Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine
Cod today.
2036?
2036?

Imagine it’s 20 years from now, and your grandchild is about to head to bed – but first, she wants to hear a favorite bedtime story, “the one about the fish.” You pull it off the shelf – Mark Kurlansky’s The Cod’s Tale – and begin reading. Unbidden, her eyes widen at the vivid illustrations of the fish with a single chin whisker, at how it has millions of babies, and at how it gave birth to this country.

Every time you read her the story, she asks the same question: “Can we go catch a cod tomorrow?” Every time, you have to tell her there aren’t any more cod in New England. And, every time she asks: “Why?” But you never really have a good answer for her.

Farfetched? Maybe. But unfortunately, local extinction of New England’s Atlantic cod population is no longer out of the realm of possibility.

No Happy Ending in Sight for Cod
The crisis in New England’s cod fishery was once again on the agenda at the New England Fishery Management Council’s December meeting in Portland, Maine. And once again, managers failed to take the basic actions needed for a concerted effort to restore this iconic fish.

In addition to the collapse of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine, New England is facing even greater declines of cod on Georges Bank, the historically important fishing area east of Cape Cod.

The outlook for cod keeps getting worse, and the “actions” taken by the Council are so unlikely to make a difference that we must continue our call to save cod.

The Worst of the Worst
Some recent analyses have concluded that the cod population on Georges Bank is the lowest ever recorded – roughly 1 percent of what scientists would consider a healthy population. Other estimates put the population at only about 3 to 5 percent of the healthy target. The cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is hovering for the second year in a row at roughly 3 percent of the targeted healthy population.

At its meeting last week, the Council did set new, lower catch limits for the severely depleted Georges Bank cod, but, true to form, those limits don’t go far enough. The Council is clearly in denial about the state of this fishery. If there is even a chance the number is 1 percent, this should be cause for major distress among Council members and fishermen alike.

The Council’s actions (or, really, lack of action) leave me wondering, again, whether anyscience would ever be “enough” to compel them to halt the fishing of cod entirely.

Habitat Loss Adds Fuel to the Fire
Astoundingly, the Council also decided earlier this year to strip protection for important cod habitat on Georges Bank – amounting to a loss of some 81 percent of the formerly protected cod habitat.

To recover, depleted fish populations need large areas protected from fishing and fishing gears; they need protected habitat where they can find food and shelter and reproduce; and they need large areas where female cod can grow old and reproduce prolifically. However, our fisheries managers – who are entrusted with safeguarding these precious resources for future generations as well as for current fishermen – ignore this science and continue to stubbornly deny the potential scope of this problem.

This is an especially irresponsible stance in light of climate change. Not only are New England’s cod struggling to recover from decades of overfishing and habitat degradation, now the rapid rise in the region’s sea temperatures is further stressing their productivity. Protected habitats help marine species survive ecological stresses like warming waters.

If a Cod Fish Dies But No One Records It, Did It Ever Really Exist?
As if matters couldn’t get worse, the Council also voted to cut back significantly on the numbers of observers that groundfishing boats would have to have on-board to record what fish are actually coming up in their nets. This is little more than the Council’s blessing of unreported discards of cod and flounder and other depleted fish.

We should be protecting more of these areas, not fewer; we should be doing more for these iconic fish, not less. So why is the Council making it so much harder for cod to recover? Perhaps it is simply contrary to human nature to expect the Council’s fishermen members to impose harsh measures on themselves when the benefits may only be seen by future generations. Perhaps federal fishery councils comprising active fishermen only work well with healthy fisheries.

Federal officials at NOAA Fisheries will have the final say on these Council decisions to strip habitat protections, cutback on monitoring, and continue fishing on cod. We can only hope those officials will start taking the tough but necessary actions, giving New Englanders at least a semblance of hope that our grandchildren will be able to catch a codfish, not just read about one in a book.

Setting the Record Straight: Marine Monuments Have a Long, Proud Legacy

A cunner swims through healthy kelp forest at Cashes LedgeFormer Conservation Law Foundation Staff Attorney Roger Fleming, who is now a part of the Oceans litigation team at EarthJustice, details how the National Monument establishment process through the Antiquities Act serves the public’s interest. 

By Roger Fleming

One hundred-nine years ago this week President Teddy Roosevelt created the first national monument, protecting the magnificent Devil’s Tower formation in Wyoming. Since then, sixteen presidents – eight from each party — have used the power granted by Congress in the Antiquities Act to create more than 115 monuments protecting the nation’s natural and historic heritage on land and at sea, from the Statue of Liberty to the Marianas Trench.

