New England Fisheries

A Look Back at 2015

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

2015 seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye, and you can bet that’s because it was quite the busy year for New England fisheries and ocean issues. Now, it’s time to look back on the last twelve months and remind ourselves of the important topics that we’ve covered on Talking Fish.

We began the year with the Gulf of Maine cod stock in crisis – the population at a historic low. Everyone from the local fishing community to Massachusetts Senators weighed in on the topic in an attempt to save the fish and the industry that relies on it. With stocks so low, and catch limits to match, Gulf of Maine cod became the fish to watch in the 2015 fishing year. Furthermore, a new round of stock assessments unfortunately indicated that the Georges Bank cod stock had also plummeted to disastrous lows, at 1 percent of its target population. In response, the New England Fishery Management Council cut catch limits by over 60 percent. Heading into 2016, the controversy over at-sea monitoring will likely continue, but we must remember the important role that monitors play in keeping our fisheries healthy and sustainable.

Even though the NEFMC lowered catch limits, it fell far short of protecting the habitat that is essential to our suffering fish populations. After over a decade of work, the NEFMC finalized Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2, which slashed protected habitats in New England’s ocean by 60 percent. The worst reductions were to Georges Bank. This vote went against the advice of NOAA’s Regional Administrator as well as the opinion of more than 150,000 people who wanted to see increased ocean habitat protection. NOAA still has the final say on the amendment. On the bright side, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s historic vote to protect 38,000 square miles of ocean where scientists have found an abundance of deep-sea corals was a win.

In addition to supporting increased habitat protection through the council process, over 600 people attended an event at the New England Aquarium in September to voice their support for designating Cashes Ledge and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as the first Marine National Monument in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean. Diverse stakeholders again showed their support at a NOAA town hall meeting in Providence, RI, two weeks later. On Talking Fish, we highlighted the importance of a monument designation for protecting our fish populations, marine mammals, coastal businesses, and more. We also set the record straight about the long, proud legacy of marine national monuments.

We would be remiss to not mention the cornerstone of United States fisheries policy, the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This year, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a highly controversial version of the Magnuson reauthorization bill, threatening to weaken our nation’s fisheries. With the law celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016, and important New England forage fish like river herring reaching all-time lows, now is the time to strengthen our fisheries law with a focus on ecosystem-based fisheries management.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, climate change was and will continue to be an increasing threat to fish in New England. Recently, new science linked warming ocean temperatures to cod’s collapse, emphasizing that future decisions about fisheries management must consider the effects of changing ocean conditions. There is still much progress to be made, but the climate negotiations in Paris gave more attention to the ocean than in years past, giving us some hope moving forward.

Thank you for keeping up with Talking Fish in 2015. We will continue to bring you your weekly news and keep you up to date on the issues in 2016. For now, here are some of our most-read posts of 2015:

  • January 15 – With Menhaden Making a Comeback, Managers area at a Crossroads – It appears that we may soon get some promising news about the fish that’s sometimes called the most important one in the sea—the Atlantic menhaden. These small forage fish constitute a key part of the marine food web, and now the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is nearing completion of a new assessment of the stock.
  • July 21 – Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Cod – Fishermen claim that Gulf of Maine cod stock populations are high, and fishery managers recently reopened additional closed areas around Cape Ann in May and June where cod seem to linger after spawning. Yet, nearly three months into the 2015 fishing year, the amount of cod reported as caught is as low as 13% of the ACL. What can explain this mystery?
  • April 6 – A Habitat Committee Without Particular Concern for Habitat – 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, as well as the wishes of a large segment of the public that ultimately owns the resource.
  • April 21 – Incorporating Community into Regional Ocean Planning –A well-executed ocean plan will help coastal communities protect their future, improve ocean management, and result in healthier ecosystems. The Regional Planning Body will take significant steps towards addressing the underlying concerns raised by fishermen and fishing communities around New England.
  • January 16 – The Question Not Asked – On January 5th, Senators Markey and Warren sent a set of questions to Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concerning Atlantic cod. Paraphrasing the Senators’ questions for purposes of space and simplification, here’s how I would answer them.

Happy New Year!


Comments

One Response to A Look Back at 2015

  • Thomas Nies says:

    “After over a decade of work, the NEFMC finalized Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2, which slashed protected habitats in New England’s ocean by 60 percent.”

    This is a misleading statement.

    Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2 modifies not only areas designed to protect habitat, but other closed areas that were never designed to protect habitat. Most of these areas were intended to reduce fishing mortality on groundfish stocks.

    If one ignores the reason closures were adopted, then if the total area of all year-round closed areas before OHA2 is compared to the total area of year-round closed areas after OHA2, the reduction in area is 56 percent (from 23,109 square kilometers to 10,095 square kilometers). But this simple comparison – which seems to be the basis for this post – ignores that over 9,400 square kilometers of the existing closed areas are currently open to mobile-bottom tending gear and do not provide year-round benefits to habitat.

    The reader who wants to better understand the changes in area proposed by OHA2 has a few choices:

    1. The area specifically identified for habitat protection before OHA2 totals 9,763 sq. km; after OHA2 totals 8,472 sq. km. The difference is 13 percent.
    2. The area that is either specifically identified for habitat protection or effectively prohibited to mobile bottom tending gear before OHA2 is 13,700 sq km; after OHA2 it is 10,095 sq km. The difference is 26 percent.

    The biggest flaw in all of these comparisons is that the amount of area closed is only one metric for evaluating the effectiveness of closures. Closures need to be in the correct place to be effective at minimizing the adverse effects of fishing on essential fish habitat, to the extent practicable – the statutory requirement.

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