A Call for Protections

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of MaineThe following was originally published in National Fisherman.

The Gulf of Maine is warming fast — faster than almost any other ocean area in the world. To say this is alarming is an understatement, and action is needed today to permanently protect large areas of the ocean, which scientists say is one of the best buffers against the disastrous effects of climate change.

To that end, a diverse group of ma­rine-oriented businesses, hundreds of marine scientists, aquaria, conservation organizations and members of the public are calling on the Obama administration to designate the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as the first Marine National Monuments in the Atlantic.

Conservation Law Foundation has worked for years to permanently protect the remarkable Cashes Ledge area. This biodiversity hotspot provides refuge for a stunning array of ocean wildlife — from cod to endangered right whales, bluefin tuna to Atlantic wolffish — and a rare lush kelp forest. The New England canyons and seamounts similarly shelter an incredible breadth of sea life, including spectacular ancient coral formations. Public support is widespread and growing. In September, more than 600 people attended a sold-out event hosted by the New England Aquarium and National Geographic Society where scientists discussed why these places are unique natural treasures. More than 160,000 people have electronically petitioned the president for monument protection.

America has a long tradition of protecting our remarkable natural heritage and biological bounty. In contrast to our public lands and the Pacific Ocean, there are no areas in the Atlantic that are fully protected as national monuments. But why monument protection?

Unlike fishery management closed areas or national marine sanctuaries, national monument designation protects against all types of commercial extraction that are harmful and can damage critical habitat: fishing, oil and gas exploration, sand and gravel mining, and more.

Scientists say large-scale marine habitat protection is necessary to increase ocean resiliency in the face of climate change. Undisturbed underwater “laboratories” in places with relatively pristine habitats, like the Cashes Ledge area and the canyons and seamounts area, will be key in studying how — and how well — we are managing these already changing ocean ecosystems. These irreplaceable habitats can only play that role when protected in their entirety.

 

Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF
Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

Current protections by the New England Fishery Management Council are critical but not sufficient, as they are temporary, only limited to commercial fish species, and any coral protections are only discretionary. A monument designation protects all sea life and makes that protection permanent. It would be managed by scientists and others with ecological expertise (including but not limited to fisheries expertise). Fishery management councils were not designed and are not in the business of protecting scientifically unique and ecologically critical areas in the ocean.

Permanent closure will also benefit collapsed fish populations like Atlantic cod, which would be able to rebuild and sustain themselves at healthy levels. Research is beginning to show that refuges could help struggling species like cod produce larger, older and significantly more productive females that could help recovery when their offspring eventually spill out to restock fishing in surrounding waters. The fishing industry is poised to benefit in the long term when commercially important fish are able to rebound.

Protecting the few unique marine places we have left is good for the fishermen and communities that rely on a healthy and abundant ocean for their livelihoods and is our obligation to future generations.

Download a PDF of the article here.

As 2015 Fishing Season Kicks Off, a Still Uncertain Future for Cod Remains

The 2015 fishing season begins today, May 1, and stricter – but necessary – quotas on Gulf of Maine cod will take effect.

Last year, scientists determined that the population of spawning cod had plummeted to historic lows (3 to 4 percent of the target level). In response, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the 2015 total allowable catch (TAC) of Gulf of Maine cod from 1,550 to 386 metric tons – a 75% reduction from the 2014 fishing year TAC. Possession of recreational-caught Gulf of Maine cod will also be entirely prohibited. These new measures, as well as changes to Gulf of Maine closed areas and catch limits for winter founder and haddock are implemented through Framework 53 Adjustment to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan.

NOAA approved Framework 53 last week with the expectation that catch limits may be adjusted after the Gulf of Maine cod stock assessment scheduled for September 2015. For now, the new Gulf of Maine cod catch limits replace the emergency regulations imposed by NOAA last fall.

Many Gulf of Maine commercial fishermen who harvest groundfish are concerned about the new limits knowing that they will face a difficult fishing year. As AP reporter Patrick Whittle describes, cod are a “choke species.” Catching other groundfish such has haddock or pollock without catching cod poses a near-impossible challenge for fishermen, and the limits on cod will likely affect these other fisheries and their respective markets.

The new measures, though strict, are more than needed for the future of New England’s iconic species. In fact, they continue to represent a high risk management approach. Scientists indicated that the total allowable catch for Gulf of Maine cod should be limited to 200 metric tons – almost 50% below the new quota limits. They also warned that even such low limits may still be insufficient to allow coastal cod populations to recover. Cod is in crisis, driven by historic overfishing and compounded by new ecological changes associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

Low cod catches are necessary, but they are not enough. In addition to tight catch regulations, protecting the cod’s essential marine habitat, such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area, will be vital to the cod’s recovery, as well as the health of other species. To thrive, fish need areas where they can spawn, feed, grow, and find shelter without the threat and disturbance of fishing and fishing gear impacts.

Cod fishing was America’s first colonial industry. Will it also follow the path of the Atlantic halibut fishery into commercial oblivion? Now, 400 years later, there is little doubt that unless cod catches are reduced to as close to zero as possible, a cod fishery will move out of the region’s reach for decades, if not more.

Cod’s future in New England, after decades of overfishing and risky management, is sadly now anyone’s guess.