New England's Protected Waters Threatened by Proposed Rule

Federal agency would allow destructive fishing practices in roughly half of closed areas

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it will allow bottom-trawl fishing in thousands of square miles of New England waters that have offered protection to fish for decades. These closed areas off New England are credited with helping the successful recovery of haddock on Georges Bank and with rebuilding populations of scallops, which now make New Bedford, MA, the highest-revenue fishing port in America. 

Interactive map of what's at stake

The Pew Charitable Trusts joined with more than 100 scientists, dozens of coastal community leaders and business owners, and some 70 thousand citizens who urged the federal agency to keep these closed areas intact. Substantial scientific evidence shows that closed areas are effective in building bigger, more resilient fish populations that in time can be sustainably fished as the species move into surrounding waters. 

Peter Baker, Pew's northeast director for U.S. Oceans, says the government has not done the analysis needed to understand the effects of this proposed rule. “Allowing bottom trawling in places that have long protected spawning and juvenile fish will have a major impact on the environment and fish stocks,” he says. “This is an ill-advised decision that offers little for fishing communities and undermines efforts to rebuild fish populations.” 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, intends to allow more fishing access to these areas as a way to offset the economic impact of more restrictive catch limits on several species of bottom-dwelling fish such as Atlantic cod. But as prominent marine scientists explain in this letter, dismantling these protected areas would not be good for either fish or fishing communities. The scientists write that this decision will likely bring “ecological setbacks to the recovery of fish populations already at low levels, and serious economic harm shortly afterward.

Atlantic cod and some flounder are seriously depleted from decades of chronic overfishing and habitat damage in New England. These fish now face additional stress from warming waters due to climate change. Scientists have reported the highest sea temperatures on record along the northeastern coast. “Clearly, this is not the time to undo protections for cod and other fish populations struggling to recover,” Baker says.

This is an ill-advised decision that offers little for fishing communities and undermines efforts to rebuild fish populations.- Peter Baker

NOAA's decision would open nearly 3 thousand square miles of the closed areas set aside to protect Atlantic cod, flounder, and other fish. (See interactive map for more detail.) 

Baker says the agency's proposed rule is not in keeping with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires thorough analysis of the potential environmental effects of government actions and full public input. “This move represents an end run on the law and ignores the need to protect habitat as a way to rebuild depleted stocks,” he explains. “It's unfortunate that NOAA has ignored the more than 70,000 Americans who asked that the impacts of fishing in closed areas be studied through an environmental impact statement.” 

Pew's environmental partners Earthjustice and Conservation Law Foundation filed suit against NOAA arguing that it had not completed the necessary analysis of the proposal. The public has until July 26th to comment on the proposed rule.

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Jeff Young

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