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.