No Refuge For Fish? Stressed Species Need Safe Habitat
This opinion piece was originally published in the Hartford Courant.
Overfishing and warming waters are combining to create a potent one-two punch that threatens significant harm to New England’s already beleaguered fish and fishermen. Fortunately, there is one thing we can do to help cushion both blows: protect ocean habitat — the places where fish spawn, grow, and find shelter and food.
Despite research that shows protecting these regions helps restore depleted fish populations, commercial fishing interests would like to reopen important offshore areas now closed to fishing. These include protected sections of Georges Bank and the Nantucket Shoals, both east of Nantucket and Cape Cod, which contribute to a healthy ocean for fishermen from Connecticut and southern New England. These areas are vital as breeding and feeding grounds for cod, haddock and flounder, among other fish, and also benefit shellfish such as scallops.
Industry proposals now before the New England Fishery Management Council would reduce protected habitat by 70 percent and expand the use of damaging gear such as hydraulic dredges and trawls in these sensitive areas, moves that could devastate the fragile cod population and threaten the health of other species. The council is currently preparing an Omnibus Fish Habitat Amendment to the region’s fishing regulations. These proposals are due to be released for public comment as early as this summer.
With ocean warming putting more pressure on fish populations, as the National Climate Assessment report released Tuesday documents, these suggestions to weaken habitat protections would only make a bad situation worse.
Connecticut’s lobstermen know too well the threat of warming waters. Scientists have linked the shell disease that afflicted Long Island Sound lobsters to higher sea temperatures. Warming is also affecting many other commercially important species.
One serious concern centers on New England’s world-famous cod stocks. Years of chronic overfishing had already reduced them to near-historic lows. Then in 2012, sea surface temperatures — which have been steadily rising in the region — hit the highest point in more than 150 years, and they have remained at near record highs.
Scientists have documented fish moving to cooler waters. Troubling discoveries show disruptions to the marine food web, with some predators unable to find the small prey fish they need. Other research has linked the warming trend to reduced abundance of the microscopic plankton that feed many juvenile fish.
Fortunately, science shows that protecting habitat not only aids the recovery from overfishing, it also helps fish and other marine wildlife adapt to climate change. More than 100 marine scientists signed a letter last year explaining the clear benefits of closing off some sensitive areas to bottom trawling. They told federal officials that these closed zones result in more fish, yield bigger fish and “export” fish that swim into the surrounding waters where they can be caught. Scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute found particular advantages for cod, calling closed areas “one of the most effective approaches” to protect their populations and undo past damage.
A recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also points to closed areas as a way to help marine wildlife cope with rising sea temperatures, while a report co-authored by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials noted that minimizing the loss of habitat “may be one of the most effective, and doable, ways to increase resilience to climate change.”
That 2012 report, which was prepared in partnership with state and federal wildlife agencies, presented a detailed strategy to help the nation’s wildlife survive the effects of warming, and lists safeguarding ocean habitat as a top goal for marine animals. This should come as no surprise, because we know that habitat loss on land is the single largest factor leading to species’ extinction.
The most credible science shows that our oceans will continue to warm, which means that while we can’t ignore the drivers of climate change, we can and should take sensible action soon to help natural systems adapt. Officials at the New England Fishery Management Council and NOAA have just such an opportunity before them now, as they consider the long-overdue habitat plan for the region. Unfortunately, the proposals from the commercial fishing industry would move things in the wrong direction. They should be rejected in favor of laying a solid groundwork for recovery and resilience.
Here in New England, we have seen time and again that putting short-term economic desires over the long-term health of the marine environment does not work. The best science demonstrates that if we want our fish and fishing industry to rebound from past abuses and also cope with warming waters, we must protect more of our ocean, not less.