Good Move for New England's Protected Waters

Dec 16, 2013

NOAA reverses course; keeps most closed areas safe

Fisheries officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have scrapped most of an ill-considered proposal that would have allowed bottom-trawl fishing in vast sections of protected waters off New England. The decision, announced Dec. 13, keeps intact some 3,000 square miles of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank that have long protected fish and the habitat they depend on.

“NOAA’s decision is a marked improvement over the original proposal,” said Peter Baker, northeast oceans director for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Nevertheless, even a modest reduction in habitat protection is a move in the wrong direction.”

“With many New England species struggling to recover from overfishing, we need more habitat protection, not less,” Baker added.

Late last year, the New England Fishery Management Council, under pressure from commercial fishing interests, voted to allow trawlers into a little more than half of the closed areas set aside decades ago to protect spawning and juvenile fish. These five closed areas cover about 8,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine, on Georges Bank, and on Nantucket Shoals. The council’s proposal placed 5,000 square miles of protected waters at risk—a combined area roughly the size of Connecticut.

Related:New England's Protected Waters are Threatened

Some 80,000 members of the public, more than 100 marine scientists, and leaders of dozens of coastal communities and businesses urged the agency to keep the closed areas intact. Scientists pointed out the proven benefits of limiting trawler access to those waters, and community leaders stressed the link between healthy ocean ecosystems and strong coastal economies.

The agency’s final decision allows bottom trawl vessels in part of just one closed area south of Cape Cod, known as the Nantucket Lightship region. The agency, however, imposes restrictions on the types of fishing gear allowed there.

“NOAA heard the public and heeded the science in scaling back the original proposal,” Baker said. But he cautioned that allowing bottom trawling in the Nantucket Lightship area undermines a systematic approach to habitat conservation in the region. “Now fisheries managers must move ahead with more meaningful protection for ocean habitat,” Baker said.

Action by the regional council to enhance its plan for fisheries habitat protection is long overdue. Courts have found that the current system does not meet the requirements of federal law. The debate over the fate of the closed areas brought to light data that should inform the new habitat plan.

Substantial science has documented that closing waters to trawlers has helped to protect habitat and spawning places for cod, haddock, and several other species. Researchers continue to add to that body of evidence. Recent work by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute found older cod—which are critical to the reproductive success of the fish population—are far more abundant inside the closed areas, making these places crucial to the recovery of depleted cod stocks.

These areas are also important as a means to allow cod and other fish to adapt to the warming waters caused by climate change. Emerging science indicates that the startlingly high temperatures of New England surface waters are already affecting some fish populations and the ocean food web. A NOAA strategy on climate change calls habitat protection a top priority for helping fish adapt to warming.

But in recent meetings on developing a new habitat plan, the regional council has instead mapped a patchwork of small zones with a total area far less than what is currently protected. John Crawford, a scientist with Pew’s northeast oceans project, said council action thus far ignores important biological information about the habitat requirements of fish and other parts of the ecosystem.

“Unfortunately, the council appears poised to eliminate most of the current protections and replace them with much smaller areas,” Crawford said, adding that it will be up to NOAA Fisheries officials to provide stronger leadership on habitat protection.

What's at Stake

Areas in orange show where regulators propose ending seafloor protection. Click here for a larger version of the map.

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