Fishery Council Vote: Major Losses Overshadow Small Victories

Council votes to slash protected habitats in New England’s ocean by 60 percent

The votes are in, and any hopes of the New England Fishery Management Council redeeming itself are lost.

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Yesterday, the Council, which is charged with protecting New England’s fishing habitats and economies, finalized its votes on the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment 2. After 12 years of work and the availability of the most sophisticated science modeling and analysis ever used by the region’s fisheries managers, the Council hammered the final nail into the coffin of what could have been a landmark victory for ocean habitat protection in New England.

The Council was tasked to vote on habitat management areas for five key fishing regions in New England. Simply put, a vote in favor of habitat protection would have established year-round, long-term fishing closures for the most critical essential fish habitats. A vote against would expose those same fragile ocean habitats to destructive fishing practices – threatening the health of our ocean, fisheries, and coastal economies.

Ultimately, though the Council voted to keep some protections intact, such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area, it entirely caved to industry pressures as to the rest of the region. The Council’s final votes cut overall protected ocean habitat by an astonishing 60 percent – that’s more than 5,400 square miles of current protected areas. Here’s how it all breaks down:

Georges Bank:

No decision shows the Council’s willingness to grant the industry’s every wish like the Georges Bank vote. At the June Habitat Committee Meeting, it permitted the industry to propose an entirely new alternative prior to any scientific analysis or chance for public comment. The industry-proposed alternative, ultimately voted in by the Council, was clearly a play for increasing access for scallopers to areas of Georges Bank where industry is quick to claim “scallops are dying of old age!” The Council’s own science, however, shows that these areas are comprised of 80 percent gravel and cobble bottom, the most vulnerable of habitats. Allowing scallop dredges into this area is inexcusable when other profitable areas—such as the re-opened Nantucket Lightship area—have been made available under the Council’s decisions for the fishery that already has the highest landings value in the country. Though the Council slightly amended the Committee’s alternative to add a prohibition on fishing in the lobster nursery area on Georges Bank, the protection is only seasonal even though the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission highlighted the importance of the habitat itself for the future of the lobster stocks. Overall with yesterday’s vote, approximately 80 percent of current protected areas on Georges Bank will be lost.

Central Gulf of Maine:

The Council voted to maintain most existing closures in the Central Gulf of Maine, such as the Cashes Ledge Closure Area – however, these measures are simply not enough. The good news is that the Cashes Ledge Closure Area remains closed to mobile-tending bottom gear; the bad news is that much of the area has been identified only as a “mortality closure,” meaning that the area is not recognized for its habitat value and is more susceptible to being opened to fishing in the future, despite the Council’s own analysis that the highest benefits would be achieved by keeping the entire area closed.

Western Gulf of Maine:

The decision surrounding the Western Gulf of Maine was another loss. The Council voted to reduce the size of the existing protected area by 25%. It also voted to allow damaging shrimp trawls to invade an area that has been closed to commercial fishing for more than 20 years.

Eastern Gulf of Maine (Downeast Maine):

A fishing closure did not previously exist in the Eastern Gulf of Maine, so a vote to establish one should be seen as a small victory. However, the Council seemed to forget the intended purpose of the Amendment and voted to significantly reduce the size and scope of the newly protected area in the Downeast Maine area.

Great South Channel/Southern New England:

The Council’s scientific modeling revealed the existence of vulnerable habitat in the Great South Channel off of Cape Cod. Existing protected areas in southern New England waters were deemed less susceptible to fishing impacts, and their protections were removed. The Council established a new Great South Channel Habitat Management Area, but did not hesitate to permit clam dredges – the most damaging of fishing gear – into the majority of the newly created “protected area.”

A missed opportunity

The second Omnibus Habitat Amendment had an auspicious beginning when the Council set a goal of increasing ocean habitat protection and minimizing the negative effects of fishing gear on ocean habitats. However, 12 years later, the result is just the opposite: the Council ignored its own science, dismissed the will of the people as expressed in tens of thousands of public comments, and thumbed its nose at the recommendations of its parent federal agency, NOAA. All we have to show for it is a the shell of a “habitat amendment” that has resulted in a massive diminishment of habitat and fish population protection – and which will, in the long run, do more harm than good for New England’s fishing communities.

