Habitat, access in hot fisheries debate
By Doug Fraser
It could have been worse. That was the consensus among Cape Cod participants in the New England Fishery Management Council’s hotly debated meeting this week in Mystic, Connecticut where the discussion centered on what areas to protect as fish habitat, one of the most fundamental elements in bringing stocks like cod and flounder back from historically low levels.
Using a new computer model and lots of new data that identified and mapped critical habitat in the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and the Great South Channel, the council was supposed to evaluate and update the validity of closures that have lasted as much as 20 years and enact new closures to protect newly identified critical habitat and spawning grounds.
From the outset the process threatened to morph into a turf war over opening access to thousands of square miles of ocean that have seen little or no fishing in decades. The scallop fleet, for instance, campaigned to be allowed into the northern portion of Georges Bank because new data showed that some of the closed area was not critical to fish stocks but contained large amounts of scallops.
Before the meeting, Pew Charitable Trusts, and many other environmental groups, warned that the council was about to remove protections on 6,000 square miles of ocean. National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Director John Bullard also sent a warning shot across the council’s bow before the meeting, saying he was concerned about several of the proposals.
“After a decade of development, the Council may be poised to take actions that significantly weaken, rather than improve, essential fish habitat protection in New England,” Bullard wrote New England council Chairman Ernest “Terry” Stockwell on April 19.
But in votes taken this week, the council generally avoided rollbacks in the Gulf of Maine, where most of the closed areas were retained, and in the Great South Channel, where a large section east of Nantucket was added to the closed areas. Still, the council postponed a decision on Georges Bank, where there are thousands of square miles of closed areas, until its meeting in June, so it could re-evaluate a last-minute proposal by a number of fishing groups.
Fish council member John Pappalardo said he won’t know if the new amendment is successful until the fate of Georges Bank is decided. While Pappalardo, who is also the executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, said he would have liked to see more protected, particularly in the Great South Channel, there were the political realities of demands by other fisheries to contend with.
"People get upset when they look at things on a square mile basis. There will be fewer square miles closed,” but they had to follow the model and the science in looking at where the truly valuable areas were, Pappalardo said.