By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
NEWPORT, R.I. — Cashes Ledge, a pristine marine habitat in the Gulf of Maine, will maintain its protected status, but large swaths of other habitat in New England waters are one step closer to losing protection from various types of fishing gear.
The New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) met last week in the City by the Sea to vote on its recommended approach to habitat protection in New England waters. The council’s recommendations will eventually be considered by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), which has the option to approve, disapprove or partially approve them.
Many of NEFMC’s decisions, including the decision to maintain protections for Cashes Ledge, were made at the council’s April 21-23 meeting in Mystic, Conn. At that meeting, a last-minute proposal concerning the protected areas on Georges Bank pushed some votes to the June meeting.
The lead up to the NEFMC’s April and June meetings had environmental organizations butting heads with the fishing industry. NEFMC’s Habitat Committee had recently recommended that the full council adopt a strategy that catered to fishing interests at the expense of habitat protection, despite the committee’s mission to enhance habitat protection, according to conservationists.
John Bullard, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries, sided with the conservationists, writing a 9-page letter to the chair of the NEFMC in which he outlined his concern with the Habitat Committee’s recommendations.
“After a decade of development, the Council may take actions that significantly weaken, rather than improve, essential fish habitat protection,” he wrote.
According to Bullard, NOAA Fisheries would be unable to approve many of the Habitat Committee’s recommendations if they were adopted by the NEFMC.
During the course of the April and June meetings, the NEFMC adopted a set of recommendations that severely reduce the amount of protected habitat in New England waters. While the closed area around Cashes Ledge — the gem of the region’s protected areas — withstood the Habitat Committee’s recommendation to reduce its size by 60 percent, and a new protected area was added to the eastern Gulf of Maine, other closed areas were left on the chopping block.
Twenty-five percent of the area currently closed to fishing in the western Gulf of Maine would be reopened under the recommendations of the NEFMC. The Nantucket Lightship Closed Area would be eliminated entirely, though a limited area would be preserved by the creation of the Great South Channel Protected Area. Georges Bank would lose about 80 percent of its protected area, and what remained would be open to some fishing gear, including scallop dredges, clam dredges and trawls.
In all, protected areas outside of Cashes Ledge would be reduced by 60 percent, according to the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF).
Greg Cunningham, CLF vice president, said the NEFMC’s recommendation concerning Georges Bank is contrary to its own science. “They are following the guidance of industry, and (allowing fishing) even in areas they are purporting to protect,” he said.
Cox Ledge, south of Rhode Island, which was included as a new protected area, would remain open to fishermen using a gear modification that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), written to offer guidance to members of NEFMC, says is unsupported by science as a habitat protection measure.
Similarly, in a new protected area in the Great South Channel, east of Nantucket, surf clam dredges will be permitted for at least one year; the DEIS describes surf clam dredges as the most damaging fishing gear.
The NEFMC’s collective set of recommendations don’t meet the legal requirements of the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, according to Cunningham.
“If (NOAA Fisheries) is going to uphold the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, it would have to reject this,” he said.
NOAA’s Bullard, a voting member of NEFMC, voted with the minority against the Georges Bank alternative that would reduce the size of the protected areas.
At the end of the June NEFMC meeting, Bullard noted that NOAA Fisheries had reservations about the Georges Bank recommendation. He said he would submit a letter to the council expressing his concerns. According to Cunningham, this letter could result in the NEFMC reconsidering the recommendation at its September meeting.
“Bullard increasingly appreciates the need to protect marine habitat for the purpose of enhancing fisheries,” Cunningham said.
After the NEFMC’s recommendations are finalized, they will be submitted to NOAA Fisheries for review. Prior to the review, NOAA Fisheries will accept public comments for 60 days. Within 30 days of the end of the comment period, the recommendations must be approved, disapproved or partially approved.
Should NOAA Fisheries disapprove all or portions of the NEFMC’s recommendations, the council will have a final opportunity to revise the recommendations to an acceptable state. Should the council fail to do so, NOAA Fisheries would have the option to undertake the process of rewriting problematic recommendations unilaterally. NEFMC would lose its influence, except for the ability to offer comment, according to Cunningham.