 Conservation Law Foundation followed this process since the beginning and remains at the forefront of protecting essential ocean habitats from the most destructive commercial fishing practices. New England fisheries lag far behind those around the nation — but this does not mean that all hope is lost for our fisheries. Of the nearly 160,000 people who weighed in on this issue, an overwhelming 96 percent of them wanted an increase in protected areas, not a decrease.

Thank you to all of those who weighed in during this public comment period. The fight is not over. CLF remains dedicated to making the public’s voice heard and will continue to work hard to ensure the proper management of our fisheries and ocean resources.  And, once the Council submits its final vote to NOAA, you will once again have a chance to make your own voice heard in favor of protections for New England’s ocean. Stay tuned to CLF’s blog and Enews for opportunities to comment on the Council’s lopsided amendment in the weeks ahead.

Want to help? Get involved or make a donation today.

Georges Bank on the Habitat Chopping Block

The New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Habitat Committee continues to show complete disregard for habitat protection. Up for consideration at the Committee’s Monday meeting was an industry-introduced proposal to open critical areas of Georges Bank as part of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. The proposal was originally designed to allow access to the Northern edge of Georges Bank for scalloping.

The discussion that played out reinforced the notion that the management body tasked with protecting essential fish habitat in New England is driven instead by short-term industry interests and willing to sacrifice important ecological areas in order to accommodate fishing interests.

The Habitat Committee ultimately voted to the full Council as its preferred alternative for the Georges Bank area a revised and further weakened version of the industry’s proposal, which establishes two habitat closures along the southern edge (a western and eastern area) closed to mobile-bottom tending gear and a “mortality closure” over the scallop and vulnerable habitat rich northern edge. A mortality closure can be opened at the discretion of the Council and NMFS when the population of fish that it was intended to protect no longer need such catch protections

When a commenter pointed out to the Committee that the “mortality closure” comprised 80% gravel and cobble bottom habitat – some of the most vulnerable, high quality essential fish habitat according to NEFMC’s own data – the Committee moved quickly to conjure up a new name for the area. Sadly, no wordsmithing could disguise the meaning of intent of the Committee to ensure that damaging scallop dredges would gain access to this most vulnerable of habitats. In a move that again directly contradicted the Council’s own science, the Committee leapt to relocate the western habitat protected area from a region comprised mostly of cobble and gravel bottom to one dominated by sand. The Council has repeatedly taken the position in this years-long process that their science indicates that sandy bottom on Georges Bank has among the lowest values as essential fish habitat.

With this as preferred alternative going into the June full Council meeting, Georges Bank faces a drastic reduction in overall protected habitat area, rolling back decades of habitat recovery in some of the areas now proposed to be wide open to all fishing gears. Disregarding its own science accumulated over the innumerable years this amendment has been underway, the Council seems positioned to cash in its habitat protected areas in favor of short term economic gain, while risking long term viability of New England’s fishing future.

The Council meets in the third week of June to finalize its votes on the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. After the June vote, the Council will submit its proposed amendment to NOAA for final approval or disapproval. At this point, the public will have the opportunity to weigh in with the agency about how the Omnibus Habitat Amendment moves ocean habitat protections backwards and endangers the future of our fisheries and the communities that depend on them.

Image: A sea scallop and tunicate colonies encrusting pebble gravel habitat on Northern Georges Bank. Photo by USGS.

Meet Our Dive Team

 

With our dive team busy exploring Cashes Ledge and other sites in the Gulf of Maine, we thought we’d introduce you to our star-studded team of ocean adventurers!

 

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Brian Skerry is a renowned underwater photographer praised around the world for his aesthetic sense and evocative scenes. His images tell stories that not only celebrate the mystery and beauty of the sea, but also help bring attention to the threats that endanger our oceans and their inhabitants.

A contributing photographer for National Geographic Magazine since 1998, Brian has covered a wide range of stories, from the harp seal’s struggle to survive in frozen waters to the alarming decrease in the world’s fisheries. His latest book, a 160-photo monograph entitled Ocean Soul, was published in 2011.

