New England Fisheries

The Well-Done, the Wait-and-See, and the Do-Your-Job: NEFMC Approves 2017 Management Priorities

River herring make their way up a fish ladder in Massachusetts. Photo credit: Greg Wells.

Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council released its approved 2017 management priorities, which were selected at the Council’s November meeting. Setting priorities for the upcoming year, as the Council puts it, “give[s] the public a snapshot of what to expect in the foreseeable future,” and it’s an important part of transparency in the fishery management council process.

As mentioned in its press release, it is the Council’s prime responsibility under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to set annual catch limits and fishery specifications, and that will continue to be the Council’s number one priority in 2017. But the Council worked with fishermen and stakeholders to determine other key items that they will put their attention towards. A few of these are worth mentioning.

The Well-Done

First, the Council will address localized depletion and user conflicts in the Atlantic herring fishery as a 2017 priority. Addressing the issue of localized depletion through Amendment 8 has been slow, and it’s important that this work is concluded. Atlantic herring play a vital role in the ocean food web as a prey source for ocean species from Atlantic puffins to bluefin tuna to humpback whales. However, when midwater trawlers are permitted to fill their quota by scooping up huge numbers of schooling Atlantic herring from the inshore waters, they become the dominant predator and disrupt the natural inshore processes. Their massive trawl gear also damages fixed fishing gears. Consequently, the ecosystem, as well as the businesses that rely on a healthy ocean, suffer. When it comes to localized depletion, the Council should take a precautionary approach in the management measures it sets to ensure that enough herring are available inshore for ocean wildlife and that gear conflicts are minimized.

Second, the Council plans to complete the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment. The Omnibus Deep- Coral Amendment is vital to sound habitat protection in New England’s ocean. New England still has diverse and beautiful deep-sea corals that serve as a necessary habitat for myriad other species. These corals are highly fragile, making them vulnerable to the impacts of fishing gear. Fishermen have been pulling up broken coral in their trawl gear for years. The Mid-Atlantic Council just set an example by protecting some 38,000 square miles of deep-sea coral habitat. It should not take the New England Council a full year to follow suit.

Third, the Council will continue to development a fishery ecosystem plan using Georges Bank as the test case for ecosystem-based fisheries management. This is an area where the interests of conservationists and fishermen are highly aligned. Moving away from single-species management to ecosystem-based fishery management is no easy task, but given the continually changing conditions of our ocean especially in the Gulf of Maine – one of the fastest warming ocean areas on the planet – it is needed now more than ever. Fish do not live in siloes in the ocean. They interact with each other and the habitat, and it’s time to start managing them that way.

The Wait-and-See

Next comes the Council’s plan to revise Atlantic halibut management. Atlantic halibut, once a major predator that helped maintain the ecological health of the ocean and significant commercial species, has been collapsed for many decades. Populations now seem to be increasing as is evident from the increased catches along the coast, particularly in Maine. However, the halibut need to be allowed more time to rebuild as quickly as possible so that they will be able to support a significant fishery in the future, not become the victim of a “shifting baseline” mentality that bumps up harvest at the first sight of recovery. It is difficult to imagine, though, that the New England Council will exercise the harvest restraint that full rebuilding of this species requires.

Another priority that will be on any 2017 Council agenda but that has yet to materialize is the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. The Council’s submission to NMFS falls so short of the statutory requirements and the needs of sustainable fisheries that approval of the entire amendment by NMFS is hard to fathom. Of course, a new Administration might throw the predictability of the fisheries world into chaos so that up is down and left is right, and Talking Fish will have to eat its words. In any event, our prediction—and hope – is that the Council will be looking at major revisions to the Amendment in 2017.

The “Do Your Job”

Now that doesn’t cover all of the approved priorities, but it also should be mentioned that wholly missing, once again, is a priority that ought to have made the 2017 list: the federal management of river herring and shad populations. River herring and shad are currently managed through catch caps in the Atlantic herring fishery, and the New England Fishery Management Council recently voted to not create a separate management plan for river herring and shad. This was a mistake.

Millions of public and private dollars have been spent to restore river herring and shad populations in New England, and the Council knows these fish are in need of conservation and management. The spawning habitat recovery efforts will produce increased numbers of these important food fish, which is critical to rebuilding inshore predator populations like cod. Folks on the land are doing what is necessary, but recovery will continue to be thwarted by the Council’s refusal to exercise its statutory responsibility to conserve and manage these fish. These species, much like Atlantic herring, play a vital role as forage fish in the ocean ecosystem and need a management plan.

As always for those of us who are committed to raising the stature of New England fishery management, we will continue to monitor the Council process in 2017 to ensure it is doing its job to promote and conserve sustainable fisheries in New England … and challenge the Council and federal overseers when it doesn’t.


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