New England Fisheries
A New Fishing Year Approaches, but Habitat Protections Fall Short
Earlier this year, after nearly 14 years in the making, NOAA Fisheries partially approved the Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2 (OHA2). In a letter to the New England Fishery Management Council, former Regional Administrator John Bullard outlined what fishery habitat protection in New England will look like for the foreseeable future.
As the 2018 groundfish season approaches, we should be celebrating a new era of habitat protection; unfortunately, the OHA2 falls short.
To give credit where it’s due, NOAA Fisheries did approve some new habitat protections that adequately balance fishing interests. For example, the OHA2 generally improves protection of the most vulnerable areas to the south of Cape Cod and Nantucket, while creating new economic opportunity for scalloping. However, while these changes may improve protections for groundfish in southern New England, NOAA Fisheries has so far failed to consult on the impacts of removing the Nantucket Lightship Closed Area and Closed Area I on the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Most notably, though, NOAA Fisheries properly rejected one of the worst changes promoted by the Council. To the delight of many conservation groups, NOAA Fisheries rejected the Council’s proposal to remove Closed Area II on Georges Bank – an area that has been closed for over 20 years to protect juvenile cod habitat – to allow for scallop dredging and other mobile gear fishing. NOAA Fisheries correctly concluded that the Council had insufficient information to remove these protection on the eastern portion of Georges Bank and that the habitat and spawning impacts of doing so directly opposed the goals and objectives of the OHA2.
Furthermore, since Closed Area II had already been closed for over two decades, keeping status quo protection was and is completely practicable. Continued protections for the area are very important for New England’s groundfish populations, particularly for severely overfished Atlantic cod populations. We commend the agency for its decision, especially since it faced great pressure from a powerful scallop industry.
As another improvement, a new habitat management area was created in Downeast Maine waters. Although the available science indicated a larger area should have been protected, some protection is better than none, and this represents a step in the right direction. However, this small step in an area where no one is even currently fishing is overshadowed by the agency’s remaining decisions in the Gulf of Maine – specifically the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the Western Gulf of Maine Closure.
Weak Protections in the Gulf of Maine
Cashes Ledge, at the center of the Gulf of Maine, is a truly unique marine ecosystem that serves as a refuge for myriad species, many of which are commercially-important fish. It harbors the largest and deepest cold water kelp forest along the eastern seaboard and is home to vibrant benthic communities of sponges, sea stars, mussels, and more. The OHA2 analysis conducted by the Council’s own scientists fully supported, if not compelled, protection of the entire Cashes Ledge Closed area as important and vulnerable habitat.
Instead, the Council chose, and NOAA Fisheries obliged them, to classify much of the area as a mortality closure, meaning that it can be reopened to fishing when groundfish populations recover. By approving this change, NOAA Fisheries essentially removed recognition of the habitat value of the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and deemed it valuable only for fishery yield. If there is any place in the Gulf of Maine that merits comprehensive, permanent protection from fishing, it is Cashes Ledge.
Further, NOAA Fisheries approved reducing the size of the current Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area by about 25 percent. This area is of known importance for large, female cod of reproductive age. Given that the most recent stock estimates indicate that Gulf of Maine cod is at only five to eight percent of its target biomass, altering protections of this important habitat area was nothing short of irresponsible.
The long-term economic, social, and ecological analyses in the OHA2 record concluded that the management measures chosen for Cashes Ledge and the Western Gulf of Maine were inferior to other possible alternatives. These changes highlight the Council’s pattern of inserting its own judgment over the professional opinions of scientists, often out of self-interests, and NOAA Fisheries allowing them to do so, in order to favor short-term economic benefits over long-term ecological benefits for New England’s fisheries, fishery resources, and fishing communities.
NOAA Fisheries is required by law to identify important fish habitats and minimize the impacts of harmful fishing gears, if doing so is practicable. The agency’s compliance with its mandate, however, is questionable.
In a number of cases, the Council eliminated – without meaningful explanation – habitat alternatives that demonstrated to have the most environmental benefits and the highest social and economic benefits. Additionally, many viable, scientifically-sound alternatives were eliminated without any analysis at all.
Unfortunately, we are left guessing at NOAA Fisheries’ justification behind its OHA2 decisions because the agency rarely provided any independent rationale explaining its approval of the Council’s actions. Instead, the agency deferred to the Council’s analysis, which routinely failed to say why the alternatives that were ecologically and economically superior were not practicable.
It’s long been evident that the Council had no intention of actually expanding upon habitat protections in New England but only protecting those that raised no economic concerns – the low-hanging fruit. Unfortunately, NOAA Fisheries failed to step in and demand what is necessary for our ocean environment.
All in all, the OHA2 has little to show for the 14-year investment of time, expertise, and expense. Our region’s fishery managers and regulators needed to do better.
We are still waiting for NOAA Fisheries to release final regulations that would officially implement the Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2. Those regulations are expected prior to or soon after May 1, 2018, which is the start of the new fishing year for the New England groundfish fishery.