A Habitat Committee with No Particular Concern for Habitat

Greg Cunningham | @GregCLF

Is New England’s fishery management system broken? It certainly seems so after the latest meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council’s Habitat Committee. The Committee met recently to finalize its recommendations to the full Council as to the management measures that will best protect habitat where fish spawn, feed, and find shelter.

However, those recommendations will do anything but protect habitat – at least not in the way they should. Indeed, the Committee instead endorsed measures that favor commercial fishing interests, while flouting the directions of the Council’s parent agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and ignoring entirely the wishes of more than 152,000 members of the public.

With the full Council expected to log its final vote on habitat protection measures later this month, the Committee’s actions could be a bad omen for the future health of our most vulnerable ocean habitat, our fisheries, and the people whose long-term livelihoods depend on them.

Public Input Left Unheeded

A red cod swims in the healthy kelp forest on Cashes Ledge

A red cod swims in the healthy kelp forest on Cashes Ledge (Photo: Brian Skerry)

The habitat protection measures at issue are part of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment, which the Council has been “working” on for 12 years. The Council’s final vote on its recommended approach to protecting New England’s most vulnerable habitats is expected on April 23. Last week’s vote of its habitat subcommittee, which is responsible for designing habitat protections, was intended to guide the full Council’s upcoming vote.

The Habitat Committee’s meeting followed a public comment period about the proposed measures in which more than 152,000 comments were submitted. Those comments strongly supported greater protections for ocean habitat, including explicit support for maintaining the closure of Cashes Ledge, a unique underwater mountain range in the Gulf of Maine that CLF believes deserves permanent protection.

Of particular note among the commenters was John Bullard, the Regional Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, who filed a letter outlining where the Fisheries Service felt the Council’s currently proposed protection measures were inadequate. The letter also recommended approaches that would satisfy the agency.

To say that the Habitat Committee thumbed its nose at the Administrator wouldn’t be too far off; they certainly ignored the bulk of his recommendations.

Recommendation 1: Protect Key Habitat Areas

In his letter, Bullard emphasized the importance of designated “habitat areas of particular concern” (HAPCs). He urged the Council to “avoid, minimize or compensate” for the impacts of fishing in these areas, which include Cashes Ledge, the Northern Edge area of Georges Bank, and a large area in the Great South Channel, which lies between Nantucket Sound and Georges Bank.

In addition to their vulnerable and unique habitat, each of these areas is critically important to any plan to resurrect the spiraling populations of Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod. But rather than propose new or additional protections or management in these areas, the Habitat Committee approved opening up significant portions of Cashes Ledge and the entirety of the Northern Edge habitat area. And it recommended that the Council seriously consider allowing highly destructive clam dredging within the Great South Channel area, which could devastate this fragile ecosystem.

Recommendation 2: Keep Closed Areas Closed – and Add More

Administrator Bullard’s letter made clear his “strong support” for retaining the entirety of the existing protected areas in the Gulf of Maine. But he didn’t stop there. He also recommended adding two new closures in the Eastern Maine area of the Gulf to adequately protect decimated Gulf of Maine cod stocks and other groundfish.

In spite of this guidance, the Habitat Committee recommended eliminating a quarter of a closed area in the western Gulf of Maine, cutting the Cashes Ledge Closed Area by sixty percent, and reforming and shrinking the Jeffrey’s Bank Habitat Closure. As for Bullard’s recommendation to add new closures? The Committee opted to add a fraction of only one of the two areas Bullard proposed.

In total, the Gulf of Maine areas selected by the Committee for closure represent less than 50% of what Bullard urged them to approve.

Recommendation 3: Keep the Northern Edge of Georges Bank Off Limits

The results on Georges Bank were no better, with the Committee selecting only industry-proposed options. The Committee effectively ignored warnings from Bullard that the Northern Edge of Georges Bank should remain off limits to damaging trawl fishing and his urgings that additional areas in the vicinity be protected. Instead it recommended opening the Northern Edge to fishing and replacing it with the one proposed closure that Regional Administrator Bullard specifically identified in his letter as inadequate to meet the Habitat Amendment’s goals and objectives.

The Committee’s justifications for these actions? The need to access highly valuable scallops in the Northern Edge. But this defense rings hollow, given that the Committee acted without any data about the value of the scallops that would become accessible to the industry with their recommended openings.

Who’s in Charge?

The Habitat Committee’s actions last week, its deference to the wishes of the fishing industry in spite of the strong recommendations of the federal agency and the public for whom it works, and its willingness to do so at the expense of beneficial and legally mandated habitat protection calls into question how functional it, and perhaps the Council itself, can be in this process. We can only hope that the full Council instills more hope and produces a meaningful amendment with the protections New England’s ocean habitat needs.

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