New England Fisheries

Fishery Wasteland: How Fisheries Managers Turned a Critical Opportunity into More of the Same

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

This is part one in a two-part blog series about the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment 2.

Fishermen have been using mobile bottom gear to catch fish since the early 1900s. Importing a technology from Europe to replace the beam trawls that were in heavy use at the time, it was Long Island fishermen who first learned the distinction of operating sustained commercial fishing with the new “otter trawl” rigs. It wasn’t long before New England fishermen heard of their success, and the innovation spread north.

Today, virtually all groundfishing is done with these large bottom-sweeping otter trawls; all scallop fishing is done with heavy steel trawls that cut across the ocean floor; and even many of the other so-called “midwater” fisheries like herring, squid, and shrimp use mobile fishing gears that directly contact the seafloor for sustained periods of time. Some estimates indicate that global bottom trawling efforts stir up as much sediment as is deposited on the continental shelves by all of the world’s rivers (almost 22 gigatons).

In New England, recent mapping of fishing activity reveals that there are, in fact, just a few areas– and the resources and habitat found within them – off our shores that are free from the repeated annual dragging by multiple vessels from multiple fisheries. The only areas where there has been little dragging are either too deep to access or have been closed to most mobile bottom fishing gears since the mid-1990s. Despite intense industry opposition, the areas were closed to try to rebuild decimated groundfish stocks.

Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2: A Brief History

In 1996, Congress recognized that the adverse impacts from fishing gears on ocean habitats essential for the productivity of the nation’s fish populations (and therefore the sustainability of the fisheries themselves) were reducing the potential economic yield of those fisheries and the ecological health of the ocean. At the urging of scientists, conservationists, and a number of forward-thinking fishermen, Congress amended the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the U.S. federal fishery management law, to mandate that federal managers “minimize to the extent practicable adverse impacts on [essential fish] habitat caused by fishing….”

The New England Fishery Management Council adopted a new habitat management plan in response to this mandate. That plan, however, was so deficient that a reviewing federal judge threw it out on its ear in 2000 for violating multiple laws. The judge ordered the Council to do a better job, even laying out a roadmap for the Council to follow.

Now, seventeen years later, nearly 14 years since the Council first initiated the second attempt, and after waiting two-and-a-half years since the Council’s final vote on its revised habitat amendment, NOAA Fisheries has, at last, taken action to move the amendment forward. The agency has published its proposed rule for the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment 2 (OHA2), which, if approved, would implement the Council’s habitat protection recommendations.

A Swing and a Miss…Again

After such a substantial time investment by managers, scientists, and the public, one would think that the revised amendment must be the Council’s best work. There is little in the proposed rule, however, to show for the effort that went into the amendment. The Council’s final recommendations – that the agency unfortunately is likely to largely approve – reduces the current amount of ocean bottom with at least some year-round protections from bottom dredging and dragging by a jaw-dropping 60 percent.

Rather than carrying out its legal charge to minimize the adverse impacts on the ocean by fishing gears to the extent practicable, the proposed rule for all intents and purposes maximizes the allowable adverse impacts by fishing gears to the extent possible.

This is a disgrace, and NOAA Fisheries had the opportunity to respond in its proposed rule. But the only concerns NOAA Fisheries tentatively expressed were toward another egregious element of the Council’s recommendations: its proposed 80 percent reduction in habitat protections on Georges Bank.

The 80 percent reduction in habitat protection on Georges Bank is primarily justified on the basis of the lost fishing opportunities in some currently closed areas for the multi-million-dollar scallop industry. Apparently, there are some Atlantic sea scallops out there that might actually be dying of old age, rather than at the hands of an industrial fishing fleet.

Since opening the areas would not fundamentally change the allowable quota the industry could take, the only justification here seems to be that there would be lower crew costs for the vessels since they could catch their quota in fewer days. Hardly seems justification enough to subject important protected ocean habitat to one of the most destructive fishing gears. More problematic, the habitat that these vessels want access to has been identified by the Council itself and its scientists as prime habitat for Atlantic cod. As a reminder, our iconic Atlantic cod populations have been overfished since at least 1990 and are only at 3-5 percent of the levels that scientists say are sustainable.

At a time when the populations of our most iconic species are at historic lows, and with a Council that has managed to achieve the worst record in the nation for its number of stocks that are either overfished or subject to overfishing, NOAA’s approval of such a reckless decision would reflect again a fundamental disconnect between what the agency knows and what it is willing to do. In the context of the legal mandate from Congress to produce healthy fish habitats that could play a pivotal role in enhancing and sustaining fish productivity and rebuilding success, the agency’s enabling behavior is, at best, very troubling.

In addition to the problematic free-for-all that the Council wants to authorize on Georges Bank, the agency’s apparent lack of concern with other issues from the Council’s recommendations is startling from the Gulf of Maine alternatives selected to the lack of spawning protection for Atlantic cod to the inconsistency with the best available science, and even to the inconsistency with the guidance that NOAA Fisheries itself gave the Council during the amendment development process. These problems overwhelm any progress that may be achieved from the few proposed areas of habitat protection in the waters off eastern Maine and the Great South Channel off Cape Cod.

The way we see it, these regulations are anti-science, anti-law, and anti-effective management. They fail—yet again— to take any significant management actions to promote cod productivity or to truly improve ocean habitat protections in New England. Perhaps the best outcome would be for the agency to throw the whole thing out and order the Council back to the drawing board.

A public comment period for the Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2 is open now through December 5, 2017, after which there is a 30-day review period before a final rule is issued by NOAA Fisheries. “Part 2” of our blog series will be posted prior to the end of the comment period and will cover the details of our concerns over the proposed rule more specifically.


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