Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

A Squandered Opportunity for Habitat Protection

The NEFMC voted against raising the haddock bycatch cap for herring trawlers. Photo credit: NOAA/NEFSC

The New England Fisheries Management Council is struggling to effectively manage significantly depleted stocks like cod, yellowtail flounder and Gulf of Maine haddock while simultaneously coping with unprecedented changes to the ocean environment caused by climate change. These challenges cry out for long term strategies designed to protect and stabilize ocean habitat and buffer against climate impacts.

Why, then, is the NEFMC on the verge of squandering an opportunity to employ such critical strategies in its long-awaited fish habitat protection plan? That plan, known as the Omnibus Habitat Amendment, is currently proposed to significantly reduce the protection of habitat within New England’s ocean waters. With this approach, the NEFMC is ignoring established science and the NEFMC’s own science advisors and is once again elevating the short-term desires of industry above the need to protect habitat for the long-term benefit of stocks, the fleet and the ecosystem.

The Omnibus Habitat Amendment reflects the NEFMC’s attempt to comply with federal law that requires the protection of essential fish habitat from the damage caused by fishing gear like bottom trawls. For more than nine years, the NEFMC has engaged in an oft-delayed, seemingly interminable process of identifying the region’s most vulnerable ocean habitat and, at least in theory, designing protections for them. The final Amendment is expected to be finalized in April of 2014.

Unfortunately, the draft version of the Amendment contains provisions that are blatantly contrary to law and good science and is clearly designed to open protected areas currently closed to harmful fishing gear and replace them with small, discrete areas that will provide questionable benefit for fish stocks and minimally offset the effects of climate change. Problems with the pending Amendment include:

  • a proposal to eliminate all existing habitat protection areas
  • a proposal to allow fishing in vulnerable areas with gear modified to reduce its contact with the bottom, an approach that is unproven and thus has been rejected by the Council’s science advisors and staff as at risk of causing greater harm to bottom habitat.

The NEFMC’s most recent actions on the Amendment relate to proposals for habitat management on Georges Bank. Without exception, all of the proposals chosen by the NEFMC fail to adhere to the best scientific advice and reflect an unwillingness to meaningfully protect habitat. Tragically, NEFMC has:

  • adopted proposals that would result in a massive 96% reduction in protected habitat from the current 3200 square nautical miles to a mere 139.
  • rejected options developed by NEFMC technical advisors and staff and supported by the NMFS and at least two of the five states on the NEFMC that would have prohibited trawling in most of the vulnerable areas identified by the NEFMC’s own model (see areas shaded pink and red on upper map), in favor of a much smaller area (see lower map).

Most striking and concerning about the NEFMC’s actions on this Amendment are the ease and comfort with which it has completely ignored the advice of its own technical experts, rejecting proposals that were years in development and firmly rooted in sound science and strong data. This disavowal of technical advice from its own staff and handpicked technical team suggests that the Council will not take seriously its legal and fiduciary responsibilities and portends poorly for the future of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment and the species and ecosystems that it is required to protect.


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