New England Fisheries
Almost Too Ugly for Words: A Sordid Case of Fishery Council Inaction
An extraordinary milestone was achieved last month in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council. After fifteen years of foot dragging, delaying, and doing as little as possible to comply with legal requirements that it protect the habitat of the fisheries that it manages, the Council finally developed and voted to further analyze for final vote in November a potentially meaningful set of proposed habitat protection measures known as the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. This might have been cause for celebration if not for the fact that this required step was largely forced upon an irresponsible Council by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Earlier actions by the Council’s joint Groundfish/Habitat committee, which was purposely designed to address the need for habitat protection measures, had already placed a responsible outcome into doubt. That committee methodically rejected virtually all of the groundfish habitat protections proposed by its science advisors. Because the suite of habitat alternatives remaining for the Council’s discussion was so limited, having already been subject to a process of paring by machete, NMFS was forced to assert itself. The Agency subtly reminded the Council of its legal obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to develop and consider a reasonable range of alternatives for consideration in the final habitat vote and essentially insisted that the Groundfish/Habitat Committee reconsider its prior vote. Upon reassessment, the Committee approved a reasonable set of CATT/Habitat PDT-developed proposed alternatives for sub-regions that include the Western, Central and Eastern Gulf of Maine areas, Georges Bank, and a Great South Channel, Nantucket Shoals/Southern New England area. With the glaring exception of Georges Bank, these proposals were ultimately adopted by the Council for further analysis.
The leadership of the Agency and the role of the state fishery management members of the Council in reversing the course of the habitat amendment were commendable, but the outcome is nonetheless dubious for several reasons.
First, the Council allowed the fishing industry to hijack the vote on Georges Bank alternatives. Rather than adopt the set of alternatives developed over the past few years, the Council dismembered those alternatives and added to what little remained of them a last minute proposal from industry that would provide virtually no habitat protection while opening the Northern Edge Habitat Area and Habitat Area of Particular Concern. Consequently, the only remaining Georges Bank alternative that affords real habitat protection is one that leaves the status quo, existing closures in place.
Moreover, the debate on the merits of the recommendations from the science advisors made clear that the Council’s actions to preliminarily adopt them were motivated far more by its newly-found sense of a procedural obligation to consider a full range of alternatives, than by any recognition of its obligation under federal law to protect habitat or any desire or intent to ultimately implement meaningful habitat protection.
Several alternatives were adopted by the Council without recommendation from its scientific advisors and, in some instances, contrary to the prevailing science. Equally alarming was the adoption of industry proposals to include an alternative that would result in no habitat management measures and a proposal to “protect” habitat by allowing fishing with modified gear, a proposal that was rejected repeatedly by the science advisors as untested and at risk of causing greater habitat damage.
Perhaps most concerning was the failure of many Council members to merely recognize the legal requirement and ecological need to protect habitat. Some even questioned the basic fact of habitat’s role in fishery productivity and suggested that reductions in fishing effort due to the dwindling stocks should somehow obviate the need for real habitat management. This troubling rhetoric mirrors the Council’s and NMFS’s pending decision to open nearly 5,000 square miles of previously protected habitat to trawling without appropriate environmental review.
All of this suggests that many on the Council are simply not ready to act responsibly on habitat, despite historically low groundfish stocks, a marine environment that is under siege with both natural and man-made changes, and federal laws that mandate protection. The process going forward will require the kind of leadership that righted the sinking habitat ship mere weeks ago, but this time around it needs to produce not just process, but results.