Skerry is also a passionate ocean advocate. After three decades of exploring the world’s oceans, the Massachusetts native has returned to the Gulf of Maine to document and protect its exceptional diversity of marine wildlife and habitat.

 

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Jon Witman is a professor of biology at Brown University. He has studied the ecology of subtidal marine communities for over 30 years, and has conducted research in six of the world’s seven oceans.

Jon led the first ecological study of overfishing in the Gulf of Maine. He has published numerous per-reviewed papers and book chapters on the invertebrate and fish communities that thrive on the rocky seafloor at Cashes Ledge, and he has also studied the internal waves that support primary productivity in the area. He is committed to protecting the ecological and scientific value of this unique marine habitat.

Jon will also be joined on the expedition by his Ph.D. student Robbie Lamb.

 

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Evan Kovacs started his filming career in 2003 on the History Channel’s underwater adventure series Deep Sea Detectives.  He has also had an ongoing filming relationship with the Emmy award winning Lonewolf Documentary Group, and recently the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

With WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab, Evan has filmed on the deep submersible ALVIN and the ROV Jason. Currently he is working with the lab to develop the next generation of 3D and 2D cameras and shooting techniques for topside and underwater imaging. Evan has been diving for over 18 years and has dived on shipwrecks, caves and reefs across the world.

 

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Luis Lamar is a scientific technician with WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab. He has filmed and photographed marine life around the world, from New Zealand to Micronesia. Lu has assisted Brian Skerry on numerous dive expeditions and has captured video of the kelp forests on Cashes Ledge for Conservation Law Foundation.

 

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Ken Houtler is the captain of WHOI’s R/V Tioga, a research boat launched in 2004 and designed for day and overnight trips in coastal waters. Ken has led the vessel on countless research expeditions in New England waters, including trips to deploy and recover autonomous oceanographic instruments, to collect data on harmful algal blooms, and to tag endangered North Atlantic right whales.

 

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Liz Kintzing is the expedition’s dive captain. Liz supervises the academic diving program at the University of New Hampshire’s School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, and she also sits on the board of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. She has been diving with Jon Witman on Cashes Ledge for over 20 years.

John Kerry, bowhead whales, and Cashes Ledge

 

Two items caught my eye when I was skimming through the Boston Globe recently and, while neither had anything to do with Cashes Ledge, it was the first place that came to mind when I read the stories.

  1. John Kerry is convening a meeting of leaders from around the world this June to discuss global ocean health and climate change – topics that have long been a “personal passion but also the source of political frustration” of our Secretary of State. (Tell me about it!)
  2. A bowhead whale was spotted for the second time in 3 years off the coast of Cape Cod. This is a thousand mile detour south for the polar-dwelling whale.

 

Kerry may be thinking globally, but this bowhead whale is acting locally (welcome to the neighborhood!). Bowhead whales are an Arctic species, but even the northern water is getting warmer. Many Atlantic species from south of Cape Cod are moving north and offshore to deeper water, presumably where the cooler temperatures are more to their liking. But what is an Arctic animal to do when things heat up? Why is this one going south? Is it following food, or just confused by the changing temperature in its home waters?  Is the baseline shifting in New England’s waters?

The effects of climate change are not likely to be simple and predictable. Some, like warming and acidifying ocean water, can be measured and tracked and make reasonable sense. But others, like where animals will go, how their reproduction will change, and what these changes will do to the ecosystems that contain them, are mysteries we are only beginning to examine.

In the face of all this unpredictability and change, it is essential that we leave nature some space to catch up – that we set aside some especially productive areas so our ocean ecosystems have a chance to regenerate, and to find a new balance with some of the old players – the cod, the whales, the sharks, turtles, flounder, anemones, plankton and other full- and part-time residents of New England’s ocean.

You may be wondering why we keep talking about Cashes Ledge. The reason is simple – it is one of the most thriving places in our waters right now. Fish breed and shelter there, where the currents make just the right mix for a rich brew of plankton and kelp to fuel this complicated and lush wilderness .

Protecting it is simple, too. Simple, but not easy.

Which is why we will also keep asking for your help until we can ensure permanent protection of this special place. How can we expect our ocean to keep thriving if we don’t give it the space to do so?

