A proposal by the New England Fishery Management Council could open up portions of protected, closed areas of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank to commercial fishing to compensate for dramatic cuts in catch limits for groundfish.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is reviewing the proposal from the New England Fishery Management Council, a quasi-governmental agency responsible for management of federal fisheries. The plan could result in restoring some commercial fishing in portions of the ocean that have been off-limits, some for nearly 20 years.
NOAA is expected to act on the proposal before June.
The plan is facing stiff opposition from parts of the fishing industry, environmentalists and conservationists.
The closed areas cover nearly 8,500 square miles of New England’s seafloor, but proposed changes would reduce this by more than half. More than 5,000 square miles could be reopened, including parts of Cache’s Ledge and the Western Gulf of Maine — the two areas that affect most coastal fishermen in the state.
Also changed would be two areas off Massachusetts and Rhode Island and Nantucket Lightship to the southeast. All were established in the 1990s to protect juvenile fish, spawning areas and seafloor habitat. They also provide benefits to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and harbor porpoises.
If approved, the proposal would not automatically open all parts of the specific closed areas to anyone who wished to do commercial fishing there, said Maggie Mooney-Sues, communications officer for NOAA. It would give fishing cooperatives, known as sectors, the opportunity to ask for permission to go into those closed areas, and review of the requests would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Obtaining approval would require a NOAA analysis of the impact of the type and extent of the fishing, the gear (for trawling and dragging, for example) and the types of habitat and sea life that would likely be affected.
The theory behind the proposal is that portions of the closed areas have recovered enough since being protected to tolerate fishing, without suffering severe harm to stocks or habitat.
The move comes as a jolt to some fishermen and scientists, because earlier this year, the council proposed that catch limits for the already devastated cod fishery be cut by a further 78 percent. While the cuts have not yet been finalized by NOAA, which holds the ultimate authority in setting catch limits, they are expected to be approved and implemented by mid-June.
“It’s a significant change, because it’s the first time people are talking about letting people into those areas,” said Mooney-Sues.
Allowing commercial fishing in closed areas would bring stocks even closer to ruin, said John Crawford, science and policy manager for the Northeast Fisheries Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is spearheading an effort to slow down NOAA’s approval process long enough to ensure that in-depth environmental impact studies will be done. More than 70,000 residents up and down the Atlantic Coast and 100 scientists have expressed opposition to the plan in comments to NOAA.
“The habitat has to be protected,” Crawford said. “This is the opposite response of what a rational person would have.”
“There are no recovering stocks,” said Tim Tower, a commercial fisherman and charter boat operator from Ogunquit. “There are no recovered stocks. There are only stocks that are showing signs of recovery.
“Why would you open these closed areas?” Tower said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Commercial fishing in some of the closed areas has been banned for nearly 20 years.
“But we aren’t seeing our stock rebounding the way we think it should,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in Brunswick. An advocacy group for a small coalition of coastal groundfishermen, the association opposes reopening closed areas.
Keeping the closed areas intact doesn’t prevent successful fishing nearby and may have other kinds of unexpected benefits, too, he said. “It may be a buffer for mistakes in management.”
“We’re not at all sure those are the best places,” said Patricia Fiorelli, public affairs officer of the New England Fishery Management Council, which is composed of fishermen, state agencies, conservationists, members of the industry and the NOAA regional administrator.
She said the council is looking at many additional approaches to aid stock recovery, some of which will be discussed at the council’s April 24 meeting in Mystic, Conn.
The council will not reverse its position on the proposal already submitted to NOAA, however, she said. “It looks like there may be more effective ways to protect groundfish,” Fiorelli said. But until more is known, the council wants to move ahead to soften the economic blow to fishermen of the 2013 catch limits on species such as cod.
“To cast this as something they want to do to help the poor, struggling smaller fisherman, to pretend that this is going to help the groundfishermen, it’s not very honest,” Crawford said. “In the long run, everyone is going to lose.”
Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: