Bill Filed to Protect Georges Bank from Oil & Gas Drilling: CLF Applauds Efforts to Protect Critical Fish Species and Underwater Habitat

Brian Barth

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Colin Durrant, CLF Director of Communications
617.850.1722

Washington, D.C. (February 2, 2009) – Representative Ed Markey, joined by twelve members of the New England Congressional delegation, today filed a bill to permanently protect New England’s historic Georges Bank fishing grounds from oil and gas drilling. The legislation also includes protections for all National Marine Sanctuaries, including Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary which lies 25 miles east of Boston, MA.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a New England environmental group whose lawsuit led to an extensive offshore drilling moratorium in the 1970’s and 1980’s, praised the action as a step forward for ocean health and congratulated New England’s congressional delegation for working to protect special ocean areas and underwater habitat critical to whales, fish and ocean wildlife.

“Now, at a time when our fisheries are beginning to rebuild and marine mammals are finally getting the protection they deserve, we must not open up the waters off our shores to oil drilling,” said Sean Cosgrove, CLF’s Ocean Conservation Campaign Director. “New England’s ocean waters are a valuable public resource that has been central to our cultural heritage, economy and way of life for generations.

“Georges Bank is both our heritage and our future, “ said Peter Shelley, Director of CLF’s Massachusetts office and a veteran of the long battle to protect Georges Bank from exploitation that goes back more than 30 years. “We applaud Representative Markey’s leadership on this issue and hope that we can put a permanent end to the perennial efforts to put the region’s fishing industry and marine resource at risk.”

Georges Bank was put back on the auction block when former President Bush lifted the Presidential moratorium on July 14, 2008 and the Congressional prohibition expired on November 1, 2008. Unlike other parts of the nation, the coast of New England and the Gulf of Maine does not have the industrial infrastructure for oil drilling.

In addition to protected status for Georges Bank and Stellwagen Bank, CLF recommends protection measures for the following special marine heritage sites that have already been designated as important habitat for commercial fish stocks and ocean wildlife. Habitat areas that deserve protection from oil and gas drilling include:

  • Critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale as determined by the Endangered Species Act
  • Areas designated as Essential Fish Habitat or designated as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern under federal fisheries management laws
  • Cashes Ledge or any other area closed to bottom trawling or dredging by the New England Fishery Management Council for the purposes of protecting fish habitat and restoring fish populations

New England and New York co-sponsors of Representative Markey’s Georges Bank bill include Representatives Capuano (MA), Delahunt (MA), Frank (MA), Hinchey (NY), Hodes (NH), Kennedy (RI), Lynch (MA), McGovern (MA), Pingree (ME), Shea-Porter (NH), Tierney (MA), Tsongas (MA), and Welch (VT).

>> Background on New England’s Special Ocean Places

Georges Bank – Nearly the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, Georges Bank is a massive sand and gravel underwater plateau. Most of the Bank is less than 200 feet deep and Georges Shoals has a minimum depth of less than 10 feet. Georges Bank was the seemingly bottomless treasure trove of New England’s ocean and a place of legendary bounty for those fishermen willing to brave dangerous storms in search of Atlantic cod. The Bank has also always been more than a popular and productive fishing ground. It is the underwater icon of New England, comparable to the Grand Canyon for its popular resonance and cultural significance.

Essential Fish Habitat and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern Are Vital To Restore Fish Stocks

Cashes Ledge – About 80 miles due east of Gloucester, MA lies Ammen Rock — the underwater equal of Mount Washington for New England’s ocean. Ammen Rock lies atop Cashes Ledge and rises from the seafloor to within five to ten meters of the surface. The diverse habitat that ranges from rocky outcropping to deeper mud basins with fields of brightly colored sea anemones and sponges provides a safe home for a wide range of species. Cashes Ledge is unique because it includes one of the world’s deepest and biggest underwater kelp forests which serves as a nursery and home for fish and ocean wildlife. This region is also home to a variety of cold water deep sea corals. In recognition of the critical importance of Cashes Ledge, the New England Fishery Management Council mandated a seasonal closure on Cashes Ledge in 2000 from July through October in order to help rebuild the cod population. In 2004, part of Cashes Ledge was designated a Level 3 habitat closure area. This restricts destructive fishing gear such as bottom trawling but, a wide array of other commercial fishing gear is still allowed, such as bottom gillnets, purse seines and lobster pots. And, of course, Cashes Ledge continues to be very popular for recreational fishing. Other areas in this category include the Western Gulf of Maine Habitat Closure Area, Nantucket Lightship Closed Area, Closed Areas I and II, and Jeffrey’s Bank Habitat Closure Area. The NE Fishery Management Council is also currently establishing protective measures for 16 Habitat Areas of Particular Concern to protect habitat from destructive fishing practices.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary – Located at the entrance to Massachusetts Bay, Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary is the gateway to New England’s ocean waters for the largest urban area in the region. The edge of the Sanctuary is only 25 nautical miles from Boston and 3 nautical miles from Gloucester and Provincetown. The seafloor is a colorful underwater world dotted with red-tentacled sea anemones and majestic cream-colored bubblegum corals. Stellwagen Bank has coarse grey sand, protruding boulders and muddy basins that support over 575 different species. The endangered Atlantic wolffish as well as the American lobster, cod and herring make their home here. Humpback and North Atlantic right whales even make the arduous journey to Stellwagen, swimming thousands of miles each year to feed on the abundant food in the Sanctuary.

Designated Critical Habitat for North Atlantic Right Whales – Right whales have historically occupied all of the world’s oceans. The North Atlantic right whale is now one of the rarest creatures on Earth, with an estimated population of about 350 individuals. In 1994 the NOAA Fisheries designated “critical habitat” for the endangered right whale in three places including Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel. Still hampered by ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear, the last thing the North Atlantic right whales need is the disruption, noise, pollutants and potential vessel strikes that oil drilling would bring.

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The Conservation Law Foundation (www.clf.org) works to solve the most significant environmental challenges facing New England. CLF’s advocates use law, economics and science to create innovative strategies that conserve natural resources, protect public health and promote vital communities in our region. Founded, in 1966, CLF is a nonprofit, member-supported organization with offices in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

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