Commonwealth Loses Lawsuit on Lower Catch Limits

Last May on the Boston Fish Pier, Massachusetts’ Attorney General Martha Coakley held a press conference to announce her lawsuit against NOAA over the reduction in catch limits for New England groundfish. Her rhetoric that day was strong:“NOAA’s new regulations are essentially a death penalty on the fishing industry in Massachusetts as we know it.”

With a court decision released on April 8 which denied the Commonwealth’s claims,Coakley’s lawsuit has run its predicted course. Judge Richard Stearns decided that, in setting catch limits for the 2013 fishing year, NOAA had fulfilled its obligations to mitigate economic impacts and consider the best available scientific information. The sharp cuts in catch limits for many groundfish stocks were a response to the severely depleted status of these species. However, instead of recognizing the poor state of fish populations hard figures of groundfish catch records, Coakley doubled down on her anti-NOAA rhetoric in her post-loss statement.

More than a year and a half after a fishery disaster was declared by the Department of Commerce and almost two months after New England received its $33 million allocation in federal fishery disaster funds, it is time for all of Massachusetts’ elected leaders to recognize the environmental fact that decades of overfishing have created a depleted ocean ecosystem and the economic fact that New England fishermen are not landing groundfish because the fish simply are not there. The problems and the challenges will become more difficult before they get any easier—the impacts of climate change are an increasingly significant factor in the change in our ocean ecosystems and our regional fisheries.

It’s time to recognize that we need real solutions such as stopping overfishing, protecting habitat, reducing bycatch and improving ocean management. Recovering our ocean’s health and restoring grossly depleted fish populations is a serious matter in need of honest assessment and discussion. Fisheries management by political interference is affecting thousands of New England families and the health of our ocean.

Image via NOAA

Stop the Empty Oceans Act!

Take action for New England’s oceans and tell Congress to reject The Empty Oceans Act!

U.S. Representative Doc Hastings, the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, has drafted a bill to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the main Federal law that protects our ocean and coasts from overfishing. This proposed legislation is so bad that it’s been deemed the “Empty Oceans Act.”

The “Empty Oceans Act” threatens to bring us back to the disastrous overfishing policies of the past. If enacted into law it would eliminate important environmental protections and allow an unsustainable rate of fishing—even on the most vulnerable species.

Tell Congress not to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act. New England should be moving forward with modern science-based fisheries management, not going back to years of perpetual overfishing!

Simply put, the Hastings draft ignores the state of New England’s fisheries and the need to move modern fishery management forward. Instead of recognizing the success of the MSA over time and recent improvements to the law to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish populations, the Hastings draft bill drags fisheries management back into the dark ages with a handful of attention grabbing measures which, if enacted, would take modern fisheries management to a permanent state of overfishing.

Hastings’ Empty Oceans Act proposes to:

  • Allow overfishing to continue by delaying the beginning of rebuilding measures for as long as seven years. Once rebuilding measures for one targeted species finally starts they could extend for decades with no meaningful deadline for completion.
  • Allow fishery management councils to outright ignore recommendations from their own science and statistical committees in setting catch limits.
  • Exempt fisheries management from meaningful environmental review by undercutting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its provisions for environmental impact review of federal management as well as the possibility for the involvement of citizens and other stakeholder groups.
  • Allow commercially driven fishery management councils to have control over the recovery of threatened and endangered ocean wildlife such as sea turtles.
  • Undercut other bedrock conservation laws such as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, as well as prohibit taxpayer-funded fisheries data from being used for other purposes, such as New England’s regional ocean planning effort that has been underway for several years.


Help CLF halt this disastrous scheme to take healthy fish populations and the environment out of fisheries management!


There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays

For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home. “Home” means something different for each wildlife species in their ocean habitat of the Gulf of Maine. For example, animals like the Atlantic wolffish  tend to live in rocky areas where they can hide out, guard their eggs and ambush prey. Wolffish depend on this particular type of habitat to live, and other species are just as dependent on other types of habitat. Places such as Cashes Ledge, Jeffreys Ledge and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary provide rich habitat for highly depleted cod and haddock, sea turtles and four species of whales.

Most of these three areas in the Gulf of Maine currently benefit from fishing regulations which prohibit harmful bottom trawling, but these protections are temporary. With groundfish populations at their lowest recorded levels, some members of the trawling industry are pushing for regulations to increase trawling in the few protected habitat areas in the Gulf of Maine. After being declared a “fishery disaster,” changes in regulations to allow bottom trawling in Cashes Ledge, Jeffreys Ledge and the only protected portion of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary seems counterintuitive to ever devising a long-term strategy that could help restore groundfish populations in the Gulf of Maine. At a time of the lowest recorded groundfish populations in history, how does it make sense to increase bottom trawling in the best, remaining habitat areas?

