Former Chair of New England Fishery Council Urges Habitat Protection

Nearly three months into the fishing year, the amount of cod reported as caught is as low as 13% of the ACL. Photo credit: Brian Skerry/New England Ocean Odyssey.

“Don’t do it.” That’s Rip Cunningham’s three-word advice to his former colleagues on the New England Fishery Management Council, who are considering an end to protections for large areas set aside for fish habitat.

Cunningham served nine years as chair and vice chair on the council and has long been a prominent voice in the fishing community with more than three decades as a publisher, editor, and columnist for Salt Water Sportsman magazine. His latest piece in the online journal Reel-Time makes the case for keeping the region’s groundfish closed areas intact.

“It is my feeling that we are critically close to the tipping point with [Gulf of Maine] cod, beyond which we can never rebuild this fishery,” Cunningham wrote on July 29. A few days later scientists warned that this cod stock was in far worse condition than previously thought, hovering at only three to four percent of healthy status.

“We have been here before and in my opinion, if fisheries managers get this wrong, we will not be here again, ever,” Cunningham warned, and described the value of these closed areas and why they are crucial if we are to stop the cod’s death spiral.

“Photographic evidence shows that these areas no longer look like the barren bottom that has been dragged countless times … these areas have much higher value for groundfish as they have complex benthic fauna and a greater level of biodiversity. Some areas like Cashes Ledge and Ammen Rock resemble the benthic habitat from pre-mobile gear days. Its value is in the productive capability it has for groundfish and primarily cod.”

And Cunningham ripped apart the main argument for allowing fishing in these areas:

“The major reason that I have heard for allowing access to these critical habitat areas, besides the desire to catch more fish, is that if these closed areas worked then the [Gulf of Maine] would be full of fish. That is not even anecdotal evidence. It is an assumption. I’ll take the other side of that coin and using the same logic say that without the closed areas, groundfish, primarily cod, would have collapsed 15 years ago.

“To think that these closed areas have no value is absurd. Why do folks want to get into them, if they don’t have any fish in them? How is it that closed area management brought back George’s Bank haddock, if they have no value? Closed area management has treated the scallop industry pretty well.”

Cunningham knows he might lose some readers and even some friends by speaking up for habitat protection. He explained why he thinks it’s worth that risk.

“I will not make a lot of friends in either the recreational industry or the commercial with this stance, but if it helps to save and perhaps rebuild groundfish stocks in the Gulf of Maine, it does not matter… I’d hate to see a generation or two from now visiting the Massachusetts State House and viewing the iconic golden cod with a comment like, ‘What the heck kind of fish is that?’”


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