New England Fisheries

A Habitat Committee Without Particular Concern for Habitat

The highest peak of Cashes Ledge, Ammen Rock, rises to within 40 feet of the ocean surface and harbors the deepest and largest cold-water kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard. Photo credit: Brian Skerry / New England Ocean Odyssey

Is New England’s fishery management system broken? It certainly seems so after last week, when the stakeholder body that designs and recommends plans and methodologies for managing our fisheries flagrantly ignored the direction of its parent agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), as well as the wishes of a large segment of the public that ultimately owns the resource.

Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Habitat Committee finalized its recommendations to the full NEFMC as to the habitat management measures that will best protect habitat where fish spawn, feed and find shelter. In doing so, the Committee flouted the guidance of NMFS Regional Administrator John Bullard and entirely ignored the comments of over 152,000 members of the public. This result does not bode well for the full and final Council vote on habitat protection measures later this month and any likelihood that the recommend measures will be legally sufficient.

Public Comments Left Unheeded

The measures at issue are part of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment, which the NEFMC has been “working” on for twelve years. The Council’s final vote on its recommended approach to protecting the most vulnerable habitats is expected on April 23 and last week’s vote of its habitat subcommittee responsible for designing habitat protections, was intended to guide that final vote. The Habitat Committee’s meeting came at the conclusion of a public comment period in which those 152,000+ comments strongly supported enhanced protection for marine habitat, including explicit support for retaining the Cashes Ledge protected area. Among the commenters was Administrator Bullard himself, who filed a letter outlining areas where the NMFS felt the current Amendment and proposed action were inadequate and recommended approaches that would satisfy the agency. To say that the Habitat Committee thumbed its nose at the Administrator wouldn’t be too far off; they certainly ignored the bulk of his recommendations.

No Particular Concern for Habitat

In his public comment letter, Bullard highlighted the importance of designated habitat areas of particular concern (HAPCs) and urged consideration of actions to “avoid, minimize or compensate” for the impacts of fishing in these areas, which include Cashes Ledge, the Northern Edge area of the Closed Area II GFCA and a large area in the Great South Channel. In addition to their vulnerable and unique habitat, each of these areas is critically important to any plan to resurrect the spiraling populations of Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod. Rather than propose new or additional protections or management in these areas, the Habitat Committee approved opening up significant portions of the Cashes HAPC, the entirety of the Northern Edge HAPC and is seriously considering an exemption that would allow highly destructive clam dredging within the proposed Great South Channel HAPC area.

Half Measures with Less Than Half the Protection

Administrator Bullard’s letter made clear his “strong support” for retaining the entirety of the existing protected areas in the Gulf of Maine, along with adding two new closures in the Eastern Maine area of the Gulf in order to meet the goals and objectives of the Amendment and provide adequate protection for the decimated Gulf of Maine cod stocks and other groundfish. In spite of this guidance, the Habitat Committee recommended eliminating a quarter of the Western Gulf of Maine Groundfish Closed Area, reducing the Cashes Ledge Groundfish Closed Area by sixty percent, reforming and shrinking the Jeffrey’s Bank Habitat Closure and adding a fraction of only one of two proposed areas in Eastern Maine. In total, the Gulf of Maine areas selected by the Committee for closure represent less than 50% of what Bullard had urged them to approve.

The results on Georges Bank and in the Great South Channel were no better, as the Committee selected only industry proposed alternatives. Indeed, the Habitat Committee selected as its preferred alternative for Georges Bank the one area that Regional Administrator Bullard specifically identified in his letter as a likely inadequate option. The Committee effectively ignored warnings from Bullard that the northern edge of Georges Bank should remain off limits to damaging trawl fishing and his urgings that additional areas in the vicinity of the northern edge should be protected. The Committee’s justifications for these actions, the need to access highly valuable scallops in the northern edge, rang hollow as it acted without any data as to the value of scallops that would be made accessible to the industry with recommended openings of existing Closed Areas I and II on Georges.

Who’s in Charge?

The Habitat Committee’s actions last week, its deference to the wishes of the fishing industry in spite of the strong recommendations of the federal agency and the public for whom it works, and its willingness to do so at the expense of beneficial and legally mandated habitat protection calls into question how functional it, and perhaps the Council itself, can be in this process. We can only hope that the full Council instills more hope and produces a meaningful Amendment.


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