This week the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) could make some decisions that decide the fate of important habitat areas in the Gulf of Maine. On Thursday, Dec. 20th, the NEFMC meets to consider fishing catch limits and proposals to allow trawling in currently protected habitat areas. The NEFMC is an important advisory body to the National Marine Fisheries Service, but it is really NMFS who is legally responsible for providing sustainable management of this public resource and it’s NMFS who has the responsibility to adequately protect ocean wildlife habitat. If there is a time to take action to help put this fishery on a path to eventual recovery, it is now.

Other New England fishermen, both commercial and recreational, understand the value of protected habitat and how healthy habitat benefits their own interests. In fact, the recreational fishing advisory panel of NEFMC voted in October to retain all current protections for habitat areas. Recreational fishermen and charter captains from Maine to Rhode Island well know that the cod their clients catch in the Gulf of Maine spawn from areas where large bottom trawlers are not allowed. In the words of one recreational fishing captain, “I’m not an advocate of opening any of the closed areas and dead set against the opening of the WGOM (Western Gulf of Maine) area. You’re destroying the livelihood of the recreational boats and you’re allowing the big boats to compete with the little boats.”

NOAA needs to hear this message loud and clear. Send a message to NOAA to urge the responsible protection of Cashes Ledge and other important habitat areas in the Gulf of Maine. Because, no matter where you celebrate your holidays, healthy ocean habitat is a gift that benefits us all.

Healthy Habitat Helps Create Healthy Fisheries

One of the fundamental concepts of marine ecology and modern fisheries management is that fish and other ocean wildlife need various types of habitat to feed, grow and reproduce.  Healthy ocean habitat is crucial to the wellbeing of ocean ecosystems and also provides spawning grounds for commercially important groundfish. New England’s ocean waters are home to several special places that deserve permanent protection.

Cashes Ledge, is one of those places. We’ve talked about Cashes Ledge many times on the New England Ocean Odyssey, and there’s a reason we keep bringing it up. An underwater mountain range 80 miles off the coast of Maine, Cashes Ledge supports the largest and deepest kelp forest off the Northeastern United States and is home to a vast diversity of ocean wildlife, from whales, Atlantic wolffish, and blue sharks, to fields of anemones and sponges. The ledge’s peak, known as Ammen Rock (shown above), comes to within 40 feet of the surface.

This place really is special – but don’t take our word for it, check out the video above and see what Brian Skerry has to say about Cashes Ledge – a place unlike any he’s ever seen.

Other places such as Jeffreys Ledge and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary provide rich habitat for highly depleted cod and haddock, sea turtles, and several species of endangered whales.

Most of these three areas in the Gulf of Maine currently benefit from fishing regulations which prohibit harmful bottom trawling, but these protections are temporary. Some of the largest commercial fishing trawlers in the region are pushing for changes in regulations to allow bottom trawling in Cashes Ledge, Jeffreys Ledge and the only protected portion of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

After the last cod crisis in the 1990s the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), after a court decree spurred by a CLF legal action, designated Cashes Ledge and an area known as the “Western Gulf of Maine” which holds Jeffreys Ledge and 22% of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, as “mortality closures.” The action restricted destructive trawling, but it allowed a wide array of other commercial fishing gear such as bottom gillnets, purse seines, hook and line and more the questionable practice of “mid-water trawls,” which despite their name, often catch groundfish. Recreational fishing and charter boats were not restricted. This single protective measure restricting commercial bottom trawling helped to restore seriously depleted populations in these areas. Moreover, protecting areas like Cashes Ledge created the “spillover effect” where larger populations of fish migrate out of the boundaries of the protected area. This is why commercial fishing vessels often “fish the borders” of protected areas.

After a new stock assessment released one year ago showed that populations of cod, haddock and other groundfish were at all time lows, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under pressure from some of the largest trawlers in the New England fleet started to hint that allowing bottom trawling in previously protected habitat areas – places like Cashes Ledge – might help to increase falling harvest amounts. At a time of the lowest recorded groundfish populations in history, how does it make sense to increase trawling in the best, remaining habitat areas?

This is why we must urge NOAA to keep our habitat protections in place.

Cashes Ledge is important not only to fish and ocean wildlife but also to scientists hoping to learn about the health and function of New England’s oceans. Many scientists believe that Cashes Ledge represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem and have used Cashes Ledge as an underwater laboratory to which they have compared more degraded habitat in the Gulf of Maine.

The basic fact is that opening scarce protected habitat in the Gulf of Maine to bottom trawling at a time of historically low groundfish populations is among the worst ideas for recovering fish populations and the industry which depend upon them. But fisheries politics in New England remain. On Dec. 20th the NEFMC may take action through a backdoor exemption process to allow bottom trawling in a large portion of Cashes Ledge and other areas. NOAA needs to keep current protections in place. CLF is committed to securing permanent protection to ensure the long-term health of this important and vulnerable ecosystem. Click here to urge NOAA to protect New England ocean habitat and help ensure a healthy future for New England’s ocean.