Please join us now to protect Cashes Ledge. If you’ve already signed the petition, consider making a gift to help CLF win this fight for ocean health, so that generations to come can experience the abundance that we once took for granted in New England’s ocean.

Photo by Corey Accardo, courtesy of NOAA.

Business as usual meets the new normal: climate change and fisheries management

What if a hurricane with the lowest low pressure readings ever seen in human history was barreling toward the East Coast and all we did was debate if it was a category 4 or 5? John Bullard, regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in New England, used that metaphor recently to describe how we are coping with the enormous transformations that are happening in our ocean right now from climate change.

He used this attention-getter at the overdue multi-agency session in Washington, DC last week, the purpose of which was to consider the implications of climate change for fisheries management along the US Atlantic coast. This meeting was overdue in that climate change impacts are already being observed by fishermen and scientists alike, and adjusting to our new “normal” will not be easy and will take time.

For New England, the challenge is stark. The Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly heating bodies of water on the Atlantic Coast, if not in the US. These temperature changes are sending the sea life off to seek their comfort zone – according to NMFS, 24 of 36 stocks evaluated seem to be moving north or away from coastal waters. To make matters worse, our ocean is also acidifying at increasingly alarming rates. This can cause major problems for shell-forming animals, and much of our fishing economy is dependent on shell-forming animals – scallops and lobsters. Unfortunately, there has been little economic analysis about the implications of this issue yet.

Former fish czar Eric Schwaab also spoke at the climate change workshop, noting that the climate is likely changing faster than the fisheries governance structure. Sadly, New England’s fisheries managers have not particularly distinguished themselves in the first 30 years of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, even with a relatively stable ecosystem. Yes, I know there is no such thing as a “stable ecosystem” but it will likely seem like one compared to future manifestations. Now the natural variability will be happening within an ecosystem that is rapidly changing itself.

Bullard drove this home by saying that the current climate-changing 400 parts-per-million levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been experienced by mankind, let alone New England fishermen. He then made the obvious point that nothing in our oceans will ever be “normal” again, even though, right now, everyone is acting as if it will be. As if that huge hurricane heading our way will just be going out to sea.

Current examples of the effects of climate abound and were noted by various speakers: black sea bass in NH lobster traps, green crabs taking over the Maine coast, more summer flounder summering more in New England than ever before, no northern shrimp fishery to be found, and the looming end of the southern New England lobster fishery.

I’ve seen it myself, with the glut of longfin squid hanging out on the Massachusetts north shore the last two summers. While we can hope that these changes will be gradual and that an incremental approach will suffice, many ecologists suggest that the “state changes” could be rapid, extensive, and irreversible. Moreover, some New England fishermen who imagine that they will soon being fishing on Mid-Atlantic fish stocks may have forgotten that most of those fish are already in limited access fisheries and have been allocated to others.

Bullard put his finger on what is needed at such a critical pivotal moment: leadership. In his words (loosely transcribed), leadership requires responding to a threat with actions commensurate to the size of the threat even if everyone around you is acting like the threat doesn’t exist.

Amen. While it is hard to put aside my cynicism about the likelihood that this Rube Goldberg fisheries management system—Dr. Mike Orbach’s metaphor here at the meeting—is up to the task, the challenge is clear and the stakes could not be higher for fishermen and fishing communities up and down the Atlantic coast.

In the end, Bullard’s message seemed to me to fall largely on deaf ears at the workshop, with much of the to-do discussion focused on managing at the margin and improved coordination between the New England and mid-Atlantic councils. In other words, business as usual. The leadership to respond to the dramatic shifts in our marine ecosystems due to climate change was not yet evident at the workshop.

But there is hope for the future. While many of these forces of nature are likely beyond our control even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether, we can prepare for changes and increase resiliency by rebuilding as many fish populations as we can and protecting habitat. Dynamic, integrated management will help our fisheries, ecosystems, and communities respond to the realities of a new normal.

