Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Head in the Sand: Industry Steams in Full Reverse on Need for Habitat Protection

A red cod and cunner on Cashes Ledge. Photo credit: Brian Skerry/New England Ocean Odyssey.

Lately not a day goes by without a news story highlighting the plight of New England’s ocean waters, its struggles with climate change, and the effects of overfishing and historical mismanagement. Last week it was Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announcing that Massachusetts groundfish stocks are in such dire condition that losses to the industry this fishing season are likely to reach $34 million and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) publicizing that preliminary modeling suggests that the distribution of butterfish, a species historically caught in the South Atlantic, has shifted significantly northward over the past eight years.

These stories are no longer news; they are commonplace. We’ve been reading regularly about the collapse of commercial species like cod, yellowtail flounder and Gulf of Maine haddock, the invasion of green crabs and their effects on local ecosystems, the closure of the Maine shrimp fishery, the effects of ocean acidification on shellfish like clams and scallops and findings that plankton, a food source for many New England fish stocks, is on the decline with some species adapting poorly to warming and diluted ocean waters. I could go on, but by now you are all too familiar with these realities. The evidence is indisputable and mounting daily—decades of overfishing coupled with climate change impacts have the entire marine ecosystem in a state of crisis.

With this developing tragedy as a backdrop, the New England Fishery Management Council this week undertakes its first major step in defining protection for vulnerable ocean habitat – the same habitat that our depleted groundfish need if they are ever to recover. The decisions of the Council and NMFS on the pending Omnibus Habitat Amendment will be critical to the future ecological and commercial health and resilience of our ocean and will provide an indication of the seriousness with which our fisheries and ocean managers take this impending crisis.

Currently, 6400 square nautical miles of protected ocean serves as a refuge for juvenile fish, harbors large productive female fish, protects the places where fish spawn, buffers against the rapid effects of climate change and as acts as an oasis from the repeated poundings handed out by commercial fishing gear.

Currently, 6400 square nautical miles of protected habitat (outlined in dashed lines and shaded gray) harbor juvenile and spawning fish and vulnerable ecosystems.

Contrary to the self-serving claims of some in the fishing industry, the science strongly supports the role of these protected areas. In fact, a recent study finds that properly designed protected areas produced as much as 840% more fish than areas outside the protected zones. Sadly, every indication to date suggests that the Council will not heed the overwhelming scientific evidence and address the needs of this ailing ecosystem, but will instead outright eliminate some protected areas and sharply reduce the size of others in favor of chasing short term profits for the some in the fishing industry.

From the outset, industry power brokers have seen this Habitat Amendment not as a vehicle to revitalize fish stocks and their struggling businesses but as a means to trawl and dredge more of the ocean. After discounting the well established facts that the protection of ocean habitat was beneficial for the ecosystem and the health of commercial stocks, the big boat cartel proposed a “straw plan” that effectively takes the “habitat” out of the Habitat Amendment by reducing the amount of fish habitat protected today by an astounding 70% and shifting protection to less vulnerable areas.

An industry proposal would dramatically reduce the area of protected marine habitat in New England.

The proposal would eliminate the three largest existing protected areas, including two on iconic Georges Bank, one of which contains an area designated a “habitat of particular concern.” The Western Gulf of Maine and Cashes Ledge protected areas, both known to shelter large productive fish, would be reduced in size by more than one half. Merely stripping the North Atlantic of some of its most significant habitat protected areas is not enough for this industry, however, and the straw proposal goes further—demanding that the Council take no action to protect fish spawning areas. Yes, you read that correctly. The industry that profits from nature’s ability to churn out a new generation of wild fish each year wants the Council to refrain from protecting the places where those fish (and their next paycheck) reproduce.

NMFS has appropriately questioned aspects of the industry proposal and urged that the Council maintain the existing protected area in the western Gulf of Maine and enhance protection in the remainder of the Gulf, provide justification for any intrusion in the Georges Bank habitat area of particular concern and improve upon existing spawning protections. NMFS should continue to hold the line and insist that the Council’s decisions adhere to the goals and objectives of the Amendment and follow what the science tells us—well designed protected areas work.


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