NOAA Marches to the Beat of Multiple Drummers on Habitat Protection

A recent NOAA report documents the importance of essential fish habitat, but the agency has shown little resistance to fishing industry efforts to open many currently closed areas. Photo: NOAA/Mike Johnson

Sometimes it is hard to understand why agencies do the things they do. Are they just marching to an inaudible tune that somehow makes sense of the sum of their actions?

Take the issue of habitat protection. On the one hand, NOAA has been monumentally important around the country by supporting the community-based restoration of coastal estuaries: the salt marshes, tidal rivers, and intertidal areas that are so important for pollution reduction, storm-surge protection, critical passageways for anadromous forage fish species like herring, fish nurseries, and juvenile fish hiding places, just to name a few of their many functions.

In Conservation Law Foundation’s partnership with NOAA through a group called Restore America’s Estuaries, we have helped communities and landowners from Cape Cod to eastern Maine restore health to these estuaries, restoring extensive marsh areas and opening up hundreds of miles of streams and rivers to herring. NOAA has spent millions of federal dollars on these programs over the last decade and they have been completely successful. Just last month, we all celebrated the removal of another dam blocking river herring runs in Plymouth, MA.

NOAA also recently announced that they will be focusing the bulk of their restoration activity on dam removal on the Penobscot River. If MacArthur genius Ted Ames is right, the restoration of fish runs into and out of the Penobscot River could be the key to restoring commercial fish species to the depleted Penobscot Bay and downeast coastal waters.

Meanwhile, NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office also just released a report detailing the importance of shallow-water bottom habitats in the Gulf of Maine for species like cod, pollock, white hake, and winter flounder.

But then the same agency turns around wearing its fisheries management hat and seems to be operating under a completely different set of principles. NMFS has recently cast the deciding vote against several measures that would have increased the at-sea protection of the very same river herring on which millions of dollars are being spent to enhance spawning opportunities. Even when the council has taken the right steps, the agency has thrown barriers in its path and disapproved measures that would have helped river herring.

The same incongruity seems to be emerging in the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment that the New England Fishery Management Council is drafting for release this summer. In an action that is intended to reduce the impacts of fishing gears on the essential habitats that support productive, healthy ocean fisheries, the agency has shown little resistance to fishing industry efforts to open as many of the currently closed refuge areas as they can get away with. Groundfish are in already trouble and the agency buys into increasing the industry’s access to the few places where there are some remnant stocks hiding out, saving only a few postage stamp areas that will make little difference to restoring our once-great ocean fish populations?

Protecting river herring adults at sea is inextricably linked to the value of restoring river herring spawning grounds inland. Aggressively protecting essential fish habitat is vital to the future health of both our fish and fisheries, whether those habitats are up rivers, along coasts, or offshore.

At the risk of being accused of promoting an anti-Emersonian “foolish consistency,” it shouldn’t be too much to ask or expect that NOAA and NMFS move more closely to the same tune no matter who their dance partner is.


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