Image via NASA Earth Observatory

Untangling our Ocean with Regional Ocean Planning

Quick – who is in charge of the ocean? Good luck answering that; ocean resources are currently managed by more than 20 federal agencies and administered through a web of more than 140 different and often conflicting laws and regulations. This results in such problems as:

  • Poor communication and coordination about ocean use decisions;
  • Slow, reactive management and decisions that drag on unnecessarily to delay or prevent good projects from moving forward;
  • Exclusion from the process – not all ocean users feel like they have a say in decisions;
  • Difficulty sharing information about uses – it’s hard to make sound decisions without having all the facts in one place.

 

Check out the short video above – our concerned octopus has a great idea for helping to change this: regional ocean planning.

Happily, New England is leading the charge in regional ocean planning, a process that brings together all ocean users – from fishermen to whale watchers, from beachgoers to renewable energy developers, to help us figure out how to share the ocean sustainably and maintain the benefits these resources provide for us all.

To learn more please visit Conservation Law Foundation’s regional ocean planning page, where we have podcasts, fact sheets, and updates on New England’s very active ocean planning process.

 

Restore New England’s Coastal Fisheries

Once, large predatory cod and other fish were found close to shore in every embayment in New England, chowing down on the plentiful runs of river herring and shad that ran in and out of New England’s rivers. Now, famous coastal fisheries in places like Penobscot Bay have been gone for 50 years or more, despite virtually no commercial finfish fishing during that time. Rebuilding these inshore fisheries will be a long process, but we can start by restoring critical habitat for their prey species.

As former New England Fishery Management Council member David Goethel has often said, fish are pretty much focused on three things: food, sex, and comfortable surroundings (ocean temperatures, habitats and the like). Without prey like river herring, the most persistent preoccupation of the larger predatory fish—food—has been largely missing from inshore waters. And river herring won’t come back until the dams blocking coastal rivers and estuaries are removed, the damaged spawning sites upriver are restored, and the pollution in the region’s rivers is reduced.

Groups throughout New England, from NOAA to the states and municipalities, from large multi-national NGOs like The Nature Conservancy to regional groups like CLF and local watershed associations, have been working for decades to restore those migratory fish runs by tackling all those issues. The New England congressional delegation has historically been very supportive of these efforts through appropriations for restoration and pollution control.

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The picture here, taken recently in Plymouth, Massachusetts, shows the removal of the Off Billington Street dam, which was built in the late 1700s and has recently been considered both an ecological problem and a public safety risk. The removal of this dam is part of the larger Town Brook Restoration Project, which will open up hundreds of acres of herring spawning area above these vestigial dams and mill buildings.

The results of that work are only starting to show now. Herring runs are starting to come back, but current returns are still only a shadow of the ecological potential and need. As a crucial step towards rebuilding our inshore fisheries, these efforts can use all the support they can get—both from the environmental community and the fishing community.

Originally posted on CLF.org on 11/12/13

Feature photo credit: Zachary Whalen

Oil and Water Don’t Mix

With warming seas and ocean acidification putting unprecedented pressure on our already heavily fished, shipped, and polluted coastal areas, adding the extreme pressures of seismic testing and offshore oil drilling, which we keep hearing are supposed to be safe and foolproof, but never really are, seems like a foolhardy move.

There are plenty of other options for developing offshore energy that will not put us at such high risk of horrible toxic spills and deadly-to-wildlife noise. We don’t want dead or deformed fish, whales, and dolphins in our ocean, and tar balls on beaches where our kids build sand castles. We have some of America’s most beautiful coastal areas and amazing ocean life here in New England, and we need to keep them that way.

What can you do to help? Be part of a global campaign by joining one of your local Hands Across the Sand events this Saturday, May 18th, 12 PM local time, to say “No” to dirty fossil fuels and “Yes” to clean, renewable energy. Hands Across the Sand started in Florida in 2010, and has rapidly grown into a major global campaign. The idea is simple – join your fellow ocean champions on the beach, lock hands, and unite in opposition to dirty energy.

Have someone take a picture and post it to the Hands Across the Sands Flickr page (and, if you’re in New England, please share your photos with us, too!), and send it to your elected officials for even greater impact. Visit the Hands Across the Sand page to find a local even or organize your own.

Fishermen, beach-goers, surfers, and conservation groups agree – oil drilling has no place in New England’s ocean. So take a stand and put your Hands Across the Sand!