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Square One: New England Fishery Managers Trying to Un-do Decades of Protection

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

In the early 1990’s many New England groundfish species (e.g. cod, haddock, and flounders) collapsed from decades of overfishing. To help rebuild these populations, managers closed several areas to groundfish fishing. These areas were designed to provide protection for groundfish species and their habitats, protecting them from destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling.

Unfortunately, today several groundfish species are still struggling to recover. And in recent years, warming ocean temperatures have further threatened their populations. The most recent scientific population assessment for Atlantic cod, found that their abundance in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank is at just a fraction of sustainable levels – 7% in Georges Bank and 13-18% in the Gulf of Maine, indicating cod are not recovering like previously thought. Other New England groundfish, such as American plaice and some flounders, also remain at low abundances.

Now there is concern that are no longer enough fish left in New England waters for fishermen to catch. And because of the dire situation, this past September the U.S. Department of Commerce declared a “commercial fisheries disaster” off the coast of New England. The northeast congressional delegation is seeking $100 million in relief for the industry.

To help fishermen survive the economic crisis, New England fisheries managers are proposing to open some of the protected groundfish areas to fishing. They want to open up more than half of the currently closed areas. Managers believe this will help fishermen catch more fish, like haddock, pollock, and redfish, limiting some of the negative economic consequences from the likely reduced catches of other depleted species.

But opening up these protected areas could undo decades of progress.

The closed areas provide critical protection to many juvenile groundfish, including cod, haddock, and flounders. Plus, they also provide a refuge for adult groundfish. Closed areas often contain larger and older fish compared to fished areas. And since larger fish are capable of producing more eggs than small fish, they are critical to helping populations rebuild over time. There is also evidence that these closed areas help fishermen. A build up of fish inside the closed areas can “spill-over” to outside areas. Scientists have found that New England fishermen often fish just outside the closed areas, and these areas yield higher profits compared to other fishing grounds.  Removing these protections could mean the depletion of the last known abundant groundfish areas in the Northeast. And, it risks depleting species like cod to the point where they may never be able to recover.

These protected areas provide benefits to other species as well, such as scallops- another very valuable commercial resource.

Scientists also say that opening up these closed areas could put several marine mammals at risk. For instance, the Western Gulf of Maine closed area is known to provide important protection for harbor porpoises. So allowing fishing in this area could put porpoises in further danger – the Northeast gillnet fisheries for cod and haddock are already known to negatively impact harbor porpoise populations. There are also concerns about the potential impacts to the endangered North Atlantic right whale and the endangered humpback whale. Scientists warn that these impacts need to be studied before any areas are re-opened.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries scientists are currently considering the proposal by New England fishery managers to allow fishing in some of the protected groundfish areas.

You can help by telling the NOAA fisheries scientists to keep the protected areas in place!

Comments

  1. Mike Misner
    NY
    April 11, 2013, 11:05 am

    Saving Seafood and Bob Vanasse do not to address the negative impact on adult groundfish and marine mammals but instead assert that rotational closures work better. Only no one is proposing rotational closures; they’re not even on the table. It is easy to wonder why Saving Seafood is talking about rotational closures.

    Maybe it is an argumentative red herring, a distraction from an untenable position that favors opening areas that have been closed for years to the benefit of healthy fish populations inside and out.

    In Saving Seafood’s response to Pew’s The Bottom Line: Changing Course for America’s Oldest Fishery, Saving Seafood argued another distraction.

    They argued that closed areas do not work and that is why they are being looked at. “The existing closure boundaries are ultimately up for modification because they are not very useful for habitat protection,” said Saving Seafood.

    This overlooks the stated and affirmed motivation to open the closed areas — to get at more fish and make up for heavily depleted open areas.

  2. Eco Ocean
    NY
    April 10, 2013, 7:55 pm

    In response to Bob Vanasse/Saving Seafood comments:

    These comments do not address the negative impact of opening the closed areas on adult groundfish and marine mammals but instead assert that rotational closures work better. Since no one is proposing rotational closures, it is easy to wonder why Bob or Saving Seafood is talking about rotational closures.

    Maybe it is an argumentative red herring, a distraction from an untenable position that favors opening areas that have been closed for years to the benefit of healthy fish populations inside and out.

    In Saving Seafood’s response to Pew’s The Bottom Line: Changing Course for America’s Oldest Fishery, which is opposed to opening the closed areas, Saving Seafood argued another questionably relevant point.

    They argued that closed areas do not work and that is why they are being looked at. “The existing closure boundaries are ultimately up for modification because they are not very useful for habitat protection,” said Saving Seafood.

    This overlooks the stated and affirmed motivation to open the closed areas — to get at more fish and make up for heavily depleted open areas.

  3. Bob Vanasse
    Washington, DC
    April 9, 2013, 3:15 pm

    The link to our in-depth and researched response complete with academic references seems not to have made it into my comments above. I just wanted to respectfully request that you add it. Thanks.

    http://www.savingseafood.org/fishing-industry-alerts/response-to-carl-safinas-ocean-views-post-on-national-geogra-2.html

  4. Bob Vanasse
    April 4, 2013, 5:22 pm

    Despite their adherence to federal regulations over the years, New England fishermen are facing an economic crisis that leaves most wondering if their businesses will be able to survive. Conservationists and regulators promised that near-term pain would lead to long-term benefits for these working families. Instead, they face severe allocation cuts.

    Dr. Safina’s concern for habitat is, in fact, shared by NOAA and the New England Fishery Management Council, who used numerous examples of credible, peer-reviewed scientific analyses to inform their decision to modify the closed habitat areas off New England.

    More than merely an economic aid, the proposed adjustments come as part of decade-long, science-based effort to improve closures used in Northeast fishery management. Accounting for new practices (such as the implementation of catch shares and rotational management) and updated science, the Council concluded that the boundaries of these closed areas can be changed to the benefit of marine habitats. A comprehensive analysis of the effects of the proposed changes, examined by the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee, determined that opening parts of these areas to fishing would minimize the total adverse effects from fishing in this region.

    It is important not to forget the people and families who depend on our fisheries. Federal law mandates that policy “take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities” and “minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities.”

    Far from un-doing progress, this proposal has the potential to provide a dual benefit helping both habitat and struggling fishing families. That is in compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law.

  5. Fred Brodsky
    Dallas, Texas
    February 7, 2013, 1:40 am

    It would be incredibly short sighted to remove the existing protections. Remove “slipper captains” and refine entitlements to put reason and economics into the fishing industry or US commercial fishing will be history.

  6. Steph Fylpaa
    Woodstock,IL
    February 4, 2013, 11:37 am

    Idiotic ..Like the guy to shot his parents, than wanted sympathy because he was an orphan.