Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Industry Lawyers Wrong on Closed Areas Science: An Open and Shut Case

A red cod and cunner swim on Ammen Rock, the highest peak of Cashes Ledge. Photo credit: Brian Skerry/NEOO.

Last year, when the New England Fishery Management Council proposed slashing the areas set aside to protect habitat for groundfish, more than 100 scientists signed a letter outlining the benefits these closed areas provide.

“The best peer-reviewed science strongly indicates that groundfish closed areas retain higher densities of fish, larger individuals, and serve to export fish to the fishery. The benefits of closed areas in similar temperate ecosystems are also well known.”

So it must have come as a surprise to these dozens of scientists from leading institutions to read in National Fisherman that “there are no scientific studies showing that closed areas, in temperate areas like New England, provide benefits to fishery productivity or conservation.”

That’s from the “Washington Outlook” column by Andrew Minkiewicz and Anne Hawkins, two attorneys with the Washington law firm Kelley Drye & Warren, which represents commercial fishing interests. They accuse environmental groups of pushing for closures based on “feel good mantras” lacking “any data showing the ecological benefits of large closures in this type of temperate area.”

This simply is not so. The letter scientists sent to NOAA last year draws on several studies containing data very clearly showing both ecological benefits of closures and benefits to the surrounding fisheries.

But wait, there’s more. Last summer the Gulf of Maine Research Institute released the report “Future of Cod in the Gulf of Maine,” with a section on the role of New England’s closed areas in the recovery of depleted cod stocks. Here’s what the GMRI scientists concluded:

“Closed areas have been identified as one of the most effective approaches to protect age structure, spatial structure, and the spawning behavior of cod (Berkeley et al. 2004, Dean et al. 2012). Closed areas in the Gulf of Maine were established primarily to reduce mortality of groundfish including cod and haddock (Murawski et al. 2005), and recent work has shown that they are indeed effective at protecting older, larger cod (Sherwood and Grabowski, in prep).”

So how can Minkiewicz and Hawkins say there are no data, no studies? It is so demonstrably false it would be funny, if the stakes weren’t so serious. The New England Fishery Management Council is considering a habitat plan that could dramatically reduce the amount of protected areas. And Minkiewicz is sending the council the same misinformation regarding the science in an attempt to weaken the habitat plan.

Here’s a suggestion: When it comes to the science, listen to the scientists. As more than 100 of them wrote last year, “more habitat protection is needed, not less.”


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