New England Fisheries

A Vote To Be Thankful For: Council Says No Lobster and Crab Exemption from Coral Amendment

A red crab pot on a coral covered ledge. Image via Peter Auster.

It is important to acknowledge when a good management decision has been made, and last week the New England Fishery Management Council did just that. For the second time, the Council voted against a motion that would have exempted the lobster and crab pot/trap fisheries in the Gulf of Maine from analysis in the draft Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment, notwithstanding barely-veiled warnings of civil disobedience from some lobster quarters in Maine. The vote was the right one.

What is the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment?

Deep-sea corals are ecologically important in their own right as well as serving as an important habitat for myriad marine organisms, including commercially important fishes and invertebrates. They are also especially vulnerable to human disturbance and destruction. The primary threat to deep-sea corals is commercial fishing. The Council’s Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment, still in development, is an area-based management measure to protect the region’s corals by first analyzing impacts and then reducing the negative impacts of fishing activity, specifically harmful gear types, on corals, while minimizing any economic consequences for commercial fisheries operating within coral habitat areas.

In the New England region, the Council identified ten coral species or orders that are “likely to be more vulnerable” to fishing activity. The draft amendment presents numerous alternatives that propose protection for broad areas of corals along the shelf-slope as well as discrete zones of coral concentrations. The Council’s Habitat Plan Development Team has been analyzing the fishing effort, the fishing gears that pose threats to corals, and the economics associated with protecting the coral zones, as well as completing a biological impact analysis.

It is clear that both mobile-bottom fishing gears as well as fixed-bottom fishing gears like lobster and crab pots present threats to corals.

The Council Stands Strong

On the table at last week’s Council meeting was a request from the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Maine lobstermen to exempt lobster and crab pot/trap fisheries from the coral management measures associated with the Mt. Desert Island and Schoodic Ridge coral zone areas. The Council had already voted against this at its September meeting. This effort, if successful, would inevitably have also led to a similar effort to exempt lobster and crab gear, wherever used, from further analysis.

Those in favor of exempting the lobster and crab fisheries expressed concern over the economic impacts members of the fisheries would face if not allowed to fish in those zones. The Vice Chairman of the Council buttressed those arguments – i.e. threatened – by citing potential hostility from lobstermen that a draft amendment would likely face at any public hearings in Maine if the fisheries weren’t exempted.

But Council decisions are not popularity contests. If a fishery falls within the scope of a fishery management plan, the Council has a duty to analyze its impacts even in the face of threats. Making any other decision would place fisheries in the hands of mobs. Not to mention, this methodology also seems to be at complete odds with the responsible management history that the Maine lobster industry should justifiably be proud of.

Analysis must come first

The core issue with the exemption vote at this time was that it was premature; it preempted any biological or social and economic analysis of lobster gear impacts on deep-sea corals. Whether addressing those impacts might lead to any future Council management actions that might affect Maine lobster is not presently known. In passing, it is worth noting that the management task is dramatically complicated by the lack of a comprehensive database of fishing activities and locations for the lobster industry.

Correctly recognizing the rule of law under which they operate, the Council voted that it could not justify prematurely exempting any fishery without the proper analysis. For that it deserves recognition. Even if the analysis leads to exemption in the future, at that time the Council will be able to make a fully informed decision based on the best available data, and the public will be reassured that all fisheries are subject to the same rules.


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