Now we have a chance to see that proud tradition in action again to protect a national treasure right here in our backyard with a Marine National Monument off New England’s coast. On September 15, 2015, NOAA hosted a town hall meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, in order to discuss the possible establishment of a monument that could include deep sea Coral Canyons and Seamounts and Cashes Ledge. Scientists have identified these areas as deserving of special protection due to unique undersea terrain and nutrient upwelling that supports cold water coral gardens, our largest cold water kelp forest, fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and more.

A broad coalition of scientists, small business owners, fishermen, faith groups, civic leaders, and conservationists have sent a clear message that we need to save these ecologically important places before irreparable damage is done, so that future generations can enjoy their unimaginable beauty and a healthier marine environment. That is exactly what the Antiquities Act is intended to do.

Unfortunately, opponents in the fishing industry have attempted to muddy the waters with unfounded concerns about the “process” being used to provide protection for these areas.

Opponents who spoke at NOAA’s town hall event argued that the monument designation process is undemocratic, and that decisions about how to manage these areas should be left to the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing in the region’s federal waters.

Many who gave comment also complained about a lack of opportunity for public comment on the monument designation. Let that sink in for a moment: complaints about a lack of public comment were made while giving public comment.

Let’s set the record straight on a few things.

First, the monuments process is democratic.

President Obama has the authority to establish permanent protection of these areas through designation of a monument under the Antiquities Act. This Act is another tool provided to the democratically-elected president by our democratically-elected Congress to preserve areas identified as historic landmarks and areas of scientific interest before it is too late – before the opportunity to save a valuable resource is lost. This president’s predecessor, George W. Bush, created four monuments in the Pacific Ocean covering a total of 860,000 square kilometers. None exist in the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, there has been—and continues to be—public input into the process.

Already in this nascent proposal for a new marine monument there has been a town hall meeting where anyone wishing to do so was given the opportunity to speak and an ongoing public comment period through which over 160,000 people have already written in support of saving these important places. Arguably, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to provide opportunities to be heard on a proposal, in circumstances where it is not at all required to by law.

Leading up to the monument proposal, there were years of study of these areas and numerous opportunities for the public and other stakeholders to provide relevant scientific, economic, and other information, and to otherwise make their views known as possible protections were discussed in different venues, including the fishery management process.  Because the President’s decision must be based on science, this will all be considered.

Third, the New England Fishery Management Council has a checkered history regarding public and scientific involvement, and an even worse record as a steward of the public’s ocean resources.

The fishery management process remains dominated by the fishing industry and fails to adequately consider broader public interests. One need only look to the status of New England’s iconic fish species, the Atlantic cod, for evidence of this. Cod stocks have collapsed and the region’s groundfishing sector was declared a disaster, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The record clearly shows that New England’s Council ignored repeated warnings from science about the deteriorating condition of cod stocks until it was far too late. Just last year more than a hundred-forty scientists and more than 150,000 members of public implored the council to protect more habitat for these and other depleted fish. But the Council instead voted to slash the amount of essential fish habitat protected by more than 60 percent.

The Council did succeed in identifying the ecological, economic, and social importance of the Cashes Ledge Closed area, and has closed the area to most bottom fishing. However, this action came only after an earlier vote to strip existing protections from that area. Further, the limited protections in place leave nearly all of the area open to other fishing, including the East Coast’s largest fishing vessels – industrial midwater trawlers – which are capable of stripping the area of essential forage fish, catching non-targeted fish, mammals and other marine animals as bycatch, and are known to contact the bottom when fishing. The protections in place are not permanent and could be removed at any time through the fishery management process.

Similarly, the New England canyons and seamounts have been identified by the Council as important ecological areas but they have received very few protections which are not worthy of their unique ecological importance.

Finally, this is not just about fishing.

New England’s “Fishery Management” Council has no authority to address other potential threats that could surface for the area, such as marine mining, drilling, or other industrial activity. Unlike the tenuous, partial protections now in place for Cashes Ledge and New England’s Canyons and Seamounts, a national monument provides permanent protection against all types of harmful extraction.

Such protection would benefit critically endangered right whales, which are known to depend on Cashes Ledge, fantastic deep-sea corals in the Canyons and Seamounts, and the important sea birds that feed on the surface of these rich waters.  Many coastal businesses, including many fishermen, support the proposal because they recognize there will also be broad economic benefits that will result from protecting these unique treasures and a healthier marine environment.

These areas belong to the U.S. public, and overwhelming evidence shows that the monument process is fair and that a marine monument would best serve the public’s interests now and into the future.

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.

 

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.

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