed in time for the 2013 fishing year, but is not ready as part of this emergency action.
The Service should take this opportunity to invest resources in the essential fish habitat process and the analysis of the groundfish closed areas already underway in order to ensure that it will be completed in time for what will inevitably be an even more restrictive 2013 fishing year. If the Service instead chooses to randomly reopen closed areas through the Council’s requested emergency action, it risks leaving Gulf of Maine cod and other fish stocks more vulnerable to overfishing than before, a blow to the fishery and exactly the opposite of the emergency action’s intended effect.