Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Habitat Protection: Council Apparently Unclear on the Concept

A cod swims through a kelp forest in the current Cashes Ledge closed area (Photo credit: Brian Skerry)

Decades of overfishing has driven New England’s iconic Atlantic cod fishery to historically low numbers. How does the New England Fishery Management Council respond? They vote to eliminate nearly 75% of the area protected within the Cashes Ledge groundfish closed area. This regressive move defies and ignores the very clear recommendations of the Council’s own scientists and economists and a substantial record of evidence of the value of the full Cashes Ledge protected area.

At the end of its February meeting, the Council approved a draft environmental impact statement for its pending Omnibus Habitat Amendment that designated preferred alternatives for the protection of essential fish habitat. The areas called out for protection include:

  • Western Gulf of Maine: the entirety of the existing protected area that has been closed to most forms of fishing for almost 17 years. This area includes the important Jeffrey’s Ledge and harbors critical juvenile fish and spawning habitat for a number of species, including forage fish that serve as food for many of our commercial stocks and other marine organisms.
  • Eastern Gulf of Maine: two new areas in this sub-region, the Downeast and Machias, are proposed for protection. They contain vulnerable habitat, hotspots for juvenile fish, and spawning areas for forage fish and can provide potential benefits for struggling cod, haddock and halibut stocks.

The Council’s votes to retain and add protection of this essential fish habitat, led principally by National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Administrator John Bullard, followed the recommendations of its science and economic advisors and were consistent with the goals and objectives of the Habitat Amendment.

All discipline and adherence to scientific goals and guidance was lost, however, when the Council decided the fate of fish habitat in the central Gulf of Maine by allowing new bottom trawling  in nearly three-quarters of the existing Cashes Ledge groundfish protected area – an area which had been protected for the last 15 years. The Council’s choice for this sub-region ignored the goals and objectives of the OHA, which include protecting habitat that supports critical fish life stages, protecting fish spawning areas and enhancing groundfish productivity.

The Council also ignored the scientists and economists who have spent the past year analyzing the alternatives for this sub-region. These experts recommended protecting the entire Cashes Ledge groundfish closed area based upon their conclusion that it provides ecological benefits, positive impacts for groundfish species, and positive economic impacts. Indeed, the existing Cashes Ledge closed area was described by these advisors in the draft environmental impact statement as “among the most highly vulnerable in the sub-region.” The impact statement also found that “[g]iven the length of time over which the Cashes Ledge and Jeffrey’s Bank areas have been closed, the expectation is that benefits afforded by these areas are already flowing, but additional benefits of these conservation measures are expected to accrue in the future.” That’s “accrue,” as in fish and dollars.

The existing Cashes Ledge protected area comprises a series of ridges and varied complex habitat.

This preliminary decision to reduce the size and effectiveness of the Cashes Ledge protected area could have negative effects on the entire Gulf of Maine. Cashes Ledge is one of a chain of protected areas running east to west in the Gulf that serve as refuges for productive females, shelter juvenile fish, add resilience to a rapidly changing marine ecosystem, and harbor an array of beneficial marine species and resources. As currently configured, the existing Cashes Ledge protected area comprises a series of ridges and varied complex habitat running in a horseshoe shaped ring around the depths of Cashes Basin from Fippennies Ledge to the west, along a string of pinnacles known as the Fifty-Five Fathom Bunch, north to Sigsbee Ridge and east to Cashes Ledge. This interconnected, highly diverse terrain and the prevailing ocean currents contribute to a rich and varied population of species and massive biomass. Retaining the entirety of this protected area is essential to maintaining this hot spot of diversity and productivity in the center of the Gulf of Maine.

So why would the Council, in an action designed to protect marine habitat, select an alternative that massively reduces the total area protected, that eliminates protection for a chain of pinnacles, ledges and ridges that are the essence of the complex, hard bottom habitat types that the Council’s models and advisors tell us need protection, and that will have net negative economic impacts on the fishery and communities? The answer appears to lie with the handful of the industry’s big boats who would like the short-term cash of a few weeks worth of trawling. You should ask the Council and NMFS that very question during the public comment and public hearings on the Habitat Amendment this summer.


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