New England Fisheries

Talking Fish’s Look Back at 2017

A common octocoral found on the New England Seamounts forms beautiful spirals as it grows. Image via NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program (2014).

As we round the corner into the New Year, it’s always a good time to reflect back on what’s happened this year and what might be up next. From habitat to the Codfather to forage fish, as expected, 2017 was quite the busy year.

Habitat Protection on the Chopping Block

In 2016, we celebrated the designation of the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. But with Donald Trump in the Whitehouse, concerns about protection of our nation’s most treasured land and sea areas quickly rose. Those concerns were met when Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke initiated a review of 27 national monuments, subsequently recommending that commercial fishing be allowed in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. Environmental advocates joined by scientists, businesses, religious leaders, recreational fishermen, among others, have vowed to fight back against these changes because an attack on one monument is an attack on all.

New England’s ocean habitat took another hit when, after nearly 14 years, NOAA Fisheries published a proposed rule for the Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2. Intended to enhance protections for essential fish habitat in New England, the OHA2 reduces protections for critical ocean habitat by nearly 60 percent. NOAA’s final decision on the amendment is expected in early 2018. But on a brighter note, throughout 2017 the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) has been working hard on its Deep-Sea Corals Amendment, which will hopefully offer greater protections from destructive fishing gears for vulnerable corals and coral habitat in New England. They even utilized the Northeast Ocean Data Portal to make the various management alternatives more accessible to the public. The NEFMC is expected to take a final vote on the amendment at its January meeting.

One Fish, Two Fish, Forage Fish, Groundfish

Just as habitat is critically important to the health of our fisheries and ocean, as are forage fish. The NEFMC finalized a draft of Amendment 8 to the Atlantic herring fishery management plan, which addresses issues such as localized depletion. Amendment 8 will be available for public comment early 2018. Additional progress includes NOAA Fisheries’ status review of alewife and blueback herring – two species of river herring often caught as bycatch in the Atlantic herring fishery – to determine if either species is endangered or threatened. In the first part of 2018, the NEFMC will also be updating its 2015 discussion document considering if river herring and shad should be added as stocks in the Atlantic herring fishery.

But it wasn’t all progress for forage fish. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission completed Amendment 3 to the Atlantic menhaden fishery management plan, which included a landmark opportunity for the ASMFC to use the best available science and manage menhaden in a manner that considers its role in the ecosystem as an important prey species. In a disappointing move, however, the ASMFC voted for status quo.

Now, we can’t talk about fisheries in New England without mentioning our most iconic fish – Atlantic cod. Atlantic cod populations continue to be at historic lows in New England, and this year, to the dismay of many, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries confirmed the low populations and shortened age structure through its own industry-based survey. New operational stock assessments in the groundfish fishery, however, showed that cod populations have slightly improved, and the NEFMC approved higher catch limits for the 2018 fishing year. Also in 2018, the NEFMC will further develop its groundfish monitoring amendment, which will hopefully lead to improved data in the fishery, and in time, even higher catch limits.

A large part of the monitoring conversation has been focused on Carlos Rafael, a.k.a. the Codfather. The case of the Codfather has been big news ever since his crimes of tax evasion, misreporting fish to the government, conspiracy, and cash smuggling were revealed in 2016. This fall, he was sentenced to federal prison for his crimes, but the fate of this permits as well as any civil penalties is still unknown. Fishing privileges for the Codfather’s groundfish sector, however, have been withdrawn until they can develop a new operations plan.

Fisheries Front and Center

Also big news, in fact national news, was the plight of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and the congressional debate over the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This year alone, 17 right whales died as the result of fishing gear entanglement (largely lobster and snow crab gear) or ship strike. With fewer than 460 individuals left, immediate action is needed to protect the species. Multiple notices of intent to sue over the issue were filed in 2017, and hopefully the federal government will respond before it’s too late.

The federal government has another debate on their hands as well as lawmakers try to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Current forms of the bill that want to add more flexibility to fisheries management threaten to reverse the progress made over the last 40 years towards sustainable U.S. fisheries. Many voices, including chefs and former fishermen, have spoken in favor of strong federal fisheries law, but many seem to not want to listen. The debate over the future of our fisheries will certainly continue into 2018.

Thank you for keeping up with Talking Fish in 2017! Don’t forget to read tomorrow’s Fish Talk in the News – the last post of the year. We’ll take a short break in January, but look forward to continuing the conversation soon after.

Here are some of our most read posts of 2017:

State of Denial: Fishermen Disagree (again) with Gulf of Maine Cod Assessments (By Talking Fish)

Fishermen and scientists have disagreed about the state of Gulf of Maine cod populations. Wanting to get to the bottom of the disagreement, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries implemented its own industry-based survey. The survey confirmed the conclusion of the federal stock assessments, but industry leaders continue to bash the science.

One That Didn’t Get Away: The Atlantic Sea Scallop and the Future of Fishing (By John Pappalardo)

During National Seafood Month, it is important to appreciate the tremendous benefits the Cape and seafood consumers across the country have enjoyed thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which Congress is revisiting this year. In fact, without the science-based fisheries management required by this law, our rich heritage might have become ancient history.

Why wouldn’t we support the New England Marine Monument? (By John McMurray)

Whatever your political leanings, one has to acknowledge that the Obama Administration did something extraordinary last fall. Through the Antiquities Act, it protected almost five thousand miles of an incredibly biodiverse piece of ocean off of New England from large-scale extraction, while preserving recreational fishing access. This was the first such action to protect large-scale ecosystems on the East Coast, and it was generally supported by the recreational fishing community.

Stripers Should Not be Overfished; So Give Max a Call (By Todd Corayer)

Please call Max Appleman immediately. Max is the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Council. Max is the man taking calls from people opposing or supporting a move the ASMFC is considering to increase the harvest of striped bass.

Who Owns Downeast Maine’s Seaweed? (By Sean Mahoney)

Rockweed, the green-brown seaweed found along Maine’s coastline, has commercial value in and of itself, primarily as an additive for the food and drug industry as well as products such as fertlizer and cosmetics. Over the last decade, that value has grown, resulting in ever-increasing amounts of it being harvested from Maine’s beaches. As harvesters have become more common sights along shorelines, the issue of who owns rockweed – and thus has the right to harvest it – has become a contentious one.


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