Note: this piece also appears in “Scoop,” Conservation Law Foundation’s blog. 

Taking on the Threat of Ocean Garbage

Walking the sandy beaches of the Cape and Islands, kayaking the marshes and salt ponds, or scrambling around the rocky shores of Maine will almost always provide three things: a great outdoor experience, a chance to explore and learn about nature and the amazing diversity of life, and a full review of the waste, refuse, garbage, and pollutants that we cast onto our rivers, shores, and oceans.

While being blessed with the chance to take a recent early morning hike around my favorite little Massachusetts island, I calculated an assortment of the following: the smashed remnants of dozens of lobster traps, several plastic and metal buckets, beer cans, more beer cans, an unopened plastic bottle of cranberry juice (I didn’t try to drink it), a refrigerator door which was probably 30 years old, plastic food wrappers, auto oil filters, boat oil filters, one pretty large piece of fiberglass part from someone’s unfortunately lost vessel, dozens of miles of discarded fishing line, nets and other assorted fishing gear, flip-flops, sandals and shoes, 50 gallon drums, an unused emergency smoke bomb, about two dozen assorted rubber gloves (mostly lefts), about one dozen assorted rubber boots (mostly rights), a vast amount of the highly predictable but still depressing plastic bottles, a few glass bottles, an oddly-placed large chunk of asphalt, a metal chair, some random pieces of wood pallets and tree stumps, two umbrellas, pesticide spray bottles, one display of typical latex birthday party balloons, and two separate displays of very fancy Mylar celebratory balloons.

While shocking in its abundance, it was still a fairly standard composition of junk. Policy makers refer to this aspect of ocean management as “marine debris.” Honestly, I think we can just call it “ocean garbage.” Ocean garbage is a longtime and ever increasing problem. The type of materials we put into waterways and on our beaches in the modern era tend to be more toxic and long-lived than the flotsam and jetsam of past centuries. The debris floating across the Pacific from the terrible tsunami that devastated the coast of Japan last year has brought some attention to the problem, as has the media report so the massive garbage patches. Believe it or not, even the thousands of tons of stuff from a single event such as the tsunami is dwarfed by the annual build-up of daily deposits.

A challenge this broad really does require broad coordination and collaboration. The National Ocean Policy provides the forum for state officials, federal agencies, municipalities and other ocean user groups to help tackle the threat of marine debris. Regional ocean planning is certainly a great tool for coordination in New England.

Condensed from the original post on on 9/13/2012. Photograph by Mixy Lorenzo. 

Atlantic Wolffish – Cool as Sharks, Hotter than Shark Week

Some people are enraptured by the fearsome predatory nature of sharks. The image of the omnipotent king of the seas, roaming the deep and preying on any hapless creature small or large, holds a permanent niche in the American psyche. Sharks are cool, there is no doubt. Just look at the media celebration known as Shark Week, which happens every summer. Don’t worry, we get shark fever too, and Brian Skerry has some incredible new shark photos, which we’ll be debuting soon.


However, let’s not allow the annual shark-mania to block out the real glamour of other denizens of the deep, which reside at Cashes Ledge and in other spots across the Gulf of Maine. My favorite creature is the Atlantic wolffish, also known as the sea wolf. (This animal is so cool they named a whole class of attack submarines after it and the sports teams at a New England college.) If there is an animal that illustrates both the wonderful diversity of New England’s ocean and the need for protecting habitat for ocean wildlife, it is the Atlantic wolffish. If there is a special place in New England’s ocean worthy of providing better and more permanent protection it is Cashes Ledge.


We’ve talked about these toothy fish before, but they merit lots of discussion given how important they are to our Gulf of Maine ecosystem and how much they need our protection. Atlantic wolffish population numbers have taken a perilous decline since the early 1980s. The threats from commercial fishing practices – especially bottom trawling gear –has not only decimated wolffish populations but destroyed the type of rocky underwater habitat which they depend upon. For a species that absolutely needs rocky outcrops and small cave-like structures, the impacts to their habitat are particularly harmful.


By 2006, Atlantic Wolffish populations across the Gulf of Maine had declined to a point where serious action was needed. Then the Conservation Law Foundation and Dr. Erica Fuller prepared and filed a petition to protect the wolffish under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. The petition received enough attention for this “gruesome fish” that the National Marine Fisheries Service eventually placed a complete restriction on harvest and possession of Atlantic wolffish across the North Atlantic. This falls short of the full protection warranted under the ESA, but since the wolffish can be successfully caught and released, this temporary fishing regulation gives the wolffish population enough limited protection to recover while further studies are done.


The rocky slopes of Cashes Ledge provide excellent habitat for the wolffish, and Cashes Ledge is an even more important area since the destructive bottom trawling gear has been banned year-round there since 2002 through fishery management regulations put into place by the New England Fishery Management Council.