New England Fisheries

Putting the Cart Before the Horse: Opening Closed Areas Isn’t Worth the Risk

A cod swims through a kelp forest in the current Cashes Ledge closed area (Photo credit: Brian Skerry)

New England’s cod populations are at their lowest levels in history, thanks to decades of chronic overfishing and habitat destruction. Fisheries scientists agree that protecting vital fish habitat is key to restoring these once-plentiful fish species. How does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) respond? Yesterday NOAA proposed to allow new bottom trawling and other forms of commercial fishing in areas of New England’s ocean that have been protected for almost twenty years. NOAA’s assessment, which did not include a full analysis of the impacts and benefits of removing this protection as required by federal law, actually concludes that, for three of the four areas, opening them to trawling and other forms of fishing is “likely to yield only small increases in net benefit.”  NOAA’s assessment also finds that, in one of the areas, the opening will result in a reduction in net benefits to offshore lobstering, which will not be allowed at times when groundfishing is permitted.

The trade-offs exchanged for this “small increase in net benefit” are many, and they include the value of almost two decades of ecological restoration. Protecting habitat promotes the recovery of Georges Bank haddock and has rejuvenated the valuable scallop stocks. If NOAA’s own environmental assessment concludes that these protected areas harbor larger, more productive fish, why is NOAA allowing access to kill fish that could help overfished stocks to rebound or healthy stocks to remain healthy?

Also at risk is any role that these areas might play in the long-term protection of fish habitat. For more than eight years, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) has been “developing” a grand plan, known as the Omnibus Habitat Amendment, designed to meet federal law requirements to protect fish habitat against the damaging impacts of fishing gear. A final decision on the Amendment is expected in ten months. Bizarrely, NOAA is proposing to open areas now that are under consideration for future protection. What will be the remaining value of this habitat after trawls have been allowed to ply them for months? Let’s face it, NOAA, any trawling will diminish this area’s habitat value and trawling for two months will eliminate it. The fact is that if NOAA’s proposal is completed it will effectively preempt the NEFMC’s assessment of these areas and remove them from inclusion in any future habitat protection plan without the fully required analysis.

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If the benefit that these areas play in rebuilding and maintaining fish stocks and the fact that they are under consideration in a federally-mandated habitat protection plan was not enough to convince NOAA that opening these areas was a bad idea, the agency should have at least been convinced by the role that they play in buffering against climate change impacts. This is especially so given that NOAA’s strategy for helping fish adapt to climate change is to “conserve habitat to support healthy fish,” and one its means for achieving that is “to reduce negative impacts of capture practices and gear on important habitats for fish.” Sadly, this action could not be more diametrically opposed to these strategies.

NOAA’s proposal appropriately retains protection from trawling for places in the Gulf of Maine like Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range 80 miles off the coasts of Massachusetts that harbors the largest and deepest kelp forest on the eastern seaboard and shelters some of the most diverse habitat and wildlife in the region. The agency should extend its rational thinking beyond the Gulf of Maine and retain all existing protected areas until a full consideration of the functions, values and merits of new and existing protected areas has been completed as part of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment process.

The public has until July 26 to comment on NOAA’s proposal to open nearly 3,000 square miles of protected habitat to commercial trawling. Please take action here.


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