NMFS Rule Recognizes that Fish Need Habitat
Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued the final regulation regarding commercial fishing access to the longstanding protected habitat areas in the Gulf of Maine, southern New England, and Georges Bank. In May of this year, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) sued NMFS over a related proposal to allow new fishing in over 5000 square miles of protected ocean habitat areas in New England. CLF brought the lawsuit due to a strong concern that the NMFS proposal would not only violate the current management plan but would threaten the much needed restoration of highly depleted groundfish populations such as cod, coastal haddock, and yellowtail flounder. In the final regulation issued today, NMFS decided to maintain year-round protected status from harmful bottom trawling and gillnetting in most designated closed areas in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, while authorizing exemptions for commercial fishing in an area south of Cape Cod and Rhode Island known as the Nantucket Lightship Closed Area.
Today’s decision is a major reversal of the original proposal advanced by the New England Fishery Management Council and NMFS, which would have opened thousands of square miles of protected areas – including the area around the largely unspoiled Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine—that are providing critical refuges for Atlantic cod and other overfished species to commercial fishing. This action is a good step toward sound management and careful stewardship, but it is only temporary. The same areas could be opened by the end of 2014 under a new management plan currently under development by the New England Council and NMFS. The case for keeping these areas closed is more compelling now than it ever was.
During the comment period on the initial proposal, NMFS received 90,263 comments, overwhelmingly opposed to allowing new, destructive commercial fishing in these protected areas. Scores of marine biologists and fishermen objected that it was exactly the wrong direction to be taken given the continued overfished condition of many of the most important species in New England like yellowtail flounders and cod and the need to protect some areas of the ocean from human alteration. The scientists provided extensive references indicating the strong scientific consensus supporting the importance of maintaining protected areas like Cashes Ledge as a core part of any serious sustainable fisheries management system. Not a single scientist submitted public comments supporting the proposed action.
The proposal was even panned by many commercial fishermen who objected that a proposed requirement to carry an observer on each boat going into the closed area would eliminate any economic benefits that the trip might produce, illustrating the minor economic benefits of the proposal. Even the agency’s own analysis suggested that the long term biological harms of opening the areas could overwhelm any short term economic benefits. Today’s final regulation avoids a truly bad and premature decision.
Atlantic cod have been severely overfished since the early 1990s. These iconic fish are now at some of the lowest levels ever recorded due to two decades of ineffective fisheries management, and they may already be in the state of long-term collapse that shut down the cod fishery in Atlantic Canada for decades and created economic hardship in many coastal communities. With this current status of cod in mind, it is more important than ever to protect these fish and their habitat. To have healthy fish populations, it is clear we need healthy ocean habitat.