New England Fisheries
New England Fishery Council Considers a Clam Dredge Exemption
Whether on a warm summer evening or a frigid winter night, a good bowl of New England clam chowder always hits the spot. Unfortunately, the large scale clamming that goes into producing a bowl of clam chowder is one of the most destructive forms of fishing there is. And now, the clam industry in New England seems to be getting special treatment despite its impact on ocean habitat.
When NOAA Fisheries implemented the Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2 (OHA2) in April, the agency granted the surfclam/ocean quahog fishery a one-year exemption to access the newly protected Great South Channel Habitat Management Area (HMA), otherwise closed to mobile-bottom gear. The New England Fishery Management Council was given this time to complete a framework that fully analyzes the impacts of clam dredging on this important habitat and develop a long-term plan for a clam fishery exemption.
Back in June, NOAA Fisheries signaled that early proposals to open almost half the HMA to the clam fishery would not be approved and sent the Council back to the drawing board. This week, the Council’s Habitat Committee tasked Council staff with analyzing five areas identified for a potential clamming exemption.
But as the clock is ticking down, we really need to be asking ourselves, why are we doing this?
Destructive fishing should not be allowed in habitat closures
Allowing a clam fishery exemption within the Great South Channel HMA sets a dangerous precedent for a Council that has a legal mandate to minimize the adverse effects of fishing on essential fish habitat to the extent practicable.
No one really came out of the OHA2 process as a winner – least of all the habitat. So why would the Council allow one of the most destructive fishing gears into an area that has been deemed as important habitat and that all other mobile-bottom gears have been kicked out of?
It’s a slippery slope. And we are already beginning to slide.
The Habitat Committee’s discussion this week was inconsistent with the original purpose and need of the framework, which is supposed to focus on discrete high energy sand and gravel areas. Now, access to cobble and boulder areas across much of the HMA is being discussed. The presence of this cobble and boulder substrate – and its importance to several groundfish species including Atlantic cod – was precisely the reason why the Council opted to close this new area in the Great South Channel and eliminate two year-round Nantucket Lightship closures in the first place.
Moreover, mussel harvesters now want access along the western edge of the Great South Channel HMA. Committee members at the meeting seemed reluctant to this proposal but still hesitated to take a solid stance for fear of limiting opportunity for an emergent, non-federally managed fishery. But the mussels themselves were identified as important habitat in OHA2, and mussel dredges that will remove this habitat should not be allowed in an HMA.
Exemptions hurt other important species
In addition to setting a bad precedent, an exemption for any mobile-bottom gear also poses immediate risks to important species in the Great South Channel.
About half of the HMA is designated as critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales, and dredging has been identified as a threat to their critical habitat. Any action in the area that will increase dredging should consider the potential impacts on this highly endangered species.
Furthermore, the clam and mussel fisheries want access to some areas within the HMA that are identified cod spawning grounds. This is problematic as cod has been overfished in New England for decades and only have limited spawning protections. To the Committee’s credit, though, they did recommend to eliminate these areas from consideration. But moving forward, more analysis is still needed to evaluate spawning grounds for other groundfish stocks and prey species such as Atlantic herring.
Let’s protect more habitat
There are clear habitat negatives to granting the clam fishery (and any other fishery including the mussel fishery) a long-term exemption in the Great South Channel HMA. And those negatives are stacking up.
The area may be economically important, but the Council has struggled to get this exemption right for over three years. Recognizing that difficult decisions must be made, let’s make this a win for habitat and healthy groundfish stocks.