Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Protect New England’s Fish Habitat: The Talking Fish Top 10

Atlantic cod has been overfished or subject to overfishing in New England since at least 1989. Photo credit: Brian Skerry,

After a decade of development, a plan for protecting fish habitat in New England’s waters is finally coming to a vote at this week’s meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council. Fish habitat is crucial for healthy, sustainable fisheries. That’s why the Magnuson-Stevens Act—the country’s top law on ocean fishing—requires the Council to “minimize to the extent practicable adverse effects” on essential fish habitat, and it’s why one of the Council’s own established goals is to “improve protection of critical groundfish habitats.”

Unfortunately, the habitat proposal appears likely to sharply reduce the overall area set aside for habitat protection. As regular readers know, Talking Fish has covered this issue in depth. Here’s the Talking Fish “Top Ten” list of reasons to protect our ocean habitat:

1. We need more habitat protection, not less

In its current form, the plan would eliminate about 70% of protected areas. That’s a combined total of more than 6,000 square miles, which is roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

2. We need to protect important species

Years of overfishing and a failure to act have caused Gulf of Maine cod numbers to plummet to historic lows. We must protect essential habitat if there is any chance of recovery.

3. A warning from the region’s top federal fishery official

NOAA’s regional administrator wrote to the council’s to say that the habitat proposal would “significantly weaken, rather than improve, essential fish habitat.”

4. We need to follow the law

In that same letter, NOAA’s regional administrator said he “feels strongly” that the council’s current proposal on habitat would “not meet the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s requirements.”

5. We need to use the best science

NOAA’s regional administrator said there is compelling analysis that indicates the proposed reductions in habitat “have not made use of the best available scientific information.” And speaking of science…

6. Scientists have spoken up for habitat protection

Nearly 150 prominent researchers signed a letter to NOAA officials urging them to protect fish refuge and spawning habitats. They wrote that “sufficient habitat is a crucial component of recovery for struggling populations such as the collapsed Atlantic cod.”

7. Over 150,000 members of the public support habitat protection

During the public comment period, more than 159,000 people voiced their opinion to the council. Ninety-six percent of them urged more protection for vital ocean habitat and asked to keep special areas such as Cashes Ledge closed to fishing.

8. Habitat protection increases resiliency to climate change

The Gulf of Maine is warming at a faster rate than nearly any other body of water in the world’s oceans. A NOAA 2012 report said that minimizing habitat loss “may be one of the most effective, and doable, ways to increase resilience to climate change.”

9. New England lags behind on habitat protection

NOAA’s most recent Status of the Stocks report shows that other regional fishery councils have been able to rebuild fish stocks while simultaneously protecting essential habitat. There shouldn’t be anything stopping New England from doing the same.

10. Cod’s recovery could hang in the balance

Researchers at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute found that protected areas hold more of the larger, older, females in the remaining cod population. These especially productive egg-layers will be major players in a cod recovery, and protecting the places they need is important.


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