Investing in the Future: A Down East Groundfish Closed Area
Nick Battista is Marine Programs Director at the Island Institute.
Last week, the Groundfish Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council agreed to analyze a proposal for a new closed area off the eastern Maine coast that would protect known juvenile aggregations and historic spawning aggregations of groundfish, and important habitat. The current economic impacts of closing this area to groundfishing may be negligible, and this closed area promises significant benefits to the region and to Maine’s fishing fleet. From an economic development perspective, we have the opportunity to make a low cost investment in the future of the resource. Fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine have a real shot at recovering with a closed area in Down East Maine, coupled with the existing areas around Cashes Ledge and the Western Gulf of Maine.
As proposed, the site for closure is about 50 miles by 12 miles and has a total area of 575 square miles, but the area being analyzed by the Closed Area Technical Team is somewhat smaller, and the dimensions are likely to shift throughout this process. When it first proposed the area, the Penobscot East Resource Center worked with the fishermen of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association to gain their support. It is clear now that there a few other fishermen who currently fish in the vicinity of the proposed area, during different parts of the year, and it will be important to make sure they are able to provide input into the area’s boundaries, so as not to create undue hardship for fishermen who are targeting healthy stocks.
The proposed area is critical because it contains key habitat areas that are priorities for NOAA Fisheries, including cold water corals, and areas identified in the model used by the New England Council Habitat Commitee. The area around Mount Desert Rock has been identified by University of Maine scientists as a hotspot for cold water corals, which are critical nursery habitat for redfish, and perhaps other species. Other species of concern in the area include a local abundance of cusk and halibut. Additionally, there are currently no closures to protect the unique ecosystem attributes in the area that defines the Eastern Maine/Scotian Shelf Ecosystem Production Unit.
Beyond meeting many of the agency’s objectives, one of the key reasons to close this area is that the region needs more fish. As the Council considers significant cuts to many important stocks, it is time to start hedging our bets against future scientific uncertainty. Closing an area off the eastern Maine coast can help the Gulf of Maine become more productive in the future due to the unique ecosystem-scale attributes present in the area. The general water circulation in the Gulf of Maine, with the Eastern Maine Coastal Current flowing down through the proposed area, allows it to be a potential upstream source of eggs and larval fish to the rest of the Gulf of Maine and the Georges Bank. Recent studies indicate strong downstream connectivity among groundfish spawning grounds. Larval dispersal is highly dependent upon local dynamics, such as spawning timing and ocean circulation variability, so there is significant potential to provide fish eggs and larvae to other areas off of mid-coast Maine, Portland, and further south.
Beyond having important spawning and habitat areas, there are nearly 1,000 miles of restored river habitat from the removal of dams on the Penobscot and increased fish passage on the rivers in Down East Maine. These rivers are home to rejuvenated populations of alewives, the preferred prey species of cod. We may well bring groundfish back to the eastern Maine area if we provide protections for key life stages of groundfish and associated habitat, and if the State of Maine’s efforts to open up river passage for alewives increases their abundance. The combination of important habitat areas plus an increasing abundance of prey provides the region with a unique opportunity to learn about how these two factors combine to help rebuild fish stocks.
Closing important habitat areas can provide the region with a buffer against scientific uncertainty and can help mitigate the impacts of warming waters and shifts in species distribution. This proposed area could positively impact areas that represent historic fishing grounds for Maine’s coastal and island communities, as well as for communities further south. A closed area off the eastern Maine coast is a low cost investment that would improve our chances of rebuilding the groundfish stocks around the region.