Concerns About Opening Protected Habitat to Fishing

Cashes Ledge is home to a depleted Atlantic wolffish population. (Brian Skerry/CLF photos)

Cashes Ledge is home to a depleted Atlantic wolffish population. (Brian Skerry/CLF photos)

Cashes Ledge supports diverse marine habitats

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

The Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), a coalition of more than 60 organizations and individuals that advocates for environmentally friendly policies, recently voted unanimously to join a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) supporting the permanent protection of Cashes Ledge, a pristine and biodiverse marine hot spot 80 miles east of Gloucester, Mass.

The peaks and canyons of Cashes Ledge — a 22-mile-long underwater mountain range — create nutrient- and oxygen-rich currents that support diverse habitats. Cashes Ledge is home to the largest continuous kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard, the depleted Atlantic wolffish, red cod, sea stars, anemones and rare sponges. It also acts as a migratory pass for blue and porbeagle sharks, humpback and right whales, and bluefin tuna.

Under the ‘preferred option’ being considered, the more than 500-square-mile closure zone would shrink by about 70 percent. (Fisherynation.com)

Under the ‘preferred option’ being considered, the more than 500-square-mile closure zone would shrink by about 70 percent. (Fisherynation.com)

As a pristine example of a Gulf of Maine ecosystem, Cashes Ledge has been studied by scientists for decades. Cashes Ledge acts as a benchmark against which the health of the rest of the ocean is measured. According to the letter recently signed by ECRI, protected areas such as Cashes Ledge make the ocean more resilient to climate-change impacts.

Cashes Ledge has been protected from bottom trawling and dredging since 2002. Now, as part of a process designed to improve ocean habitat protection in New England, large swaths of the Cashes Ledge Closed Area could be reopened to fishing.

More abundant fish populations within the Cashes Ledge Closed Area have many fisherman favoring relaxed protections for the area. Environmental groups claim high fish populations in the Cashes Ledge Closed Area are directly related to the area’s protected status, and that populations would be depleted if fishing is allowed.

According to the letter signed by ECRI, protecting Cashes Ledge benefits New England’s economy. “New England’s ocean resources support nearly 225,000 jobs, primarily in the tourism and recreation sector. These jobs rely on clean coastal waters and beaches and healthy and abundant fish and wildlife,” the letter reads.

According to Peter Shelley, Conservation Law Foundation’s (CLF) interim president who spoke at a December ECRI meeting, protected areas such as Cashes Ledge are essential to the long-term health of New England’s fisheries.

Older and larger fish are vital to the recovery of depleted populations, such as cod, he said, because they experience greater reproductive success than their younger counterparts. Shelley also said protected areas have been shown to contain more numerous and older fish than unprotected areas and become incubators for neighboring waters.

The New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Habitat Committee has suggested opening about 60 percent of the Cashes Ledge Closed Area to fishing gear such as bottom trawlers, according to Greg Cunningham, CLF vice president. The Habitat Committee’s recommendations are expected to be considered by the full council, which will then make recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries). NOAA Fisheries can then either accept, amend or reject the NEFMC recommendations.

Cunningham said the letter signed by ECRI could influence the decisions of NEFMC and NOAA Fisheries.

A Cashes Ledge kelp forest.

A Cashes Ledge kelp forest.

While Cashes Ledge has received the most scrutiny, other currently protected areas also are at risk of being reopened to damaging fishing gear, according to Cunningham. Among other areas, large portions of the Nantucket Lightship Closed Area and Closed Area II, and the entirety of Closed Area I, could be reopened to fishing, he said.

Cunningham called the overall area the Habitat Committee has suggested reopening as “massive.”

During the comment period prior to the Habitat Committee’s final recommendations to the NEFMC, John Bullard, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries, filed a letter offering the Habitat Committee specific guidance that suggested maintaining closures at Cashes Ledge and other areas. The committee largely ignored his recommendations, according to Cunningham in a recent blog post on the CLF website.

On April 16, Bullard sent a 9-page letter to the chair of the NEFMC, in which he outlined continued concern with the Habitat Committee’s recommendations.

“After a decade of development, the Council may be poised to take actions that significantly weaken, rather than improve, essential fish habitat protection,” he wrote.

Bullard noted that the Habitat Committee’s recommendations for Cashes Ledge and Georges Bank are “severely inadequate,” and that maintaining the current Cashes Ledge Closed Area protects the widest range of vulnerable habitats and is the most economically practicable.

Bullard also questioned whether the Habitat Committee’s recommendations used “the best available scientific information.”

“It is critical that the Council relies upon the best scientific information available when making its final decisions because (NOAA Fisheries) cannot approve measures that are contrary to that information,” he wrote. “Based on our preliminary evaluation of the Committee recommendations, we believe we would not be able to approve substantial portions of the Amendment if the Council adopts the Committee recommendations in full.”

Dave Preble, chairman of the Habitat Committee, declined to comment for this story.